EDITOR’S NOTE: 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 Towers editor S. Craig Sanders about their book, Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention.
CS: What prompted this book project to come out this year?
KJ: 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.
CS: In Dr. Mohler’s chapter he mentions how other denominations have roots in slavery or racism. It wasn’t just the SBC. Are there any principles in this book that you think could help other denominations remove the stain?
JW: Even though we are, in the book, focusing on our beloved SBC, I think what we say with respect to the gospel, education, leadership, and curriculum development also apply to any Christian community or organization striving to live out reconciled community with diverse people.
We love the SBC and want the book to serve the diverse SBC, but our prayer is that we can also reach the larger evangelical Christian community. So absolutely, I think if folks from PCA backgrounds, Pentecostal backgrounds, mono-ethnic or multiethnic backgrounds, you name the denomination or Christian organization — if they will read this book with Bible open and hearts open, I think they can contextualize what we say in the book for their own ecclesiological or Christian context..
KJ: And I think some of it, I mean, it’s really black and white. So what I say in my chapter about adapting curriculum, you can do that anywhere. Or what Mark Croston says about administrative steps, like promoting guys who are minorities, who have the ability to lead — give them that opportunity. You can do that at IBM. So, a lot of it is pointed directly at the SBC because of our affiliation, but I mean, it’s broad.
JW: And if I could add — what I say in my chapter about the gospel is an issue that relates to every Christian (red or yellow, black or white). Certain descriptions of the gospel only focus on one’s vertical relationship with God. In my chapter, I make the argument that the gospel is both vertical and horizontal. Therefore any Christian who wants to know examples of how to live out the gospel in ways that promote Christian unity and reconciliation can read that chapter and say, “This is applicable to my denomination, even though I am not an SBC person or will never be an SBC person. I love the gospel, therefore let me hear what this brother has to say about what the gospel is saying about Christian unity.”
CS: I want to focus on both of your backgrounds, individually. Jarvis, you’re a four-time alumnus of Southern Seminary and a faculty member. You’re one of four people who have gone from Boyce to a Southern Ph.D. A great portion of your life so far has been spent at this institution, one founded by slaveholders. How does that experience shape your passion for this issue in particular and your hope for this project?
JW: 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.
As a racial minority Southern Baptist professor, preacher, and church member in a predominately white SBC, it is impossible for me to go about my daily work in the SBC without being aware of the fact that I am a racial minority in a predominantly white evangelical context. So, as a black Southern Baptist who personally has a lot of privilege and who is also a member of a racial minority group within the SBC, my privilege intersects with my marginalized status as a racial minority. I think these realities in part inform how I’m understanding this issue with respect to a few ways the gospel should be lived out in our SBC context, in a way that someone who is white or black or brown and not a Southern Baptist might not be able to see because he or she is coming from majority cultural privilege or a different denominational context as opposed to coming from both privilege and racial minority status within the SBC.
Bringing my 21 years of experience as a Southern Baptist and preaching in many Southern Baptist churches in those years, serving on staff in Southern Baptist churches, studying at three different Southern Baptist schools, having many conversations with white and black and brown Southern Baptists from different parts of the country and from different areas of SBC life, and teaching at two very different kinds of Southern Baptist schools (a university and a seminary) to this project in conjunction with Kevin’s expertise and experiences in traditional black churches and in SBC churches, I think enables us to highlight some things that we hope people will listen to and receive with an open heart.
CS: While you grew up in a largely white community of eastern Kentucky and were the first black member at an all-white First Baptist church, your experience is different than Kevin, who grew up in a majority black west Louisville neighborhood and attended Little Flock Missionary Baptist Church. How do you each learn from your varied experiences?
JW: Well, I have blind spots I’m not aware of. I see the world through a certain ethnic lens. With the exception of one year of community college, all of my academic training was in a Southern Baptist theological context and my church memberships have only been in predominately white Southern Baptist churches. I think working together with Kevin has helped me to see some of my blind spots.
There are times when our perspectives are shaped by our cultural experiences, but we normalize those experiences for everybody without asking whether this is a cultural preference or a biblical or theological mandate. One of God’s gifts to me in the last probably five or six years has been his bringing many diverse black and brown and white brothers into my life with whom I share the same core biblical and theological convictions, but with whom I share many different experiences. So to bring Kevin’s background — a predominantly black church context and also a predominantly secular educational context — into my Christian world that’s been predominantly influenced by white evangelicalism and white churches and into my world that’s exclusively shaped by theological education and focused on New Testament scholarship has helped me to gain a different set of lenses through which to see this issue as a black Southern Baptist Christian scholar and churchman with a multiethnic heritage.
So, for example, educational inequality. I don’t think about that most of the time. I think about exegesis most of the time. Kevin is trained in education, he’s trained in educational leadership, and so what he says about educational inequality, even though I don’t understand that experientially, I need to listen to what he says and learn from him because he has the statistical background to back that up because of his experience and research.
KJ: I think that’s the beauty of the crossover. When I was hired by Boyce College, I really began to sense and feel the rub of racism and the rub that African-Americans felt every time I said “Southern Baptist Convention.” I’ve been a member of an SBC church since 2005. I was licensed to preach in an SBC church. I served with Kevin Smith at Watson Memorial Baptist Church, but not until I started to work here did I really see and hear from guys as I would try to recruit black guys, they would say, “I’m not going there because it’s a racist institution.” Now, I think what we have is a jewel and a gem here. But what kind of evidence can I give to guys and say, “Yes, the past in some senses is horrid, but there is hope”?
My background as an African-American growing up in west Louisville has everything to do with that. Southern and Boyce were never on my radar as an institution. So I’m like, How did I live, literally, 9 minutes from the institution? You jump on I-64, you’re in west Louisville in 8 to 10 minutes, you’re right at my house, but how did I never hear about this? Because the black guys that I went to church with were opposed to the SBC because before 1995, in some sense people in the SBC were still holding on to the fact/ideal of racism but just wouldn’t say anything about it.
And because my degree is in education, I’m looking at everything through an educational lens. So I’m saying: What if we would just expose faculty and students to the work of Booker T. Washington? To Beloved. To The Miseducation of the Negro. What would it mean for them to have to read through the lens of what I would consider “Great Books”? I think that’s the beauty of us merging.
JW: I’m 39 now, and the older I get, the more I realize that it’s important to collaborate with people from different fields because I think collaboration can make a work better. Especially if you’re going to deal with some issues outside of your field. So, one reason I think our co-editing collaboration is helpful to me is because, as a New Testament scholar, I spend most of my time in the ancient world, thinking about ancient texts.
I don’t spend a lot of my time thinking about the current educational system or the history that led up to that. I usually don’t spend a lot of time thinking about everybody else’s experiences because I’m naturally self-centered, and so collaborating with someone trained in a different way than I am enables me to see that what I think about the gospel might apply to educational inequality. The gospel may apply to a variety of social realities that affect people on a daily basis, but I don’t always know how. But the more I collaborate with folks who are specialists in those areas, the more I will be able to say, “Ah! Here’s how I can use my gifts and skills to speak gospel into that space that I know very little about, and to partner with this brother who knows more about that.” And hopefully there’s a reciprocation taking place here — that he can say, “Ah! Here’s a text that could apply this way that I never thought about before because of this brother’s work in that particular area.”
KJ: And that was the beauty of all the guys who agreed to write and contribute to the work. My research in some senses is very narrow because it has been in education. And like Jarvis is saying, his work in some sense is very narrow. It’s very robust in one sense but narrow in another. And I’m like, Who can speak on this from the pulpit to guys?
Who better than Kevin Smith — a guy who started a multiethnic church plant, pastored an African-American church, pastored a predominately white church. Who better can talk about the stain of racism from the pulpit than Kevin Smith? I remember, we started receiving the chapters, we were reading them and were just like, Yes!
JW: And I would say, racism (both systemic and personal racism) is a product of the Fall. It represents the present evil age. And the more weapons that we can throw at it, the greater the chance that in our churches, we can defeat it. So, if we’re throwing educational weapons at it that are transformed by the gospel as well as historical and theological weapons and exegetical weapons and weapons with respect to preaching, and hitting racism and the devil with all these weapons, I think there’s a chance that we might see even more victory in the area of Christian unity in our churches and in our denomination. I think that collaboration (or better cooperation) can help us. But this is hard. It is hard for me as a New Testament scholar because scholars tend to be territorial and we love our territory. But as Christian scholars, I think Kevin and I desired to invite people from other disciplines (and races) into our space and share space with each other so that we can join forces with other diverse brothers to produce this work that promotes Christian unity in our churches.
Collaborating with Kevin should also show that black people aren’t monolithic. I think one of the racist lies that we have believed in our churches is this idea that all people from the same race are the same. I’m a New Testament scholar. He’s trained as an educator. He’s from west Louisville. I’m from east Kentucky. I’m a Wildcat fan. Even though he’s a UK grad, he’s not a Wildcat fan. Even though we are members of the same race, we’re very much different in many respects — which at some level should help shatter some of these racialized barriers that divide us in our churches.
CS: 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?
KJ: I think some of the things that are taking place at different institutions are progress.
Supporting minority-led programs and 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 do one of two things 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.”
JW: 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.
Also, sometimes I hear certain folks in the SBC when they speak about non-white people, they categorize them as “ethnic.” This gives the impression that white people are normal but black and brown people are ethnic. As an ethnic minority, I hear this kind of talk to suggest that a non-white person is the “other.” In my view, we’re all ethnic, and everybody is somebody’s “other.” One of the things we must do in terms of reconciliation and Christian unity in the SBC is make sure our words are consistent with the gospel, that we attempt to build up the different races in our convention with our words even when we speak hard truths to each other, and that we do not perpetuate racism and dehumanize people by the words that we speak.
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.
This is a word that ethnic minorities need to hear too. As ethnic minorities, we often wrongly think that being part of a race that has been traditionally marginalized gives us the right to direct racist speech or behavior toward white people. Christian unity requires Spirit-empowered living and speaking by those from every tongue, tribe, and people, and nation in our convention. Christian unity requires that the majority white brothers and sisters and racial minority brothers and sisters must pursue each other in Spirit-empowered love on a regular basis.
KJ: Every time I hear my students say “Great Books,” that rubs me the wrong way. It’s white men determining that books written by white men, particularly about white people, are great books. Minorities who come on this campus have to read the Great Books — and none of the Great Books are written by people who look like them. I never want minority students to leave this institution and say, “I’ve never read a book by someone who is Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, or African-American.” I want to tell them to take 200 hundred to 300 books, right now, written by and about people who don’t look like you. If you can start reading books like that to people who are 5 and 6, then maybe their view of the imago dei will be different by the time they’re 18 and 19 years old.
JW: There are students at evangelical institutions who can graduate without reading very much of, about, or any black or brown authors. Certain disciplines are more difficult than others to include black and brown voices. But this lack of exposing students to black or brown voices or to black or brown contributions to Christian history is at times due in part to a system of educating that we’ve inherited that has traditionally prioritized European and white contributions to the Christian movement. These contributions are very important contributions to the Christian story and need to be emphasized. But we often emphasize them to the neglect of other voices.
As a professor of New Testament, I don’t think I intentionally try to dismiss or neglect black and brown voices, but I often neglect black and brown voices because they have not been traditionally prioritized in my field. And if I don’t intentionally go searching for black and brown voices, I will have a hard time finding them. Since racism historically and systemically worked to minimize the role of black and brown people by keeping them in the posture of subjugation to white people, this inevitably affected the voices who could contribute and who would be heard. And since liberals often historically welcomed black and brown people into their institutions and conservatives generally did not, it’s no surprise we have a paucity of black and brown voices in conservative evangelicalism to expose our students to today.
But we do have black and brown voices from the Christian tradition to expose them to, and we have a rich Christian history from Africa, Ethiopia, and Egypt about which we need to know more and say more in our Christian institutions and in our churches. There were white evangelicals (and white Southern Baptist evangelicals) who historically worked to end racism and many evangelicals and Southern Baptists who are working now to pursue Christian unity today, but, as Emerson and Smith showed in Divided By Faith, evangelicalism was a racialized movement. And we’ve inherited the systems stained by racism because of racialization, even as our hearts are genuinely transformed by the gospel. And we still feel the effects of this today in our Christian institutions, organizations, denominations, and churches. Another way we can improve in the area of Christian unity is to educate people in the faith in our churches and institutions, helping them see that black and brown Christians play a role in and have made contributions to the Christian story too.
CS: Kevin, when we talk about progress, it can make white evangelicals feel that their actions are being called into question, they feel sensitive and targeted. How do you speak to white Southern Baptists in such as way that you’re able to navigate those frailties and show them that this is a gospel issue?
KJ: I try to point people to two things — to the text and to history. Repeatedly. So, this is why I’m still unsettled about education. First, read your Bible so that you know sin really exists. And then bone up on the history between 1500 and 2017, the things that have taken place. We read a book called Self Taught: African-American Educations in Slavery and in Freedom, and the kids are weeping when I’m explaining to them that hands were cut off for trying to read the Bible. You know, these are African-American slaves trying to read the Bible! They’re being castrated and dismembered because they were trying to read the Bible. When you see that, you know we’ve made a little progress but we’ve not made a ton.
Because if you don’t know that, maybe you’re not valuing the same Bible the way that I am, you’re not valuing education the way I am. In a class a couple of weeks ago, we were reading a book called Academic Profiling: Asian Americans and Latinos in Education and a student said, “I just don’t know what to say.” And I told her: “Just don’t say anything for the next four years — on race — until you’ve read these books, and then you will have a different posture to speak from.” I wasn’t trying to belittle her, but if you want to speak, you have to have the knowledge to be able to speak so that you’re no longer asking the question, “What’s the deal?” When someone asks, “What is the issue?” I say, “You just haven’t been exposed enough. You’re not around enough people who don’t look like you.”
CS: When we talk about removing the stain from the denomination, there’s also individual stains. My ancestors were slaveholders and that’s something that grieves me. A lot of people don’t bother to find out. They’d rather not know their family history. They’d rather not feel responsible for it. I don’t think shame should define me but I do want to be cognizant of the sins of my ancestors and be driven to pursue reconciliation. How would you encourage whites to look at those dynamics, and should that shape how they pursue reconciliation?
KJ: First, recognize that there is another side out there. Second thing, I want to encourage our brothers that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And that’s biblical. There is no condemnation. So as we wrestle with the truth of all of our sin, we know that there is no condemnation in us. But we have to do something, we have to work out the gospel, we work out our salvation to make our calling and election sure. So, when you’re assaulted with the truth, what do you do with it? You work it out in whatever fashion you can — in your local church, in your local school, in your local small group. You work those things out. That’s a part of working out our salvation: taking knowledge and doing something with it to help those who are marginalized people.
JW: I would encourage people to keep learning the gospel on a regular basis, to keep learning how the gospel intersects with every area of our lives and to plead with God to show us how the gospel changes everything. We should also keep learning about racial hierarchy, racialization, white supremacy, and the different ways in which racism manifests itself both systemically and individually.
Race and racism are complex. And no one has all of the answers. But they exist in the American context because of original sin and because of the old belief in a pseudo-scientific, racist, racial hierarchy that was rooted in a biological fiction and eventually given scriptural sanction. Racism drove years of slavery, lynching, Jim Crowism, and the residue of the construct of race and racism still affect Christians today, both individually and systemically. This is part of our heritage as American Christians, and this is part of our heritage as Southern Baptists. So, we need to own that history. We need to work to understand that history, and then to baptize that history in the gospel as we seek to learn from the past and to live out the new life in Jesus in the present in our churches and in our communities.
So, when I walk into Southern’s library, I love the fact that it says “Boyce” at the top of the building. He was a founder of this institution, its first president, and he was a racist. I’m blessed to teach at his school. I love his school. I’m a four-time graduate of his school. His school is my school. I check out books from his library. I’m having this conversation in his building about race as the racist past of Boyce and our founders haunts me. And I want that ghost here, to haunt me, as I am talking about the redemptive power of the gospel in front of that shadow and as I seek to serve our denomination and Southern Seminary well. Kevin and I are living testimonies to the power of the gospel and the progress that we’ve made as Southern Baptists since our founding. And we pray God will use our book to help us make even further gospel-centered progress on this issue in the SBC and beyond.