Wars are seldom easy to explain. Their causes change with thWars are seldom easy to explain. Their causes change with the tides. What once seemed like a just cause for engagement can soon become clouded amid scenes of carnage and death.
Wars are seldom easy to
explain. Their causes change with the tides.What once seemed like a
just cause for engagement can soon become clouded amid scenes of
carnage and death. People change. People die. Motives ever so
slowly slide to camouflage error. One moment in time – often only one
speech – is all that is required to morph a mountain of mistakes into a
hill of courage.
This was once
accomplished in American history by President Lincoln. He knew that
after news of one particular battle reached the eyes and ears of the
American public, some new reason for the conflict had to be placed
before them or else the gruesomeness of battles such as Gettysburg
would no longer motivate men to lose their lives killing their own
Lincoln knew that once
the photographs of the aftermath of Gettysburg reached the public
domain, the entire nation would respond with a collective gasp of
horror. No one ever imagined the American Civil War would come to this.
Entire generations of Americans were obliterated in only one day.
So with the smell of
rotting flesh in his nostrils, Abraham Lincoln stood on what is now a
cemetery and spoke memorable words of national identity. Masterfully,
he did what anyone in his position would want to do: He transcended the
politics of the moment and the strife amidst the armies to call the
sights which he saw that day evil – for that is what they were.
At Gettysburg there
were no victors. The groans of dying men revealed a nation in a deadly
struggle for her soul. Regardless of whose cause was just, on that day
the blood of men’s lives united a nation in grief.
When Lincoln spoke, the
guns were silent, and the thought that all battles might soon cease
ushered in a moment of hope. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address attacked no
one, but touched everyone on both sides of the national schism.
When the Southern
Baptist Convention returns to San Antonio in this summer of 2007 after
19 years, it will be, in some ways, like visiting Gettysburg years
after the battle. Some Baptist historians point to the 1988 annual
meeting as the point when the great schism of the Southern Baptist
Convention became most apparent.
Memorable in every way
was W.A. Criswell’s famous “skunk sermon.” As he mounted the podium
before the capacity crowd of the Pastor’s Conference he stated, “May I
speak on the curse of liberalism?” which was followed by the infamous
statement, “a skunk by any other name still stinks.”
At that same podium
only days later, however, stood another Southern Baptist icon, Joel C.
Gregory. A figure now derided by many in SBC circles, Gregory spoke
words which are still remembered. His comments were so penetrating that
no sooner had he finished the sermon, people were asking for the
transcript. Were the age of the Internet alive back in that day, the
sermon surely would have been on thousands of blogs by day’s end.
Preaching classes across the nation still speak of Gregory’s sermon,
“The Castle and the Wall.” He moved beyond the business of the
denomination to warn a convention of churches that her continued strife
could soon forever replace her witness before a watching world.
When allies are
regarded as enemies, Gregory warned, the very fortress of Christian
orthodoxy can cause those who desire to protect the Christian castle to
use their resources to construct a wall. For the same stones that build
the castle can all too easily be used to erect a wall.
Amidst the civil war of
Southern Baptists, here was a Lincolnian moment. The silence of the
rhetorical gunfire was only temporary, as the war still had to be won.
Just as Gettysburg was the turning point of the war between the states,
the Southern Baptist Convention has never been the same since San
Much has changed since
that noon hour 19 years ago when words calmed the vast torrents of
theological warfare. W.A. Criswell is dead. Both candidates for
president of the convention that year have retired. A new generation of
Southern Baptists, many of whom have never heard of Criswell or
Gregory, will soon gather in San Antonio.
The irony: The denomination seems to be still at war.
The very identity of
the Southern Baptist Convention still stands in question for many. New
frontiers of ministry in the postmodern age are demanding a
re-evaluation of long-standing Southern Baptist programs, and the
overall impression that seismic shifts are at work beneath the feet of
the denomination have many worried that the way forward might be hidden
in plain sight.
Some predict the
inevitable loss of the denomination, and if history is a guide, they
could be correct. The effects of the Fall seldom enable people, even
Christians, to work well together for very long.
Pride rears its ugly head and personal agendas quickly choke the life out of good efforts and sanctified innovation.
Yet, this could be the
Southern Baptist Convention’s finest hour if, by the sheer force of
God’s grace, men of God will rise to remember the heritage of the
Southern Baptist Convention and those who gave their lives to establish
her in 1845.
The return to a
founding vision once empowered Lincoln to transcend the trials of the
present and press forward toward a reconciled nation. Perhaps such a
study of the Baptist past might enable the pastors of the present to
press toward the goal of future ministry armed with history’s warning
that if great humility and prayer do not mark all who perform ministry
in the name of Christ, the wall of human arrogance will replace the
castle of Christian theology.
The new birth of
freedom of which Lincoln spoke could only happen if, as was his wish,
the dead who consecrated Gettysburg would be remembered as something
more than mere participants in a battle. He desired that they be seen
as advancing the cause of the founding generation who conceived of a
nation of liberty and dedicated themselves to freedom’s proposition
that all men were created equal.
How much more should
the Southern Baptist Convention remember the passion of past leaders as
a uniting force dedicated to the divine proposition that all men are
born sinners who stand in urgent need of the saving grace of God. Could
this be a turning point in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention?
That history is yet to be written.