McCarty posted later that the photo was part of a special send-off for one of their professors, Vern Charette, who raps on occasion. As reported by Nicola Menzie in Faithfully Magazine, Charette appears in a video rapping about Christian themes in which he addresses, “all my pimps, players, thugs and hustlers, all my boys that are in lockdown.” He wants them to know to that there’s “an answer” and that “his name is Jesus Christ.”
Officials from the seminary requested that the post be removed, and David Allen, one of the men in the picture and dean of SWBTS’s School of Preaching, tweeted an apology: “I apologize for a recent image I posted which was offensive. Context is immaterial. @swbts stance on race is clear as is mine.”
It’s odd for a preaching professor to suggest “context is immaterial,” because seminary professors usually teach their students that context is everything. The SWBTS “Mission, Vision, & Values” page states that their global “strategy includes the training of persons from every national, ethnic and cultural background for a variety of ministries.” But when it comes to understanding this particular photo, understanding a larger Southern Baptist and evangelical context is key.
What’s wrong with the photo?
Whatever their intentions, the photo is problematic for at least three main reasons. First, as a comparison, consider why blackface is so offensive. Starting in the early 19th century, white actors would apply black makeup to their faces and exaggerate their lips in a caricature of African American looks. Then they performed racist tropes on stage for laughs. Blackface denigrates people of African descent. It says that skin color can make someone intellectually and culturally inferior, so it’s not a problem to imitate their appearance for the sake of amusement.
In a similar way, putting on clothes typically associated with racial and ethnic minorities communicates that a person’s culture has value only as entertainment. That’s why you can’t dismiss this photo as “just a joke.” It harks back to a history of dehumanization.
Another problem with the picture includes how it appears the photo was carefully staged. Consider what probably happened before a camera even came out. These men took time to pick out certain clothes and put them on. They found a place with suitable background and lighting to take a picture. They chose poses. One of them even grabbed a gun. Then someone posted it on social media. This picture wasn’t randomly snapped in moment of poor judgment. These seminary professors had ample opportunity to consider potential offense. At no point in this elaborate set up did anyone veto the idea.
But the biggest problem doesn’t show up in the picture. The presence of any person of color would have reduced the chances of this photo ever happening. But a photo like this evolves in an environment that lacks meaningful interaction with people from other cultures, especially on the leadership level. The seminary’s website appears to picture all white men in an administration and an entire preaching faculty. Even if a school has diversity in the student body, if the decision-makers all come from a similar racial and cultural background, then they will remain oblivious to their own racial blind spots.
Unfortunately, racial homogeneity is a shortcoming within white evangelicalism as a whole. Looking across evangelical denominations and nondenominational networks, leaders tend to come from similar backgrounds. They are predominantly educated, middle-class white men. Racial uniformity in the leadership means blunders like this photo will probably keep taking place.
On Wednesday, the seminary’s president, Paige Patterson, issued a formal apology entitled “Racism IS a Tragic Sin.” He said, “As all members of the preaching faculty have acknowledged, this was a mistake, and one for which we deeply apologize. Sometimes, Anglo Americans do not recognize the degree that racism has crept into our lives.”
Patterson goes on to say, “Southwestern cannot make a moment of bad judgment disappear. But we can and will redouble our efforts to put an end to any form of racism on this campus and to return to a focus that is our priority — namely, getting the Gospel to every man and woman on the earth.”
His apology sounds biblical; For Christians, evangelism is certainly a critical priority. But he treats racism like a distraction from sharing the Gospel. When will white evangelicals realize, addressing racism is inherently a Gospel issue? Patterson also doesn’t provide any specific actions that would address the seminary’s deeper issues of racial awareness and diversity. Fixing this problem isn’t a matter of restating good intentions, it requires a restructuring of historic patterns of racism embedded in evangelical institutions.
A history of racial wrongs
White evangelicals have a long and complicated history with race. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, white Baptists tried to sidestep the issue of whether their members could own slaves. In her article “Meddling with Emancipation,” historian Monica Najar explains that the 1793 Baptist General Committee voted that slavery was an issue for the state to decide, not churches.
In 1845, Baptists split over whether missionaries could own slaves. Southerners insisted that slave owning did not disqualify people for missionary service, and they separated from their northern counterparts to form the Southern Baptist Convention.
In 1995, the 150th anniversary of the denomination, leaders passed the “Resolution on Racial Reconciliation” which acknowledged their failings on slavery and civil rights. But the photo circulated this week reminds us that resolutions do not accomplish racial reconciliation.
As an African American, I look at that picture and wonder what these men are teaching in class. How are they compensating for the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty and staff? Are they responsive to the particular needs and concerns of minorities in their midst? How might their assumptions slip into their lectures, advising and preaching?
Where can the seminary go from here?
In response to Allen’s apology tweet, Grammy Award-winning rapper Lecrae Moore, asked, “How do you all plan to grow from this?”
Southwestern could certainly use this opportunity to dialogue about race and diversity, but I hope the seminary goes further. I hope it will commit to hiring professors and staff members from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The professors could conduct an audit of their curriculum to see if they are assigning works by scholars of color. The seminary could review the places it goes to recruit students. The leadership could visit other seminaries with more diversity to learn how they could change their own campuses. Sit down with minority students and ask them if they are willing to speak honestly about their experiences at the seminary.
Some pockets of the Southern Baptist Convention have prioritized racial diversity. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. has developed the Kingdom Diversity Initiative. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, has been outspoken about racial problems in the convention and has come under scrutiny for it.
But diversity initiatives and attempts to talk about race haven’t resulted in broad, systemic change. The homogenous environment of predominantly white churches and organizations means people who have all the same cultural blind spots will still marginalize minorities. People are more than offended by pictures like these. They are in pain.
In 2 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul rejoices that the church received his words of correction even though they were hard to hear. He writes, “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting.”
While we don’t need to focus on embarrassing anyone in particular, something like this stirs a sense of godly grief. Let this photo and the consternation it caused lead to the kind of sorrow that produces lasting change.
Jemar Tisby writes about religion, race and culture as president of the Reformed African American Network, and he is the co-host of the “Pass the Mic” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.