Thinking About…Sins of Racism

The past two Sundays I have preached sermons (found here and here) on the topic of repenting for the continuing sin of racism, especially within the church. These sermons have described (and relied on) a resolution that City Church brought to our regional Presbytery (a group of about 20 churches stretching from Fredericksburg to Hopewell). The resolution calls on our denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America) and its member churches to recognize and repudiate the sin of racism, specifically as it was manifested during the Civil Rights Period of the 1950s and 60s. My hope, more than anything, is that dealing with this topic has spurred you towards clear-eyed thinking about the sin of racism.

What is the nature of this sin of racism?

It’s varied, of course. A helpful resource here is Sean Lucas’ book For a Continuing Church. Lucas is a PCA pastor in Mississippi and a historian whose book is a definitive account of the Southern Presbyterian Church. Efforts of conservative leaders in the church to retain the Biblical and theological integrity of the faith were mixed with opposition to what were deemed ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ efforts of the Civil Rights Movement. Such opposition included denunciation of Martin Luther King, Jr., by many denominational leaders. Many of these churches insisted on the “spiritual mission” of the church (that is, the church should focus on evangelism and mission rather than societal issues) as an excuse for preserving racial solidarity and neglecting equality for all races in the church and in society.

I described some of the particular racism closer to Richmond by telling the story of Prince Edward County, Virginia, which has been called the forgotten chapter in the Civil Rights Movement. You should read about it for yourself. Fan resident Kristen Green has written a powerful memoir called Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, which recounts the painful and scarring history of Farmville, Virginia. When the PEC school board decide to close all public schools rather than integrate as mandated by the Supreme Court in its Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the white community banded together to establish private Prince Edward Academy. When Prince Edward Academy needed classroom space, it went to white churches, including Presbyterian churches. The leadership of one Presbyterian church voted 10-2 to allow the white-only school to use their space, taking pride in their ability to ensure segregation. We’d all like to think that we would have been the minority dissenting from these racially motivated, segregationist actions. Instead of getting ourselves of the hook, we should consider the ways that our hearts and actions have been complicit in perpetuating segregation in our own time.

Why confess sin that we didn’t personally commit?

There is strong Biblical warrant for God’s people confessing sin they themselves did not commit. Nehemiah 1 recounts this prayer: “O Lord God of heaven, let your ear be attentive and you eyes open, to hear… [confession of] the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned.” Jesus, in Luke 11, charges the present generation with the sins of their fathers. In Jesus’ assessment a failure to repudiate past sins is equivalent to a willingness to perpetuate them.

There is also historical precedent for confessing generational sins. About 15 years ago the PCA acknowledged and confessed sins of racism related to slavery during the Civil War period. However, that repentance did not extend to include the Civil Rights Period. The present resolution is an effort to acknowledge gaps in that prior repentance.

Finally there is theological significance for repenting of these covenantal sins. Corporate identity is a foundational concept in Scripture. Both the Old Testament people of Israel and New Testament churches demonstrate corporate responsibility for the sins of individuals within the community. The community is held responsible for collective sin. Thus, the Christian ought to be willing to say, “The sins are mine although I didn’t personally commit them.”*

Why repent as a whole church rather than as individuals?

It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. When an institution fails to apologize, the silence communicates powerfully. I see our particular historical moment as a gracious opportunity for the church to show the beauty of Jesus that comes through confessing sin.

We are admitting that it’s not simply that individual men or churches sinned during the Civil Rights Period. These men and churches created and sustained institutions that were segregationist, racist, and supremacist. The consequences of these unjust institutions are still with us and continue to haunt the PCA. Because the sin is systemic, the repentance must be, too. Of course, in no way does this mitigate the responsibility for individuals to confess and repent. In fact, the whole purpose of this resolution is to foster such a spirit of repentance.

What will the fruit of repentance for this sin look like?

Just as the specific sins of racism were varied, so the fruit of repentance will be varied. It’s important, though that we bear real, discernible fruit. Saying, “I’m sorry. Now just get over it” is not a strategy for racial reconciliation. Saying, “I’m sorry. Now may the Spirit lead me in faithful response” is a first step.

In earlier drafts of the resolution I resisted explicit language outlining the fruit of repentance, thinking it better to leave specific action up to individuals and churches. My mind was changed by those who offered concrete suggestions towards how we can begin (however slowly) to unwind the oppressive effects of racist policies within the church and larger society.

And so I emphasized establishing interracial friendships and developing minority leadership as two tangible evidences of our repentance. Surely there should be others. But in City Church’s context, as a highly relational church that has grown primarily through invitation and lifestyle evangelism, our friendships matter. Some of the value of friendship is learning to hear from other voices and see the world through different eyes. A dimension of this can be achieved through diversifying our Facebook friends, our Twitter feeds, and our IRL networks. A start may come by reading from new perspectives like that provided by the Reformed African American Network blog and podcast.

Likewise in City Church’s context, adjacent as we are to VCU—an almost 50% non-white campus—the opportunity to foster minority leadership is significant. At every level of church service and leadership we desire to see participation that reflects our neighborhood and the rich palate of God’s people.

But this is only the beginning. The Reformed faith rests on the idea that the whole life of the Christian (and the Christian church) is one of repentance. Let us submit to the Holy Spirit of God and look with expectation to the harvest of repentance He will produce in us and through us.

*Idea borrowed from Pastor Duke Kwon