Forgiveness, The Confederate Flag, Heresy, and the SBC

Last week, the unthinkable happened. 12 people were having Bible study at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Dylan Roof, a white supremacist, entered the Bible study and joined those gathered. The fact that he was white and they were black did not create a barrier for them. They welcomed Dylan with open arms, recognizing that he was made in God’s image like they were. They shared humanity and they shared their need for a Savior.

Dylan Roof heard a study taught on Mark 4 about the Sower and the Seed and being good soil or hard rock or thorny bushes or a hard path where Satan plucks the word of God away. He heard the Word, but he got up and killed 9 African American Christians anyway. The soil of his heart was akin to the hard “path.” His hatred made him hard – or, his hardness made him hate. We don’t know exactly how it works, but this was pure racism and it was evil. This is what sin does. It destroys.

But, then a miracle happened. The families of the slain “Charleston 9” forgave Dylan Roof. They faced him two days after their family was killed on Friday, June 19. They expressed pain and sorrow over the loss of loved ones, but they expressed forgivenss to Roof and prayers that God would have mercy on his soul and that he would repent, confess, and turn to Christ to find salvation. It was impossible. People were shocked. How could this be? How could they forgive? What was going on?

The Media was shocked. I saw video of reporters breaking down in tears as they watched the people singing outside of Emanuel AME on Friday. Good Friday. Where love triumphed over evil and salvation was illuminated. People sang to Jesus. They trusted in God. They forgave. The family forgave. It was a beauty and a purity that we could not understand. We could not look at it too long. That is what happens with true holiness. You have to look away. It shames you. It devastates you. It removes your pretense and your confidence. It strips you bare.

We looked for something tangible to address and we found it. The Confederate flag was present in Dylan Roof’s racist expressions. He was a white supremacist who used the flags of the Old Confederacy and Rhodesia and South Africa during Apartheid to represent him. Enough. Take the Confederate flag down! We join with Lady Macbeth in yelling, “Out damn’d spot! Out, I say!” The pain of the Civil War and Slavery and Racism came rushing back onto us and it overwhelmed us again. We cannot find healing.

Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, called for the Confederate flag to be taken down on Friday. I immediately agreed with him. I knew that Moore was right because I knew the history. As a pastor moving to Montgomery, Alabama 15 years ago, the birthplace of the Confederacy and of the Civil Rights Movement one hundred years apart, I immersed myself in the history. How did the Confederacy come to be? I visited the historical sites and the archives. I studied the history of the city. What led to Secession? What happened during Reconstruction? How did Jim Crow come about? The Progressive/Populist Movement? How did Southern religion have a part in this? What was the Lost Cause? The theology of the Lost Cause? The Curse of Ham? The Klan? Lynchings? Separate But Equal? I read old newspapers and the accounts of pastors and theologians and white Baptists who thought they were doing the work of God when they were hating and subjugating their neighbor. Something went very wrong and the “wrong” was in our churches, if you were a white Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian. It was in our theology and our very understanding of God and reality.

White Southerners had reconstructed reality and placed themselves at the top of a hierarchical ladder with everyone else below them. They believed that to be a White Southern Male was to be at the top of the most glorious society that the world had ever seen. They then added “Christian” into that and subverted the faith and the Bible to make it serve this novel society. But, this is not what the Bible taught. This is what the Greek philosopher Aristotle taught through his “Natural Slavery” philosophy as articulated in Politics, I, where he proclaimed that the natural breakdown of society was Greeks over Barbarians, Men over Women, and Masters over Slaves. The Greek philosophers had been rediscovered during the Enlightenment and their ideas were everywhere, especially in the South. Towns with names like Athens, Corinth, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Helen, Sparta, and Troy sprung up in the South. Greek Revival architecture with its columns became all the rage across America, but especially in the South. Slaveowners wanted their plantation homes and public buildings to look like the Parthenon in Athens. You see, the Greeks believed in the freedom of “life, liberty, and property” and they also believed that slaves could be property and that a man holding his property unmolested was the mark of a free man.

Regarding liberty, Aristotle put it this way:

“This, then, is one note of liberty which all democrats affirm to be the principle of their state. Another is that a man should live as he likes. This, they say, is the privilege of a freeman, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes is the mark of slave. This is the second characteristic of democracy, whence has arisen the claim of men to be ruled by none, if possible, or, if this is impossible, to rule and be ruled in turns; and so it contributes to the freedom based upon equality.” Politics 6.2

For the white Southern planter, to not be able to pursue his economic ambitions rooted in slavery and to be told that he could not expand his “property” or take it with him wherever he went was to be treated like a slave himself, instead of as a free man. Aristotle told him so. And, the white Southern Planter, at the top of the aristocratic hierarchy in the South was anything but a slave. He was the example of human ascendancy. When the Northern states exerted their influence to tax and place tariffs upon trade that affected the Southern agrarian economy based in slavery, the Southern elites saw it as a major affront. THEY were being treated like slaves to the economic interests of the bankers and Northern industrialists! Their very humanity depended upon them throwing off their yoke. ALL of their economic interests and philosophies were rooted in the concept of white supremacy that had been planted in the tobacco fields of Virginia in the 1600’s and that had sprung into full blossom in the cotton fields of Alabama and Mississippi in the 1800’s. The South would not be dominated or told what to do by the North. That is what happened to slaves. They were Masters. They were free. They would dictate their own terms and defend their “way of life” as they saw fit. That is what “free” men did. Every appeal to “states’ rights” and freedom from the oppression of the North was rooted in this view. He was not a slave.

God and religion were then used as a means to an end. Instead of God being the source of reality and informing how the Southern white man should see things, God and Scripture were interpreted to fit the Southern view on this issue, influenced by the Greeks. Instead of Paul’s statements that there is neither Jew, Greek, Barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, male, or female, but all are one in Christ (Gal. 3:26-29; Col. 3:11) informing their reading of Aristotle, they let Aristotle guide and they subverted the Bible to his philosophies. The Church in the South slowly became the chaplain to a racist, slaveowning culture rooted in greed, pride, and violence. When Southern pride was finally offended to the point of breaking by the actions of the North, the Planter Class led the South into rebellion and war and destruction, with the Southern church assuring them that they were doing God’s will. This was all heresy, of course. And, the Confederate flag represented all of this – not just slavery, but Southern pride and white supremacy and rebellion against any yoke that would ever subjugate them and attempt to make them anything less than free Masters.

It was into this soil that the Southern Baptist Convention was planted in Augusta, Georgia in 1845 when Baptists from the North refused to appoint Southern slaveholders as missionaries. The Baptists in the South would not be told who they could and could not appoint as missionaries – they were “free” men, remember? So, they broke off and formed their own convention of churches where they could govern themselves. Dr. Albert Mohler, on June 23, 2015, addressed the reason for our founding for what it was. Heresy. In his post entitled, The Heresy of Racial Superiority: Confronting the Past, Confronting the Truth, Dr. Mohler works through the history of racial superiority and the history of Southern Baptists. Then, he says:

And now the hardest part. Were the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary heretics?

They defended all the doctrines they believed were central and essential to the Christian faith as revealed in the Bible and as affirmed throughout the history of the church. They sought to defend Baptist orthodoxy in an age already tiring of orthodoxy. They would never have imagined themselves as heretics, and in one sense they certainly were not. Nor, we should add, was Martin Luther a heretic, even as he expressed a horrifying anti-semitism.

But I would argue that racial superiority in any form, and white superiority as the central issue of our concern, is a heresy. The separation of human beings into ranks of superiority and inferiority differentiated by skin color is a direct assault upon the doctrine of Creation and an insult to the imago Dei — the image of God in which every human being is made. Racial superiority is also directly subversive of the gospel of Christ, effectively reducing the power of his substitutionary atonement and undermining the faithful preaching of the gospel to all persons and to all nations.

To put the matter plainly, one cannot simultaneously hold to an ideology of racial superiority and rightly present the gospel of Jesus Christ. One cannot hold to racial superiority and simultaneously defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints. So far as I can tell, no one ever confronted the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with the brutal reality of what they were doing, believing, and teaching in this regard. The same seems to be true in the case of Martin Luther and his anti-semitism. For that matter, how recently were these sins recognized as sins and repented of? The problem is not limited to the names of the founders on our buildings.

I do believe that racial superiority is a heresy. That means that those who hold it unrepentantly and refuse correction by Scripture and the gospel of Christ must, as Harold O. J. Brown rightly said, “be considered to have abandoned the faith.”

In one sense, Southern Baptist founders were not heretics. I agree. They held to Biblical orthodoxy on the person and work of Jesus and the major doctrines of the faith. They believed much that was right and I am a Southern Baptist pastor today because I agree with them on their orthodoxy. But, in another sense, they were heretics. Mohler is right and his admission is stunning and is the clearest reckoning with our theological past that I have ever seen a Southern Baptist leader and theologian make. Heresy.

If what Dr. Mohler says here is true, and I believe it is, then how did that heresy affect us? How did it alter our understanding of God and man and salvation beyond the direct subject of racism? How did the fact that we divided ourselves off and claimed ourselves to be superior and served as chaplains to a war effort and a government meant to subjugate a race of people in our midst – how did all of this shape us and our view of freedom and human agency and God’s salvation?

Could it be that the very things that we are fighting against in society today through the culture wars be a direct result of the heresy and view of “freedom” that we were born into? Could the full growth of Enlightenment thought and the elevation of Reason above Revelation that Dr. Mohler consistently wars against have one foot rooted in our own Southern heresy of race-based, white supremacism as our theological ancestors chose to exalt themselves to the apex of God’s order of creation based on their skin color? Could our claims to power and size and strength and mega this and that and pursuit of money and pleasure and war flow from the ground that was broken up in the South by slavery where this heresy found its home? Could the very seeds of autonomy that produced the fruit of the Sexual Revolution have been planted at least partially in the soil that produced people who were willing to fight and die to defend their “way of life?” Could our own continued support of the subjugation of African Americans when Baby Boomers were coming of age in the 1950’s and 60’s and when Southern Baptists were at the height of their cultural power have laid the groundwork for the Baby Boomer rejection of authority and pursuit of their own versions of “truth”?

Instead of just fighting a secular society, is the Evangelical Church in 2015 also fighting against fruit of our own heresies?

I ask all of these questions because the charge of “heresy” has implications. They were right on many core gospel issues, but they were wrong on their biblical anthropology and on God’s creation – with devastating consequences. When Baptists went South around 1800, they were abolitionists. By 1840, they were proslavery. What happened in 40 years? They were subverted by the larger planter culture influenced by Greek philosophy and a pursuit of wealth and they changed their theology to be accepted by the powers. Instead of standing firm and subverting the powers, they were subverted by them.

Now, how do we get the “damn’d spot” out? How can we ever find healing? The amazing grace and sacrificial love of Jesus Christ is the only answer. If the “Charleston 9” of Emanuel AME Church and their families can teach us anything, it is that miracles are possible. Forgiveness. Grace. Sacrificial love that surprises and astounds. The salvation of Christ for all, even murderous racists. Southern Baptists have awakened to the need for ongoing repentance, not just of racism, but for living to promote and defend our own “way of life” over and against others, which is the foundational problem beneath racism, consumerism, and every other enemy of discipleship and mission. 20 years ago, Southern Baptists began a process of repentance over the past. At our most recent convention in Columbus, Ohio last week, we saw the fruit of that repentance begin to truly and publicly emerge as ethnic diversity in leadership was embraced as more than a hoped for ideal, but as a present and growing reality. The better Way of Jesus and of sacrificial love for all people is beginning to break through like green sprouts of out of good soil.

Heresy has a blinding affect. When you are in it, you can’t see the truth unless a prophetic voice breaks through. An Athanasius. A Martin Luther. Where were the prophetic voices in the South? They were there, but even their memory has been erased (Dr. Mohler says he does not know of them). The prophetic voices came from our Northern Baptist brothers and from the Abolitionists and from England. But, they were drowned out and were replaced by monuments to slaveholders and wealthy planters and military men who led armies fighting for the “chivalrous” South to protect the Southern “way of life.” I am glad that our eyes are now opening. Grace does that. May we, who persecuted and even eradicated the memory of the prophets that God sent into our midst; who fired pastors of churches and sent them into exile when they tried to warn us; we who have been forgiven much and who have received the mercy of Jesus who never let us go; may we extend that mercy and forgiveness to others, just like the “Charleston 9” did. In addition, may we seek to make things right by loving our neighbor sacrificially, even at great cost to our own position. Perhaps God is speaking to us through them and through the costly grace and forgiveness that their families offered to a hate-filled, bigoted murderer.

The great thing about the miraculous work of Jesus is that he can turn water to wine. He can also change hard rocky soil to good soil and make sinners into saints. He can and does change rocky, heretical soil to good soil that can produce much fruit. I think that is happening in the Southern Baptist Convention on this issue and I think that we are being reborn as a massive multiethnic denomination through the unmerited grace of God and tears of repentance and sacrificial love for all people so that we will be able to tell the story rightly of God’s mercy and healing to a broken world. We have a long way to go, but God is working.

What will it look like for us to bear our brother’s burden and enter into his pain? What will it look like for us to lay our lives down for others instead of fighting to protect ourselves? What will the Way of Jesus expressed in the Cross look like for us as we enter into the missio dei in America? We need to work through that. But, it won’t look like dominance or power or being on top of the pyramid or taking the best seat or having everyone look up to us. It won’t look like white Southern Christians fighting to defend their heritage. It will look a lot more like a bloody Cross, a servant’s towel as we wash feet, a turned cheek after being hit, an extra mile carrying our oppressor’s pack, a given cloak, and a loved and prayed for enemy. In all of this, we will see the Kingdom of God as the gospel of God’s grace in Christ and His sacrificial love for sinners – yea, even us – takes root and produces real fruit.

So, Drs. Moore and Mohler and Akin are right about taking the Confederate flag down. It doesn’t just represent heritage or even slavery. It also represents heresy. Our own. We are right to want it to come down. I am glad for another Cross that still flies high. I am glad we look to it.

Additional Resources:

When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus. NewSouth Books, 2014. – Alan Cross

Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, 2009

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll, 2006


One Response to Forgiveness, The Confederate Flag, Heresy, and the SBC

  1. Hi ALAN,
    I wrote this over on Denny Burk’s blog:
    ” a way for you to say to black brothers and sisters in Christ,
    “Your suffering is weightier to me than my right to wave this flag, with all its checkered history.”
    And I say this with a whole heart, knowing that my great uncle, Wm. James Ausbon, was one of the six heroes of the Siege of Petersburg. He received a silver medal from General Beauregard for gallantry, having endangered himself to save many of his brothers in arms.
    For the love of Christ, take down the ‘stars and bars’ and place this flag where it honorably belongs: in a museum. . . . along with the medals of our heroes, and along with the cannon ball that was found lodged into the chimney of my maternal grandmother’s family’s home in Plymouth NC.
    Let us remember our past with a Christ-like dignity that refuses to be insensitive to a brother or a sister whose ancestors bore the sadness of slavery in those long ago days. In this way, with them, we can actively celebrate that ‘a time to heal’ for ALL concerned has spiritually begun at last.