Last summer, during our worship planning session for the year, the worship team asked some questions that I hear every once and while. “Why are we Baptist? And what does that mean anyway?” With our culture in America, and maybe a little more so in Lawrence than some other places, we live in a place where people believe things differently than us. Many of us have grown up in faith communities other than Baptists, and have never heard a great answer to this question. Or perhaps others of us have grown up as Baptists, and just like the ways that the fish never notices that she is in water, we don’t know what distinguishes Baptists because we haven’t ever seen anything different!
The simplest answer to that question is that Baptists have an undying commitment to the freedom of the soul. Some of you might wonder what this curious phrase means. It sounds like our innate right to listen to Aretha Franklin, but surprisingly, it actually means something very different. Soul freedom means a lot of things, but at its heart, it means that each of us is offered and invited to have a personal relationship with God. Now, for those of us who grew up Baptist, our response may well be “duh!” but let me clarify what that means in practice – a practice that is not universal. Today, I want to point to the example of two Baptists to teach us what this idea of soul freedom is about.
Now, I fully admit to cheating for the first Baptist. Because I use the Scriptural example of Micah, if you will, to see a baptist before there were Baptists. But he exemplifies my first point: Soul freedom means that we have freedom to own our faith. The story of the prophet Micah is set in the context of a culture of Israel that is not living up to God’s expectations. He followed a long line of prophets who had learned to say the “safe” thing and stay alive. Don’t bother the status quo. Don’t push the powers that be. But he stood against that tradition and stood up to Hezekiah. And in the standing up, he challenged the king and the people to change their ways. Were there disagreements with his way of doing things? Of course! But that didn’t keep him from standing up, owning his own faith, and taking a stand.
Of course, owning our faith means sometimes disagreeing with others on issues of faith. I remember from my Baptist history course in seminary that there were 216 different Baptist denominations. Of course, that number has probably changed some since then, but it was striking to me that there would be so many Baptists who would do things so differently. That power to disagree is inherent to our soul freedom. There are Baptists with whom we disagree vehemently, yet we share this name together.
I was moved by Becki’s testimony last week on the anniversary of both her baptism and Evie’s dedication. Becki’s story has always been a wonderful example to me of someone that yearned to own her faith and to celebrate that with the symbol of baptism. The reason that Baptists have stood behind believers baptism since the beginning comes from this deep belief that faith is to be owned. Are we taught and supported and encouraged by others? Of course. But at the end of the day our faith is owned personally.
Secondly, soul freedom means that we have freedom to read and interpret the Bible. Again, Micah exemplifies this principle. His calling was to bring the people back to Torah, back to the law, back to the scriptures, and expose them to their truths. If he had followed the status quo and swept the Scriptures under the rug, he would never had made waves. Nor would he have made a difference. But his words likely inspired King Hezekiah to make some changes, bringing the people back to God’s words. Micah’s understanding of God’s call on their lives needed to be brought into question and brought to a place of radical change, if necessary.
In other words, when we read Scripture, we each read it with our own eyes, through our own experiences, and we interpret it personally, not just because someone else told us to. In talking with Anne Thomas’ family after her death last week, they reminded of a fierce belief that Anne had. She believed that every person should bring their own Bibles to church and read what the Bible says for themselves, not just take the preacher’s word for it. And this preacher happens to agree with her! And this idea is not born out of skepticism and mistrust, as much as the importance of personal interpretation. If I am to believe the Bible and live out its words, then I have to know what it says! Not just what the preacher says it says. Soul freedom means we have Bible freedom.
A third point about soul freedom. Before long, it can start sounding like what makes Baptists Baptist is that we do everything on our own – that soul freedom is about isolating ourselves on a faith island, telling off all those who might disagree. But there is another truth in this freedom: Soul freedom means that power and responsibility lies in us rather than me.
Baptist Frank Stagg says it this way: “This is our existence as Christians, in the polarity of solitude and solidarity. Individuality and community. In this is our true selfhood brought to fulfillment. In thus “losing” ourselves to Christ and his people we find ourselves….in Christ we are ‘ one body’ yet retain or find our true individual identity in that union.”
Baptists are profoundly congregational. Again, Micah is our example. Here is one who owned his faith and stood up against the status quo, who found in the Torah the basis for his faith. And one who named a radical life ethic based on that idea. The most common phrase in the passage is in the final verse. And in a statement that screams soul freedom, Micah tells the people: “What does the Lord require of us? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” Three examples of relationship. Power and responsibility lies in us, not just me. “Solitude and solidarity. Individuality and community.” What does the Lord require of us? To pay attention to those outside ourselves.
And so, as Baptists, we share that freedom and responsibility. We share leadership of the church – laity and clergy together in congregational leadership. We share the role of hearer of God’s calling and responder to that call. We together do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
When we look to our Baptist heroes, we find in another example a pillars of soul freedom. Tomorrow, our country celebrates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a lack of knowledge about the true life of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the wake of the new movie Selma, I heard an NPR story interviewing some of the makers of the film, and the ways that especially young people were thankful to know more about King’s story. Some of them thought that Selma was the name of a person, maybe Oprah Winfrey’s character in the movie, instead of a town in Alabama which was the sight of a violent crackdown on nonviolent civil rights protesters. Another part of the interview told the story of a young man who was glad that he finally knew what MLK meant – not just what King meant to our country, but literally what the initials “MLK” meant! He was, of course, glad to get the day off of school every year, but never was entirely clear why he did!
And, of course, one of the pieces of the story that sometimes gets ignored is that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist pastor. His faith was a critical piece of his social action, and as a Baptist, King was profoundly impacted by the idea of soul freedom. Not only was King a brave man and a wise man, but he was also a Baptist, and it was from his “baptistness” that many of his principles and ideas came. Scholar Everitt Goodwin and others have pointed to this baptistness and his commitment to soul freedom as core to his values and faith. Look at our three pieces of soul freedom.
One, King personally owned his faith. He was raised a Baptist as the son of a Baptist preacher. He was baptized at a young age, graduated from college and seminary young, and followed in his father’s footsteps and became a pastor. However, the way that he chose to do that was distinct and different, and made him into the man that he was. He owned his faith and made it personal, not just following what others told him to believe. The way that he lived out that radical commitment came from a place of “baptistness.” In the middle of the Jim Crow 50’s, King eventually found himself in the middle of a good, old-fashioned Baptist argument about what to do about it. African-American Baptist churches in the South were not of one mind about how to deal with this inequality. Some thought that making too many waves would actually make the situation worse, and many of the other Baptist pastors and denominational representatives challenged King’s methods as too radical and offensive. Others thought that his methods were not going far enough. They suggested that his nonviolent methods weren’t getting anything done, and suggested that the churches become staging grounds for a more violent uprising. But King’s was a voice of moderation, and it came in stark contrast to either extreme. And he knew his voice and his path, because he had owned it, not simply borrowed it from another.
Secondly, King claimed his freedom to read and interpret the Bible. It was his early readings of Scripture that brought him to a place of action. For growing up in the middle of the South and prevalent Jim Crow laws, unequal education, and rampant racist policies, King felt that the life of Jesus told in the Scriptures meant that he could not simply sit back and wait for freedom and equality to come. He saw in Jesus a radical life of service and sacrifice, and believed that that meant that he was called to a radical life as well. Meanwhile, he believed that his action must follow the way of Christ and demonstrate nonviolence. The life of Christ who came and lived and allowed himself to be killed for his beliefs gave King a model for how to respond to the inequality that he saw. King’s personal reading of the Bible made him who he was.
And finally, to King, soul freedom meant that power lies in us rather than in one or a few. He believed that the power of a well-informed and committed faith community could make profound changes to a culture and country, and he was right. One of his strengths was to build a wide coalition to oppose inequality and discrimination. And he wasn’t afraid to offend or call on the carpet someone who wasn’t doing their part. When he was jailed in Birmingham for civil disobedience, he took the time to write an open letter to pastors and Christians, to challenge them to take up the cause. And therein came one of his greatest quotations: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Power lies in us. Responsibility lies with us. Micah challenged us to life a life of justice and kindness and humility. Dr. King challenged us to life of justice and freedom and peace. It’s not just about me and my needs, but it is about our call to look beyond ourselves and make a difference.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
• Which is why Baptist William Carey left the comfort of a cobbler’s bench to minister to the untouchables of India.
• It’s why Baptist missionary LuLu Fleming, a former slave, left her recently-gained freedom in the States and went to Africa.
• It’s why white Baptist Joanna P. Moore gave up her life of comfort to improve the lives of African Americans in the South in the 1800’s.
• It’s why Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch went to Hell’s Kitchen in New York, to care for the ones that Christ called the least of these.
• It’s why Baptist Martin Luther King, Jr. left the pulpit and took to the streets of Selma.
• It’s why you and I – and we – must always respond to the freedom gained in Christ by declaring and ensuring that freedom for those who do not have it themselves.
• And it’s why this MLK weekend – and every chance we get – we follow Christ’s call to lose our life for his sake. For in the losing – and only in the losing – will we find out what life is really about.