A non-conciliatory note on the conflict within the ABC-USA

(This note was written during the 2001 ABC-USA biennial in Providence, and circulated among some of those in attendance at the gathering of the Coalition for Baptist Principles. Although it was not intended for wide distribution, and is therefore neither particularly diplomatic in expression nor rigorous in scholarly detail, it may be useful as a stimulus to debate. I see no reason to soften it now, and have made only a few changes for clarity.)

American Baptists concerned about the future of the denomination will not find an effective response to the forces at work within the ABC until they are willing to face some unpleasant facts. For quite a few years now, principled Baptists have issued “calls for dialogue” with a movement that Walter Wink has rightly called the “theological cleansing movement”; [1] [1] Walter Wink, Address to the Board of National Ministries Luncheon, ABC-USA Biennial, Des Moines, IA, June 1999. but this movement most emphatically is not one with which “dialogue” is possible. And attempting to “seek common ground,” or to “open lines of communication” with the movement (or worse, pretending that such lines of communication already exist and therefore should be “kept open”) is not only a doomed attempt, it is an act of participation in the destruction in which the cleansing movement is engaged. If we are not willing to resist more actively and vigorously than heretofore, we are concretely abetting the destruction. This note is aimed at clarifying the nature of the opposition movement we face. [2] [2] I will use “we” and “us” as shorthand not only for the formally organized Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, ABConcerned, the Coalition for Baptist Principles, &c., but also for the loose association of persons and groups wishing to avoid denominational “cleansing” whatever their stand on any individual issue. It may be an oversimplification, but a useful one, to think of the cleansing movement as representing one of the more aggressive strains of the Particular Baptist tradition, and our own loose association as representing a strain of the General Baptist tradition. Contrary to fervent statements from the former, the latter has always been present in the ABC-USA.

A first clarification is that the opposition is indeed an “opposition,” rather than a potential partner in dialogue. The word “opposition,” is chosen carefully, to avoid distressing those who cannot bear the thought that we have an “enemy”; yet the movement clearly and unequivocally considers us an enemy: and not just any enemy, but the work of Satan. And in their eyes such an enemy is to be destroyed — not “dialogued” with.

A second clarification is that the opposition is no mere “constituency” or even “faction” within the ABC-USA, and thus entitled to every such benefit of the doubt as is habitual for many of us to grant; rather it is an organized effort, primarily external, to take over the ABC-USA, on the model of the notorious and eminently successful takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by the Pressler/Patterson gang in the 1980s. Pressler’s memoir [3] [3] A hill on which to die, published in 1999. The messianic, self-aggrandizing title is symptomatic; the book is very much the analogue of My struggle, not only in its interminable and obsessive catalogue of petty slights and scores to be settled (all attributable in Pressler’s mind to the Satanic forces of non-literalist, non-inerrantist Bible-scorners, just as in Hitler’s book all such evils are attributable to the Jews), but also in its aggressive focus on world-domination, its smug, self-congratulatory boasting and gloating, and its pathological spiritual emptiness. Both books are the work of deeply disturbed, hollow men who manage to attract quite a following among the similarly lost. gleefully recounts the conspiracy through which he achieved a stranglehold over the SBC, by skilful manipulation of the specific weaknesses of SBC polity. [4] [4] most prominently, the nominating process for the Program Boards, and the lack of proportional control over the electorate. The same petty, gleeful tone is found, for example, in a recent attempt by ABE leadership to start a smear operation aimed at removing the ABC-USA Parliamentarian. Briefly conducted in a public forum [5] [5] The “ABC-Discussion” mailing list, available to any interested party by subscription at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ABC-DISCUSSION; this mailing list is well worth following carefully for insight into the state of mind of our attackers. in a manner reminiscent, more than anything, of a sniggering seventh-grade whispering campaign, the attempt went nowhere; indeed, it was remarkably ignorant of some elementary facts of polity and procedure. [6] [6] If successful, it would actually have increased the majority that the campaigners were trying to diminish. But it well illustrates the plain nastiness with which we can expect the attack to be continued.

The earlier but similar smear operation against Walter Wink will be more familiar to many; it was conducted primarily through the pages of the ABE’s newsletter, and with a similar disregard for even the most basic propriety. That those responsible for these endeavors appear to lack the elementary sense of shame that would have restrained such disgraceful behavior is an ominous sign that should not be ignored by anyone lobbying for “dialogue.”

To return to Judge Pressler’s memoir for a moment, those who take the time to read it will discover very clear intimations that the American Baptist Churches, characterized throughout as even more wayward than the SBC, would definitely become the target of one of the good judge’s next cleansings. (Since Pressler, Patterson, & Co. kept their activities very well concealed while the SBC takeover was in progress, only boasting when it was fait accompli, there is no reason to suppose that those behind the current takeover effort will be visible to us unless and until they succeed. Personally, I find conspiracy-speculation unprofitable apart from attempting to call attention to the possibility.)

A third clarification is necessary regarding the cleansing movement itself; theologically it has little in common with historical Christianity, as its primary outlook is Gnostic. In this it is very much in line with all the great totalitarian movements — of the left as well as of the right, it should be stressed — that characterized the last century. I will leave the detailed analysis out of this note, as it requires a considerable historical apparatus; but it may suffice to point out a few of the most prominent features.

The most obvious is the reduction of Scripture to the “Word of God,” thereby contracting the great record of humanity’s encounter with God into a shrivelled idol. In a number of variants this attitude goes by many names. [7] [7] This polyonymy, by the way, furnishes a favorite diversionary tactic for the Gnostic interpreters, who can point out that they are most emphatically not “fundamentalists” or “literalists” or “inerrantists” as the case may be, hooting at the abysmal historical ignorance of their interlocutors and castigating their liberal bias without addressing the obvious fact that, whatever the niceties of terminology, they are indeed engaging in the same aggressively bibliolatrous constriction and perversion of Scripture. A glance into Justin Martyr, say, or Clement of Alexandria (not to mention 2 Cor. 3), is enough to show that the literalist-inerrantist-fundamentalist project (a) was unknown to such early Christian writers as a Christian attitude and (b) is a blatant falsification of Scripture, by which a rich & multifaceted record of humankind’s encounter with God is twisted into the Gnostic Book of Life, with magic power to release its possessor from the alien world created by the Evil One. [8] [8] Should any of this seem farfetched, I recommend looking into Hans Jonas’s comprehensive survey of the literature, The Gnostic religion (2nd ed., Boston, 1963); for rigorously worked out analysis of the direct descent of many modern intellectual (and anti-intellectual) movements from mediaeval forms of Gnosticism, see Eric Voegelin’s The new science of politics: an introduction (Chicago, 1952), and the same author’s Science, politics, and Gnosticism: two essays (Chicago, 1968). The connection of modern ideologies with mediaeval Gnosticism, as well as with Renascence neo-Platonism and various other hermetic movements, has been well-established for more than half a century, but is largely unknown to a broad public; getting acquainted with the above-mentioned literature is a valuable exercise in getting one’s bearings in a sea of undifferentiated opinion. (Voegelin is no armchair scholar in this matter; he was one of the tiny handful of German-Austrian scholars who stood up to Hitler right from the beginning; his four books published between 1933 and 1938 demolishing the racial and political “theories” of the National Socialists earned him the regime’s enmity, and upon the Anschluss he narrowly escaped the Gestapo.)

The pervasive Satanism found in many of the public statements of the opposition/takeover movement very clearly indicates that the proponents see themselves as engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the powers of darkness; to state that under such Manichaean conditions “dialogue” is impossible is, to say the least, an understatement.

A final clarification is necessary regarding the strategy of the cleansing movement and the tactics by which it is carried out. This involves the “extended strategy” developed by the ideological movements in the early part of the last century and brought to perfection in the 1930s in Germany. Extended strategy, briefly, is the use of agreements (such as treaties, pacts, concordats, and the like) not for their stated purpose of limiting or preventing hostilities, but rather as a means of gaining strategic advantage. [9] [9] These tactics may seem self-evident now, but they were unknown as late as World War I. More generally, we have already seen that the opposition will not hesitate to employ extraordinarily deceitful, cowardly, unethical, illegal, and otherwise fraudulent means to achieve its ends, all apparently justified by the purity of its cause: slandering individuals, misrepresenting Baptist history & polity, misrepresenting the goals of the AW&AB, breaking even the most solemn of handshake agreements, and committing blatant corporate malfeasance just to name a few are all quite familiar to those who have followed the story of the four California churches. Nothing suggests that the pattern will moderate itself. Even now, ABE leadership claims with a straight face to represent an absolute majority of American Baptists, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (such as their obvious sustained inability to assemble a parliamentary majority even with the help of manipulation, deceit, and gutter tactics).

This note, certainly, can barely begin to sketch the outlines of a full statement of the problem, let alone provide the basis for effective action. Much more will need to be said before the story is played out; but it will not be said in anything that can be called “dialogue.” [10] [10] The conditions under which dialogue is possible were painstakingly analyzed in the Platonic corpus. Despite wildly divergent popular misuses, the word dialogue does after all remain a technical philosophical term; it certainly ought not be stretched to the point of applying it to negotiations undertaken when there is a gun pointed at one’s head. Only the strongest possible resistance, and the strongest possible defensive work (which might, after all, have to be every bit as offensive as the present rant), will avert the threat that faces the denomination as clearly as it faced the now-gutted SBC.

Afterword, February 2002

Even though I have not seen the slightest change in the rabidity of the cleansing movement in the eight months since this was written, one small but significant shift has occurred in public awareness: the atrocities of September 11th have brought some attention to the issue of fanatical literalism. A public that is willing in some degree to entertain the notion that the significant struggle is not between East & West or Islam & Christianity, but between, on the one hand, an array of quasi-religious ideologies in continuity with the ideologies of the last century, and, on the other, various modes of freedom of the spirit however well- or ill-articulated, may be a public that to the same degree can better recognize mutilation of the spirit — even when it presents itself as the one true Gospel.

Mark Theodoropoulos