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Illumination Refraction: Bending Light Toward Good

The scientific term for altering the direction of light is refraction.

Light moves consistently in a straight line until the moment it encounters an object that either redirects it or stops it altogether. Usually, this redirection only occurs in distinct, sharp angles. However, only water can actually bend light into an arc.

So, let’s wade into the conversation concerning the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Illumination Project report.

One week ago, the governing board of the CBF “adopted” a new hiring policy and “received” a report from the Illumination Project committee.

The report included a controversial implementation procedure that excludes married LGBTQ individuals from certain positions.

CBF has attempted to communicate the delineation between “adopting the policy” and “receiving the implementation plan,” but confusion persists.

EthicsDaily.com has attempted to provide thoughtful columns from a variety of contributors addressing the hiring policy and implementation. Authors were given the freedom to communicate their consciences.

Also, EthicsDaily.com produced a series of exclusive interviews with three committee members and CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter. Again, like our columnists, CBF was given the freedom to communicate its actions and the interpretation of those actions.

There has been much written about the policy and implementation procedure, both supportive and critical.

Many of the articles and columns were extraordinarily informative and articulate. We certainly have some very wise, thoughtful and passionate people within the Baptist family.

I find my offering to this conversation taking a different path. My goal will be to refract all that has been communicated toward a way forward – one that honors conscience, seeks justice, respects diversity and bends toward good. I will consider five aspects of the conversation here:

1. Conversations occurring within the CBF right now demonstrate the reality of our diverse Baptist community.

Recalling Walter Shurden’s comments about diversity in his book, “The Four Fragile Freedoms,” we Baptists are a big tent kind of people.

That is why it feels so unnatural for us when we encounter a moment that appears to be exclusionary (even if not intended as such).

As any person ever involved in organizational policy writing knows, there are many complexities and nuances of the process.

While hiring policies are exclusive by nature, it does feel different when an individual’s identity is used to exclude. For this reason, this action feels un-Baptist to some.

Yet, there are those within CBF that still hold a traditional understanding of marriage. On a side note, we should express appreciation to the Illumination Project committee for using the term traditional marriage and not biblical marriage. There is a difference.

As CBF has moved closer to full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals, the question must be asked, “Will the tent remain big enough for those who struggle with this direction?”

I certainly hope so because we never want to become what we condemn.

2. The complexities of the global church must be taken into account in order to avoid expressions of colonialism.

A vast majority of global Baptist conventions and agencies remain exclusionary when it comes to LGBTQ Christians.

In fact, according to the Illumination Project report and interviews following, most of CBF’s global partners are nowhere near addressing the subject.

The Illumination Project committee was being transparent in mentioning this reality.

Committee members were considering the continued vitality of historic partnerships when they declared, “we must meet people where they are,” which is undoubtedly the case with the broader global Baptist community.

However, one must be cautious not to hide behind this line of reasoning altogether. CBF has an opportunity to engage the global community in a congenial and productive conversation.

CBF has been at the forefront of many potentially divisive discussions, which have been at the heart of shaping the organization into what it has become today.

CBF has been a leader when it comes to women in ministry, working toward racial justice, humanizing the immigration debate and defending the poor from predatory lenders.

CBF can take the same bold, but sensitive, approach with their global partners.

3. The journey for equality has always been – and will still be – a long march taken with small steps rather than giant leaps.

The author of Proverbs suggested to readers, “I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice” (Proverbs 8:20).

These words remind us that any struggle for justice is a long journey. Each step must be taken with caution, boldness and stamina.

Civil rights leader John Lewis once said, “Take a long, hard look down the road you will have to travel once you have made a commitment to work for change. Know that this transformation will not happen right away. Change often takes time. It rarely happens all at once.”

Lewis understood that with each march, he and other civil rights leaders were taking another step closer to justice.

Therefore, the conversation must continue. The march must go forward. The faithful mustn’t let controversy silence the discussion or stop the journey.

No matter what the topic, silence can often be the first step toward divisions that breed destruction.

The faithful must march on toward justice, remembering the words of Martin Luther King Jr. when he quoted Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

4. A glaring reality standing out in the Illumination Project report, which cannot be ignored, was the notion that an overwhelming majority of churches within CBF “have made no formal statements regarding matters of human sexuality” (page 16 of the report).

This fact suggests some possibilities: (1) Churches have already made a declarative decision internally and feel no need to vocalize it, (2) Churches have ignored the topic, hoping it will go away, or (3) Churches are frightened that any discussion will have divisive effects upon them.

The truth of the matter is that LGBTQ Christians and their families will continue attending, worshipping and serving within local churches.

The conversation about hiring and inclusion is not going away and should be a topic of conversation within the body.

Again, silence can be our greatest enemy. However, shouting at one another is not helpful either. Desmond Tutu reminds, “Don’t raise your voice; improve your argument.”

Can local churches have a constructive conversation about this issue? The answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

The church must begin with prayer, seeking the peace of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Then, to move forward, it must be agreed that an essential part of the conversation must be about listening. Far too often, we rush to speak before we hear.

Next, we must remember that everyone has their own unique story that is sacred. Opinions can be argued, but personal stories must be respected.

Finally, we should take to heart the words of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, “You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”

We must figure out how to respect and be kind to each other, for we are called by Christ to love both our friends and enemies.

5. We should see this moment as an opportunity to bend the light toward justice and the common good.

Light is refracted when diverted by an object, but it can only bend when traveling through water.

Therefore, let us recall words of the Apostle Paul, “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

May this moment in the life of CBF be seen as an opportunity instead of an obstacle. May the faithful let the waters of baptism bend us toward God’s justice that we might all walk in newness of life.

May all recognize those waters as radically inclusive and life-altering. May the church walk the steps of righteousness placing one foot in front of the other, all marching toward a mutual purpose.

And when the beloved community steps into the future, may we march together toward a day when, to adapt Paul’s Galatians 3:28 declaration, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female, there is no longer conservative nor liberal, there is no longer gay nor straight, for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.”

Mitch Randall is executive director of BCE and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @rmitchrandall.

Other columns in the series on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Illumination Project are:

Illuminations: Room for All of Us at God’s Table by Bojangles Blanchard

Illuminations: Seeking Guidance of God’s Spirit by Sara Powell

Illuminations: Dealing with a Messy Smudge of Ash by Mary Elizabeth Hill Hanchey

Illuminations: Spiritual Equality of All Christians by George Mason

Illuminations: The Long Struggle Against Discrimination by Colin Harris

Illuminations: Agree to Disagree – Agreeably by Steve Wells