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Safeguarding Baptist Freedoms

Southerner Thomas Wolfe may be right in suggesting that one cannot go home again-to live, that is, but no matter where in the world we may live and work, it is always good to go back home for a visit: It is always good to drive by the little church building, the old grammar and high school, to look at the simple house, to visit the cemetery, to eat black-eyed peas and stewed tomatoes, and to visualize and sense loving friends seated around the oilcloth covered table.

It is always good to remember those beautiful, sometimes limited people who taught you in Sunday school and prayer meeting, in college and seminary and who helped to transmit a love of God, and Bible, who gave you a value system which was the sustaining beginning point of life. It is always good to remember those to pay your debts, for we all are debtors. That’s what this invitation means to me, for my travels began here. The emotional experiences which have kept me from falling off the windy roads of life were incorporated here-and I am pleased to have this opportunity to make a small payment on my enormous debt. Whatever I am, this is the beginning context which made me who I am.

Vindication?

It is not that I have any right to be here. The other day, a former reporter for the Kansas City Star who interviewed me during the early 60’s and wrote about events during those days, surprised me with a telephone call from his retirement home in Oregon, because he had heard that I was coming here today at the invitation of the Whitsitt Society. He asked, “Do you now feel this to be a vindication?”

Vindication has never been my word. It is not a word I need or use, nor is it suggestive of any desire I have had. One does not live life for vindication. I was pleased recently to read in the book, The Amnesty of Grace, liberationist Elsa Tamez’s reminder from Gustavo GutielTez that the recognition of our own sin implies “the will to restore broken friendship and leads to asking forgiveness and reconciliation.” It is “the capacity for forgiveness which creates community.”

She quotes the African theologian Canaan Banana who suggests that “distasteful as it might be to victims of oppression, the oppressor has to be liberated along with the oppressed.” If we do not seek to build bridges then we ourselves, liberated in whatever sense we may discover ourselves to be, will only find ourselves in danger of losing our souls and engaging in the infinite repetition of the oppression we would want to deny. Unmerited grace received means unmerited grace extended for only then does resurrection come. Vindication is always the wrong word. As Tamez writes, it is extremely tempting for those excluded, now included, to marginalize others. So the word is “appreciation,” and not vindication. It is tremendously gratifying to be with people who are engaged in the affirmation of those very things which gave me birth.

The value of memory

This kind of memory and remembrance is so salutary. It was here in the early years as a child that I stood at my Mount Horeb, at my Sinai, if you will, and I am grateful for the challenge in Deuteronomy: “…do not forget the things that your eyes have seen nor let them slip from your mind all the days of your life…” (Deut. 4:9)

Other things may have created wilderness wanderings, but I am grateful to God for this affirmation of a life-giving memory which sustains and nurtures through any wilderness. Perhaps at times we do experience that temporary road of God-forsakenness where events tear us from the routine, but now I realize, many years later the truth that sometimes it is only when we have been tom from the routine that God can communicate with the depth of our being only then helping us to discover how precious the routine was. Vindication is not the word but the affirmation of memory is-for in remembering-in re/presentation, the earlier revelation becomes reality, sensed and present again.

Martyrdom

There is one other word, however, to which I, no doubt somewhat defensively, must speak, and that is the word “martyrdom.” A short time ago, a Ph.D. candidate from a very fine school was in my home doing research for a dissertation project on which he is working related to the past. He had just come from other interviews and brought the word that certain persons in high positions were saying that they tried to “save me” during those early years but that I insisted on being a martyr.

The evidence was a quotation which I have recited many times, most recently in the little book on the controversy, published by Mercer University Press, when my wife said to me immediately prior to my facing a body deliberating about my future: “Ralph, if you go down there and sell your soul, don’t come home.” That wasn’t a word about martyrdom. It was a sure word to me that my wife, charged with the experiential anxiety of security for two little children, fully understood what was involved, and was willing to pay the price without complaint.

I use that word now, in this instance, of its root meaning of “witness” or “testimony” and bear testimony to Virginia who has been, and is the rock of Gibraltar, tempestuous times not withstanding.

I don’t deserve any great credit one way or the other. As a fairly naive Christian, never before exposed to political power politics in the name of religion, I just assumed that there were things to which a Christian made commitment and-like a spectator-watched the political games in which others projected me as a player. I knew that things would work out. That’s what I had always been taught-although I didn’t know as much then as I do now about the word “eschaton” “or that the eschaton could be quite so long.

The requirements of witness

Martyrdom had nothing to do with it in terms of the popular usage of the word, although I hope that ‘witness,” –even if it were a rather naive witness-did. I did not complain about it then, and I have not complained about it since. There are some things you know you have to do. You count the cost the best you can and go ahead. If it turns out to cost what you think it might, you don’t complain about it, you don’t cry about it, you don’t ask, “Why me?” because somehow, “Yahweh Yireh “-not always in the ways imagined, “the Lord will provide.” Such is as basic as the 22nd chapter of Genesis–and finds sustaining confirmation throughout the scriptures-and I think likewise, in the experiences of life.

Some learnings

There, are, however, two strong learnings which grew out of that experience and I would like to share these before I then give a reflective word on the life pilgrimage which this event initiated, and how such relates to the safeguarding of our Baptist freedoms.

The first is a brief word about institutional survival. I am a firm believer in institutional religion. The essence of the Church is as an organism, but organisms cannot exist without organization. Nevertheless, the essence is organism, and not organization. Unfortunately, in the failure to recognize that the institution must constantly be in a state of rebirth, we allow the organizational form to become so concretized that the organization as vehicle is regarded as more orthodox than is the experience it is to convey.

Over and over during those days, there was one plea after another from persons in high places to make whatever compromises are necessary in order to “save the institution.” The message was to indicate that what you are teaching is not that important, or that you have renounced it, or that you have changed your mind ”or whatever is necessary ”to save the institution. The institution will be saved, you will be saved, your job will be saved ”publicly communicate what is necessary and you can go back to the classroom and teach as before.

The plea for doublespeak was oppressive. But the learning, now verified by time, is that the compromise of principle to “save the institution” always comes back to haunt the institution. Festering disease is hidden and like the quiet multiplication of diseased cells, the illness–contrary to voices calling “peace, peace, “–is working its way and the body falls. I am the fortunate one–for there are disillusioned members of even the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship who came late–because years ago it appeared that the best way to preserve power and position was to compromise principle in the name of making sacred the wrong idol.

The result always is that the house is taken over, or collapses from within.

Freedom from camps

The other learning is that one would do well to preserve freedom from capture by any camp and to pursue life as an avid weaver of strands from whatever tradition one finds to have integrity. Put simply, I don’t want to be captured by conservatives and I don’t want to be captured by liberals, and I want to be wise enough to know that “moderate” may be a hodge-podge without clarity.

Hauerwas and Willimon are correct when, in Preaching to Strangers, they suggest so-called conservatives and so-called liberals both adopt similar strategies in order to preserve their closed conclusions. I don’t know which is worse-an angry conservative or an angry liberal or an angry radical. In many ways they are much alike.

I am no more pleased to be with a liberalism that takes nothing in the Bible seriously than I am to be with a fundamentalism which insists on taking everything literally. There are some things which are factual and historical even as there are things which are figurative and mythological-figures of speech pointing both to the existential and to the really real.

Both fundamentalism and liberalism, each fighting against the other, often have been so guilty I of gross overstatement as to be involved in misstatement and denial. One-issue people see everything through the eyes of that one issue. The result is distortion–whether it be a Bishop Spong reading the Gospels through the spectacles of sexuality or a Jerry Falwell reading the book of Revelation through some frame-applied millennial view.

Issues, even when legitimate, and desperately needing to be addressed, cannot become the spectacle for everything.

I am absolutely convinced that the frightening Christian Right–could not, and would not have arisen in America except for the failure of both the right and left wings in religion. Along those same lines, I do believe Stephen Carter is correct in The Culture of Disbelief in providing the catalyst for me to suggest that although I would not allow private religious experience to become paradigmatic for religion, neither can religion in the public sphere meaningfully develop without it.

And so the learning is that freedom is a necessity–the freedom which recognizes it can have every doctrine correct but fail to demonstrate the relational life-signs of the Christian faith and that one must do a weaving of the strands of both a right theology and the beliefs of the heart.

I have learned we are most like those Baptists who gave religious and soul freedom its birth when we are free of the strictures of any particular camp.

Safeguarding who we are

And so from the learnings of survival motivated institutional compromise and myopic–visional camp captivity–on to the safeguarding of who we are. Years ago, Herbert Gezork, once president of Andover Newton Baptist Theological Seminary, in a remembered Baptist World Alliance address, outlined what he called the four pillars of Baptist life. He enumerated them as:

The Bible as a trustworthy and all sufficient rule of faith and practice.

The Church as a regenerate church, a gathered fellowship of committed believers–held by some to be the most particular contribution of the believers known as Baptists.

The Liberty and Freedom of Human Conscience, referred to as soul liberty and

Evangelism as the unfinished task of every Christian and of every church or as Johann Oncken expressed it, “Every Baptist a missionary.”

I am extremely grateful to those who are working in every field of endeavor to preserve each of these–and I applaud every tenacious effort by the necessary watchdogs of freedom who scrutinize and challenge any legal maneuver to smother the separation of church and state but I want to begin where I began years ago–in a concern to bring focus to the Scriptures which nurses and feeds all of these other freedoms into vitality.

I am, of course, terribly concerned about those who have used the Scriptures as a weapon with which to slay their enemies. There is a vast difference between “using the scriptures” and “allowing the scriptures to use us.”

I came through that period, even was winner in a state contest when in the BYPU Sword Drill, we lined up in a row with Bible in hand, heard a kind of commander in chief sound: “Attention – Draw Swords,” as we brought Bible into place–and “Charge! ”

That is often the trouble. We have used the Bible as swords, seeking with rapier thrusts, to charge and conquer the enemy. Such rationalistic use of the scriptures may kill some enemies but ultimately it also destroys oneself as a human being, denies the relational experiences of the Christian faith and contributes to superficial and disappointed believers if not to wholesale drop outs in religion.

I see the results everywhere today–even in the cultural and ecclesiastical marginalization of the Bible and experiential theology in Divinity School curricula. I do not wish to go that route, the route of Bible as weapon, but neither do I wish to go the route which trains research theologians at the expense of experiential practitioners who draw from the biblical wells which never run dry.

To some it may seem that I have come full circle–but if I have–it is a coming to what I sought to preserve at the beginning. I have to agree with Leander Keck in his Church Confident that too often there is a void at the center. We have been so busy transforming the Christian tradition–in the South to make it culturally acceptable–and in the North, to make it academically respectable-that we have forgotten to transmit it-transmit it, not as something learned by rote as a source on the cheap, but as a stream which grows and grows; not a.” a recipe, but as a germ, as what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “that infectious bacteria” which gives rise to new, permeating, and different life.

Call to the Bible

That’s why I want to end my response to the Whitsitt Society which is concerned about our heritage, which is concerned about freedom, with a “call back to the Bible” as the nourishing, replenishing stream of both individual and corporate freedom.

We speak much these days of both spirituality and freedom. There is no freedom, save through spirituality and there is no spirituality without freedom, a spirituality and a freedom resourced by the scripture. I readily recognize that the words of the Bible are not the Word of God, but there is no other place where the Word of God is so available.

Bonhoeffer speaks in a twofold way of Scripture as the basis for a free spirituality. He speaks of an objectifying of scripture and of a subjective experience of scripture.

The “objectifying” approach to scripture implies the best possible use of biblical criticism in order to ascertain a studiously learned understanding of the true nature of the recorded form of the biblical revelation. Such is absolutely imperative, but it is not enough.

Said Bonhoeffer: “I do not treasure God’s promise in my understanding but in my heart.” “We must find a way,” he said, “of letting it dwell within us like the ‘Holy of Holies’ in the sanctuary.”

I have always suggested, much prior to 1962, that criticism has a preparatory role but not an ultimate role. Freedom comes when the “outsider” stance (objectifying) and the “insider” stance (subjectifying) are joined. The commitment of faith and the observations of judgment and reason come together. The result is the balance which is answerable to the integrity of inquiry and to the central heart of nurturing, freeing religious faith.

Conclusion

But back to the beginning. Safeguarding faith is a pilgrimage. It is never a journey with completed arrival. The proverb is correct: “He who thinks he has arrived has not yet begun.” As I look back on it all, I am sorry that for me, the launching had to be in the way it was, but I am grateful that I was pushed out to sea in a larger ecumenical world where I discovered that God is the God of the cosmos–that the deep, deep sea is God’s.

Thank you–Heritage Society, for recognizing this deep ocean of God and for giving me this honor of being pinpointed as one of the many ships empowered by God’s winds against the sails.

And thank you for letting me come here today. It has brought some precious things back to me-so much so, that I hear T.S. Eliot in “Little Giddings”: “… we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

This article was reprinted with permission from the July 1994 Whitsitt Journal.