Beyond False Choices: The Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship and Black Baptist Identities

 

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This week approximately 30,000 Baptists are in Atlanta for the 21st Annual Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship (FGBCF) Conference. Founded in 1994 to give black Baptists “the right to choose” charismatic gifts, ordained women clergy, and episcopal leadership innovations, the FGBCF is a growing fellowship of 2,500 churches who seek to maintain a broadly Baptist identity while also augmenting traditional views on the Holy Spirit and ministry. Many of the pastors who now belong to Full Gospel are also aligned with the National Baptist Convention USA, from which Bishop Paul Morton emerged two decades ago to found this movement. Though controversial from its inception, FGBCF seems to continue to make an impact in the black church world, both nationally and globally. And with the ascension of Bishop Joseph W. Walker III to the international presiding bishop role, there has been much chatter about Full Gospel’s exponential outreach to younger Baptists in the years to come.

As a mainstay on the ecclesial landscape, FGBCF has produced both condemnation and celebration. Traditionalist Baptists do not consider Full Gospel Baptists as Baptists at all, averring that the movement is erroneous both doctrinally and polity wise. The major consternation the Traditionalists have is around the appropriation of episcopal government, since historically Baptists of all kinds have repudiated monarchial bishops as being non-biblical. Many others have also objected to the embrace of charismatic gifts, maintaining a cessationist pneumatology. To these Traditionalists, FGBCF is a bastardized Church of God in Christ, and not Baptist in the least.

Others, and I’ll call them Generous Baptists, celebrate FGBCF even if they are unwilling to formally join it. These Generous Baptists tend to see Baptist life and witness as more historically varied and complex than what the Traditionalists would allow. They may have concerns about Baptist bishops, but don’t see much harm in the trend because most FGBCF churches still maintain local autonomy, an essential doctrine for classical Baptists. Also Generous Baptists see the cessationist argument as deeply flawed and are either cautiously continualists (believing all spiritual gifts are for the Church today but must be used in the strictest obedience to Pauline restrictions) or full-blown charismatics.

Admittedly (and without apology) I am in the latter group. Though I have some criticisms of Full Gospel, I do think the movement has helped some Baptists interrogate the dimensions and depths of historical and contemporary Baptist life. There is a growing number of saints who embrace the neologism “Bapticostal” to self-identify for this very reason. To be sure, Baptist pastor HB Charles is right when he argues that at some point there are points of departure for Baptists and Pentecostals on a number of finer doctrinal differences. For instance, most Baptists will never embrace speaking in tongues as a necessary sign of salvation, or that all truly saved and Spirit-filled saints must speak in tongues. But those distinctions aside, I believe that contemporary, younger Baptists are wrestling with received traditions about spiritual gifts in general. This is not true for all younger Baptists; many are actually embracing conservative Reformed traditions, which actually brings about another controversy. In some sense, the term Bapticostal is employed by many simply because we have too often defined Baptist doctrine in ways that excludes certain elements of pneumatology recognizable in Pentecostals circles. This need not be the term to define Baptists who are also open to the Holy Spirit’s full array of gifts. John Piper is a Reformed Baptist who embraces the charismata, and I seriously doubt he would ever say that he is a Baptiscostal. But from where I sit, the Generous Baptist paradigm is becoming more influential, whether by the Bapticostal name or by another.

I have taught a number of times in the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi and have discovered that a host of Missionary Baptists here are secretly continualists or charismatics. This could be due to FBGCF or the saturation of religious broadcasting and Gospel music with neo-Pentecostal sensibilities. In many cases, however, I have heard from Missionary Baptists whose plain reading of the Bible led them to embrace all spiritual gifts as a doctrinal option, or they have witnessed or experienced these gifts themselves. They share this in private conversations, not wanting to be shunned by the Traditionalists among them.

For those of us who believe in the perpetuity of spiritual gifts, then, FGBCF has opened up a much needed conversation among Baptist parishioners. In a recent radio interview, I asked a young preacher why he embraces the term Bapticostal as a moniker. He said that there are things that he loves and learned from both Baptists and Pentecostals and refuses to make a false choice. I, too, have the same testimony. Growing up Baptist, and experiencing God in a powerful away in the Pentecostal world, I’ve come to appreciate both streams in my life, and do not feel any hesitation of owning up to that. And though I am not a member of the FGBCF, I believe that their emergence has positively impacted the way many Baptists understand themselves in the 21st century. One can only speculate what impact it will have 20 years from now.

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O’nae Chatman and me during Sunday’s interview.

With or without FGBCF, there are many Baptists today who are much more open to the surprising movements of the Holy Spirit and seek to glorify Jesus and share His Gospel in all the Spirit’s fullness. May it be so.

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This Little Light of Ours: Sketches of a Vision for ‘Hamer democrats’

HamerandBaker

Two days ago I shared my thoughts on how Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer transformed the Mississippi Democratic Party. Of course, several other notable and noble souls contributed to this transformation, among them young organizers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). What’s most compelling about Mrs. Hamer is the why and how of her political agitation. What gives me inspiration is her unapologetic Christian witness in a nightmarish closed society. Too many have glossed over how deep and abiding her faith in Jesus Christ was and how it was that faith that gave her the light of freedom. Seeking to take nothing away from other activists—many of whom were not religious like Mrs. Hamer, I must say that I don’t believe this Mother of the Mississippi movement has gotten the just historical interpretation warranted by her freedom struggle. As many of you know, I feel that in some ways Pastor Martin Luther King Jr. is my spiritual mentor and I continue to be inspired and challenged by his ministry. What some of you may not know is that I have studied him alongside Minister Malcom Shabazz, finding similarities and points of departure between these two giants. So many scholarly books have been written comparing their visions, attitudes, and activism (James Cone’s great book comes to mind). However, I have not seen any books that compare the theological visions of Mrs. Hamer and Rev. Dr. King. And for me that comparison is the most natural for at least two reasons: both are children of the black South (Hamer from Mississippi and King from Georgia), and both were Christians shaped by the black Baptist evangelical tradition. If that full-length book exists, I’d love to read it.

What I want to offer here is something that I believe articulates elements of her visionary action and what can be appropriated for our struggles today. I am calling for a new kind of political imagination in Mississippi, one that is new only in the sense that it is being revived. As I read about Mrs. Hamer, I become more convinced that there is something prolific about her and her witness that attracts me to a more excellent way of loving a new world into being.

Mrs. Hamer, who worked with Pastor King on his poor people’s campaign, was unlike King in two very important ways. First, she was a poor black woman whose economic prospects were condemned to sharecropping; King was thoroughgoing middle class. Whereas King, an educated middle class man, was led to walk with the poor, Hamer was poor and therefore embodied the dignity of many impoverished blacks in ways that King never could. Second, whereas King would at one point repudiate the revivalist elements of the black church, Hamer was very much in that revivalist stream, with all the shouting, hand clapping and stirring hymnody that makes up that liturgical experience.

What Hamer teaches us, then, is the power of deeply Christian (and here I mean of a black evangelical kind), rural poor black women and men to transform society when they feel called of God to spiritually and literally resist the powers. A native of Mississippi, I believe Hamer is an exemplar of the best of our political tradition. That is why I’m calling for Hamer democrats. There are other configurations of what may be meant by being a Hamer Democrat. For instance, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which still exists, employs to mean something similar to yet different from what I am offering here. By Hamer democrat I mean lowercase ‘d’ democrats who believe in the power of people, especially everyday people, to be engaged in the political process, and they believe this precisely as an article of theological witness. Said differently, a Hamer democrat is an evangelical Christian who fights for the little people, because Jesus commissions them to do so. Beyond the reductive left/right binary, Hamer democrats offer a prophetic resistance to a closed society primarily because they believe that God created us equally and desires for all of us to flourish as God intends. Furthermore, a Hamer democrat is unapologetically Christian and generously welcoming. Hamer democrats are those of us who love the Lord and don’t mind calling his name in public. At the same time, we are welcoming of those who do not hold this same conviction and are willing to be in coalitions with any and all who believe in responsible freedom. (Just don’t try to put our little light under a bushel.) So Hamer democrats move beyond the false bifurcations of piety and protest, revival and reform, holiness and justice and engage people where they are, no matter who they are. Because God created everybody, then all of us are precious, even when we don’t agree.

Hamer democrats also believe in the political worth of women. Any movement by Hamer democrats takes seriously not only ideological and racial diversity, but also an insistence on black women, poor black women, being involved in the process of transformation. Mrs. Hamer, had she lived on beyond 1977, may have been considered pro-life and pro-woman, representing one of many perspective on women’s rights. But her towering influence reminds us that sometimes a Barak can’t go to battle without a Deborah (Judges 4). Maybe more than ever Mississippi needs women of color, holding diverse views and strategies, involved in electoral politics and political advocacy.

Hamer democrats don’t forget that we must have the strength to love our enemies because ours is a spiritual battle. Mrs. Hamer saw the Mississippi freedom struggle in spiritual terms, often citing Ephesians 6:9-18. Our struggle isn’t reducible to the materialistic realm, as both lefists and conservatives would have us to believe. It’s a spiritual battle than requires spiritual armor and attitudes. Just as we are to unapologetic about our Christian faith, we must be equally vocal about believing in an enchanted, non-secular world of spiritual powers and possibilities. This, too, is a form of resistance in a nation increasingly uncomfortable with things not explained or verifiable by modern empirical sciences.

Hamer democrats believe that our struggle is both local and global. Mrs. Hamer, a daughter of the Mississippi soil, understood the struggle in international terms. Ours has to be a cosmopolitan pilgrimage; because this world is not our home, we can be in it while not of it, thereby resisting the restrictive nationalism or regionalism that divides us. What happens in Iraq is connected to what happens in Indianola. And we can believe this because God has the whole world in his hands.

Lastly, Hamer democrats possess prophetic patriotism. Like Mrs. Hamer, we love America and love it enough to question her when she fails to live up to her creed. We must also apply this prophetic tension to our political loyalties as well, knowing that as lowercase ‘d’ democrats, we are more concerned with a true republican democracy than we are Republicans or Democrats. We must call everyone to higher ground.

No matter how insignificant we may feel, God has given each of us a light and we must let it shine. And no matter how little that light is, it’s at its brightest in the dark.

May our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, give Mississippi a remnant of Hamer democrats, enlightened and enlivened by illuminating liberation. Amen

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Hamer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em: Time for a Mississippi Freedom Republican Party?

HamerandBaker

 

Fifty years ago brave and noble black Mississippians stood up to a totalitarian government and demanded full citizenship. These everyday people were daughters and sons of sharecroppers, day workers, and maids. Great souls like Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, a Baptist preacher’s daughter and herself a sharecropper, possessed the light of freedom and shined it radiantly into the ever-midnight of Mississippi. They faced terrorism and tyranny from white segregationists committed to the fantasy that the old South, the Confederate South, would rise again.

Hamer, an evangelist for the Gospel and for freedom, received economic reprisal and police brutality simply because she—a poor, black woman from the Delta—exercised her God-given right to vote in the sham of democracy that was the Magnolia State’s political nightmare. A deeply religious woman, her faith in God and love of country stirred in her a courage that refused to be intimidated by the White Citizens’ Council or the Ku Klux Klan, who were both the same sin by different organizational names.

And Hamer, though charismatic and anointed, was not the only local person who stood up to fear. Thousands of ordinary, dispossessed black folks rose up in those days, having rediscovered their dignity and desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Along with Aaron Henry, adopted Mississippians Ella Baker and Bob Moses, and countless others, these noble souls founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a protestant movement that sought to integrate the all-white, segregationist Mississippi Democratic Party that ruled our state at least until the 1980s. Though relatively unsuccessful in their attempt to unseat the Dixiecrats at the 1964 National Democratic Convention, MFDP’s organized labor and love led to major changes in the national and state party as soon as 1968. I humbly assert that the MFDP did more to make the Democratic Party a multiracial coalition than did FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s or any elected official since. Think about it: relatively unlettered, unrefined black folks who did not speak the Queen’s English revolutionized the Democratic Party in the South, and thereby the nation!

So if they did that fifty years ago, I contend that something similar can happen again today, but only in the Mississippi Republican Party.

This sounds sacrilegious given all blacks have done to make the MS Democratic Party more equitable. Now, I’m not saying that all black Mississippians need to leave the party they helped to refashion over the last five decades. It is because of an imperfect party that we have a black US Congressman and so many black elected mayors, legislators, and supervisors throughout the Delta, Central MS, and Southwest MS. I do not foresee anything numerically comparable for blacks in the MS GOP.

But in a two party system where the present (and future?) ruling party is the GOP and in many ways resembles the 1964 Democrats, why is it untenable to imagine ordinary black Mississippians, possessed by the same spirit that led Hamer to be sick and tired and do something about it, can at last call for the GOP to embody in transformative policies their own belief that “all people are created equal and therefore deserve equal opportunity without regard to race, color, gender, creed or age”?

To be sure, I have black Republican friends who have lamented the rabid racism that is tolerated and at times percolated in the Party of Reagan. But they are not just your stereotypical black conservatives parroting the talking points of neo-Confederates. They are young, gifted, and black “transformed nonconformists” who see their work and witness as a quiet revolution in the Grand Ole Party. And the recent controversy regarding black Democrats voting for Thad Cochran (or, should I say, voting against Chris McDaniel?) has at least reawakened the more discerning among us to the collective power of black voters.

If this is just about one US Senate Republican primary election, then it was for naught. Indeed I’m sure many or most blacks will vote for Blue Dog, right-leaning Democrat Travis Childers in November. But what will happen if a remnant of Bible-believing, justice-loving black folks made some demands on the ruling party and decided to engage it from the inside? Historically black people have agreed that America’s injustices and oppression were unbearable, we have disagreed about how to address and dismantle it. Some have taken sides with DuBois or Washington, Garvey or the NAACP, King or the Black Panthers, but all of these persons were sick and tired. I celebrate the fact that we have integrationists, separatists, nationalists, pan-Africanists, conservatives, libertarians, assimilationists, and others among us. I would not be mad at black conservatives, moderates, and liberationists if they did fought for equal opportunity in the MS GOP. I would encourage that effort, pray much for their cause, and do all I could to embrace them publically as part of a two-party strategy and solution for a state in desperate need of revival, reform, and revolution.

May Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’s faith and fight inspire us today.

 

 

Please listen to Mrs. Hamer’s testimony offered at the 1964 National Democratic Convention before the Credentials Committee:

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