For about 10 years, I have been writing about the concept of collateral responsibility. I define it as our moral duty to correct the residual effects of the collective wrongs of earlier generations of our relatives and other people we emulate, those who have shaped our negative behavior toward others or who have bolstered our capacity to condone human cruelty.
For too long, too many whites have shirked their duty to redress the legacy of slavery -- America's "original sin." Its perniciousness lingers in our collective psyche and continues to divide the nation. For sure, this legacy continues to define too many black people, forcing them to view themselves as outsiders in their own homeland.
But a ray of hope shines from an unexpected source. And those of us who believe in collateral responsibility are cautiously pleased. The 15.6-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, at one time the nation's best organized and largest group of bigots, apparently has seen the light.
At their recent 150th anniversary in Atlanta, 20,000 conferees approved a resolution on racial reconciliation with African-Americans: "We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past."
The document specifically asks for "forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake."
Blacks are justifiably skeptical of this conversion. After all, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded before the Civil War by whites who saw no ethical conflict between worshiping Christ, owning slaves and going to heaven. Neither have blacks forgotten that this is the same church that opposed the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and that had hundreds of thousands of members who supported the Ku Klux Klan's evil agenda.
And, paradoxically, today's Southern Baptist Convention is the same organization that is supporting the Republicans' cynical attack on affirmative action even as it seeks forgiveness for its racist past. Mind you, racism is the mother of affirmative action, and racism still makes affirmative action necessary.
If Southern Baptists are serious about atoning for their historical sins, how can they also join Republicans in destroying affirmative action -- the one federal program that modestly attempts to redress some of the wrongs of discrimination?
Such a contradiction between rhetoric and action makes me, and millions of other blacks, wary of the Southern Baptists' facelift. For the church to convince us that it has traveled the road to Damascus, its lay membership and all of its top officials must publicly and earnestly make the case for affirmative action. Sure, we know that with the middle-class hunt for scapegoats to explain its economic troubles and with conservatives' use of race as a wedge issue, no one can make an effective social, legal or intellectual case for affirmative action.
But the Southern Baptist Convention, with its vast reach and clout, could and should make the moral argument for affirmative action. Such a move would be politically unpopular, but morality must be brought back into the debate. Affirmative action is as much a moral issue as abortion. And Southern Baptists do not need to send missionaries to, say, Ethiopia. They could deploy a million or more of them throughout the United States to help root out acts of racism.
Ultimately, though, the church's quest for atonement will fail if blacks reject it. The Rev. Gary Frost, second vice president -- and the first black officer -- of the Southern Baptist Convention, correctly assessed the situation: "One of the challenges is going to be (for) black Christians to forgive, and that may be a greater hurdle than repentance. It's going to be very challenging to us as a people to be able to accept this apology and to begin healing and mending and moving on."
For average blacks to forgive, for the "healing" and "mending" and "moving on" to begin, the Southern Baptist Convention must make the moral case for affirmative action.
Even though the church stopped short of using the term "repent" -- preferring to use the words "acknowledge" and "lament" instead -- I still commend its leaders for the resolution. It is nothing short of a minor miracle because, by assuming collective responsibility for the sins of their forebears, the conferees rewrote the denomination's doctrine which holds that an individual member can only repent for his or her own sins.
But the real irony -- and beauty -- of the resolution are that it is a belated tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., the Baptist Convention's former nemesis, and King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." King wrote the letter in response to a statement published by Southern Baptist ministers and ministers of other denominations that was highly critical of his mass demonstrations.
Urging his detractors to stop attacking him, and the movement, and to accept their collective responsibility for the sins of this white, Christian nation, King wrote: "Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals."
Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.