Southern Baptists are perhaps inordinately fearful and thoroughly ignorant of Liberation theologies. Whether the Black liberationism of James Cone, or the Roman Catholic liberationism of Gustavo Gutierrez, or the Feminist liberation of Rosemary Reuther, or the Gay liberation of Marcella Althius-Reid, or the Jewish liberationism of Marc Ellis, Evangelicals as a whole, and Southern Baptists in particular avoid investigating and assessing the contributions and dangers of Liberation Theology, much to our own peril.
During my entire course of study at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and briefly at Southwestern, I know of no serious engagement with Liberation Theology. There was the passing reference in Systematic Theology, and an occasional mention in Church History, but when it came to actual study, we were all woefully uninformed. When it was mentioned, Liberation Theology was characterized as an aberrant Marxist political agenda unworthy of serious consideration.
In fact, I think that Southern Baptists have been denied a rewarding opportunity to explore themes of social justice and hermeneutical emphases highlighted by men like Gutierrez, Cone, Ellis, and others. Embracing the study of Liberation Theology does not require embracing the central tenets thereof, but the anti-intellectualism of our fundamentalist fathers inhibits any honest reading of the primary theological influence found in the Southern Hemisphere, and a minor, yet very real influence in the Northern.
Essentially, Liberation Theology is guided by a concern for the poor and oppressed. Liberation theologians take seriously the words of Jesus, who told his disciples that the blessed poor were those for whom the gospel was intended. Whether our exorbitant materialism or our latent classism and racism have kept us from seeing this major New Testament emphasis, I do not know.
Liberation theology is concerned with revolution, both political and ecclesial. The powers of governmental and magisterial authorities have been allowed to flourish on the backs of the worker. The widening gulf of economic disparity has closed our eyes to the epidemic poverty, and people for whom Christ died are shuffled aside in our efforts to reach the “target groups” of our evangelistic strategies.
I owe my initial substantive exposure to Liberation Theology to my Baylor professor, Marc Ellis, a man listed among the most dangerous intellectuals in the American academy by David Horowitz. At first, Ellis and I had a strained relationship. He is an agnostic Jew with strong Democratic leanings and complete disdain for aggressive proselytization. I was an insufferable proponent for the need for Evangelical parity in the American academy, with a holdover belief that Baylor was a stronghold of theological and political liberalism.
When we first met in seminar, Ellis made no bones about his frustration with the fresh crop of Evangelicals entering Baylor’s doctoral program. Our reputation on campus among the tenured faculty was tainted by early and uncharitable discourse with our liberal counterparts. Before any engagement occurred, Ellis demanded a meeting with me. With faculty and students hiding down the hall, my professor pounded his fists on his desk and told me that he “didn’t give a damn what I thought.” In a scene reminiscent of A Few Good Men, Ellis asked me if “we were clear?” I responded, “crystal,” and left his office.
Over the course of a semester, I grew in profound appreciation for Ellis’ tenacity, intellectual commitments, and pedagogical method. He made you angry, knowing that your anger would force you to listen to him more attentively in order to argue with him. He welcomed dissent, when the time came for discussion, and forced us to dialogue with students who had other personal and scholarly commitments. He busted up our Evangelical caucus, and we are all the better for it.
I will never forget the day Ellis assigned me to a small group with two students, one of whom was a Roman Catholic and the other a lesbian. In what seemed like the introduction to a joke – three students walk into a bar, etc. – we engaged one another in collegial conversation about the ethical and moral questions raised by Christian higher education. For once, on a Baptist university campus, I felt like the minority.
I think that was Ellis’ point: to force Christians to sense some degree of oppression, harassment, and ridicule that other religious and irreligious groups feel on the campus of a Christian university. You don’t get that in a seminary education, and it is understandable that a confessional institution would limit such free exchange of ideas.
Nevertheless, I think some of Southern Baptist insensitivity to the perspectives of Latino immigrants in border states, legal or otherwise, impoverished Blacks along the Mississippi Delta, ethnic Jews in New York, Chinese Buddhists in San Francisco, and even the Gay and Lesbian sense of legal discrimination, owes to the fact that most of our preachers are never exposed to the cultural varieties available in a graduate program of non-Southern Baptist commitments. Of course, Southern Baptists will not graft many of these perspectives into our own, but we are fooling ourselves if we think our churches are better served by cultural isolation that inhibits meaningful dialogue with these groups.
In fact, so concerned are Southern Baptists to limit exposure to these cultural influences that we are forced to consider the perennial efforts to remove our kids from public schools. Southern Baptists are so increasingly fearful of non-Southern Baptist college education that all of our seminaries have launched colleges to provide a confessional uniformity and indoctrination program to further avoid intellectual cross pollination. Once we keep them from a university setting by attending our Bible colleges, we enroll them in our Southern Baptist seminaries for more intellectual inbreeding. Those that keep their grades up are encouraged to apply for Southern Baptist doctoral degrees. Most of our professors are graduated and hired from Southern Baptist schools, primarily because they can’t get academic jobs outside of Southern Baptist contexts with their seminary doctorates.
Speaking of which, what on earth is a doctoral degree in evangelism or ministry supposed to offer? Can anybody explain with any substantive and convincing argument why we need seminary degrees in homemaking, sports evangelism, jazz music, or the like? I’m quite convinced that there is nothing academically valuable, ministerially profitable, or intellectually stimulating about these silly and superfluous disciplines.
Call me an elitist, though elitism is the only reason that Southern Baptist pastors even consider that empty pedigree called a D.Min. Call me a liberal, though Southern Baptists have never fully realized that our congregational polity, our trustee system, even our commitment to church-state separation – decreasingly esteemed as it is – are informed by the liberal tradition.
Those pastors and professors who contribute most to Southern Baptist life are those who have explored more diverse philosophical and theological perspectives than their counterparts of limited interaction with the mainline academy.
Honestly, I believe that our seminaries are doing a disservice to the convention by operating those colleges, which are technically a violation of their charters, and I can think of no reason to continue them, unless it’s because we need to supply jobs for the men
and women who we’ve convinced to get a seminary doctorate but are who are thereby less likely to find employment in the American academy. In fact, if our convention would ever get the nerve to merge our seminaries under one trustee board, streamline our curriculum and course offerings, and elect a chancellor of theological education, we might be able to refocus our institutions on the reason for their existence, which is not, incidentally, to provide alternatives to secular undergraduate and graduate programs of theology.
Or maybe we’re supposed to expect that a homeschooled boy with a Bible college undergraduate, a seminary degree in counseling, and a doctorate in evangelism is supposed to be a better equipped churchman. And just maybe a homeschooled girl with a bachelor’s degree in homemaking, a seminary degree in women’s studies, and a nonresident Th.D. from the University of South Africa is supposed to make a better housewife.
Moreover, if this is all we can expect from our seminaries, we’re better off burning them to the ground, collecting the insurance, and establishing an endowed scholarship fund to send our brightest and finest to secular graduate programs for more a more vigorous and circumspect academic preparation. It seems to me that more harm than good is done to Southern Baptist churches by ministers who are trained in environments divorced from service to the churches. Instead of addressing the need for more pastor-theologians — men like Buddy Gray of Hunter Street Baptist Church in Birmingham or Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C. — we are content to populate our pulpits with men more thoroughly trained in F.A.I.T.H. or the history of the Cooperative Program than the sacred art of hermeneutics, biblical exposition, and classic pastoral care. Thus we may have created a vortex of ministry unpreparedness and biblical illiteracy from which we cannot extract ourselves, unless drastic measures are taken — and taken fast.
How Southern Baptist seminary administrators and educators expect to influence the culture without training their students to understand and even appreciate (gasp!) the cultural influences with which they will contend is beyond me. Decrying secular humanism, feminism, postmodernism, and relativism does not an education make. Fear-mongering about possible drifts toward ecumenism, Neo-orthodoxy, or liberal Protestantism may elicit shouts of amens, but it does very little to address the diminished evangelistic returns that the Conservative Resurgence now faces. In fact, I’ve found that most Southern Baptists who speak about these things comprehend very little of the intellectual underpinnings and cultural appeal of these worldviews.