2024 PBA Missiological Conversation explores trending authoritarianism in American Christianity

VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 05/17/2024)— The Philadelphia Baptist Association (PBA) and American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) co-hosted the highly anticipated 2024 PBA Missiological Conversation at ABHMS’ Leadership and Mission Building in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, on May 2. This hybrid event convened both on-site and online participants under the theme “Christian Belief + White Supremacy + Authoritarian Governance = Fascism” to confront a troubling reality: a significant segment of Christian believers support political leaders who embrace extreme ideologies that underlie incipient fascism.

Said the Rev. Dr. James McJunkin, PBA executive regional pastor, in remarks that opened the daylong panel discussion and facilitated dialogue, “We’re here because we want you to be able to say, this is the political climate that I’m in. This is what my people are facing, and this is how I’m preparing myself to minister to them in this season. That’s the bottom line.”

Guest panelists the Rev. Dr. Willie D. François III and Dr. Kristeen Kim, both renowned theologians and scholars, then brought their expertise and insights to bear. They navigated the discourse through historical contexts and contemporary challenges, underscoring the role of Christianity in shaping the current political landscape and the profound need for a renewed missiology within the church.

François, senior pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church of Pleasantville, New Jersey, and president of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality, unfolded the conversation. He reflected on the complex historical entanglements of democracy, justice and Christianity as he passionately laid bare the pressing challenges of the current political moment. “Acute feelings of despair and pessimism related to the conditions of public life, governance and personal wellbeing” have traumatized significant swaths of the population, he asserted. People are being consumed by what he termed “democratic grief” and a “growing pandemic of loneliness … that is rupturing [their] sense of reality.”

“America has always been a little authoritarian,” François noted. However, its allure has recently been growing among individuals disaffected by chronic grief and loneliness as they perceive a cure for their plight in extremist ideologies. And while an easy rejoinder to this worrisome trend might be to condemn these people as inherently evil for their cult-like embrace of extremism, Francois readily dismissed it. Instead, he urged cultivating deeper understanding and engagement because “these are people who love their children” and may be carrying around “trauma that [is] deeper than any of us can probably assess.”

“Freedom, justice and democracy” have been a struggle to achieve because they “are not natural to who we are,” declared François, who maintains that the U.S., while a country for centuries,  was not truly a democracy until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Yet despite recent backsliding, he sees grounds for optimism in Black Christianity, which has a long history of navigating oppression and the failures of democracy. “Black churches, to a great degree, have been incubators of democratic practice and incubators of revolution and resistance,” he said.

Following François, Kim, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and an expert in world Christianity, provided a global perspective on the conversation’s theme. The British theologian and missiologist applied her historical lens to draw parallels between the political landscapes of different nations and the forces that have shaped their attitudes toward sociopolitical extremism.

Critiquing the U.S. as it existed during the Cold War, Kim said, “The U.S. was claiming to be democratic and free at home.” Yet, racism remained pervasive within its borders, and the government blatantly supported “right-wing, extreme right-wing, and some … fascist regimes elsewhere, … in order to roll back Communism.”

Kim explained that the U.S. was intent on countering communism with fascism, “yet they’re very closely related.” Across modern history, many fascist leaders, including Benito Mussolini, a founder of the movement, originally espoused communism. Both are “forms of extremism, whichever way you look at them,” said Kim. This strategy of countering extremism with extremism, she stressed, has negatively colored many other countries’ perceptions of the U.S. as a beacon of democracy.

South Korea, in comparison, flirted with democracy before veering toward military dictatorship to counteract the existential threat of North Korea. As a bulwark against northern aggression, the South Korean government adopted a “national security doctrine.”  However, that morphed to justify “all sorts of awful things,” said Kim, such as “disdain for human rights, imprisoned political activists, including university students and professors,” and co-opting of “the dominant religion, which was evangelical Christianity.”

South Korea eventually found sociopolitical redemption in the late 20th century, noted Kim. Rampant corruption within the government and external pressure exerted by “people movements” during “a time of growing democracy worldwide” ushered in a new era of South Korean democracy.

Kim rounded out her discussion with a look at India. There, extremism took hold in the form of acute nationalism in response to British colonialism. “Hindus … were the vast majority population for centuries, and so this idea of Hinduism was cultivated to oppose rule from other places,” she said. “It was a nationalist thing.”

“Nationalism can be a really good thing for building up a country,” observed Kim. However, she cautioned that it can also metastasize into an ideology where “the good of a nation can only be achieved by beating down everybody else.”

As the panel discussion progressed into the afternoon, François turned his attention to the role of the church in fomenting extremist ideologies. “[It] has been a cover for imperialism, for white supremacy, for patriarchy, we can name it,” he said. The relevant question now is how the U.S. can foster a type of Christianity that resists fascism—a “political spirituality” that is both disruptive and compassionate. He urged eschewing “a spirituality that is solely about winning” in favor of one that can “give us the capacity for imagination” and “the sensitivity of what it means to be human.”

Spiritual practices play a key role in awakening individuals to the realities of oppression and inspiring collective imagination for a more just world, asserted François. He believes that “spirituality ought to wake us up,” and “then it ought to reposition our brains, … giving us an opportunity to dream of a world we’ve never seen before.”

Kim then picked up the thread, urging Christians to engage in a process that roots out “causes within us … that [negatively] affect our spirituality.” A champion of self-reflection, she said,  “We probably need to ask ourselves first how we treat other people.” From there, spiritual discipline requires looking outward to discern what influences are actively shaping the surrounding world. “You know, the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” she said.

Kim called on her audience to appreciate the diversity in the world and all the good people that God has made, citing a need to de-center the West and whiteness going forward in favor of  “seeing ourselves as part of this world church that God has brought into being.”

As the event concluded, participants departed with a renewed sense of purpose and responsibility in a country grappling with uncomfortable truths. The conversation served as a crucial starting point for sustained dialogue and future actions within American Baptist churches aimed at dismantling the structures of oppression and reclaiming the true essence of Christianity, where the love of Christ shines brightly through a missiology rooted in justice, equity and compassion.

A video of the 2024 PBA Missiological Conversation is available for viewing on the ABHMS YouTube channel.

The Philadelphia Baptist Association is the oldest Baptist association in the United States, committed to advancing Christ’s mission through partnership, reflection, and active engagement in societal issues. The PBA Missiological Conversation is an annual event that invites PBA clergy to engage in profound dialogue, fostering a time of reflection, fellowship, and discernment of Christ’s call to mission work in today’s world.

American Baptist Home Mission Societies partners with American Baptists to promote Christian faith, cultivate Christ-centered leaders and disciples, and bring healing and transformation to communities across the United States and Puerto Rico.

American Baptist Churches USA is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with approximately 5,000 congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.