The curse of Ham: Black Baptists question their place in the SBC

By Alan Bean

Dwight McKissic couldn’t believe his ears and eyes. The towering black Baptist pastor from Arlington, Texas, had flown to Phoenix for the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting to submit a resolution condemning “the ‘Alt-Right’ Movement and the Roots of White Supremacy.” First, the resolutions committee refused to present McKissic’s resolution to the convention. Then McKissic asked the “messengers” to override the committee’s decision. They refused.

“A Resolution Condemning White Supremacy Causes Chaos at the Southern Baptist Convention” The Atlantic headline read.  Richard Spencer, the alt-right poster boy, tweeted his delight.

Eighty-one percent of American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and, among Southern Baptists, support for the brash real estate mogul was at least that strong. Russell Moore, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, derided the Republican nominee at every opportunity. Moore was predictably incensed by the candidate’s three marriages, his association with casino gambling and the “Access Hollywood” fiasco, but Trump’s flirtation with white nationalism and his talk about a border wall and a ban on Muslim immigration were the real deal breakers.

Since Trump rode to victory in October, the backlash against Moore has been intense. Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas has threatened to withhold a million dollars from the SBC’s Cooperative Program unified budget plan. Robert Jeffress, another Dallas pastor, is saying “evangelical elitists” like Moore just didn’t get it.

Black Baptists like Dwight McKissic want to know what the “it” is that Moore doesn’t get. If the white nationalists in the alt-right proclaimed Trump as their candidate, and if Trump named an alt-right hero as his chief adviser, what did SBC support the president signify? Were white Southern Baptists supporting Trump despite his ties to white nationalism, because of those ties, or because they consider his views on race irrelevant?

In other words, how much had the overwhelmingly white denomination changed from the bad old days? Did Russell Moore speak for a new SBC; or was he a prominent aberration?

Which explains what many white messengers consider a curious digression within Rev. McKissic’s resolution:

“Whereas, the roots of White Supremacy within a ‘Christian context’ is based on the so-called ‘curse of Ham’ theory once prominently taught by the SBC in the early years — echoing the belief that God through Noah ordained descendants of Africa to be subservient to Anglos — which provided the theological justification for slavery and segregation ….”

When the world learned the SBC had refused to renounce the alt-right, the resolution committee quickly drafted a resolution condemning the alt-right, and the measure received overwhelming support on the convention floor. The revised resolution celebrated the denomination’s recent progress on the racial reconciliation front before declaring that the messengers in Phoenix “decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

McKissic’s reference to the curse of Ham never made the cut.

What is the alleged curse?

Ham was one of Noah’s three sons (the story is found in Genesis 9). After the great flood, Noah became a vintner and imbibed too much of his own product. When Ham found his daddy lying on the ground, dead drunk and naked, he informed his two brothers, Shem and Japheth. They walked backward toward their father with a garment so they could cover him without gazing upon his nakedness.

When Noah awoke from his drunken slumbers he cursed Canaan (the son of Ham), declaring that his descendants would be a race of slaves fit only to serve the offspring of Shem and Japheth.

Southern pastors concluded that the offspring of Ham migrated to Africa where they became a race of perpetual slaves. The slave trade in the American South was therefore ordained of God.

I first encountered the curse of Ham in a yellowed copy of the Western Recorder, the official organ of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. In the 1930s, a woman wrote a monthly Q&A column under a male pseudonym (in Kentucky, women weren’t supposed to teach men and couldn’t even lead in public prayer). When a male reader asked if the Bible addressed the subject of racial segregation, the curse of Ham theory figured prominently in the answer.

W.A. Criswell, renowned late pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and patriarch of the conservative resurgence in the SBC, subscribed to the curse of Ham theory and it was included in his most famous sermon, “The Scarlet Thread,” first preached at the Dallas church in 1961. As late as 1979, the theory was endorsed in a discussion of Genesis 9:25 in the Criswell Study Bible.

In the mid-1990s, pastor McKissic was amazed to hear Betty Criswell, W.A.’s wife, laying out the racist interpretation of the curse of Ham in the course of a Bible study (McKissic has the tape).

It has been suggested that most white messengers to the Phoenix convention had never heard of the alt-right. Maybe so. McKissic’s reference to the curse of Ham may also have caused some head scratching. “The curse of what, now?”

But this ignorance, if true, merely amplifies the problem.  Black Baptists like McKissic are keen students of the SBC’s racial history and they are all too aware of the alt-right. For them, ignorance isn’t an option.

“Depend upon it, sir,” Samuel Johnson once quipped, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the world with frightening clarity because, incarcerated by the Gestapo, he knew his days were numbered. “Every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere,” Bonhoeffer wrote“be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity.”

The German pastor and resistance leader wasn’t talking about simple ignorance or imbecility. People become stupid because “humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward emerging circumstances.”

Because the SBC was founded on racist sloganeering it has always been afflicted by corporate stupidity, and the bizarre curse of Ham theory is one example. Pretending the SBC would march to glory if everybody preached an inerrant Bible is another.

There is no point arguing with a person who has turned off his mind in the interest of personal and institutional glory. In conversation with such a person, Bonhoeffer says, “one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.”

Which is why widespread support for Donald Trump worries Black Southern Baptists.

From growth to decline

The architects of the SBC’s conservative resurgence went from fussing about the Bible to fussing about Calvinism, speaking in tongues, worship styles, young earth creationism, and “complementarianism” (the delightful notion that, in church and family, women must silently submit to men).

The fact that everyone is waving inerrant Bibles accomplishes little if no one can agree about what the book means.

For decades, the SBC had been growing like kudzu in August. No matter what you were counting — baptisms, new church starts or giving to the Cooperative Program — the needle was always moving up. While liberal denominations declined year-by-year, the SBC marched from glory to glory.

Until it didn’t. The SBC has been declining for a full decade now, and that partly explains the new concern for “racial reconciliation.” In recent years, 50 percent of the new church starts in the denomination have been predominantly non-white congregations. Black and Latino Baptists may only constitute 8 percent of total SBC membership but without these new churches, SBC decline would have been even more dramatic.

White Southern Baptists have good reasons for celebrating the visible involvement of black Baptists in denominational life. Russell Moore is excited about the baby steps his tribe has taken toward racial diversity. But when he sees his co-religionists lining up behind Donald Trump, not in a spirit of grim resignation but with beaming enthusiasm, Moore is forced to ask some hard questions. Sure, most Southern Baptists welcome the presence of black churches, but is the white male leadership of the SBC willing to learn from their black and Latino brothers and sisters?

A denomination that patronizes its minority leaders while reducing its gifted women to utter silence is unbalanced. The SBC has a pronounced limp and it’s getting worse.

True, SBC women are perfectly free to teach children and one another, but they can’t teach men and, so far as I can tell, even Russell Moore is down with that. In Christ, all are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Here’s the official line. “Sure, we may have much to learn from the women, but God says they must be silent so we’re on our own.”

The curse of Ham theory was invented to make precisely the same argument, only about the folks who were clapped in irons and dragged to the New World in ships.

I’m glad the messengers in Phoenix finally denounced the alt-right. They had us worried there for a moment. But there are good reasons why the SBC’s non-white churches are dually affiliated with the historically black National Baptist Convention, why their support for the Cooperative Program is relatively anemic, and why few black pastors show up at SBC conferences. They aren’t sure if they are welcome, and Phoenix didn’t resolve that concern.