RACIAL RECONCILIATION IN THE PCA- WHAT HAPPENED IN MOBILE
Last week, June 21st-23rd, the General Assembly of our denomination met in Mobile, AL. The most significant issue was an overture confessing specific sins of our denomination during the Civil Rights Era. That may sound strange, as many of the pastors and elders who attended were not even alive during the 60’s, and in fact, the PCA was not even formed until 1973. But, we are a corporate, covenantal body, which means that what one part of the body does, the whole body is responsible for. And since some of our founding pastors and elders worked against the unity of the body of Christ in supporting segregation and barring black people from membership in Presbyterian churches at that time, we who are their spiritual descendants bear some responsibility. Public repentance for public sins is something God calls us to repeatedly in Scripture. So, we did just that in Mobile, we repented.
Here are a couple of the key passages from the overture: “During the Civil Rights period, there were founding denominational leaders and churches who not only failed to pursue racial reconciliation but also actively worked against it in both church and society through sinful practices, such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in Presbyteries, on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that ‘love does no wrong to a neighbor’ (Romans 13:10); and, Whereas, the vestiges of these sins continue to affect our denomination to this day and significantly hinder efforts for reconciliation with our African-American and other minority brothers and sisters by: often refusing to lay down our cultural preferences so that these brothers and sisters might feel more welcome in our churches; not sufficiently encouraging minority culture brothers into leadership within our General Assembly Committees and Agencies, presbyteries, and churches, as evidenced by our history; failing to lovingly confront our brothers and sisters concerning racial sins and personal bigotry; and failing to ‘learn to do good, seek justice and correct oppression’ (Isaiah 1:17)… Therefore be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, and condemn these past and continuing racial sins and failure to love brothers and sisters from minority cultures in accordance with what the Gospel requires; and… that this General Assembly praises and recommits itself to the gospel task of racial reconciliation.”
This statement is not just a statement about the past. It’s also about the present and the future. We know we need to change. Less than 10% of leadership in the PCA is non-white. We can do better than that. This is not just about our denomination looking more like America, it’s about our denomination looking more like the kingdom of God (see Revelation 5). As Jemar Tisby writes here, “The actual lived experience of ethnic minorities in churches and presbyteries will prove whether the denomination is truly ready to make room at the table for historically under-represented groups.”
Here’s the thing: What happened in Mobile, we don’t want to stay in Mobile. Part of the overture reads, “[T]he General Assembly urges the congregations and presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in America to make this resolution known to their members in order that they may prayerfully confess their own racial sins as led by the Spirit and strive towards racial reconciliation for the advancement of the gospel, the love of Christ, and the glory of God.”
So, I’ll start. I confess that I have often held a paternalistic attitude towards minorities, African-Americans in particular, assuming that if they would just work harder they wouldn’t struggle so much with poverty. I’ve come to see how simplistic and contemptuous my attitude has been, that no matter how hard many minorities work, most do not have 1/10 of the privilege and access I have to halls of power and wealth. I don’t need to necessarily feel bad about my white privilege, but the gospel compels me to use my privilege to help create opportunities for those who have less than me. This is an aspect of Jesus’ teaching that “To whom much is given, much is expected” that I am only starting to realize applies to me in a social, relational, and even (though I know this word is loaded) political way.
I also need to admit that I’ve carried an unspoken assumption that the way that white Christians (Presbyterians specifically) worship in America is ‘the biblical way’ and the norm, from which everyone else deviates to some degree. This is not only obviously silly, it is culturally blind and insulting to Christians of other races and traditions who are reading the same Bible and believing the same doctrines of grace, but who have different ways of worshipping Jesus. As Pastor Duke Kwon reminds us, “White Normativity is the passive racism of our beloved denomination.”
But, the thing I really need to confess, that I’ve never shared with anyone besides my wife, is when I was on staff at a church in a small Southern town and a black man began to sit among the sea of white (and a few Hispanic) faces. I reached out to him and encouraged him to get involved, but when I overheard some people wondering why he didn’t go to a church ‘for his people,’ I failed to speak up. I am ashamed at my silence, and want to commit myself to speaking up in the future.
What about you? Where have you judged people unfairly based on their race? How have we, as the church, discouraged, or closed the doors for, people of other races from becoming leaders? How can we commit to the dismantling of White Cultural Normativity in the PCA and build a Biblical Multicultural Normativity? This is hard and uncomfortable, but confession and dialogue are good for the soul. And we’ll never change if we don’t recognize who we really are, and what it is that Jesus wants us to become. What He wants us to become is a church that is open to all people, where everyone is given a place at the table, and every part of the body works together to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). And let’s not do it to be politically correct or culturally hip, let’s do it for Jesus’ sake, that His prayer in John 17 might be answered, “that they may all be one.”