The Gospel Coalition’s George Robertson Calls on White Members and Leaders of Evangelical Churches to Repent of Their Passivity and/or Proactivity During the Jim Crow Era

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“I love the Presbyterian Church in America!” In my 25 years of attending PCA General Assemblies, I’ve never heard that public confession of affection more than at this year’s meeting of our highest court.

But what’s more meaningful to me is that I heard it often from my African American colleagues. Their saying “I love you” personifies the gospel, since neither our denomination nor our heritage has a track record of love toward minorities.

With a personal overture of repentance for the conservative church’s actions and/or indifference during the civil rights struggle, Ligon Duncan and Sean Lucas sparked a movement of public repentance by the gathered PCA that was far more intense than any of us envisioned. Because some brothers thought an even more effective resolution could be brought to next year’s assembly—a resolution with more substantive action steps toward demonstrating the fruit of repentance—the original overture didn’t make it to the floor. That inability to discuss the overture officially led to a prolonged discussion and time of prayer. God can beat straight blows with crooked sticks!

When I thought the resolution was going to make it to the floor for debate, I jotted down some notes for a speech. I share them here because I need to as an act of personal repentance. I need to as a representative of my congregation and her officers’ repentance. And I want to for the encouragement of all who long to see the church of Jesus Christ on earth resemble her complexion in heaven.

Matter of Love

As white members and leaders of evangelical churches, we must repent of our passivity and/or proactivity during the dark days of our nation’s Jim Crow era. We must repent of our passivity—our sins of omission in which we failed to seek justice, follow the Golden Rule, and resist the cultural temptation to hoard power. But we must also repent of our activity—the ways we actively contributed to and participated in the sinful and exclusionary culture of the day, both knowingly and unknowingly. Jesus said that whether or not you’re actually guilty of offending your brother, if and when you learn he has something against you you must “get going” and pursue reconciliation with him. Even if you’re in the middle of a worship service, you must “leave your gift and be reconciled to your brother.” Through the decades we have learned our African American brothers and sisters rightly have “something against us.” In their years of struggle, even to the present day, we have failed to validate their oppression and at times have contributed to it.

As one who grew up in the Southern Presbyterian Church, I must confess my own as well as my people’s sins. When racist jokes were told by my church friends and mentors, I not only laughed—I repeated them. They haunt me, as Paul’s memories of killing Christians must have plagued him every time he met the surviving family members of his victims. On May 11, 1970, Charles Oatman, a 16-year-old developmentally disabled African American boy, was brutally killed while in the Augusta jail charged with murder. His mother had left a gun within reach and with it he had killed a younger relative. When his family was called to the scene, they found his body covered with cigarette burns and marks from being stabbed with forks. His aunt Carrie fainted at the gruesome sight. This event on top of the third-world condition African Americans were enduring in urban Augusta set off the infamous race riots that burned more than 100 city blocks and resulted in the shooting deaths of six other black men. In all the news reports housed in the archives, one thing is ominously missing. First Presbyterian Church is never mentioned. We said nothing. We did nothing. My African American neighbors and colleagues have never forgotten that we were silent. No, it wasn’t our members who beat him to death, but our silence was a form of complicity.

Privately and publicly, we have said to our African American community, “We are guilty. Please forgive us.” Those whose cup overflows with grace have more than enough resources to confess generational sin, even if they are not individually guilty of it, even if they were not personally present during the time of the offense (Dan. 9:8). Still, we share in this guilt through corporate solidarity. Just as we own the victories and beauties of our tradition during every General Assembly, now we must own the failures of our tradition too.

Even more amazing, those who still bear on their bodies and souls the marks of abuse have said, “We forgive you.” And what overwhelms most is that they are willing to trust us again.

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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition
George Robertson

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