No religious denomination acted more often as apologists for segregationists during the civil rights movement than preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention.
It was of course a time of all-white churches but none was more devoted to white pride. Sermons across the South used the analogy that God did not allow a beautiful songbird and the conniving crow to intermingle, but instead, He established a natural order where some creations were simply on a higher plane than others, such as the difference between the white man and the black man.
It was such a popular sermon that it was printed on brochures and handed out in numerous church vestibules.
Today, the denomination likes to say that it has apologized to the race which was so often the object of its disaffection, but it still manages to mangle its theology with an anti-intellectualism that has been the subject of research and books.
Logic is as scarce as African-American ministers in its pulpits.
And yet, ministers like Bellevue Baptist Church’s Steve Gaines would have black Memphians believe that he and his colleagues best understand the reality of their fight for equal rights and against bigotry. They have adopted the vocabulary of the civil rights movement and offer up pandering statements as if listeners suffer from historical amnesia.
It all seems so convenient and politically calculated. After a church history anchored in racial separation and unequal rights, they truly expect and believe that African-American ministers will accept the premise that Southern Baptist ministers feel their pain.
We believe that while a handful of African-American preachers will be seduced by this newfound concern about racial equality, most black Memphians will see through the political expediency of this unholy alliance.
Talking The Talk But What About The Walk
If politics makes strange bedfellows, there’s little question that this one will involve twin beds. And yet, we don’t want to be too hard on churches like Bellevue Baptist Church, which proudly points out its smattering of African-American members. Meanwhile, its 60-member administrative/program staff is all-white 100 percent.
To its credit, Bellevue Baptist does have a person assigned to Hispanic outreach, but in light of its recent rhetoric, it’s certainly a surprise that it doesn’t have anyone on its staff reaching out to the majority race in our region.
It’s the sort of curious contradiction that is so often a regular part of the denomination. They now offer lip service to the importance of women in church leadership – just as long as this doesn’t involve putting them behind the pulpit. The Southern Baptist Convention still requires that all ministers are men.
“Homosexuality is not a valid alternative lifestyle,” the denomination says, raising the question of what alternative lifestyles would it find acceptable – perhaps referring to don’t ask, don’t tell lesbians who tell ministers at Bellevue Baptist that they are simply friends living together.
We received emails yesterday asking how we could ignore the Bible’s admonitions against homosexuality. But the problem for us is that most of the people who claim to know the meaning of the verses have never traced the translations back to their original Greek or Hebrew. When you do this and factor in the historical realities of the Jewish experience of the time, there are alternative explanations that illuminate the verses’ true meanings.
For example, these Christian fundamentalists have no quotations from Jesus about homosexuality or from any Jewish prophet. They don’t exist.
But here’s the thing: even if people oppose legal protection for gays on their interpretation of the Bible, they are still conveniently selective about which verses they choose to emphasize, because there’s no similar orthodoxy about verses dealing with usury, obligations to the poor, stoning disobedient children and no divorces. In addition, there are verses about when husbands can use prostitutes and verses against masturbation and coitus interruptus.
Here’s a few of our favorite verses that never get mentioned by people who argue that the Bible is inerrant and must be literally followed:
If a man takes a wife and, after lying with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,” then the girl’s father and mother shall bring proof that she was a virgin to the town elders at the gate…If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.
Leviticus warns heterosexuals that having sex during a woman’s period can lead to execution.
Another Deuteronomy favorite:
If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.
Mark 12 talks about a widow having sex with each of her husband’s brothers in turn until she bears a son:
Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19″Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother.
We don’t want to belabor this point any longer, except to say that it’s been said that even the devil can quote Scripture in support of his own purposes, and there’s little question that the Southern Baptist Convention is not alone is using Biblical verses as justification for its bigotry. There have been the crusades, the Inquisition, murder of Jews in the Holocaust, suicide in Guyana by Jim Jones followers, and opposition to inter-racial marriage and equal rights for African-Americans, and that’s for starters.
More pertinent to our current debate in Memphis is the fact that a number of gays have been killed in recent years by people who considered it the natural extension of their obeying of God’s will. In fact, they even quoted Bible verses as their justification
That’s the pitfall of fundamentalism. Even if you believe that the Bible is inerrant, that doesn’t mean that your interpretations are. In fact, the history of religion in Western civilization shows that interpretations change and doctrine shifts.
But we really didn’t mean to get this deep into the debate about Bible verses, and the decision on the anti-discrimination ordinance shouldn’t be about the Bible either. It’s about making sure that all Americans have equal protection under the law, the fundamental principle of our democracy.
Contrary to Rev. Gaines’ clever rhetoric, this vote isn’t about special privileges for gays. It’s about ensuring that they receive the same rights as the rest of us and providing a workplace that does not require Memphis gays and lesbians to live two lives as has been the case for way too long.