From Bystanders to Perpetrators

 CBF Louisiana on November 12, 2002

By Dr. Bruce Prescott


1 John 3:10-18 


On March 13, 1964 thirty-eight people heard screams, looked out their bedroom windows, and watched the murder of a lone, defenseless twenty-eight year old woman.  None of the witnesses in a quiet, respectable, middle-class neighborhood in Queens, NY did anything to try to stop the series of three brutal attacks that ended the life of Catherine Genovese.


When asked why they failed to call the police to come to her assistance, the witnesses said they “didn’t know her,” or they were “afraid, ” or they were “too tired,” or mostly, they “didn’t want to get involved.”


As the details became known, a sense of moral outrage swept across the county.  The outrage was directed at the witnesses and it made a deep impression upon me as a twelve-year-old boy.


Newsmen said it didn’t matter that they “didn't know her.”  She was a human being and needed assistance.   They should have done something. 


Preachers said it was sinful and wrong for the witnesses to say, “I didn’t want to get involved.”   At such a time, there is no valid excuse for not getting involved enough to pick up a phone, call the police, call an ambulance or do something to let her know that someone cared enough to come to her aid. 


Everyone said it was absolutely evil for them to close their windows, pull down their shades and let her bleed to death. 


In the eyes of many, the apathetic reactions of the witnesses made them as guilty of murder as the perpetrator.   Any bystander that witnessed such a crime and failed to act to help the victim could not be considered blameless.


In the Southern Baptist circles in which I grew up, most people explained the behavior of the witnesses by suggesting that they were in need of salvation.  Didn’t John the Apostle ask how the love of God could abide in a heart that closes itself against a brother in need?  (1 John 3:17)  


The thought that Christians could close their eyes, turn their heads and sit on their hands when an innocent person was under attack was inconceivable.


I grew up believing that all Christians possessed a Spirit of boldness that endowed them with a special sensitivity for the needs of others and gave them the courage to face whatever danger they met when confronting evil and injustice.


As I grew older, I learned how naïve such a belief can be. 


Few of us are confronted by evil of the magnitude that faced those thirty-eight witnesses.  In this fallen world, however, all of us are eyewitnesses to various forms of violence and suffering.   None of us are exempt from the necessity of reacting to violence and responding to its victims.  It tests our faith and measures the depths of our spirits.     


Many Christians, however, fail this test miserably. 


The ease with which failure comes became apparent to me while I was a student in seminary.  At the time, I was working for a large, national retail chain.  After a shake-up in management, a lot of things changed in the internal operations of the store.  Most evident was the extreme pressure under which many second-level managers seemed to be working.


I soon discovered that the new manager had been instructing them individually, one by one, to break accepted policies and procedures and, at times, commit criminal acts (a very small scale microcosm of Enron or Worldcom).  He was so bold as to boast to a bookkeeper, “I’m crooked.  I’m as crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but the auditors will never catch me!”


Every one of the managers had a mortgage, car payments, families and careers that were in jeopardy.   They could do what was right and lose their jobs.  Or, they could follow orders, keep their jobs, and pray for mercy on judgment day.


A few of the managers quit.  Most reluctantly complied.  Some followed orders without question.


To my surprise, the second-level manager who thrived the most under the new “crooked” management, was  a faithful, church-going Southern Baptist deacon.   He was far from being an innocent bystander to a crime.  His actions aided and abetted the perpetrator.


The deacon’s collaboration, cover-up, and rationalizations for complying with the new boss’s illegal demands served to isolate the honest managers from those who were wavering under the pressure of temptation.  When a pious Baptist deacon can justify following orders to engage in “white collar” criminal activities,  it is hard to expect others to focus on anything but their immediate self-interest.  In the end, such a focus did not serve them well. 


Ultimately, the “crooked” manager was investigated and terminated.  Those who followed his orders lost opportunity for further advancement or were demoted.  The number of lives diminished and careers lost was greatly magnified by the witness and example of a respected Baptist deacon who readily compromised his character to preserve his paycheck.


The honest managers lost something also, but they preserved something more important — a clear conscience.   They lost well-paid jobs, gave up long-tenured and promising careers, and struggled to find employment that could sustain their families.   In the end, however, they retained their personal integrity and found other ways to make a living.  The greater deficit was sustained by the company that lost their services.


Even before I graduated from Seminary I could see that Baptists as a people were about to face their own test of character.  The Southern Baptist Convention was coming under “new” management.   That new management dealt with people more ruthlessly than the “crooked” manager at the retail store in which I had once worked.


How would Baptists respond to this test of character?


When I graduated from Seminary, that question had not yet been answered.  There was still hope that Baptists would rise up and oppose the slanderous lies, crooked procedures and character assassinations that gave the “new” managers control of the institutions and assets of the SBC.  Along with others in Baptists Committed, I did my best to raise a “Hue and Cry” and arouse opposition to the Fundamentalist takeover.  Some people responded.  Many more yawned, pulled down their shades, and left us bleeding on the streets of New Orleans (1990).  Ask them why and they’ll tell you, “It would be divisive,” or " I was afraid," or “I didn’t know them, “ or “I was tired of fighting,” or mostly, “I didn’t want to get involved.”  All valid excuses, they think, come judgment day.


Many of those who left us bleeding on the streets were administrators, educators, missionaries and ministers.  People whose paycheck or careers depended on taking orders from whoever managed the SBC.  All had mortgages, car payments, families and careers that were on the line. 


Most thought they could “lay low,” “just do what you’re told,” and “don’t do anything to attract attention to yourself” – all the prudent things I once heard retail managers whisper to each other.  But, one by one,  institution by institution, agency by agency, person by person, the new managers issued orders testing the integrity and character of those who served Southern Baptists. 


Some quit.  Some were forced to resign.  Some tried to partially comply and were fired.   Some, as adroitly as a deacon I once knew, followed orders without question.  How many of these are secretly praying for mercy on judgment day, God only knows.


Meanwhile, some wounded Baptists got up off the street in New Orleans and formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF).  On the mend from the mugging they took in the SBC, they desired nothing more than to peaceably leave the SBC and create a place where they could serve the Lord without being molested by Fundamentalism.


The healthy, defiant presence of CBF posed a threat to the new managers of the SBC.  A slave revolt was the last thing these heirs of the Old South could abide.  Determined to make an example of anyone and everyone desiring leave from their dominion, the new managers ordered all the forces of the SBC under their command -- literally, all the resources of the denomination -- to attack and destroy the CBF. 


The result has been a barrage of propaganda.  Some of it cheap and anonymously produced (the stock in trade of Fundamentalists).  Recently, however, now that dollars donated for missions are paying for it, most of the propaganda is bylined and printed on slick paper with four color processing.  No expense has been spared to fabricate a veneer of legitimacy for the whispered lies, the shameless slandering, and the closed-door character assassinations being committed by word-of-mouth on the Baptist grapevine.


Like Catherine Genovese, who tried to flee her attacker only to be chased down by her assailant, the more CBF Baptists tried to withdraw from the SBC, the more violently and frenetically the SBC attacked them.   Like Catherine, who was stabbed several times in the back, many a Baptist pastor can relate how the most lethal blows come from behind. 


Like the thirty-eight witnesses in New York, Baptists across the country have heard repeated pleas for help and have stopped their ears, closed their eyes, and ignored the wounds of fellow Baptists – even those of their own pastors.


Like the thirty-eight in New York, Baptist bystanders expect the routine of their own lives to proceed without interruption.  Any outrage expressed against their apathy catches them completely by surprise. 


Viewing themselves from the perspective of a single night in their own small neighborhood, thirty-eight New Yorkers thought their cold-heartedness would escape unnoticed.  By the light of day, however, many in the broader community held them as guilty as the perpetrator.  None considered them blameless.  Neither should Baptist bystanders expect to be considered blameless in the eyes of generations who literally surrendered their lives rather than betray their understanding of the gospel and the church.  


Not every Baptist has stood idly by while fellow Baptists were under attack.  Mainstream Baptists across the country have been dialing 911, raising a “hue and cry,” and confronting the vicious thrusts of Fundamentalism.   In Texas and Virginia Mainstreamers have been fairly successful in facing the Fundamentalists down.  In other states decisive confrontations are coming.  In Oklahoma, Florida and Missouri, however, a lot more than thirty-eight witnesses have turned a deaf ear to our pleas for help.


In states like Oklahoma bystanders are now becoming perpetrators.  Not only are some unwilling to come out from hiding and respond to pleas for help, some think it prudent to oppose our efforts.  As long as the assailant brandishes a knife, they think it foolish to risk getting cut trying to prevent another attack or render first aid to a victim. 


They prefer burying victims one by one -- until the knife turns on them.  Then, shamelessly, they scream for someone, anyone to come to their aid and assistance.


Until now, I’ve been preaching to the choir.  Most of the people in this room have been victims of the takeover.  But even the victims are not totally blameless.  Watch your toes.  I’m about to stop preaching and start meddling.


The truth is, the efforts of Mainstream Baptists are not being opposed only by those who lack the courage to face fundamentalism.  Most of the people in this room have faced it and left it.  Some of you have left the SBC, put your hand to the plow with CBF and you are not looking back.  You think you’ve taken the high road and no longer need to be concerned about fundamentalism.  I am here to tell you that you are wrong.  Dead wrong.  


While you are forging ahead like pioneers plowing new ground, the bodies of other Baptists are stacking up behind you.  How can you close your eyes and stop your ears to their pleas for help?


You have Baptist brothers and sisters who are just now beginning to suffer the evils of fundamentalism.  The truth is, the system that Southern Baptists created to promote fellowship and to support missions has become demonic.    Not the people, the system.  


Note well what I am saying.  I am not saying that the people in the Southern Baptist Convention are demons – not even the fundamentalists.  I am saying that, in fundamentalist hands, the system we created has become demonic.  It is destroying the lives of the people that it was created to sustain.  If you need another example of that, just look at the missionaries who are being fired because they can’t sign the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message in good conscience.


CBF has done a lot to create a place where those wounded by fundamentalism can find help and acceptance and healing.   When we first began we posted signs to warn our fellow Baptists about the dangers of the fundamentalism and we called others out of the demonic system that we knew would destroy them.  Then vandals from the SBC knocked down our signs and sprayed graffiti all over our new house and succeeded in shouting us down when we tried to call others out.


Many of us have healed from our old SBC wounds and we don’t want to remember our bad experiences.  We live in a different house now and to us, on the inside, everything looks fine.  Some however, have not ventured outside the house and faced the fact that fundamentalists have knocked down our signs and sprayed graffiti all over our house.


Some of us care about what our house looks like to those who live outside it.  Some of us think it is our calling to keep posting signs to fellow Baptists warning them about the dangers of fundamentalism and pointing them to a safe house.


Mainstream Baptists are the people who feel called to clean up the graffiti and post new signs.  And, whenever we venture out of the safety of the house, we invariably find ourselves confronted by bullies who attack us and vandals who try to undo our work. 


There are people in CBF who think what we are doing is futile.  (At times it does seem futile.  It seems that way to people in our inner cities who have to live with graffiti and gangs as well.)  And, there are people in CBF who view the kind of work we are doing as beneath their dignity.


Mainstream Baptists have never expected everyone in CBF to join our movement.  We realize that different people have different callings.  There are times, however, when we grow weary of the stilted noses and wagging tongues complaining about how uncomfortable they are with what we do.


We don’t mind if you think we are just hang nails on the body of Christ, we believe we serve a higher purpose.  As it is at your own homes and residences, clean up and maintenance can be a dirty job – but someone has to do it. 


The alternative is to live in a home without an address that is spray painted with graffiti and gang insignias.  However comfortable you are on the inside, every visitor you invite to your home will see the graffiti you are leaving there and will quickly decide it is not the kind of neighborhood in which they’d like to live.


One of these days, if we work at it hard enough and long enough, the bullies and vandals may grow up or get tired and leave us alone.   Until then, Mainstream Baptists are going to keep on cleaning up the graffiti and posting warning signs -- and we sure could use a little more help from some of you inside the house -- if you've got nothing else to do in there.





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