Saturday, July 4, 2015

We've lost a Baptist giant - James Dunn

Tonight, just as I was getting ready to do my final proofreading of this week's issue of TBC Weekly Baptist Roundup, I received an email telling me that James Dunn had passed away.

James was my friend, and I had the privilege in recent years of serving alongside him on the T. B. Maston Foundation Board of Trustees. Long before we got to knowing each other, James had been a longtime friend of my dad, Jase Jones. They had both received their doctorates in Christian ethics under Dr. Maston and had worked together, along with other students of Dr. Maston, to form the T. B. Maston Foundation in the late 1970s. James and my dad also formed a great mutual admiration for each other. I can't count the number of times that James said to me, jabbing that bony index finger for emphasis, "There would be no Maston Foundation without Jase Jones!" Daddy felt the same way about James.
Aaron Weaver, Bill Jones, and James Dunn at 2012
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship meeting in Fort Worth

Long before James was my friend, he was one of those Maston "giants" I had so deeply admired when attending those early Maston Foundation dinners in the late 1980s & early 1990s, when my dad was chairing the Foundation. James Dunn, Foy Valentine, Jimmy Allen, Bill Pinson (and, of course, Jase Jones) and others . . . I would hear them speak at those dinners about Dr. Maston's influence on their lives and ministries, and I would marvel at their courage in standing firm in the face of the slanderous attacks being leveled at them at that time by those who had taken control of the Southern Baptist Convention and would soon exercise that control by slashing the ethics departments at the six SBC seminaries, including Dr. Maston's beloved Southwestern.

James Dunn, as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (now the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) was as much the object of those slurs, slander, and outright hatred as anyone, because he stood against the tide of those new SBC leaders who had surrendered to the political right-wing agenda designed to make this a Christian nation by force. James wouldn't stand for anyone forcing their beliefs on others. He often said, "Ain't nobody but Jesus gonna tell me what to believe," and he took that stand not just for himself but on behalf of ALL people.

James is one person who is truly impossible to replace. Even in the face of the health problems he encountered in recent years, every time I saw him, he exerted more energy than anyone in the room. He was a force, always a force. His first love was Jesus, and his love for Jesus shone through everything he did, especially in his love for people. He was a people person, and yes, he loved his enemies as he loved his friends.

I'm grateful that I got to visit with him one last time. Just over three weeks ago, I called him to talk about the upcoming T. B. Maston Foundation Award Dinner this fall, at which we'll honor Bill Pinson with the T. B. Maston Christian Ethics Award, an award that James received at our 1995 dinner. We had a great visit over the phone that day.

I'll miss his energy, I'll miss his encouragement (he was a relentless encourager), I'll miss his courageous and prophetic voice. But I'll be forever grateful for having known him and for the legacy he has left to Baptists and Christians everywhere, as well as to others for whose religious liberty he fought relentlessly. It seems somehow appropriate that this stalwart advocate for religious liberty died on July 4. So, after all, did Thomas Jefferson (in 1826), who penned the phrase "wall of separation between church and state" in his letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association.

He is with the Lord now, but his voice is still with us - and will remain so - through the many who have felt his influence and passion. Thanks be to God!

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