“Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation and Unity in the Church” is a provocative collection of essays written by 30 ordained churchmen within the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). While I am not a contributing author to this collection, I am privileged to have a role in this volume’s production (see page 301) and strongly believe in it’s collective purpose.
This is a critical year for the PCA as the denomination continues to wrestle with our racist past; some is overt while other moments are covert. 40+ overtures specific to racial reconciliation were sent by various presbyteries that our General Assembly will deal with this coming week. Heal Us, Emmanuel was written by PCA churchmen primarily intended for PCA churchmen and all others who love our denomination as we travel to Mobile, but this is not its sole purpose.
Racial issues flooded the news for the past two years — Ferguson, Charlestown, Mizzou, and more. It would be cynical to believe that this work is a product of political correctness; that could not be further from the truth. Heal Us believes that the gospel breaks through the dividing wall and becomes a platform for racial reconciliation and solidarity, which is seen clearly in Galatians 3:28 (93). Contributor Dr. Otis Pickett claimed, “Only Christ can redeem something as dark as two centuries of the institution of slavery, plantation brutality, legalized Jim Crow segregation, lynching without due process, violence against peaceful protesters, the murder of innocent leaders, as well as continued violence against Black males and our current situation of mass incarceration” (77).
God, thankfully, redemptively used the dark events of this past year to wake certain authors up to just how significant racial bias, hatred and bigotry continues to play within our culture. Heal Us has an introspective biographical feel as many contributors share their stories; I, for one, am thankful for their vulnerability. It pained me to learn how Rev. Kenneth Foster’s father told him to just do whatever the white man said (259).
Church planter Mark Peach wrote at length about what privilege looks like in his own life. “In a system where white culture is at the center and all other cultures are pushed to the periphery, being a white male has allowed me to isolate myself from racial injustice that is a part of American culture and of many people’s experience” (90). One of the privileges of being white is being able to pretend racial prejudice and hatred does not exist in our culture, simply because we do not experience it.
Mark’s story, in concert with many others, provokes me to examine my own life and privilege. I am a church planter who loves to dream and start new things. As a white male, I have been taught to make something of this world, be the best I can be, and solve other peoples’ problems as I can. But what if my attempts to live out that story and solve problems actually perpetuates and deepen other peoples’ problems? Perhaps God is already working in other peoples lives, and I eclipse that work by whatever I do.
So what is my role, as a white person, in the quest for racial justice in America? How can I steward my privilege and see every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord? That is what Rev. Peach wants us white folk to ask ourselves. And since the vast majority of ordained leadership in the PCA are white like myself, this is the question we need to ask within our churches, presbyteries and denominations. How can we steward our privilege well in order to advance God’s kingdom here on earth?
Heal Us pushes us to ask this question. It’s the biblical imperative, and it necessitates a corporate confession. This is where I was really taught, and there are numerous chapters that are pertinent to the current predicament of the PCA.
From my vantage point, there is a camp within our denomination that wants the past to remain the past and to not tarnish anyone’s name. Rev. Bobby Griffith in tandem with Rev. Dr. Sean Lucas call upon us to tell the whole truth about our storied, racial history. Truly Dr. Lucas does this at length in his recently published history of the PCA, For A Continuing Church. But in Heal Us these two authors briefly help me see just how far back our racist roots go. (I still need to finish Dr. Lucas’ history of the PCA.)
Then, Rev. Dr. Greg Ward raises an essential question: are segregationist hermeneutics still at play in the PCA today? As a case study he brings up an article written by PCA founding father, Rev. Dr. Morton Smith. Smith is known for defending segregation against integration and condemned interracial relationships. Ward takes Smith’s hermeneutical principles and shows how unbiblical they are.
Lastly, over the past year I’ve heard the question over and over again: why should we confess for the sins of a church that we were not a part of? Frankly, I do not really understand this objection. The PCA is a continuing denomination; we claim to continue the PCUS. We must publicly confess and repent for sins of those whom we share a covenantal relationship with. God holds our covenant community responsible for our actions, even our sins, collectively. That’s how God works. We must confess for our failures as a church during the Civil Rights Movement and wherever we’ve sinned.
As I’ve interacted with others – other PCA churchmen and folks within my own church – I’ve found that Heal Us could even be a better book if a few things or more were done.
- We’ve failed to include women’s stories and learn from their own voices. Truly Heal Usis a collaborative project that would not even exist without Julie Serven, but I am also thinking of Kim Ince, Maria Garriott, Michelle Higgins, and others who have a lot to teach us. (Thank you to Byron Borger for quickly pointing this failure out.)
- Kwon’s essay on corporate confession was excellent, but reviewer Rev. Nelson highlights further good questions he has. In Nelson’s own words: “A great missed opportunity of this book was to explore the nature of the repentance/confession that some call for. Chapter 24 is titled “Why we must confess corporately” but the article is only 4 pages long, and does not exegete Scripture so much as cite it and offer some quick application. Part of this exegesis should be anticipating objections: What are the limits, intent, and effects of covenantal repentance over racism? Who has covenantal relationships with each other to accomplish such a task? Is there a difference between confessing the iniquity of our fathers and confessing the sins of our fathers? “ These questions deserve answers. So there is still work to be done, but throughout the course of this past year presbyteries took General Assembly’s recommendation seriously to go home, study this issue and come back with a better plan. This work revealed overwhelming evidence that we do have much to confess for.
- Lastly, many readers question why we use certain words – Caucasian, microaggressions, and white privilege/guilt. These are words that our culture uses and are easily understood. Our Reformed tradition, via the doctrine of common grace, empowers us to interact with the social sciences, seeing any truth as God’s truth. These categories may carry baggage for some, but they still have value and deliver truth. I personally have some angst with Rev. Walter Hanegar’s use of white guilt. Truly guilt is meant for a redemptive purpose – to push us to repentance. Hanegar wrote: “We must voluntarily embrace cultural marginalization and endure the complex emotions of white guilt in order to experience the full joy of restoration” (132). He’s describing how guilt can be redemptively used. But any race – white, black, Hispanic, etc., is a gift from God. My privilege is a gift from God even. So I would rather ask the question how can I steward my Anglo-Saxon heritage and privilege well. Perhaps we’re saying the same thing, but it’s foggy. But this actually underscores why Heal Us, is so important. We have to talk through these things as a denomination and move towards shared understanding and, hopefully, a better language we can use to communicate God’s truth.
I had the joy of being on family vacation last week, and I saw my sister disciple her daughter by saying, “delayed repentance is not true repentance.” Friends, we took the past year to study our past. What have we found? Heal Us contains personal examples, historical evidence along with stories of redemption. Furthermore, the atrocity of this past week reminds me of just how much hatred is truly in this world.
Brothers, wherever we have sinned, let us not delay our confession and repentance any longer. The confession of sin within our heritage is the first step towards reconciliation, but we also need to repent and follow Jesus and not perpetuate the sins of our forefathers and the church we claim to continue any longer. Let us not delay.