If you could look at my small DVD collection, you will quickly ascertain that I enjoy war movies. It is not that I love to see the conflict and killings so much as I find in moments of war the very best and worst of humanity put on display. It is where heroes are made, victories won, and lessons learned so that we might have a better tomorrow.
Saving Private Ryan was a movie that captured the heart of what war is all about. The story begins with the Battle of Normandy on Omaha Beach but quickly changes when Captain John Miller receives a report “straight from the top.” Private First Class James Francis Ryan lost all three of his brothers within days. Unaccounted for, General George C. Marshall orders that a special group of eight men under the leadership of Miller be assembled to find Private Ryan and return him home to his mother. These eight men throughout the movie are wrestling with the idea that eight soldiers are giving their lives to save just one, and through misleading information and loss of life, the frustration only increased with each passing moment. Is this a just cause? Why have we been chosen to risk our lives for this? As one solider opined, was this not just another “serious mis-allocation of valuable military resources?”
The squad gets word that Ryan is defending a strategically important bridge which would be the scene of the final battle. Ryan refuses to leave, telling Captain Miller that his fellow soldiers are “the only brothers he has left.” As a result, Captain Miller decides to stay and fight. A minor character with major consequence is Technical Corporal Timothy Upham a reporter and interpreter who had never been in combat and was writing a book about the bonds of brotherhood in war. In the final battle, several of the soldiers were out of ammunition, and Upham’s primary goal was to get several hundred rounds to his fellow soldiers. Shrinking down in cowardice, Upham fails to accomplish this task, and the most gruesome killing of his “brothers” followed in part because of his cowardice. Instead, Upham hunkers down one floor below and listens to his brothers be beaten, stabbed, and shot to death.
The critical bridge which Ryan refused to abandon became the place where Captain Miller would become a victim to enemy fire. American reinforcements arrive in the form of Mustangs who took out the enemy, and Miller give his final words to Private Ryan, faintly declaring, “Earn this.”
I share this storyline with you because I believe it directly relates to where we are as the Southern Baptist Convention. For the past three decades, Southern Baptists have been fighting battles, not the least of which is the recovery of Biblical inerrancy. However, we are at a point in the life of the SBC where it could be argued that we have a special mission, a very difficult task before us, namely saving the SBC. This special mission will require special men with special sacrifice – something we have seldom seen in SBC life.
Undoubtedly, there are many in the SBC who are asking the same question those eight men under Captain Miller were asking. “Is the SBC worth saving?” “Why should we spend our lives and give it for a denomination that has so much political infighting and unhealthy churches?” “Would not the giving of our lives be just another ‘mis-allocation of valuable resources’?” For over a year now, I have been confronted with these questions both internally (within my own conscience) an externally (though the weekly emails and phone calls by fellow seminarians and young ministers wanting to leave the SBC). Unfortunately, at this time in the SBC, one struggles to find a Captain Miller who is willing to address these questions and motivate us to accomplish such a noble task.
As I reflect on recent events in the Convention, I see traces of such leadership (examples include David Dockery, Danny Akin, Tom Ascol, and Thom Rainer), though it is still not enough to marshal a movement that will save the SBC. More than that, however, I am finding it even more difficult to find special men who will take ownership of this special task. I find too many men who are more concerned about preserving their political clout, too many men in denial of our denominational pride, too many men who hold fast to their personal agendas, too many men more committed to personal allegiances and SBC political correctness than the betterment of the SBC and her local churches, too many men who would prefer selective silence than a bold confrontation of our waywardness, too many men who I find to be either cowards or cronies rather than men of courage and conviction. Where will we find such men who will put their reputation on the line for the sake of the truth, crucify the fear of men and the “one of us” allegiances, and lay down their lives for the sake of the local churches in the SBC which are becoming increasingly unregenerate and devoid of the gospel?
Since February, we have heard the call to build bridges in the SBC to be committed to cooperation, established in consensus, and grounded in our common confession. I find it incredibly ironic that the very place Private Ryan refused to leave was the bridge that Captain Miller and his eight men fought and died. Those men knew the importance of “holding the bridge,” but I fear that man Southern Baptists haven’t quite learned that lesson. I don’t know what it will take for us to see the importance of this, but perhaps it will take the dying words of one of our Captain Miller’s whispered into our ears.
So the question remains. “Is it worth it?”
The last scene of the movie fast forwards with Private Ryan at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, looking at the grave of Captain Miller. On his knees, with tears in his eyes and his family looking on, he asks whether or not he lived a “good life” and was a “good man.” He knew that the sacrifices of those men that day were a heavy price to pay to sparing his life. If the SBC still exists fifty years from now, I wonder what future generations will say about those of us fighting these “Baptist Battles” today. I wonder what the ecclesiological landscape will look like. Will there be ruins that remain and casualties that will never be remembered? I don’t know. But what I do know is that there are a lot of wounded Southern Baptists today, most of whom have been shot at by their own Southern Baptists. I feel like crying “Medic! Medic!” after every conversation I have with another friend who emails me telling they are leaving or another minister who has been kicked out of his church for no good reason.
I know that I have said a lot of strong things regarding the SBC. I have probably upset many people in the process. However, two years ago when I got involved in this whole business of caring about the future of the SBC, I refused to let my memory in the SBC to be that of Corporal Upham who knew how to write about the “bonds of brotherhood in war” but knew nothing of it personally. I refuse to let my lasting snapshot be that of my brothers’ life-saying ammunition as a yoke around my neck as I hunker down in cowardice and listen to their spiritual lives and ministerial ambitions being taken from them. I refuse to wear the fatigues and not understand the nature of the fight. Although Upham’s life was spared, but it wasn’t spent well, and sitting idly by, watching the SBC implode, is not something my conscience can bear.
I suspect there will be many in the SBC who will find it worth saving. I just don’t know if there are many who are willing to give their lives to “hold the bridge.” The price is high, and those who have given their lives for such noble causes remind us of that. Perhaps we need to revisit their graves. Perhaps we need to realize that the future of the SBC will not be in the context of Convention meetings, seminary statesmen, or the popularity of Southern Baptist blogs. The future of the SBC will be in the context of the local church, and it is there we must focus our attention and give our lives.
May God raise up special men for the special mission of saving the SBC.
Here’s a clip of Saving Private Ryan of the battle for the bridge.
[Warning: This video contains scenes of war that might be inappropriate for children to watch.]