Thursday, February 4, 2010

Time for SBC leaders to step forward to take responsibility for their actions in preaching the message of "go"

The news media is riveted to the story about the 10 Idaho Southern Baptists who are engulfed in the legal melodrama in Haiti. And well they should be. The issues involved in this case are fascinating, complex, and illustrative of the difficulties people wanting to do good sometimes encounter in today's world.

Don't think, however, that this is the first time individual Southern Baptists have been caught in messes such as this one. What makes this escapade so unusual is that it's out there for everyone to watch and comment on. The media seldom has gotten hold of other sticky situations like this one involving Southern Baptists. Usually the denomination has managed to skinny by some really troubling scenarios. This time it got caught in the glare of the public's headlights.

Take, for instance, the case about 11 years ago when a team of Southern Baptist volunteers from the Chicago area were detained in North Korea. Yes, North Korea. Unbeknown to most Americans, including rank-and-file Southern Baptists, the SBC has been working—sometimes openly, sometimes clandestinely—in that area for at least a decade and a half.

The case to which I refer to involved a volunteer team much like the one from Idaho, with approximately the same number of people. Well-intentioned, these Chicago Southern Baptists went to North Korea full of idealism. Also like the Idahoans, the Chicagoans were apparently naive about the circumstances in which they found themselves.

And blunder they did. Even though they were warned to be discreet in their witnessing, the Chicagoans stood on street corners in Pyongyang and handed out evangelistic tracts—a great big no-no in the world's most reclusive communist-atheist nation. That was like waving a red flag in front of a bunch of already-suspicious bulls. North Korean police hauled off the volunteer group and "detained" the visitors for several days, while Southern Baptist bureaucrats worked feverishly behind the scenes—and out of the public limelight—to obtain the release of the Chicagoans.

Since the U.S. has no official diplomatic ties with North Korea, these Southern Baptist officials had to work through the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang to get the volunteer team released.
Before the whole mess ended, the situation with the Southern Baptist prisoners was the first—and a highly secret—item on the agenda during one of the Clinton administration's official talks with North Korean representatives.

After days of agony, the Chicago Southern Baptists were freed and quickly dispatched across the North Korean-Chinese border through which they had entered the reclusive country.

My hunch is this is how the Haiti situation may end. Or will it? In the case of the volunteer team in North Korea, members of the media and the public never knew what was happening. They also didn't know even after the situation was over. Because of that, no one was able to raise questions about what that team thought it was doing and why members behaved in such a reckless manner.

The Haiti situation is front-page news around the world, so people of all kinds of religious persuasions, political leanings, and legal backgrounds are now involved. Perhaps this is good, because questions need to be asked about how situations like this happen and how they can be avoided in the future.

I don't believe incidents like this occur in a vacuum, nor do I buy the idea that such happenings always are the work of the devil. Also, these things happen too often to be considered a novelty.

Southern Baptist leaders quickly note that what happened in Haiti was the work of individuals from an autonomous, independent congregation. You can almost hear them throwing in the disclaimer "overzealous". Technically correct, these leaders act shocked and bewildered over the situation. For political as well as legal reasons, they are trying to stay aloof from the embarrassing circumstances while offering compassionate prayers for the 10 people and their families.

Nevertheless, someone needs to ask the central question here—Are denominational leaders truly innocent and non-culpable in this and other situations? The policy of the SBC is for volunteer mission groups from autonomous, independent congregations to go worldwide to witness to any and every people group in the world—and they truly mean to every people group in every country in the world, with no exceptions. This has been the policy of the SBC for at least 15 years. SBC leaders over and over preach the need for presenting the gospel to every people group on the planet.

The natural corollary of that dogma is that people are going. Individual Southern Baptists from autonomous, independent congregations are streaming overseas at ever-increasing numbers. Denominational leaders are not even sure how many are going; they just know large numbers are heeding their pleas. The question is, are Southern Baptist leaders truly preparing these hoards for the inevitable conflicts and difficulties volunteers such as the Idahoans and Chicagoans have encountered?

Back in 1985, as a religion reporter for the Houston Chronicle, I went to the former Soviet Union to clandestinely interview Jewish citizens who wanted to flee their homeland for Israel or the United States but were denied exit visas by their communist masters who feared the brain drain such an exodus would create. Given the times and circumstances, this was a tricky and dangerous assignment for me.

I went knowing full well the dangers and possibilities I might face. I also went having been briefed thoroughly by lawyers and other leaders of the American B'nai B'rith Jewish organization, which was working to free the Soviet Jews.

I will never forget one question and answer during that extensive briefing.

"What happens if we get arrested by the Soviets?" one of my traveling companions asked.

The lawyer leading the briefing gave an amazing answer: "Try to get word to me any way you can. I then will fly to where ever you are and use every legal skill I have and every resource I can muster to get you freed."

I found his words reassuring. If we got into trouble, he said emphatically neither he nor B'nai B'rith would leave us dangling at the far end of a long tether. They would be there for us. Fortunately, that adventure went off smoothly without any legal or political incident. I was able to write my series on the Refusniks--a series the Houston Chronicle nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

I doubt seriously that any Southern Baptist leader gave either the Chicagoans or the Idahoans such an assurance. SBC leaders often prompt their members to do things they later act like are merely the actions of "independent, autonomous church members".

Now is the time for SBC leaders to step forward and to take responsibility for their actions in preaching the message of "go" but not providing the proper training to keep missteps such as the ones in Haiti from happening. Better yet, some ranking SBC leader, who has been preaching the "go" message, ought to step up to the plate and volunteer to be imprisoned in the place of the 10 people now being held in that country.

With leadership goes responsibility for one's actions. Political as well as church leaders need never forget that fact.


Jason said...

Outside of "Baptist Press" (, this is probably the most intelligent piece of journalism I have seen as it relates to the tragic events that stem from procedural mistakes made by the mission team from Idaho. Thank you for not spewing the kind of hate that has been so commonplace in recent days. May more journalist follow suit in the coming days and we can proceed to see reall mission work continue in a region that desperatly needs it.

Pam said...

Louis I think you should be on CNN and interviewed on this. Thanks for making me think