By Larry McNeil, Executive Director, institute4change
July 1, 2017
I grew up in the First Baptist Church of Lufkin, Texas. It was my home away from home. Sundays were Sunday School @ 9:45 am and 11 am morning church service and Training Union @ 6:15 pm and evening church service @ 7 pm. Most Wednesday evenings we would also go to prayer service. At 7-years old I preached there for the first time, later repeated when I was in high school with a lot of supportive adults forgiving my limited range and skills.
Largely because of my Baptist upbringing, I went to Baylor University where I had two majors — English and Religion. I was an active member of 7th and James Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. I attended Graduate School at Vanderbilt Divinity School where I concentrated study on Ethics and Theology and Literature. I read the Bible in its entirety two times. I finished every day with Scripture reading and prayer. I prayed on my dates.
Two trips my Freshman year at Baylor changed me forever. A group of fellow Baylor students and I drove to Dallas to attend worship service at the 1st Baptist Church of Dallas to hear renowned pastor W. A. Criswell preach. I quaked in anticipation as I waited after the service to shake Dr. Criswell’s hand. I remember how uplifted I was by his preaching and by his willingness to talk to a group of 18-year old college students after the service. I felt I was part of something wonderful, exalted, bigger than me, and deeply Christian.
My second trip was back to my hometown of Lufkin. I brought another Baylor college Freshman, also a life-long Baptist, with me. On Sunday morning we went to Sunday School and church. I think he was the first African-American ever to be inside the doors of the First Baptist Church of Lufkin. Life-long friends, former high school friends and important adults, including former Sunday School and Training Union teachers, turned their eyes and their backs on us, refusing to even look me in the eye. To me, it was not only cruel and demeaning. It was against everything I had ever learned about my faith and the Baptist Church that propagated it. I set up a meeting with my pastor, and went in to see him and tell him what we had experienced. Instead of condemnation of the acts from my former teachers, I got a soft, paternalistic lecture: “you know, Larry, these things take time.” Even when I asked him about the song we grew up with in that church: “red and yellow and black and white, they are all precious in his sight”, I got no response.
I resolved then and there that I would never step foot in that church again, a promise I kept until my brother and I led the funeral service for my mother in 2013. I did not want to part of a church that treated any people less than children of God. To do so made me complicit in their sin.
Fast forward five decades. Tonight, I watched the first 15 minutes of Donald Trump’s speech at the First Baptist Church of Dallas. The congregation was wildly exuberant to his every utterance and prepared applause lines. This is the same man who lies every day of his life, berates and ridicules people of other faiths, who denigrates and degrades women and everyone else he disagrees with. This is the man who is proposing, right now, that 32 million people be denied health care! Instead of being booed as a modern version of the Anti-Christ, he was applauded. Has the 1st Baptist Church of Dallas lost any sense of its Biblical imperative?
Growing up our ethical guideline was simple and clear: “what would Jesus do?” Do you think that Jesus would want millions of people to suffer, particularly when they didn’t have to, when our government could do something about their basic human condition? Given the choice between helping millions of people who need health care vs. giving more tax breaks for the rich, “what would Jesus do?”
What about: “as you do unto the least of these, my brothers, you doeth unto me.” Who are our modern day “least of these”? Should we redefine the “least of these” when 5 men own more wealth than ½ the entire world’s population?
What about: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
What about: the people on the side of the road?
What about: the clear Old Testament imperative to take care of the stranger, the orphans, and the widows (in Old Testament times, these three groups had no status or power)?
People can change. Rev. Rick Warren, the author of A Purpose-Driven Life which sold over 30 million copies, revisited the scripture and found 2200 references in the Bible to helping the poor. His earlier focus on condemning same sex couples, for which there is one highly debatable verse of Scripture, paled to insignificance against a Bible full of imperatives to help the poor.
I have changed. I have changed from a sinner who rededicated his life to Jesus at every revival meeting (sin in those early years being primarily thinking about sex), to a sinner who worries daily about how we can do more to help those in need. My religion is not about making the super-rich more comfortable, or avoiding public life and public affairs because those activities aren’t pure. In fact, public life is downright messy, often fuzzy, always incomplete. But God gave us this world to shape in his image. And that image commands us to do a lot of things that are uncomfortable. Yes, it may be more comfortable to hang with people like ourselves, to conflate our faith to the Confederate Flag or any other flag, to eschew all things different than what we know. It may be more comfortable for us Christians to hang out with other Christians who agree with us. It may be more comfortable to do a few works of charity, our moral benefit of doing something good far surpassing actually anything that solves the problem.
But our Christian faith imperative is more radical. It demands that we use any means necessary to help God’s creation, its people and its planet.
The congregants of the 1st Baptist Church of Dallas should not have let Donald Trump use them as props for his political theatre. How proud we would be today, and what a testament to their faith, if they had turned their backs on a man who epitomizes what the Baptist Church and the Christian faith supposedly stands against. Pontius Pilate does not belong in a Christian pulpit.
Will David Duke be next?