Below, Jarvis J. Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary, and Kevin Jones, assistant professor of teacher education at Boyce College, talk with S. Craig Sanders about their book, Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention.
What prompted this book project to come out this year?
Jarvis has a long history being a part of the Southern Baptist Convention and being a student at this institution in particular, and I have been a member of churches that were involved with the Southern Baptist Convention and early on saw a separation between many of the African-American churches and the predominantly Anglo churches. It was all just rooted in racism. Dr. Mohler preached through Genesis 11 during one of our chapels, and what he said in that message verbatim was we have a “stain of racism.” So, following the chapel service in our faculty meeting, there were some other discussions about it, and I just felt this unrest: “Yeah, we know the stain is there, but what are we going to do about it?” And Jarvis and I had been praying together through a church plant prior to that, and I was thinking, “We should write a book about it, and I think we ought to get as many guys in their own areas of expertise to speak into what it really means to remove the stain of racism — guys who are trusted, who love not only their own institution, but the institution of the Southern Baptist Convention as well.” So that’s what kind of prompted it about two years ago.
How does your personal experience shape your passion for this issue in particular and your hope for this project?
To my knowledge, I’m the first and only four-time graduate from Southern with a bachelor’s from Boyce College, an M.Div., a Th.M., and a Ph.D. from the institution. That’s very powerful symbolically because I am an African-American with a multiethnic heritage who graduated four times from an institution that was, frankly, founded by slaveholders who were racist. Let’s be honest about that. The founders had virtues, and they also had vices, and one of those vices was that they were racist. And so for me, as a Southern Baptist Christian, who has only been a Southern Baptist and a four-time graduate of this beloved institution, these experiences in part inform how I’m understanding this issue in the SBC as a brown-skinned, multiracial person.
What do you see as signs of hope in the Southern Baptist Convention? How do we get past having the right things to say and actually start demonstrating reconciliation in our churches?
I think some of the things that are taking place at different institutions are progress. Supporting minority-led programs, scholarships. I think having a space to speak right now is progress. But it’s slow, and I think sometimes it takes a while for change to happen, and I’m okay with that because the masses may not see what Jarvis and I are privy to.
I mean, the masses are not privy to conversations that are held in whatever kind of meetings are taking place here on this campus or at other institutions. But we see small walls, even large walls, being nicked at and broken down. I hope that even the fact that people are preordering the book is a sign of hope. We have these 10 guys who in their own areas of expertise are contributing to this book. That’s a sign of hope.
I think what is in the book is truth. It’s gospel-saturated by guys who have in every sense lived lives that highlight Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. So I think as people meet the truth, they’re going to have to deal with the truth of the book. They’re going to have to say, “Yeah, I’ve been racist, and maybe I’ve supported some racist practices.”
We can never forget as Southern Baptists that our identity is historically connected to white supremacy, and we have to admit that and understand how white supremacy works — not only in terms of historically burning crosses on lawns and recently shooting nine black people in a church, but also in terms of the subtle and more socially acceptable systemic ways it shows up in the culture and in Christian spaces.
Let me say a word about some hopeful things, but also some areas where we can do better. Along the lines of hope and encouragement, the fact that right now we’re sitting in the Boyce Centennial Library, and we have several white Southern Baptist images looking at us on these walls as two white guys are interviewing two black guys who teach at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary about a book that they’ve co-edited about racism speaks quite powerfully to the progress that we’ve made.
That you have so many brothers and sisters in the SBC and the broader evangelical movement who are using their privileged voices to pursue Christian unity in our denomination and in our churches is evidence of progress. That you have folks who are placing themselves in spaces voluntarily to reach multiethnic communities speaks to progress. That diverse groups of Southern Baptist Christians are partnering together to plant multiethnic churches in racially diverse communities is evidence of encouraging progress. That churches are becoming more diverse is evidence of progress. That black and brown Christians serve on staff or in leadership of white churches and that white brothers and sisters serve on staff or in leadership at predominantly black and brown churches demonstrate progress. And that there are intentional efforts being made on a regular basis in SBC life to include more black and brown people in SBC leadership throughout the various areas of SBC life speaks to progress. And the list could go on.
However, one of the things we hope our book can speak into is the need to include even more vetted black and brown Southern Baptists into denominational leadership in the various areas of denominational life. We don’t think that we should ever hire someone just because he or she adds ethnic diversity to the denomination or to our churches. We should be faithful to our Great Commission vision and to our doctrinal commitments. And we should never fall into tokenism simply to gain diversity. But we should at least as a denomination and as churches ask the questions: Can we find vetted and qualified black and brown folk who can do that ministry, this ministry, speak at that conference or this conference, teach this class or that class, pastor this church or that church, write this curriculum or that curriculum? Or are there black and brown academics teaching in our convention who can say something helpful about this issue or that issue when and if needed (and not only about issues related to race)? Thankfully, there are folks asking these questions in the SBC and taking action to find answers, but we should keep asking the questions about vetted and qualified diversity to people who can help us find answers to these questions. If we’re not intentionally looking for vetted and qualified diversity, we likely will not find it.