I am deeply and profoundly thankful for Mika Edmondson’s address, “Is Black Lives Matter the New Civil Rights Movement?” My only regret in the publication of his urgently important address is the fact that reading it, or even hearing the recording, cannot come close to the emotional experience of hearing it in person. Nevertheless, take time to read his address and listen to the audio.
Mika did not just present his address; he delivered it. Heart and mind, prophecy and scholarship were combined in a prophetic tour de force. All who heard it are indebted to Dr. Edmondson for trusting us with his message.
No Right to Respond
What I do not feel qualified to do is to respond to Mika’s address. Why? Just consider the responsibility entrusted to me for almost 25 years. I am president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the mother institution of the Southern Baptist Convention. Let those words settle a moment.
The Southern Baptist Convention was birthed in national division over slavery, and it was established primarily so that Southern slave owners could continue to serve as foreign missionaries and to send missionaries from their Southern churches. Almost 15 years later, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was established to provide a learned ministry for those churches.
When the Civil War interrupted classes at Southern Seminary, the faculty took roles in the Confederacy. James P. Boyce and John A. Broadus became chaplains to the Confederate Army. When the war was over, the seminary took up where it left off, eventually relocating to Louisville, Kentucky—a border city that had largely escaped the war’s destruction.
In terms of the race issue, nothing changed.
For generations thereafter the Southern Baptist Convention took up the Lost Cause, the argument that the South had been robbed of its moral innocence by the Union’s combination of military force, political repression, and commercial exploitation. The relationship between slaves and slaveholders was romanticized through the outright rewriting of history and an entire worldview was constructed, along with theological justifications for white superiority and racial segregation.
The South did not decide to end legal segregation. That end, at least legally speaking, was forced by federal courts and legislation. Segregation has not actually ended, of course. Jim Crow may be dead, but America—and not just the South—is in many ways as segregated as it was when George C. Wallace and Martin Luther King Jr. walked the earth.
That is why I feel disqualified to respond. What does the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have to say to Mika Edmondson? What right has the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to say anything?
Responsibility to Respond
I do respond, however, because I have to be far less concerned about my right to speak than my responsibility to speak. I am not at all sure of the right by which I speak, but Dr. Edmonson himself has made clear my responsibility to speak.
My Presbyterian brother hit me with the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 135. What, it asks, are the duties required in the sixth commandment? The answer includes the requirement to “preserve the lives of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking of the life of any.”
As Dr. Edmonson made clear, this means any Christian must be urgently concerned with anything that leads to the devaluing of the life of any human.
That brings us to Black Lives Matter. “We have,” Dr. Edmondson declared, “a natural tendency to actively resist dealing with racial sin.”
He documented that “natural tendency” all too well. His argument is that Black Lives Matter is judgment on the Christian church, which it surely is. The rise of Black Lives Matter points to the failure of the Christian church to make the cause of human dignity and racial equality our own.
Brilliantly, Dr. Edmondson traced the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and made careful distinctions between #BlackLivesMatter and the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). The CRM emerged from the black church and through the black church, with a hierarchical structure and a core of male-ordained leadership. Virtually every important figure was a “Reverend.” The CRM carefully selected which victims of racial injustice would be set before public attention, playing by a set of moral rules common to the entire culture at the time.
By contrast, the Black Lives Matter movement began by arguing there is no need to play by those rules when lives are at stake. It has emerged with a decentralized leadership and is neither led by ordained Christian ministers nor organically related to the black church.
Mika argues the words “black lives matter” should really be heard as “black lives matter, too”—just like we would naturally understand if we heard “children’s lives matter.”
Why do we hear those words differently?
Dr. Edmonson is actually quite adept at asking the hard questions. Why, he asks, when Martin Luther King Jr. was looking for theological groundings for racial equality, did he have to go to a liberal seminary and study under liberal professors to find help?
Why could he not attend The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or Westminster Theological Seminary, he asks. Though even in those days Dr. King could have attended either seminary, neither was then a welcoming place for a young black minister.1 That truth is a savage judgment against our institutional honor.
I am increasingly convinced that the stain of racial prejudice and the historical sin of slavery may be a permanent stain God intends for our nation—and, more pointedly, my denomination and my seminary—to see daily, lest we forget.
My central response to Dr. Mika Edmondson is gratitude. I am so thankful for his passion and clarity in this address. He was able to document the great moral and theological problems involved with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but he made us all see—even helped us all see—the truth that our own failures led to the emergence of this movement. He helped us see that a real crisis of human dignity, and every real threat to black lives, require that the church in America answer this movement and respond to this crisis with the full power of the gospel of Christ and the full richness of Christian truth.
I also realize that, even just a few years ago, Dr. Mika Edmondson’s address could not have been heard in the way it must be now. I can only pray that even just a few years from now, his address might no longer be necessary. Black lives do matter. We have to say that even more powerfully than #BlackLivesMatter does.
1 At this point I owe a debt to history. During the 1950s and 1960s, and until the early 1990s, Southern Seminary was under the influence of a far more liberal faculty. My assignment as president was to reverse that trajectory and return the school to confessional fidelity. That is why I am morally bound to acknowledge that many of Southern Seminary professors during those years of a more liberal theology demonstrated genuine courage in teaching black students in open defiance of Kentucky’s infamous Day Law outlawing racially mixed classes. A debt to their courage must be paid, and their example must be continued.