A Postscript on “The Nashville Establishment”

I’ve been surprised over the past couple of days at the level of interest a recent post (“On the Nashville Establishment“) has generated, both here on this blog and in other settings as well. Most of this has been positive, and for that I’m very grateful.

The best scholarship pushes discussion forward and helps us to think about the evidence in new ways. I for one have been challenged by John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine and the Tennessee-Texas-Indiana paradigm that they have set out for understanding Churches of Christ in the early 20th century. What I’ve tried to do in describing the “Nashville Establishment” is to provide a framework for understanding the history of Churches of Christ in this city. If what I have done here helps to advance someone’s thinking, then I will be satisfied.

That said, I’d like to address one theme that has shown up in a few of the responses. It’s really easy, I think, when dealing with the history of whatever period or group of people, to fall into the trap of sitting in judgment upon people who are not around to defend themselves, to hold those people to a standard that we ourselves have set. Avoiding this trap — the trap of overtly polemical historiography — does not release us from a certain tension. As a historian, I want to be fair to the Comers and to the good motives that undoubtedly drove them to set up the Church of Christ Foundation. I also want to tell their story accurately.

But I also want to be honest. I’m not telling this story in a vacuum. I’m not telling it for its own sake. I believe it has something to say to us about the role of money and power in the history of Churches of Christ in Nashville. Whatever one might think of Don Haymes’ analysis of the “Church of Christ Establishment” — whether he got all of the particulars right or not — he put his finger on something very important. Even as we loudly protest that we are not a denomination, we often act like one. To say this, of course, is to touch a sensitive nerve. A lot of us still believe that we are nothing more than a loose network of autonomous congregations.  That’s what we want to be, of course, but is that what we actually are? Is that how we actually behave?

Our observable history in places like Nashville suggests otherwise. The story of R. W. Comer and his trust fund is by no means an isolated incident. To be sure, the role of the Comer and Burton families in Nashville exemplifies how the power structure functioned at its height.  But examples of the establishment’s treatment of (and concerted action against) those who got in its way can be found in many other places. Among those, we might mention the churches and leaders involved in the non-institutional protest of the 1950s and the African-American church leaders who fought the closure of the Nashville Christian Institute in 1967.

We could go further, of course. Let me close for now by saying this. If anything, I hope these stories can help us to reflect unflinchingly on who we have been, who we are, and where we might be going. I also hope they help us to pay attention to how easily, in our efforts to spread the good news of the kingdom, we can be seduced by the world’s methods and standards of success.

Thanks again for your participation.

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