I asked Jeff Baker to share his introductory remarks from the Christian Scholars Conference session, “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” What follows are his words, and even without the power of the in-person presentation I and others present were blessed to witness, these words are a stirring call to action. My thanks to Jeff for convening the panel, and for being willing to share these words here.
Good morning. Thank you for joining us today to talk about strategies and tactics for social change within the Churches of Christ.
We are ambitious with this panel and want to be transparent with you all about our purpose and process today. This panel is borne of discussions and frustrations we have experienced as we have considered and tried to seek change within our congregations, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. We hope today to give some structure and to identify some tools and methods for efforts to generate constructive, sustainable and just change within our churches.
Now, we are not talking about change for the sake of change, and we not talking about style. We are talking about culture and foundational principles, and we confess that this requires implicit judgment and criticism of a status quo. If we believed that the Church of Christ were perfect and thoroughly righteous, we would not be concerned with change at all.
We believe that injustice remains (and even thrives) broadly within our tradition and that we have a gospel calling to confront it.
Next, we also are not focused today primarily on how change has happened historically, because, frankly, it has happened too slowly. The Church of Christ is conservative (in the classic sense) and slow to turn. With few exceptions, the Church of Christ largely lags behind the nation and culture-at-large in bending toward justice, even toward clearly acknowledged issues of justice like racial discrimination and segregation.
This naturally begs a question: what is the issue of justice about which we should be concerned today?
There may be many: poverty and prosperity, economic injustice, domestic violence, war and pacifism, racial reconciliation, healthcare or the environment.
We are going to situate our discussion today within a cause in which we all are involved, the just and full inclusion of all people into the life and leadership of our churches, regardless of gender. We believe that the Church of Christ – with very few exceptions – has unjustly silenced and excluded women and girls from full participation and flourishing in the Church of Christ and that this is unscriptural and contrary to the will of God and a full vision of the church.
Our purpose today is not to persuade anyone of the rightness of this cause, but rather to discuss objectively and creatively how and why we can take action to change toward justice in our peculiar context, whatever the issue. Whether you agree with us on the issue, we hope that we all can assume it for purposes of the discussion about social change. Let us not debate the merits today, but let us consider the ways and means of effecting change.
One final note for framing: The title of this session is “The Fierce Urgency of Now.”
This is a phrase from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He said:
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
As we have advocated for change in our own congregations for the full and just inclusion of women, we often, very often, have heard from leaders, ministers and elders, that they agree and are sympathetic but that we must wait for fear of offending or hurting those who disagree. This shifts the burden of persuasion and proof from the status quo and calls for slow generational evolution, which costs very little to those who would sustain the status quo.
If our cause is just, right, scriptural and good, then we effectively are sacrificing half the church to appease a few who admittedly are impeding a congregation’s growth toward righteousness.
Therefore, if the cause is just and right and if we should not be satisfied with “gradualism” or the old trope of letting an older generation die off, if we believe that we should change sooner than later, if this is the time, how do we do it?
This is our purpose today, to reckon how to provoke and sustain change toward justice in our churches right now.
How do we grapple with a religious tradition with no formal political processes and structures? How do we seek broad change among radically autonomous congregations?
How do we advocate with little power for justice before those with nearly all the political power?
How do we make arguments of justice within a tradition with a strong adherence to sola scriptura but with a prevailing orthodoxy in oral tradition?
… Now let me share my working diagnosis of our task. These are observable assumptions that I propose are real and important, but I invite my colleagues and you all here to critique and refine these ideas as we go.
I like to refer to social and political advocacy within the Churches of Christ as fighting against an amoeba. It’s squishy and unstructured. I question whether there is any such thing as the Church of Christ, at least any one thing. There is very little to bind our churches across the spectrum of those who claim the name. Even so, in the Churches of Christ, we have two institutions, congregations and universities, and this is where the action occurs.
If we had a political mechanism to access, movements for social change would be more straightforward, even if they weren’t easier.
At this moment in history, here is what I believe about seeking change in the Churches of Christ, and I hope that we will refine these ideas in here today.
First, this is the moment for massive social change on this issue. Many, many churches are on the verge, and this is the moment to make them move.
Second, we can only achieve this by building power, and the only way to build power is to organize and encourage those who are willing to stand and speak and press their communities to move toward justice. Jeanine has a suspicion, that I share, that there are thousands of people sitting beside unknown allies every Sunday morning but who all think they are alone. We know that isolated individuals never move entrenched communities to change. Rather, it takes a coordinated, organized community to amplify voices and build power to counter the power of the status quo. In raw terms of activism, perhaps cynically but certainly realistically, the movement must raise the price of keeping the status quo so that it is greater than the cost of change. Part of that cost is the righteous anger and constructive steps to move our community toward the path of justice.
Third, unity is good. Justice and reconciliation are better. There will be conflict, and this is the decision to make. Are we willing to be disruptive and confrontational, in creative and useful ways? The Woman’s Suffrage movement ultimately required war-time pickets of the White House, arrests and force-feedings before we got the 19th Amendment. The Civil Rights Movement required Bus Boycotts, Bloody Sundays, arrests, marches, sit-ins, Freedom Rides and the provocation of brutality and murder. These were disruptive, creative, non-violent and fruitful, and we would not witness the justice they achieved had they accepted the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. The question now is how do we move and act within the Churches of Christ to advance the cause of justice for all people in the church, to free those subjugated as lower-class Christians and human beings. What will it to take, and how do we ensure that once the victory is gained that those who disagreed are not alienated, isolated and vilified? How do we ensure reconciliation on the other side of justice?
Last, we must know and love our community and work within it as a prophetic ministry, not at enemies, but as members of a family who seek its good, full and abundant thriving. We must speak its language and love its people. There is too much at stake to burn it down, but there is also too much at stake to wait passively for another generation to pass us by.