THE ISSUE WILL BE JOINED…
As we approach the coming General Assembly to be held in Mobile many of our presbyteries have been discussing the idea of an Assembly Confession and Repentance concerning racism, especially during the Civil Rights period of our nation. I have been involved in several discussions concerning this idea, and seen a few different proposed overtures. I want to make some observations about what I have heard in discussion.
One of the popular overtures has come out of Missouri, and it stakes out a covenantal type claim to the sins of our past and to our overall church. In seeming opposition an overture has arisen out of South Carolina which declines to make such a connection and rather simply condemns racism and calls for it to be repented of by those who persist in it. If there were no Missouri overture the South Carolina one might seem something easy on which to join and sign. As it is, it is a diversion and rejection of the ownership of our sins, and thus not simply inadequate but, in my opinion, a representation of a state of denial.
For some the SC overture might be an escape either into self-righteousness, or an angry rejection of blame for what is hardly deniable. I grant that others might honestly be confused but I am afraid the drift toward this alternative has pernicious consequences. There should be no confusion since the historical facts of some our founders taking Scripture out of context to defend segregation, ban inter-racial marriage, and thus aid and abet the demeaning, image of God denying and often violent racism of De Jure segregation has been clearly documented.
I have heard some say that even though these things might be true those who held racist views “lived in another era.” The question isn’t what historical period they lived in, and some of course are still living who held and stated those views, but were their views wrong, were they in fact sinful? If the answer is, “yes, those views and the actions they supported were wrong, and yes they were sinful” then have they repented or at least renounced them? If they have not repented or renounced them, has the church which gave them shelter and even prominence repented and renounced those sinful statements and actions?
As far as I am aware no one has asked for a “witch hunt” to drum out anyone who published error or evil, or whose congregation obstinately refused inclusion of various races and ethnicities. We have not sought to lynch those who refused to love their own brothers and sisters of the Spirit and thus put the lie to the image that they truly loved God. No, only that folks own up to what happened, and what should have happened, and help bring healing and unity in the church. The fact is that the Matthew 18 process has been gently attempted, and not only rejected but condemned as an attack on persons of prominence.
Thank God our testimony as a continuing church is not simply that of those who wished to continue segregation. Jesus has always had heroes, in the south and in the Presbyterian Church, who stood up for truth, and loved everyone, and called for justice. The refusal to distance ourselves from the words and actions of those who advocated injustice keeps us from properly celebrating those who were champions of it
As long as there is an obstinate and stubborn refusal to humbly admit the truth, and accept the reality that this has brought shame to the message of Christ, it will cause African Americans who are drawn to the Reformed faith and wish to join our fellowship to stumble over what it is we actually represent. It will put them in a place of severe cultural and ethnic challenge within their own cultural groups, and cause pain in their own conscience.
I have heard some Elders say they disagreed with some things that happened during that Civil Rights period, and claim that the Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1965 were wrong and made mistakes. This of course has nothing to do with the issue at hand, it is an irrelevant comment. The overture from Missouri and such as those that agree with its spirit are not a defense of any particular legislation. This is not an entrance into the affairs of the magistrate or the State. This has to do with the sins of the church, the “continuing church”, and the portion of that continuing church that wanted to continue segregation and thus racism. This is squarely in the context of the church being spiritual and how it’s members advocated or violated the ethical and moral demands of the Gospel.
Others have made comments that they fear this is all “political correctness” and motivated by what is happening in the streets and from groups like Black Lives Matter. This too is irrelevant. Events in politics, the media, and the street may have all kinds of motivations. Will we not do right because others have the wrong motivation? Our motivation has to be the glory of God, the witness of and for Christ, the defense of the Truth and what is true, and the peace and unity of the Church.
The issue will be joined in Mobile. We all ought to be praying for a godly, honest, humble, and open conversation. We all ought to be aware that the wrong decision can actually hold our denomination back, and roll back many of the gains we have made in these issues thus far.