Early last week, I traveled to Washington, D. C. for the annual board meeting of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty (BJC), where I am grateful to serve as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina’s representative on that body. Gathering 13 different Baptist affiliates of different kinds and diverse makeup from all across the country, the Baptist Joint Committee has served for 80 years “to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, furthering the Baptist heritage that champions the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.” Situated in the shadow of the Supreme Court, the BJC is the only faith-based organization devoted solely to religious liberty for all people and the separation of church and state. This annual pilgrimage to dream and advocate alongside Baptist sisters and brothers of all kinds is deeply meaningful to me. I leave inspired by their bold witness and encouraged by the excellence they pursue in this vital and necessary work.
I was particularly so this year, as our board talked together about the shifting landscape in which we champion such a message. In the public sphere, a global rise of nationalism continues to connect race and nationality to religious tradition, where provocateurs relentlessly paint certain religions in a dangerous and oppressive light. Rarely have we known a more critical time for the work of the BJC, whose historic Baptist principles of freedom ground their essential advocacy.
Our time together ended with a trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, still newly opened and flooded with interested guests. It was a transformative experience for me, and I trust that it was for my colleagues too. For inasmuch as our country has celebrated freedom throughout our history, it was a freedom that did not extend to all its residents, those who built it and fought on its behalf. Floor after floor of the museum’s exhibits told the story of a people, brutally and inhumanely treated yet transformative in our nation’s shared experience.
As I left the museum to depart for home, I paused at this view you see above from inside the museum. Peeking out from behind the bronze latticework that wraps the building in homage to similar ironwork enslaved African-Americans would have created is the Washington Monument, that tall symbol of our nation’s founding father and the liberty he ensured for some but not all Americans. In that moment, I remembered another dynamic tension from Paul’s joint call from Galatians: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!” and “… through love, become slaves to one another.” With a heart filled with hopefulness for God’s work in and among our freedom and our submission, my prayer for our country rose with the sound of its ancestors ringing anew, that one day all of God’s beloved children can proclaim: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!”
Together in the work of Love,