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Challenging the Narrative: How Race Complicates the Latest LifeWay Debate
Image: Humble Beast

Being a black leader in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) today can be exciting, as America’s largest Protestant denomination makes unprecedented progress toward diversity. But it can also be discouraging. Even small instances of culture clash are hard to overlook when you’re in the minority.

The latest discussion over racial disconnect in the denomination stems from LifeWay Christian Resources’ decision to stop carrying a CD by rapper Sho Baraka at its 170 bookstores. The Washington Post broke the news last week, attributing the decision to a lyric in one track on The Narrative that contains the word penis, though LifeWay’s statement on the matter only referenced inappropriate language.

The SBC’s “strides towards reconciliation and celebration of diversity have been significant,” said church planter Muche Ukegbu. “[They] are more than just talking points to placate the culture.” His congregation, The Brook Miami, is among the more than half of new Southern Baptist church plants—and 20 percent of SBC congregations overall—with mostly non-white members.

“With that being said, it’s situations and instances like this [that are a] frustrating reminder of how out of touch some institutions and leadership really are, and how far we still have to go,” Ukegbu told CT.

Image: Humble Beast

For Baraka’s friends and fans, there’s a bigger backdrop beyond one word, one line, or even one album. It’s hard to separate the content of the artist-activist’s recent release from his racial and political identities.

Leading up to the election, Baraka went on tour with fellow Humble Beast artist Propaganda to hold conversations on race and politics at churches in a half-dozen major cities; the 38-year-old also is involved with the Atlanta-based AND Campaign, a movement to rethink political and community engagement.

Baraka wrote for CT about urban Christians’ dilemma in a two-party system. He wasn’t alone in speaking against that tension; Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) president Russell Moore has also had to face fallout for his political remarks critiquing now-President Donald Trump.

Atlanta pastor John Onwuchekwa said for black leaders who represent the changing makeup of the SBC, incidents like Baraka’s CD getting pulled from LifeWay’s shelves feel “like a slap in the face.”

“The last thing I can do is speak authoritatively on motive,” said Onwuchekwa, lead pastor of Cornerstone Church. “In another sense, it felt like more than a penis thing. If this were any other artist, there would have been more credence given.”

Unlike previous cases when LifeWay has pulled materials, Baraka has direct ties to its denomination. The rapper served for years as an elder at Blueprint Church in Atlanta, an affiliate of the SBC’s North American Mission Board. He is scheduled to perform at a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary conference next month. He also shares the denomination’s theological positions on sex and marriage—his reference condemns his own past behavior in light of the gospel.

As Thabiti Anyabwile, the Baptist pastor of Anacostia River Church in Washington, tweeted, “The censorship of a pro-sanctification [message] is the more troubling issue” about LifeWay’s decision.

Not all black Southern Baptist leaders saw LifeWay’s decision through a racial lens. Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, wrote in an email to CT, “I did not take the LifeWay story to be about race/black culture,” but about the difference in expectations between LifeWay’s consumer base and Baraka’s fans. “Basic appealing to your market 101,” he said.

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