At the 43rd PCA General Assembly in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Ligon Duncan and I offered a personal resolution that called our denomination to “recognize and confess our church’s covenantal and generational involvement in and complicity with racial injustice inside and outside of our churches during the Civil Rights era” and to “recommit ourselves to the task of truth and reconciliation with our African-American brothers and sisters for the glory of God and the furtherance of the Gospel.”
As two teaching elders who love our church and its history, who have taught or are currently teaching church history, and who have served or currently serve large congregations in Mississippi, we are keenly aware of our past. Indeed, as Mississippian William Faulkner once wrote, “in our place, the past isn’t dead; it’s not even past.” In addition, I have spent the past 13 years working on a history of the PCA’s roots, which will be published this November by P&R Publishing. So we have both felt the weight of that past as we have ministered in our respective places.
We recognized that the PCA has confessed previously. In 2002, the 30th General Assembly adopted a resolution on racial reconciliation that confessed its covenantal, generational, and heinous sins connected with unbiblical forms of servitude. And two years later, we adopted a pastoral letter on racism. These are wonderful documents, but they named our sins from 1861-65, not our more recent sins from 1961-65. And it is those recent sins of commission and omission — preventing blacks from worship in our congregations, repeatedly offering “biblical” defenses for segregation, defending White Citizens’ Councils as appropriate organizations for Christians, and a general unwillingness to defend the basic human rights of our African-American neighbors — that need to be confessed and repented.
But our cultural captivity isn’t simply in the past. Rather, the purpose in confessing our past sins and failures is to see more clearly our own present-day failures to love our black brothers and sisters well and to use our positions and power to benefit them more than ourselves. The fact that too many (white) people ask, “Haven’t we confessed enough?” and “Shouldn’t they confess too?” demonstrates a general lack of understanding, imagination, and compassion in regard to racial injustice in American churches and society during the past 300 years.
The purpose in confessing our past sins and failures was to see more clearly our own present-day failures to love our black brothers and sisters well and to use our positions and power to benefit them more than ourselves.
Undoubtedly, part of the reason that General Assembly’s Thursday-night session happened as it did was because a significant portion of the Assembly recognized this to be the case. While we like to tell ourselves that we live in a postracial society, the events of the past year in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, Charleston, and other places demonstrate that we do not. The story of racial injustice in our country’s past continues to shape our present. I think our elders feel and know this to be the case as well for our denomination. Too many of us have had the experience of having to defend the PCA from accusations that it was founded as a “racist church.” Those accusations linger both because there are fragments of truth there and because we have never admitted the truth fully, confessed and repented, and purposed after new endeavors of righteousness.
Personally, I hoped that our General Assembly would act in Chattanooga. To my mind, the Lord was at work in tangible ways: Bryan Chapell’s wonderful sermon from Psalm 32 on confession, Kevin Smith’s clear and powerful sermon on the Sixth Commandment that dealt well with a number of our cultural challenges on just these issues, Jemar Tisby’s standing-room-only seminar on the image of God and race, the ethnicity panel where Thurman Williams dealt honestly with the issues of the black experience in our church. To have confessed within this context seemed to be fitting on so many levels, in line with what God’s Spirit was doing.
And it was disappointing to hear my fathers and brothers make arguments against the resolution that were unworthy of them. Not to know our history on these issues, not to be quick to recognize how they continue to provide barriers to those who are black and Reformed being part of our church, not to recognize how our covenant theology is not simply individualistic, but generational in this area too (Daniel 9: 8-15), not to be quick to confess when we learn that our brothers have something against us (Matthew 5:23-24) — this was difficult to hear.
However, in God’s mercy, I think the church is finally alive and awake to the need not only to own and confess our past, but also to demonstrate real fruits of repentance and a genuine determination to discover real and tangible ways to incorporate blacks and other minorities more fully within our church’s life. In order to do this, we desperately need more African-American teaching elders: It is unconscionable that only 1.2 percent of our teaching elders are black (51 of 4,416). But to see more minority leadership, we have to recognize that our unconfessed, unowned past continues to be a hidden wound that prevents our church from moving forward toward genuine diversity.
Our great hope is that the PCA of 2035 would be a genuinely multiracial church, both in our local congregations and in our higher courts. We will have failed if what happened at Chattanooga was simply one night of good feelings. And we will have failed if we confess our sins and own the need for fruits of repentance in Mobile next year and nothing really changes. What we are all hungry for is a church that looks more like Revelation 7: “A great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb … crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10). Our hope is that God will use all of this and all of us to produce this kind of worship in the PCA.
Sean Michael Lucas is senior minister at the historic First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he has served since 2009. In addition, he is associate professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary/Jackson.