Identity Politics, Localism, and the SBC

I love the word “community,” but I hate to see it bastardized into such phrases as “the ________ community” (fill in the blank: white, black, gay, female, non-binary, Christian, minority, etc.). Whenever you put a modifier in front of “community” to define it as a demographic, you have actually changed the meaning of the term. A true community is a local establishment of households who share physical spaces and community traditions. They are invested in local history and institutions. They have flesh-and-blood interactions with one another. They eat together, do business together, send their children to school together, go to town hall meetings together, worship together, attend local public library events together, and thousands of other activities that are entailed in living one’s life locally. A city or town is itself a large community that is further subdivided into communities that exist at smaller levels: districts, neighborhoods, schools, churches, etc.

My point here is simply this: there is no such thing as a “community” of people who are grouped together on the basis of a demographic indicator (skin color, sexual orientation, sexual identity, etc.). The moment we speak of “the gay community,” for example, as a way of linking together gay people across 3.8 million square miles between our national borders, we are speaking of people who do not share common spaces and institutions, who do not (and cannot) have interactions with one another, and who therefore cannot in any meaningful sense constitute a community.

What, then, is “the gay community”? Or what is “the black community,” or “the Asian community,” etc.? These are political terms that reduce people to monolithic voting blocs. These are terms that arise when we reduce the richness of God’s world to pure matter and energy, and then define human existence as a struggle for power. In such a struggle, there are white hats (the oppressed) and black hats (oppressors), and all people, in all of their rich diversity and individuality, must be funneled to their respective places in the shootout. Collectivism, which is a foundational assumption of all forms of critical theory, completely eviscerates the notion of true community and reduces individuals to demographic markers. If you pay attention to our public discourse, you can see how dominant this way of thinking has become in our society.

The Southern Baptist Convention has not been immune to the encroachments of these assumptions. We are a large denomination. As is endlessly repeated in the media, we are, in fact, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. As such, we have large institutions that require large amounts of money to keep in operation. Large institutions are, of course, not inherently bad, but their sizes and budgets often give rise to particular temptations, namely, the temptation to soften their image in order to avoid alienating the public. Southern Baptists enjoyed cultural “normalcy” in the South for decades through the twentieth century. Church attendance and membership at SBC churches were powerful forms of cultural currency, and as large numbers of people flowed into our churches, the money flowed in with them to fund our seminaries and mission boards as we built a vast empire of institutions to carry on our mission. I am not at all criticizing this historical reality. I count it one of God’s rich blessings on us.

But times of blessing lead to their own temptations, and ours in the SBC has been to hold on to our cultural “normalcy” for as long as we possibly can in an ever-changing world. Other, smaller denominations that lack our missionary sending power may be content to sit on the margins as weirdos to the culture, but we have a mission to fulfill, and so we will not allow the world to see us that way. So we listen to what a godless world is saying, and we dabble in their concepts and categories of thought in order to keep ourselves relevant to the public square. We are far too eager to give new, untested ideas, not only a hearing in our midst, but a virtual assumption that if we don’t reframe our mission in conceptual categories that the world has bought into, we have failed to contextualize the gospel for our time. (By the way, this is contrary to the spirit of conservatism that I wrote about previously. Even the fact that our convention voted on a resolution that most of the messengers were almost certainly unable to understand, after only a few minutes of public debate, indicates that we are not in the habit of testing new ideas carefully and at length before integrating them into our discourse.)

And so now we find ourselves as a convention on record having endorsed critical race theory and intersectionality as “analytical tools” that will aid us in the fulfillment of our mission. These “tools” rest on materialist assumptions that reduce human society to power dynamics and, perhaps worst of all, eviscerate the very notion of “community.” For community is not built on demographic similarity across 3.8 million square miles. It is built on shared spaces, institutions, and real flesh-and-blood interactions. The community par excellence in this world ought to be the local church, a gathering of people from all walks of life who may see many things differently, and yet who love Jesus together and thus refuse to allow themselves to be reduced to political pawns in a neo-Marxist chess match. So let’s stop trying to parrot the world’s talking points and focus instead on building local churches like that. The world at large probably won’t take notice of us. But the people in our neighborhoods probably will, and that should be good enough for us.

Published by Aaron O'Kelley

Aaron O'Kelley (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and theological educator who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and their three children.

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