There’s a line from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that I can’t shake. “This also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” The place? London. A place we often forget was once the wild frontier of the ancient Roman Empire.
When I left my job as a pastor in the SBC for Scotland, more than a few said “you’re going to a dark place”. Dark place. That was the same phrase people used to describe our local college campus. The same phrase some used for New Orleans when I served there. But my wife and I never bought that line. There was another darkness we came to fear more than liberals in secular spaces.
“Take care” Jesus says, “that the light in you is not darkness.” (Luke 11.35) Today, some see the SBC as the last bastion of some sort of American Christian civilization. The backdrop for Heart of Darkness was an age where prevailing imaginaries saw colonial Congo as a place of savagery, and London as a place of civilization. Conrad wants readers to see that darkness exists not “out there” but “right here” in the heart of civilization.
It’s the dark places I found in the SBC that I wrestle with. Not secularists. Not atheists. The “dark places” of church are explained away with equally vague pseudo-spiritual language, “well no church is perfect.” But that is not the point. The SBC has been about judging the culture by its actions and itself by its intentions.
The difference between the church and culture is not the absence of evil, but our reaction to evil in our midst. When the SBC denies evil it’s fair to ask, what sort of Jesus allows a leader to call abuse victims “threats to evangelism”? What sort of gospel is incompatible with justice?
The SBC I left seems trapped in Conrad’s own dilemma. For many, the darkness is “out there”—in liberal politics, the sexual revolution, in cities and on college campuses. And yet, “this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” Survivors and advocates alike are speaking the word of witness. Who is listening?
God is never without his witnesses. Isaiah was one of them. His witness came as woes: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness, who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)
Conrad ended his book with a simple conclusion, “the horror!” But the people of God have a word of hope in destruction. A word of building in a time of dismantling. A word of life in a moment seemingly marked by death.
I can only conclude from the darkness within the church the same conclusion as Isaiah after his woes, “…a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness.” (Isaiah 9:2) The ruins of Christian institutions cannot affect the reign of Jesus. Even more, you can step out of them without denying the Lord who called you. But that is a choice for each of us.
Building may require a clearing of the foundation. A leaving of ruins. But better to build again on the words of Jesus than the shifting sands of protecting the brand and denying the darkness