Tuesday, June 10, 2014

War and Peace in the Southern Baptist Convention

My twitter feed is abuzz with notes and quotes from #SBC14, the Southern Baptist Convention's annual conference. It reminded me that I had yet to share this with you. It's long  - but if you enjoy history and church politics, it may interest you.  There's an infographic down a bit if you just want to look at the picture. I haven't heard if there's been a resolution on "war" or "peace" at this year's convention - but if ya'll hear of one, let me know! 

For one of my papers this semester I researched the Southern Baptist Convention’s history in regards to “War and Peace.”  I grew up in an SBC church, but today I call myself non-denomination and most closely align with the teachings of traditional peace churches. I also call myself a pacifist/non-violent resister. As I’ve learned about the long peace tradition of other churches (like Mennonites) I have somewhat mourned the lack of that type of teaching in my own spiritual formation. For as much as I can remember – my church always supported war as a reasonable and needed solution to evil in our world. True Just War theory promotes and pursues peace, but that was not the message I got from the “patriotic” celebrations in my church.  While all of that was subjective and based on my own experience, I thoroughly enjoyed researching the history of “War and Peace” in the SBC and learned some interesting things! I thought I would summarize that here for you.  While there are numerous other documents and factors one can research to look at this issue, for what is below I looked at the three version of the Baptist Faith and Message the SBC has had in their history and the various “resolutions” that were passed/approved at the annual national conventions of the SBC from the late 1800s until 2013.

History and Context

The Southern Baptist Convention began in 1864 after it broke away from the larger Baptist denomination. The Southern Baptist Convention was created explicitly as a result of the slave-owners’ desire to retain slaves based on an understanding of biblical literalism. The denomination traveled with the South through the Civil War and Reconstruction and as a result is strongly flavored with the “Southern” way of life. The SBC and the South saw strength and a purpose in rising above hardships and maintaining traditional and cultural ways of life. In regards to war and peace, we will see that the SBC holds a dedicated commitment to peace for many years before ultimately siding with a Southern sense of patriotism and embracing passages such as Romans 13 in an attempt to take the entire Bible as literally as possible.

Due to some intentional maneuvering within the politics of the SBC, in the 1980s the denomination took a conservative turn that focused on reading the Bible as literally as possible and with a strong emphasis on cultural morality (pro-family, pro-life, etc) that was said to be in-line with a literal reading of the Bible.[1] This move was also strongly correlated with the rise of the Religious Right in U.S. politics and the SBC became increasingly connected to the political views of the Republican Party.

 “Baptist exceptionalism”[2] is an understanding of the idea that in the Southeastern United States (the Bible Belt) that the SBC has achieved Establishment status as the largest faith-organization. Growing up in an SBC church in an Atlanta suburb, I had no idea other types of Christianity were thriving. I knew that other denominations existed; I just assumed they were all weak and dying. As far as I could tell, the SBC was the true expression of faith and the strongest. It seemed everyone I knew also believed this, even if only subconsciously.  At the very least, no one ever challenged this idea. To be a southerner was to be a Southern Baptist. Our politics and our lifestyle were tied up in these things. To critique the normative expressions of patriotism and military pride was to critique a defining feature of our faith because these were defining features of our culture. My home church regularly had patriotic services near Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day. The words to the patriotic songs we sung were projected onto the screen and the behind the words was an image of three crosses on a hill and the American flag in the background. The church I attended in college cancelled services one Sunday in order to have a patriotic picnic in the yard, complete with a military plane fly-over and paratroopers jumping down to join us. But even on the “normal” weeks, weeks that were not specifically dedicated to honoring the country or soldiers, an American flag often had a place on the side of the altar. The Christian Flag was on the other side and in the middle was the pulpit.

SBC on War, Peace, and Military

I read every SBC resolution on war, peace, or military that I could find using their online database.[3]  From my count, there are 53 resolutions between 1863-2013 addressing “war,” “peace,” or “military.”  While reading through the resolutions gives one a picture of a change in emphasis, I was also interested in the way word choice changed in these resolutions. “Peace” is the most frequently occurring word, showing up 197 times. “War” makes an appearance 130 times and “military” 93 times. However, when you look at the resolutions in two groups, dividing them at the 1979 schism, there is an obvious turn in the word choice, even when adjusting for the difference in the number of years each group covers. From 1863-1979 the word peace appears 159 times (an average of 1.37 times per year) and military occurs 29 times (.25/year).  From 1980 forward, peace shows up 38 times (.86/year) and the word military is used 64 times (1.94/year). The rate of the average per year use of the word “war” is roughly equal between the two groups (.88 and .85 per year respectively).  Even for the entire 130 year time span of these resolutions (1863-2013), the word peace is used on average only 1.31 times per year, less than the 1980-2013 average use of “military.” This is all linguistic observation, but one I find useful in gaining a wide perspective. As we look at the actual change in what the SBC resolutions are praising and endorsing in regards to war, peace, and military, we will see a turn away from classic just war principles. Here is a visual representation of the numbers I have just discussed. 

Baptist Faith and Message Changes
The Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) is the statement of beliefs for the Southern Baptist Convention. There are versions drafted in 1925, 1963, and 2000. The changes in the short “War and Peace” article of this document give a brief look at the changing views on this topic within the convention.  All three versions of the BFM include the following statement:
It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In  accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put  an end to war.The true remedy for the war spirit is the gospel of our Lord. The supreme need of the world is the acceptance of His teachings in all the affairs of men and nations, and the practical application of His law of love.[4]

That is the entirely of the 1963 statement on this topic. In 1925 there had been an additional sentence that said:

We urge Christian people throughout the world to pray for the reign of the Prince of  Peace, and to oppose everything likely to provoke war.[5]

In 2000, the SBC added back the first clause of that sentence back to the statement, but left off “and to oppose everything likely to provoke war.”[6]  This is perhaps the most explicit formal stance on the changing views of war and peace within the SBC even though the terms of “Just War” are not used. The choice to leave off the clause that encourages an opposition to “everything likely to provoke war” after the 1963 BFM shows a shift in theological views on war and peace. Each article of the BFM is annotated with the references to scripture passages that back up these doctrinal statements. There were changes to the scripture used to support the “Peace and War” article in 1963 but no further changes in 2000. [7] Notable among the changes between 1925 and 1963 is the exclusion of Romans 14:17 (For the kingdom of God is [a matter] of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit) and the simultaneous inclusion of Romans 13:1-7 (Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. . .). 

War and Peace, 1835-1979

Given the history of the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, it is no surprise that their first recorded resolution concerning war and peace is about the Civil War.[8] This resolution is in strong support of the confederacy and there is a mournful tone to the resolution which is titled “On Peace.”  Those that gathered at the convention in 1863 said, “The war which has been forced upon us is, on our part, just and necessary.”[9] The resolution also repents of unspecified sin and laments that the war causes poverty, interruption to education, and death. Ultimately they believe the war to be just and that includes that they “confidently anticipate ultimate success” for the Confederacy.[10] Outside of the official convention meeting, the everyday “rank and file” members of the SBC were also in support of the Confederacy. “Churches constantly observed days of fasting and prayer on behalf of their armies and readily donated bells to be cast into cannon.”[11] The South officially lost the war two years later, and there are no more resolutions on war or peace in the SBC until 1907. This resolution is a mere 42 words, saying simply, but beautifully: “RESOLVED, That we look with devout gratitude to Almighty God upon the advance throughout the wide world of the cause of peace, for ‘Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war; and we desire and will pray for the day to hasten when all nations will settle their difficulties by arbitration rather than the resort to arms; and the song of the angels at the advent of Christ be fully realized—‘Peace on earth, good will to men.’’"[12]  It had taken 42 years for the SBC to make a new statement on war and peace after what was to them a devastating loss of a war they fought believing they were just.

In 1911 an SBC “Resolution on Peace” declared that “a civilization uninfluenced by the teachings of the New Testament is without the groundwork of permanent peace. War is a scourge, is wrong in principle and morally corrupting.”[13] They further resolve “that as Southern Baptists we will talk up peace and talk down war; that we will pray God [sic] for universal peace.”[14] Six years later, when the United States entered WWI, the SBC convention that year issued a statement expressing “loyal and sacrifical [sic] support in the war,”[15] yet the focus and bulk of the resolution centers on mourning the presence of war and re-affirming that “the righteousness of the Sermon on the Mount, and [their] confidence and infallible wisdom of him who has taught us to love our enemies, to bless them that curse us, and to do good to them that despitefully use and persecute us.”[16]

 In 1935, the SBC declares their “unalterable opposition to war and [their] devotion to the maintenance of peace among the nations of the world.”[17] In 1936 they affirm once again their “utter opposition to and hatred of war as the most inexcusable and insane policy that could be pursued by the nations of the earth in their dealings with one another, destructive not only of human life and treasure but of all that is high and worthy in human ideals and objectives.”[18] This same resolution also explicitly supports a just war as a final resort, but emphasizes the “last resort” stipulation by also expressing disgust with the “enormous military and naval establishment [. . .] being built up and maintained by our government at the expense of approximately one billion dollars a year.”[19] In June of 1940 WWII had begun but the United States had not yet entered the war. The SBC “Resolution on Peace” at that year’s convention said:
That while we acknowledge the right of national self-defense, our utter abhorrence of war and its attendant evils compels us to voice the conviction that even a defensive war should be waged only as a last resort after every effort has been made to reach a  settlement of international problems in fairness to all the nations involved that all International differences could and of a right ought to be composed by peaceful diplomatic exchanges, and, when these fail, by arbitration.[20]

The 1940 resolution also makes the first resolution concerning the rights and freedoms of people to conscientiously object to fighting in a war and calls for the convention to make a way for members of the SBC denomination to register as conscientious objectors within the denomination. While a 1946 resolution will show that the SBC failed to make plans to support those who would wish to conscientiously object to the war, their support for one’s ability and freedom to do so remained.[21] By a 1969 resolution, it seems that the convention has set up the proper channels by which a member of an SBC church could register as a conscientious objector within the church.[22]
In June 1941, mere months before the attack on Pearl Harbor the resolution of the annual convention laments the war in Europe but makes an argument for the justness of the war.[23] It is the longest of the resolutions on war, peace, and military.  They first affirm the right of people to consciously object and then explain why this war is necessary. Their defense is long, citing primarily that the evil being committed in Europe against the various rights of many innocent people cannot be allowed to continue.  They acknowledge that there are a variety of opinions on how best to proceed given the reality of the war in Europe, but the only concrete thing they call for is that the United States should stop supplying arms to Japan. At the very end of the resolution they clarify that  the resolution “may be misinterpreted by some as a committal to the principle of militarism, Therefore, be it resolved that the aforesaid resolution, in no way commits the Southern Baptist Convention to an approval of war, as a recognized principle in settling international differences.”[24] It seems clear that they are wrestling with the theological implications of going to war. The horror happening to the people in Europe weighed heavy on their minds, but they maintain a strong focus on peace, an allowance for the theological freedom to abstain from war, and careful words to avoid being seen as supporting war. This is dedicated Just War theology and the agonizing wrestling that comes with trying to weigh the forces of good and evil.  Their commitment to the Just War principles continues after the war has begun and many SBC members find themselves fighting. The 1943 convention issues a resolution reminding the U.S. government that the war “may not accomplish the purposes for which it is fought unless a just and righteous peace follows the termination of the war”[25] and that those principles must be decided upon before the war’s end or they will not work.

As the United States moves from WWII to the other wars that America will engage with between the 1950-1970s, the SBC position stays predominantly anti-war in their resolutions. Throughout these decades the SBC prioritizes peace by saying that they need “desperately to have new aspirations for world peace,”[26]  that they “are eager to meet [their] responsibility to promote peace through Christian love and the application of Christian principles to human affairs,”[27] resolving “not to allow fear to suspend [their] reliance upon the processes of Christian diplomacy as practiced by those who acknowledge the Prince of Peace,”[28] that the use of torture is a sin against God,[29] and that “all Christians, including Southern Baptists, should consistently oppose inhumanity, injustice, and war.”[30] In 1972 they urge the United States government “to utilize the massive resources now allocated to the military to the healing of those bleeding lands abroad and to the binding up of our nation's wounds at home”[31]  and “to move in imaginative and reconciling ways to seek mutual agreements with other nations to slow the nuclear arms race.”[32]

However, hints of the transition from a Just War view to a more militarist/nationalist view begin to show up during these decades as well.  In 1969 the convention acknowledges that “There appears within conscientious men a need to reconcile the Christian's pursuit of peace with the patriot's prosecution of defensive war” and the convention “encourages a search of Scriptures for principles which set forth one's responsibilities both to God and to country.”[33]  And while in 1941 those at the convention were careful to clarify that they were not supporting militarism, the messengers at the 1969 convention, made certain to clarify that the acknowledgement of the right of people to consciously object “does not imply approval or support of any citizen who refuses to accept the full obligation of responsible citizenship.”[34]  In 1970 the SBC convention also expresses their fear that communist violence “may ultimately render America impotent before its adversaries” and we find the first occurrence of “Commander-in-Chief” in the resolutions by the SBC.

War and Military, 1980-2013

Throughout the 1980s the resolutions continue to use peace language while also frequently qualifying the peace-talk with statements like, “We realistically acknowledge the timely reassessment of our nation's security needs and we appreciate the attention given to spend for defense”[35] or that they “appreciate the renewed commitment to a strong national defense.”[36] The beginnings of patriotism (as defined for indebtedness to those who will “kill [or] sacrifice his/her life for the country, ostensibly defending its people, freedom, and or/traditions”[37]) show up in the SBC response to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. After defending the military action in Kuwait as a Just War, they make a note to “especially honor those who died in the conflict for their ultimate sacrifice in the cause of freedom and that we offer our heartfelt sympathy and gratitude to their families.”[38]  While the resolutions during WWII that focused on the armed services were in praise of the chaplains who served on the field, in 1994 the SBC honors the “many Americans [who] voluntarily gave or risked their lives in the invasion of Normandy by the Allied Forces.”[39]  Resolutions specifically in praise and support of those individuals who serve in the military were also issued in 2004, 2005, and 2006.

During the SBC convention that occurs after September 11, 2001, the SBC offers clear support for the “War on Terror,” calling it a reasonable act of self-defense, pointing out that “Scriptures command civil authorities to restrain evil and to punish evildoers through the power of the sword,” and offering full support for the “President of the United States in his denunciation of terrorist groups as “evildoers” who must be resisted.”[42]  Aside from a few resolutions mentioned earlier on support of the military, the SBC convention has been relatively silent on the issue of war and peace. In 2009 a resolution on President Obama mentions the SBC’s appreciation for “his decisions to retain many foreign policies that continue to keep our nation safe from further terrorist attacks”[43]  Aside from the word “peace” popping up once or twice in a handful of recent resolutions, the last time that any resolution was devoted to the importance and prioritizing of peace was in 1983. The last resolution I could find from the SBC on an issue related to war, peace, or military was in 2010.  The resolution is a 1,147 word statement titled “On Homosexuality And The United States Military.”  The SBC took a stand against repealing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” for a variety of moral, spiritual, and logistical reasons. Among them, “that normalizing the open presence of homosexuals in the military is incompatible with generating, strengthening, and maintaining good discipline, unit cohesion, and combat readiness.”[44] In other words, regardless of one’s opinions on God’s view of homosexuality (as faithful Christians disagree on a variety of points), in roughly 100 years, the Southern Baptist convention went from declaring that “War is a scourge, is wrong in principle and morally corrupting” to spending a considerable amount of time arguing that there should not be homosexuals openly in the military because it damages the military’s ability to kill people.


This research was cathartic for me. One of the things I've "grieved" over the past couple of years is the lack of a "peace tradition" in my own early years. It's been reassuring to see it in those middle years of the SBC even though I no longer call that denomination “home.”  While it is easy to say that the Religious Right is enjoying too much power currently to voluntarily surrender it in the name of once again pursuing peace, it is my hope and prayer that as a people, the SBC will once again lead its members to “oppose everything likely to provoke war.” In the meantime, part of my faith heritage is the Southern Baptist Convention with all its flaws and strengths and I will continue to pray that Christians of all perspectives will join in that 1907 prayer and “will pray for the day to hasten when all nations will settle their difficulties by arbitration rather than the resort to arms; and the song of the angels at the advent of Christ be fully realized—‘Peace on earth, good will to [all].’"[45]

End Notes:

[1] Nancy Tatom Ammerman,.  Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[2] Bruce B. Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalists Revolt against the Modern Age (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 197 as cited in Oran P. Smith, The Rise of Baptist Republicanism (New York: New York University Press, 1997). 39.

[3] Southern Baptist Convention, “Resolutions Search,” http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/search/ (accessed April 28, 2014)

[4] Sunday School Board, Baptist Faith and Message. (Nashville: Southern Baptist Convention, 1963).

[5] Sunday School Board, Baptist Faith and Message. (Nashville: Southern Baptist Convention, 1925).

[6] Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Faith and Message, 2000, http://www.sbc.net/bfm2000/bfm2000.asp (accessed April 28, 2014)

[8] SBC, Resolution On Peace  (Augusta, GA, 1863), http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/801/resolution-on-peace (accessed May 1, 2014)

[9] Ibid., Article 1.

[10] Ibid., Article 2.

[11] Jesse C. Fletcher, “Effect on the Civil War on Southern Baptist Churches,” Baptist History and Heritage (July/October 1997): 36.

[12] SBC, Resolution On Peace  (Richmond, VA, 1907), http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/802/resolution-on-peace (accessed May 1, 2014)

[13] SBC, Resolution On Peace  (Jacksonville, FL, 1911), http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/803/resolution-on-peace (accessed April 28, 2014)

[14] Ibid.

[15] SBC, Resolution On Peace  (New Orleans, LA, 1917), http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/804/resolution-on-peace (accessed April 28, 2014)

[16] Ibid.

[17] SBC, Resolution On Peace  (Memphis, TN, 1935), http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/810/resolution-on-peace (accessed April 28, 2014)

[18] SBC, Resolution On Peace  (St. Louis, MO, 1936), http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/811/resolution-on-peace (accessed April 28, 2014)

[19] Ibid.

[20] SBC, Resolution Concerning War and Peace  (Baltimore, MD, 1940) http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/814/resolution-on-war-and-peace (accessed May 1, 2014)

[21]SBC, Resolution Concerning Conscientious Objectors (Miami, FL: 1946) http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/321/resolution-concerning-conscientious-objectors (accessed April 28, 2014)

[22]SBC, Resolution Concerning Conscientious Objectors (New Orleans, LA: 1969)  http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/363/resolution-on-conscientious-objectors (accessed April 28, 2014)

[23] SBC, Resolution on Peace  (Birmingham, AL, 1941), http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/815/resolution-on-peace (accessed April 28, 2014)

[24] Ibid.

[25] SBC, Resolution on Peace  (San Antonio, TX, 1943), http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/816/resolution-on-peace (accessed April 28, 2014)

[26] SBC, Recommendation Concerning World Order and Peace (Chicago, IL, 1950), http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/818/recommendation-concerning-world-order-and-peace (accessed April 28, 2014)
[27] SBC, Resolution on World Peace (Houston, TX, 1958),  http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/819/resolution-on-world-peace (accessed April 28, 2014)

[28] SBC, Resolution on Summit Peace Conference  (Miami Beach, FL, 1960),   http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/820/resolution-on-summit-peace-conference (accessed April 28, 2014)

[29] SBC, Resolution on Torture (Kansas City, MO, 1977), http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/1113/resolution-on-torture (accessed April 28, 2014)

[30] SBC, Resolution on Peace and Justice for All Men (New Orleans, LA, 1969)  http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/824/resolution-on-peace-and-justice-for-all-men (accessed April 28, 2014)

[31] SBC, Resolution on Achieving World Peace  (Philadelphia, PA, 1972)  http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/827/resolution-on-achieving-world-peace (accessed April 28, 2014)

[32] SBC, Resolution on Multilateral Arms Control (Atlanta, GA, 1978) http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/275/resolution-on-multilateral-arms-control (accessed April 28, 2014)

[33] SBC, Resolution on Peace  (Miami Beach, FL, 1967), http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/822/resolution-on-peace (accessed April 28, 2014). See also 1970 Resolution on World Peace where they “call upon Southern Baptists to search the Scriptures to determine the role of the Christian in time of war.”

[34] SBC, Resolution on Conscientious Objectors (New Orleans, LA, 1969) http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/363/resolution-on-conscientious-objectors (accessed April 28, 2014
[35] SBC, Resolution on Peace and National Security (St. Louis, MO, 1980) http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/831/resolution-on-peace-and-national-security (accessed April 28, 2014)

[36] SBC, Resolution on Peace and National Security (Los Angeles, CA, 1981) http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/832/resolution-on-peace-and-national-security (accessed April 28, 2014)

[37] Ryan LaMothe, “The Problem of Patriotism: A Psychoanalytic and Theological Analysis” Pastoral Psychology 58 (2009): 153.

[38] SBC, Resolution on Operation Desert Storm (Atlanta, GA, 1991) http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/433 (accessed May 1, 2014)
[39] SBC, Resolution On Commending World War Ii Veterans On The Occasion Of The 50th Anniversary Of D-Day (Orlando, FL, 1994) http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/1074/resolution-on-commending-world-war-ii-veterans-on-the-occasion-of-the-50th-anniversary-of-dday

[42] SBC, Resolution on the War on Terror (St. Louis, MO, 2002) http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/1115/on-the-war-on-terrorism (accessed April 28, 2014). The sentiments are repeated in their 2003 Resolution On The Liberation Of Iraq.

[43]SBC, Resolution on President Barack Hussein Obama (Louisville, KY, 2009) http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/1193/on-president-barack-hussein-obama (accessed 28, 2013)

[44] SBC, Resolution on Homosexuality and the United States Military (Orlando, FL, 2010) http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/1208/on-homosexuality-and-the-united-states-military (accessed 28, 2013)

[45] See note 26

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