Race and the Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, no. 5

Sean Lucas

As I mentioned in the first post under this title (the other posts: no. 2; no. 3; no. 4), this series was a way of breaking up a paper that I gave at a pre-General Assembly conference sponsored by the PCA Historical Center. The paper was entitled, "Race, Civil Rights, and the Southern (Presbyterian) Way of Life," it draws on materials from my forthcoming book, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.

While I am a pastor, I am also a historian--I so what I tried to do in these first four posts (as well as a post at Justin Taylor's blog) was to speak to these issues out of my vocation as a historian and to tell the story. Of course, every historian will tell a story from a particular perspective; we now realize there is no such thing as "objective history." Out of our particular social and cultural location, we tell stories which are limited and fallible. That's because we are human: historians can't find or know everything and we make mistakes. And that means our tellings can be and should be contested. All that said, as a historian, I welcome others who will follow and who will correct, nuance, or balance my telling.

In this final post, though, I want to put on my pastor hat, and especially my PCA teaching elder hat, and reflect on how we might respond to the historical story that I've just told. 

1.    Confess and repent.

In Daniel 9, there is a stunning scene. It occurs during Darius' reign. Daniel is pondering the nature of the exile and especially Jeremiah's prophecy concerning the 70 years of exile. And as he ponders, Daniel is moved to confession.

But his confession is strange--because he doesn't confess his own private sins, but the sins of Israel and Judah that led to the judgment of the exile: "We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listed to your servants the prophets, who spoke in you r name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but us open shame" (Dan 9:5-7).

This wasn't simply lip synching or going through the motions. Rather, Daniel recognized his own covenantal complicity in what his fathers and forefathers had done and in bringing about the exile. And he confessed those sins and repented: "We have sinned, we have done wickedly" (Dan 9:15).

I believe that it should be obvious in reading my account of "race and the roots of the Presbyterian Church in America" that our fathers and forefathers sinned. But they didn't sin alone--we have sinned, we have done wickedly. We handled God's Word deceitfully to justify the racial status quo and to perpetuate injustice. We are involved by means of the covenant in these things. And we repent.

Some might say, "Hasn't the PCA already done this?" After all, in 2002, the PCA General Assembly confessed its covenantal complicity in chattel slavery; and in 2004, the PCA General Assembly approved a pastoral letter on racism (this version is the one recommended to GA, which approved it as part of MNA's report). Didn't we do enough?

No, we did not. Because as this historical work shows, our sins were much more recent and much more part of the history of our own denomination. We needed to confess our failures to work for racial justice in the context of the PCUS and as individuals and churches in the American society. 

And perhaps this year, during the 50th anniversary of the Voter Rights Act, the most important part of Civil Rights legislation, our denomination should take the opportunity to confess and repent as Daniel did: we have sinned, we have done wickedly, and we repent.

2.    Recognize the problematic aspects of the "spirituality of the church" doctrine.

While our system of doctrine and our polity commits us to believe and teach that the church's mission is spiritual, we also have to recognize that extending this teaching towards what we've commonly talked about as "the spirituality of the church" or the "non-secular nature of the church" is problematic on at least two counts.

First, it's problematic because we often pick and choose what public issues we want to address. That is one of the things that I try to show in For a Continuing Church. The same conservative leaders who reprobated the PCUS speaking on racial matters had no difficulty when the church spoke about the use of beverage alcohol or Communism. And even today, we will address abortion or homosexual marriage--which are huge public issues--but ignore poverty, drug addiction or single-parent families--which arguably impact our local communities even more. 

Second, it was especially problematic during the middle decades of the twentieth century (as it was in the nineteenth) because it was used to justify silence on racial injustice within and outside the church. Racial reconciliation is, of course, a biblical issue--Ephesians 2; Galatians 2-3; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Romans 9-11 all deal with the dividing walls between Jew and Gentile within the context of the church. When we preach those texts--along with the slavery texts in Eph 6 and Col 4--we have to make application to the need for reconciliation within the church between whites and blacks, Asians and Hispanics, and others. And we have to hold out the vision of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic church that is pictured in Rev 7.

And yet, because our fathers and forefathers held on to the "spiritual mission of the church," they chose to ignore the clear applicatory imperative of those texts. That was wrong--and we have to be aware that "the spirituality of the church" ideal can lend itself to defending the status quo in an unbiblical fashion. Surely if there was any time to address the magistrate about an extraordinary matter it was during the Civil Rights era (cf. WCF 31:4). But we failed to do so because we were hemmed in by our "spirituality" doctrine.

3.    Work within and outside the structures of the church toward reconciliation and justice.

I think one response to this historical story is a renewed determination to work towards reconciliation and justice, both inside the PCA, but also in the larger structures of our towns and cities. We have to realize that these are systemic issues and that, because of white majority status, we are blind to the way the system works to a disadvantage to our African American brothers and sisters.

And that's why we have to get the story straight. Both with my work on Robert Lewis Dabney as with this work about the roots of the PCA, my desire has been to get the story straight so that we can see more clearly our cultural blind spots and so that we can correct them. We have to listen to the ugly, painful, sinful story told as well as possible in order to move forward.

But we also have to listen to our African American brothers and sisters tell us how they perceive even our well-meaning efforts. Sometimes we hurt while we are helping and we don't realize it. For me, that has been one of the valuable aspects of Mission Mississippi: to be able to listen to other brothers in Christ and to reflect on their experience within our shared commitment to Christ. The "theology of friendship" behind that movement (as historian Peter Slade describes it) helps me listen better.

We can't just listen, though. We have to work to change structures. At our seminaries, we have to work to develop African American faculty members and administrators; at our agencies and committees, we need to include African American voices at the highest levels. My friends, PCA teaching elders Wy Plummer and Carl Ellis, have worked toward these things for years; their faithfulness in a difficult situation is an inspiration. But we need to do more and we need all of us to use our creativity and determination to move forward toward just structures within our churches and our local communities.

Much more could be and should be said. But hopefully this points us toward a larger conversation not simply about the roots of the PCA, but toward the future of our church. My hope and prayer is that a future historian will tell of the significant change over time that occurred in our generation as we demonstrate a greater fidelity to the biblical mandates of oneness in Christ.