Thursday, June 22, 2006
Slavery, the Secretary of State, and the Burden of History

Messengers to the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention experienced moments of drama, boredom, controversy, inspiration, remembrance, and urgency—but the Convention also experienced a rare moment of grace. This came as U. S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared before the Convention and was received with rapturous applause and an enthusiastic welcome.

Anyone with the slightest sense of historical perspective—or a sense of irony—must have caught the profound meaning of that moment. There stood a descendant of slaves addressing the spiritual descendants of slaveholders. A denomination birthed in the context of racism and slavery found a moment of genuine pride and delight in welcoming the first African-American woman to hold the highest appointive office in the nation’s government. Furthermore, the messengers rose to their feet when Secretary Rice spoke of the nation’s resolve to oppose and eradicate slavery wherever it may be found.

For those moments in the Greensboro Coliseum, history tilted on its axis. There were interesting overlays to Secretary Rice’s appearance—ranging from reflections on civil religion to the Secretary of State’s ambiguous positions on matters of vital importance to the messengers.

Nevertheless, the meaning of the moment must have been felt by the messengers, even if it was unarticulated. This proud African-American woman, on whose capable shoulders is borne the prestige of the entire republic, must certainly have been the first African-American woman to deliver a major address to the Southern Baptist Convention. Her appearance is a reminder of the burden of history and of how much ground remains to be covered as the denomination struggles with the legacy of racism and the promise of the Gospel. Messengers will forget those moments in Greensboro to their shame.