Southern Baptists consider apology for supporting slavery

June 17, 1995|By Mary Otto | Mary Otto,Knight-Ridder News Service

Contrition for the past fills the air.

Japan's government fumbles for the right word to express remorse for World War II. Robert McNamara issues a belated mea culpa for his role in prolonging the Vietnam war. The Evangelical Lutheran Church apologizes for the anti-Semitism of its namesake, Martin Luther.

Now the Southern Baptists, the country's largest Protestant denomination, are struggling to make amends. Next week, they are going to Atlanta calling for a mass apology for their history of slavery and racism.

"We began in sin. In slavery. We need to deal with it," the Rev. Gere Allen, head of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, said this week.

He's a white son of the Jim Crow South, the descendant of slave owners.

Yet he helped prepare "A Declaration of Racial Repentance," one of at least three resolutions of apology scheduled to be presented when more than 20,000 Southern Baptists, most of them white, converge next week.

From Saul, struck down on the road to Damascus, to the Buddha, transformed by the awareness of suffering, conversions borne of insight form cornerstones for faith. Repentance is found at the heart of rebirth.

Whether spurred by a spate of landmark anniversaries or the changing world or the approaching millennium, not only church folk but also nations and their leaders are grappling with the sins of their fathers these days.

So widespread is the urge toward repentance that a conference is being held on the subject this weekend here in Washington.

"If we can, and some say we should, bask in the light of our communal history, shouldn't we also be ashamed of our collective sins?" noted one of the conference speakers, Gordon Marino, a philosophy professor at St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minn.

The conference is sponsored by the George Washington University Center for Communitarian Policy Studies.

"We all have dark moments in our history," said the organizer, Dr. Amitai Etzioni. The conference will bring together religious and secular scholars to probe such questions as how repentance works and how reparation can be made for the crimes of the past.

"What the Southern Baptists are doing," Dr. Etzioni said, "it's a wonderful precedent for our society."

Collective repentance for a shared history remains complex, painful.

"Can the present generation repent for the misdeeds of a previous one?" wonders Harvey Cox, of the Harvard University Divinity School.

Fifty years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, he noted, "Polls have shown that about one-half of Americans believe the bomb should not have been used the way it was."

Yet the recent controversy over whether to include accounts of the human toll of the bombing in a Smithsonian exhibition is clear evidence, he said, "that there is no widespread national feeling of remorse."

Meanwhile, across the globe, the Japanese, in attempting to acknowledge war crimes of the past, have come up with a tepid stand-in word for true repentance.

"Hansei," said Norma Field, a professor of East Asian language and culture at the University of Chicago. "It's neither fish nor fowl. It's a tainted word, used by many disreputable politicians."

In Japan too, the people are divided over their legacy of guilt. "Some Japanese will say, 'I didn't do anything to the Koreans," Dr. Field said. "Others will go out of their way to explore how to take responsibility."

She said she sees the same contradictions in the United States, where affirmative action programs -- which she calls "the very sorry little token apology" for slavery and racism -- are under attack.

To be genuine, theologians remind us, repentance must involve true remorse, a dedication to repair the damage and a promise to live in a new way.

The Southern Baptist gathering next week marks the group's 150th anniversary -- and marks the moment in 1845 when the southern Baptists declared support of slavery and split from northern Baptists.

"We didn't start because our theology was different," said Rev. Allen, the Southern Baptist minister. "The reason for our beginning was slavery."

Their confrontation with history is causing its share of pain.

"The word 'repent' is a lightning rod," said Herb Hollinger, a conference spokesman. "A lot of folks don't want to repent for something their forefathers did."

There are now about 20 major Baptist associations, and more than 35 million Baptists, in the country. The Southern Baptists have more than 15.4 million members, including President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

"You will have a pretty hard time finding anyone to admit publicly what we did in 1845 was right," said Mr. Hollinger. Still, he said, there is a school of thought that insists "That was then. This is now."

Rev. Allen said he got one angry call, from an enraged man who was proud that his ancestors owned slaves. "You'll split our church down the middle," the caller warned him.

"Why drag this up?" others have asked him. "I'm tired of conflict," they've told him.

The way Rev. Allen sees it, though, "Jesus does not want peace at any price. It's peace with righteousness."

And the Rev. Gary Frost, a black Southern Baptist who is pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church in Youngstown, Ohio, believes some "godly sorrow" over slavery and racism couldn't hurt.

"I do believe it's needed," said Rev. Frost, who has helped craft another version of the resolution of apology to be offered up next week. "You can't expect God to bless you unless you are clear about your sin."

As for Rev. Allen, he's of the opinion that the Southern Baptists will somehow agree upon an apology next week. But, as he is well aware, the expression of repentance is just part of this story.

"The miracle isn't going to be if the Southern Baptists pass this," he says. "The miracle is going to be if the African Americans are willing to extend the forgiveness."

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