June 14, 2019

Two Letters from Birmingham: Pursuing Biblical Justice

During the meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, our churches' messengers did many good things. For instance, we finally began addressing the sexual abuse crisis. Much attention was also given to the indispensability of women in our churches. Again, our President, J.D. Greear, reminded us that our constant theme must be the "Gospel Above All," even as we address gospel issues created by errant anthropologies with us since our denomination's foundation.

However, one convention action that deserves more attention, but has not yet received it in the news and social commentary, concerned the struggle for biblical justice. The juxtaposition of two letters from Birmingham should help put more light on something that requires emphasis. These letters remind us of the need to take positive action in undoing the effects of evil anthropologies.

The First Letter from Birmingham

It should not be lost upon us that 56 years ago, in the hot summer of 1963, Birmingham was seized by non-violent demonstrations after the city fathers failed to stem the tide of unconscionable bombings of churches. Martin Luther King Jr. came from Atlanta to help put the spotlight on the horrific problems faced by a huge segment of the Christian population of this city. But rather than listening to King, Birmingham's authorities unwisely threw him into jail.

Adding salt to King's wounds, a group of white Christians who sought to support his goals asked him to be more patient in the pursuit of justice. The letter King wrote in response to the white moderate Christians has since become a classic text. Filled with biblical and theological reflections on the theme of pursuing justice in the midst of an unjust society, reading it again brought me to tears. King's rebuke to the white moderates, who were generally friendly to him, was necessary. That letter grips the soul of this privileged white man. For instance, he rebukes those Christians who blithely dismiss the suffering of others:
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, "Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with," and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.
Many white Christians have been complicit in keeping civil rights from their fellow human beings and, even more hypocritically, from their own Christs' blood-bought Brothers and Sisters. Today, it is clear that many of us who are Southern Baptist lament the evil of racism, but there remains much to do. The evils of racism and misogyny and sexual abuse, evils which have often been downplayed even denied, must become objects of identification, rebuke, and repentance whenever they arise among us. King's letter from the Birmingham jail rightly calls predominantly white Christians to embrace their responsibility.

The Second Letter from Birmingham

Another letter from Birmingham was written this summer. However, rather than coming from a single man in the unjustly imposed confines of a jail cell, this letter came from a group of men and women who worked diligently in the self-imposed confines of Birmingham's conference center. The Resolutions Committee of the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, chaired by the highly capable Curtis Woods of Kentucky, crafted a resolution that deserves more attention than it has yet been given.

Resolution 7, entitled "On Biblical Justice," offers a timely reminder that pursuing justice remains an integral aspect of Christian responsibility in this world. Drawing upon Scripture and the Baptist Faith and Message, the resolution was adopted overwhelmingly and wholeheartedly by the messengers in 2019. While there have been advances since 1963, this letter indicates how much more work we have to do in advancing human flourishing among the precious beings who bear the divine image and live in our cities, states, nations, and world. Among the many truths brought forward in this resolution, the final whereas reminds us that biblical evangelism and biblical justice are integrally intertwined:
WHEREAS, Our witness to the truth of the gospel includes obedience to Christ demonstrated in giving our lives to evangelize the lost around the world and in becoming involved with the struggles of our neighbors as well as our believing brothers and sisters (Genesis 18:19; 1 Peter 2:11-12);
Notice another wise balance among the resolves, this time showing that the true gospel of Jesus Christ and the true pursuit of justice must be held together among Christians. In one resolve, inappropriate ideas are rejected; while in the very next resolve, Christians are reminded of our responsibility to pursue justice:
RESOLVED, That we reject solutions for social brokenness that depend upon ideas that are antithetical to the Christian faith, for they ignore the lasting transformation only found in the gospel; and be it further
RESOLVED, That in light of the urgent needs in our world, we commit to address injustices through gospel proclamation, by advocating for people who are oppressed and face wrongs against them, acting justly in our own dealings, and by insisting that spheres of society should operate according to “principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love” (The Baptist Faith and Message, Article XV);
Even as we focus on preaching the gospel and advancing truth, let us not forget that advancing biblical justice is a necessary part of our remit in this fallen world. Kudos to the men and women of the Resolutions Committee of the SBC for the fine work they have done in reminding us of so many critical truths in their fine batch of resolutions, including the continuing pursuit of biblical justice.

Thank you, Southern Baptists, for the way you addressed so many important issues this year. Among them, thank you for adopting this second Letter from Birmingham. Perhaps the great civil rights leader, himself a Baptist minister and very capable theologian, might approve of the progress we have made, but doubtless he would rightly remind us we have further to go.

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