Conscience of a Baptist

My mother grew up a Southern Baptist. She was born a stone’s throw from the small clapboard church in Shiloh, Tennessee, where she first met the Lord and learned the hymns she sang throughout her life:  Tell Me the Story of Jesus, I Love to Tell the Story, and In the Garden.  Each one of those hymns, and many more, expressed a deep intimacy with Jesus as Lord, Savior, Friend, even Lover. (If you don’t believe me on that last point, listen more closely to In the Garden.)  And she was tutored to believe, as I was in my childhood church, in the supremacy of the white race and the inferiority of black people, a reality I could not see clearly until my adult conversion to Pentecostal faith and practice.  Such are the moral contradictions of being a white American evangelical – Jesus loves me this I know, but you . . . not so much.

U.S. Protestant revivals in the nineteenth century – Baptist and Methodist, black and white and Native American, the occasional Presbyterian, and a spiritual hothouse of others, to use Jon Butler’s memorable phrase – showered a Jesus-inflected language on hymnody, preaching, and prayer in evangelical Protestantism. This Jesus language is also evident in David Gushee’s account of his conversion at New Providence Baptist Church in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, back in the late 1970s:  invite Jesus into your heart and accept him as your personal savior.

David, I was deeply moved that you began not in an abstract manner about Baptist ways of following Jesus. You start with your testimony. You start with how Jesus changed your life. Your experience and your witness would be recognizable to most of the world’s Pentecostals. In the church where I serve, we shout as someone stands to narrate their deliverance: “Tell your story!” “Tell your story!”

In the 1970s – David, we must be around the same age – I had similar conversion experiences.  I say “experiences” because my personal relationship with Jesus seemed never to stick.  Jesus and I kept breaking up and getting back together.  You could say I was born again. And again. And again. Preachers never really explained, not to my satisfaction, what it meant to have a personal relationship with Jesus. The emphasis was almost never on Jesus as teacher; the message of atonement through blood sacrifice took center stage.  An incomplete notion of atonement, if you ask me.  Back then, in order to  answer rightly the question asked in evangelical revival spaces in the 1970s – If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?  Heaven or hell? – I would give my life to Jesus repeatedly. I did it to escape the fear of damnation that haunted my nightmares, yes, and also in hope that I would experience again the fleeting moments of intimacy with the God-man. Oh, what a friend we have in Jesus! Can we find a friend so faithful, Who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness; Take it to the Lord in prayer . . . 

I was surprised – maybe you were as well? – that Gushee offers only a passing reference to baptism. He doesn’t dwell on the eponymous practice but rather on the Christian life that comes after it, what he calls, in good evangelical parlance, discipleship, a word familiar in most Pentecostal settings as well.  With that old-school term – discipleship –Gushee pushes closer to our guiding question of what it means to follow Jesus.  He writes succinctly of Christian faith “as receiving the ultimate gift (of God’s saving love in Christ) and undertaking the ultimate task (of reorienting one’s life to serve Christ with everything).”   Personal conversation is necessary, he seems to be saying, but not sufficient. “A social, ethical, political vision is needed and not just a personal one.”

As one of the world’s most prominent Christian ethicists, David Gushee has spent a lifetime not just studying but practicing what it means to reorient one’s life to follow Jesus. Of course he recognizes the importance of context (place, space, and time) in defining what that means.  Take, for instance, the situation in what Gushee memorably calls “Baptistland.” Since the first time he walked into a Baptist church years ago, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, has shown itself to be a welter of competing visions of what it means to follow Jesus.  Divisions have hardened in the last forty years and continue to grow more brittle within the SBC as within American life more generally.  Gushee himself got caught up in the battles.  His 2014 change of heart on same-sex relationships – that neither Jesus nor the Bible condemns such relationships – rocked the white evangelical world, bringing to Dr. Gushee a torrent of denunciations as well as grateful praise.

In making that courageous stand, was Gushee following Jesus?  I certainly think so.  Did he betray the SBC’s majority position? Yes. In doing so I wonder if David was living out another source of authority in Baptist faith and practice – conscience. After all, one of the signal achievements of Baptist theologizing has been to uphold personal conscience as a north star for charting ways to follow Jesus. This emphasis can tip over into individualism, sure, but more often it’s a crucial resource for calling a covenanted community – and maybe even a nation? – back to its senses.  Many Baptists of late have ignored the role of conscience, but such ignorance will not snuff out its light.

Dr. Gushee closes on a note of nostalgia, yearning (it seems) for the transformative faith he first experienced at that Virginia Baptist church back in the 1970s – “before the scorched-earth wounds and stuck arguments of forty years of US religio-political warfare.”  I get that nostalgia.  And I get the desire to be in fellowship with Baptists outside the United States since they have the wisdom and witness that arises from experiences far from these shores.  I yearn, too . . . for the Jesus-intimacy I experienced in my many conversions as a young adult. And I yearn, in spiritually arid moments today, for intimacy with the Holy Spirit who guides me when by God’s grace my ego allows it.

On this side of the basilea that Jesus taught us to pray for, following him will always and everywhere entangle us in the moral and ethical matters of our time and place. In the politics of our time.  I was not yet able to understand that fact in my upbringing among good and decent, Jesus-loving, God-fearing white evangelicals, including white Baptists, who continued to live out our old patterns of anti-black racism. We would not bring ourselves to see that our evangelical theologies had sustained slavery and Jim Crow, and now, the racial animosity that haunts so many quarters of MAGA-world.

I have stumbled countless times in my intention to follow Jesus.  Still, conscience (and consciousness-raising interventions by my spiritual siblings) has brought me to a new understanding of the kin-dom Jesus proclaimed.  In my best moments I have been able to grasp, through God’s grace, Paul’s world-shattering instruction to the church in Galatia. Possibly quoting a baptismal formula in circulation within early Christian communities, Paul proclaimed, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither make nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Translated into today’s argot, what are the radical implications for church and society today?  Perhaps only conscience can tell us.

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