The new Baptist covenant group faces no greater challenge than the Bible, specifically the chosen text of Luke 4:18-19, around which we will organize the 2008 celebratory gathering.
That text makes all other issues pale in comparison. Explaining forthrightly the exclusion of the Southern Baptist Convention leadership, convincing the media that the meeting is about more than partisan politics and finding financial support are really secondary issues to the text itself.
Luke 4:18-19 is one of the most ignored, watered down, spiritualized or glossed-over texts in white Baptist pulpits, evading or emptying Jesus' first statement of his moral agenda.
The politics of Jesus seldom find warm acceptance in comfortable and culture-affirming churches.
When Luke 4 was the lectionary reading for the sermon, a noted guest preacher at my own church skipped right over Jesus' rendering of Isaiah 61:1-2. He focused on God's grace. The text is about Jesus' moral mission and the challenge that presents to us.
In his commentary on Luke 4:16-30, the very popular William Barclay allocated roughly a third of his ink to a discussion of Nazareth, a third to the Sabbath service in the synagogue and a third to the reaction of the people. Barclay wrote, "It was a gospel—Good News—which Jesus brought." Barclay, who has been the inspiration for countless Baptist sermons, skipped right over the core of the message, which contributes no doubt to why many white Baptists hippity hop away from the text.
Baptist scholar Malcolm Tolbert, author of the Lucan section of the Broadman Bible Commentary, wrote that the reference to the poor and the captives "describe the spiritual bankruptcy and distress to which the good news brought by Jesus answers." While Tolbert admitted that Jesus was speaking to the excluded and that God was moving toward liberation on their behalf, he still framed the text in terms of spiritual matters and dealt with it in a single paragraph.
Whether Jesus chose the text or read from an assigned text is a matter of some scholarly disagreement that amounts to little earthly good.
The fact is that when Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth--or Valdosta, in parlance of Clarence Jordan--Jesus read from Isaiah.
Clarence Jordan translated the passage:
"The Lord's spirit is on me;
He has ordained me to break the good news to the poor people.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the oppressed,
And sight for the blind,
To help those who have been grievously insulted to find dignity;
To proclaim the Lord's new era."
In Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers, Alan Storkey paraphrased the text:
"The Spirit of the Sovereign God is on me,
because God has made me ruler
to bring good news to the poor:
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for those taken captive in war;
and release from prison for those whom the king hates,
to proclaim God's Jubilee release from debt."
The text is what matters. How we read the text also matters.
In Kingdom Ethics, Baptist ethicist Glen Stassen wrote that in Jesus' citation of Isaiah he connected his foci with God's focus on delivery of justice to the poor, the powerless and the oppressed, a significant theme in Isaiah.
In Reading the Bible from the Margins, Baptist ethicist Miguel De La Torre warned about two types of Bible readings.
The spiritual reading calls for a heart-conviction rather than for physical action. The material reading necessitates critical analysis and concrete action.
In the Luke 4 text, Jesus said the gospel was for the poor and oppressed, speaking to those at the margins of society. Jesus was announcing that he came to liberate from real oppressive structures the marginalized—the impoverished, the war captives, the poor in health, the political prisoners. Jesus came to turn the economic structures upside down, instituting the year of jubilee when crushing debts were forgive and slaves were freed.
But the spiritual reading evades Jesus' clear words. It guts the message of its prophetic power, making Jesus message acceptable to the rich and powerful and those who want to be rich and powerful, who know what it means to be poor in spirit and do not want to be troubled by how they obtained their position and what God expects from them.
Emphasizing an emotional or psychological condition in a pharmaceutical and therapeutic culture is palatable. Focusing on spiritual lostness is far easier than forcing Baptists deal with slavery, segregation, institutional racism, structural poverty, the state of constant war with prisoners denied rights, the misuse of global power.
The material reading, however, calls for biblical justice—justice that delivers the poor from oppression and restores the powerless to full membership in the good community.
The new Baptist covenant planners have chosen a material reading of the text. Yet some are trying to water down the agenda by adding to it worthy topics that already receive enough Baptist air time. Still others are more nervous about the appearance of partisanship than faithfulness to the text.
And critics of the gathering, they are working overtime to persuade goodwill Baptists that the meeting is about what it isn't about. These critics want goodwill Baptists at all costs to avoid the text and evade its demands on us. They prefer to conform to this world than to be transformed by the renewing of our mind about what Jesus wants us to do.
Now is not the time for the faint-hearted. Now is not the hour for those with attention-spans easily distracted from truth. Now is the time for goodwill Baptists to concentrate on the text, discerning how we live out the Jesus agenda.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
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