With some things, Dr. Mohler, you need no help: raising money, leading change, taking stands, critiquing others. But you seem puzzled about one big and important thing—the legacy of white supremacy at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Last year, you commissioned an in-house study of the seminary’s roots in the soil of slavery. Some of this was motivated by the heightened attention to remnants of southern culture scattered around the South and up the coast: things such as monuments, memorials, events, flags, even holidays, all celebrating the Old South and its violent history of slavery.
The report concludes that all the founders of the seminary were slave owners; the founders and their successors on the faculty and board supported white supremacy; the school continued to resist racial equality at some level into the 1960s and beyond.
It is fascinating reading, especially for me. I am, as you know, a two-time graduate of the school (MDiv, 1977 and PhD, 1982, just a few years before you earned your degrees). My dissertation, which sits adjacent to yours in the famed library, reviewed the doctrine of Scripture espoused by three of its most distinguished professors (not, however and regrettably, dealing with how their interpretation of the Bible supported their convictions about slavery and white supremacy).
But the strange thing about this process of institutional introspection is the paralysis that seems to have stymied any thought about what to do. In fact, in your cover letter, you wrote, “In light of the burdens of history, some schools hasten to remove names, announce plans, and declare moral superiority. That is not what I intend to do, nor do I believe that to be what the Southern Baptist Convention or our Board of Trustees would have us to do.”
During the interview on NPR, you were asked more than once what the school needed to do now that this report was published, and more than once you ignored the question or evaded the obvious.
Clearly, Dr. Mohler, you need some help to see what so many others see; to understand what so many others understand; to act in ways that so many others consider appropriate and important.
Here are four things Dr. Mohler, you can do in light of the report you commissioned and publicized.
First, rename the Joseph Emerson Brown Chair of Christian Theology.
This is a prestigious academic chair, held now by you yourself, and before you, held by your teacher and mine, the late Dale Moody. The chair is named for the long dead businessman and politician from Georgia who served as trustee and donor at the seminary as he accumulated great wealth at the infamous Dade Coal Company.
The seminary report documents the disgusting details of Brown’s treatment of workers, both slaves and convicts. He also served as Georgia’s governor during the Civil War, as chief justice of the state supreme court after the war, before taking a seat as Georgia’s senator to conclude his lucrative and powerful career.
As a graduate of the seminary and as a citizen of Georgia, I say to you, Dr. Mohler: delete this name, not from the past, but from the present. Replace it with the name of a distinguished African American theologian of your choosing. This is quick, easy, and does not cost a dime. It does carry great symbolic meaning.
Second, publish the current racial data of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The report you distributed deals with history, some of it more than 150 years old. But the lingering effects of that history can be determined by looking at the names and numbers of African Americans currently associated with the seminary.
How many African Americans are serving as full-time faculty? As senior level administrators? As trustees? How many African Americans are enrolled in the different schools of the seminary? Publish these numbers. They may make you proud, or they may make you ashamed. They may signal progress, or they may be a sign that the days of racial superiority are still with us. This also is an action that is easy and inexpensive. It is more substantive than the first and will take a bit more courage.
Three, host a public conference on race, religion, and Southern Baptist Seminary.
The school is adept at hosting conferences; no telling how many are held on the campus each year: apologetics, theology, scripture, ministry, missions, worship, even recruitment. You know how to do this: speakers, housing, publicity, schedule, fees. Apply all of this institutional expertise to this task and make it the primary event of the year. After all, 2019 is the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave to the shores of North America; and there is a good possibility that either the seller or the buyer of that first slave was, yes, a Southern Baptist!
For this conference, invite speakers that would not normally find a welcome at the seminary. I note that all the authors of the recent report are in-house people—paid professors at your school. They and you and all of us need to hear from voices outside of your circle of influence and employment.
This will cost some money and time; and it will take courage. You said on the NPR broadcast that you want to have conversations with people about these things. Here is your opportunity. You host the gathering and bring people who can speak a prophetic word to your own household.
Finally, submit your current ideology of personhood to the same withering critique that your team has used for your ancestors.
It is easy to stand afar off and criticize those whose actions you cannot control. We all do this; and often as we do it, we claim the holy mantle of biblical prophecy. It is much more difficult to stand amidst our own institutions and organizations and apply the same test to our own behaviors and prejudices.
You have re-built this seminary on the authority of pastors over people and the authority of men over women; and, like your ancestors a century ago, you have cited biblical and theological justification. It is hard for the church and the world to see how this differs from what your forefathers did when they created for you, on the backs of slaves, a seminary and an endowed chair.
These things will not be easy. It will take courage and strength and resolve that only the Lord can give you. But you are not known for setting easy goals and achieving easy things. You can do this, and the process that you have set in motion calls you to do this. In fact, neither the church nor the world will consider your task complete until these four things—or things very much like them—are done.
Jesus said, “Work, for the night is coming when no one can work.”