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In recent days, the tumultuous impacts of the coronavirus have left a sense that the usual certainties and patterns of life have undergone a shaking of the foundations. This has been compounded by an appalling act of violence in the killing of George Floyd, and the many protests that have happened in its wake, as well as the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Though we have seen over the years too many of these killings, there was something uniquely chilling in the image of a man’s knee on another’s neck, something that echoed the years and even centuries of oppression, bereft of any sense of common humanity.
W.E.B. DuBois, an American sociologist and the first African-American to earn a Harvard doctorate, studied the African-American community in the Philadelphia of his day. He noted in 1899 the minimal medical attention they received, and the widespread poverty that marred their lives. He wrote that he could think of “few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.” A chilling phrase, “peculiar indifference,” that gives some sense of why these inequities and biases are so deeply entrenched and often unchallenged.
As people of faith, we are appalled by these recent killings, and turn to the resources of our church history of involvement in justice, and our confessions to guide our response to the pressing needs and inequities of the present day.
Those who lived through the tumultuous years of the 1960’s recall the long summers when people gathered and protested as the civil rights movement sought recognition and respect for persons of color, as well as an end to entrenched and systemic racism. Presbyterians had long been involved in pressing for reconciliation and social justice, to overcome indifference, seeing this as in accord with helping God’s kingdom of love and justice to come on earth. In 1966, the Presbyterian General Assembly meeting was held at our church here in Portland, and what was to become the Confession of 1967 was adopted. It grew out of the tensions of the 1960’s, with a call for reconciliation between all peoples, including a call for racial justice and recognition. It is striking to think of people wrestling with that confession in the very pews where we sit—in the Sunday School rooms where we study. I invite us all to return to these salient words once again for our own study and transformation.
The Confession of 1967 grounds the work of justice theologically, in connection to Christ:
The life, death, resurrection, and promised coming of Jesus Christ has set the pattern for the church’s mission. His human life involves the church in the common life of all people. His service to men and women commits the church to work for every form of human well-being. His suffering makes the church sensitive to all human suffering so that it sees the face of Christ in the faces of persons in every kind of need. His crucifixion discloses to the church God’s judgment on the inhumanity that marks human relations, and the awful consequences of the church’s own complicity in injustice. In the power of the risen Christ and the hope of his coming, the church sees the promise of God’s renewal of human life in society and of God’s victory over all wrong.
The Confession speaks of race as a pressing need of its time:
In each time and place, there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act. The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations. The following is particularly urgent at the present time:
God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.
Another Confession of the Presbyterian church, the Belhar Confession, was written in South Africa in the context of apartheid, and adopted recently by the PC(USA) as a document that calls us to pray and work for racial inclusion and justice. It echoes the earlier Barmen Confession in proposing what we believe, and therefore what we reject:
- that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.
- that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world;
- that the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity;
Therefore, we reject any doctrine…
- which…sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.
The church’s Brief Statement of Faith acknowledges the work of the Holy Spirit in the working for justice in Christ’s name:
In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
For congregations such as ours, who, while we include some persons of color, are predominantly white, these confessions direct our efforts to do what we can to help turn the tide of injustice and racism. We are to hear the voices of those long silenced, to listen to their stories and experiences, and to work with them for justice and for peace. And we can pray to move beyond the “peculiar indifference” that has too long characterized much of our society and our world, to create the just world that Christ came to inaugurate. May we draw on our tradition’s theological resources and history of advocating for equity to find ways to take the next steps toward the justice that is God’s intent for all humanity.
Christ gave his followers the great commandment, we are to “love one another,” as Christ has loved us. We pray to follow in his way of love, even, and especially, in such tumultuous days as these.
Take the 21-day challenge with our denomination to learn more on structural racism: