PCA Statement on Racism

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The Presbyterian Church of America, which for those who don't follow denominations is the most recent splinter group off the mainline Presbyterian Church USA (and the more conservative of the two) has issued a pastoral letter on racism. Thanks to TulipGirl for pointing it out.

It's fairly interesting for a number of reasons. It gives a biblical theology of race and race relations. It contains an apology for and expression of repentance from the racist past of Presbyterians, whom they see as their direct forbears.

Then they describe racial distinctives, with awful punctuation because it's a list, so I'm taking some liberties with that without changing the words. First, they're "distinguishable categories; they are not irrelevant, but they are not defining categories that prohibit unity in the worship, fellowship and mission of the Body of Christ, and they are categories included in the distinctive and eternal celebration of God's work through the ages." This is an excellent summary of the biblical emphasis in ways that I don't think most people today would think to focus.

I do have to be picky about a couple things. Their definition of racism ("an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races") seems to me to rule out some things that are perfectly fine. For instance, if someone develops a fashion sense through growing up in a black community, thus valuing ways of dressing that are more common in that community, one has made a value judgment of what one race tends to do above others. There's nothing wrong with this.

They say that racial differences "always include physical appearance and its underlying genetic structure that are hereditary and unalterable." I just can't agree with that. Racial differences, to some, arise merely from parentage, even if the physical appearance (and therefore the genetic struxture that gives rise to it) aren't present at all. That's how the one-drop rule is supposed to work, and many people function with exactly such a rule, racist though it is.

They helpfully divide racism into three categories, admitting that it may not be exhaustive. Racial dogma is explicit beliefs affirmed against another race. Racial prejudice is "judging people by the color of their skin, rather than by their character" and involves fear, hated, suspicion, and preconceived judgments. Racial dominance is any inequitable treatment because of race.

I'm fairly impressed that they've given the resources here to have what's probably more exhaustive an account of the various kinds of racism than they seem to think. I'm a little disappointed that they didn't draw out those kinds, because I think those are the most damaging but least visible kinds of racism still around. Their description of dominance, for instance, does allow any kind of institutional racism you want to describe, provided it really is inequitable. (It even could include affirmative action if that can properly be described as inequitable.) It doesn't draw that out, though. It should. In the places where there are structures in place that cause racial dominance, most people in positions of authority don't notice it, and those affected by it can be hindered in their attempts to succeed in that place. A good example would be the tendency to provide roles for black women in popular films but to fill those spots with light-skinned black women who better fit the aesthetic sense of most white men's concepts of beauty. This policy derives from racism of the past, which caused current standards of beauty, most of which are simply unquestioned by the people who have them who don't see it as residual racism.

The second place I think they've done a good job giving the resources to name racism as racism is with residual racism itself. They don't explicitly point out that it's racism to have unquestioned assumptions about people simply because of race. If I assume a young black man dressed a certain way is dangerous when I drive through a certain part of town and roll my windows up and lock my doors, I've exhibited a racist attitude. They've nicely distinguished this from racial dogma. I'm not a racist for doing this. A racist is someone who espouses racist dogma. I'm residually affected by racism in society, though, and it's a manifestation of racism. Another example would be Crayola's use of 'flesh' as a color for crayons in the 80s. They just weren't thinking about black people, which is a result of thinking of white people as the norm, which is a result of racism. Racism is at work in the decision of those people who were not themselves racists. They were continuing a racism they wouldn't have endorsed if it had been pointed out to them (as evidenced by their recall of it upon request from those who did understand its significance).

What I don't like is that the definition as stated doesn't make clear how easy and how common the prejudice involved with residual racism is. I don't believe there's anyone in the United States who doesn't have some residual racism. This document gets into that later, but it doesn't focus on what seem like natural responses. It focuses on judging, not on false assumptions or even immediate and reflexive reactions. This kind of residual racism is especially common among those who don't spend a lot of time with people of other races (or with whatever particular race is in question). Even those who do whose particular roles with people of the other race are of the wrong sort aren't going to make as much progress in this. I tutor a lot of black athletes at Syracuse Univerisity, and I think it's helped me understand people in that group of people to some extent. It hasn't made me their peer, however, and I think their white teammates, especially the ones who make serious attempts to be part of their lives, will grow in understanding of the young black male in ways I haven't through my tutoring.

A couple implications of racism were thought-provoking. They say it's idolatry, because it involves finding your primary identity in your race rather than in God. I think this is true even of much residual racism, and most white people don't see this in themselves. I also see it in black identity that's placed above identity in Christ, as many black politicians seem to do. I think they're right to label that idolatry. They also want to say that racism corrupts the doctrine of redemption, since redemption involves bringing those who are far away (i.e. the Gentiles) near to God. If some who are far away are denied being brought near to those who have also been brought near, it's in effect denying this crucial consequence of the gospel. I don't think outright racism is require for this kind of denial, though. Merely refusing to darken the door of a church that's primarily of another race also does this (as one prominent black leader even claimed Jesus would do). Refusal also doesn't require insisting on it as a principle. Refusal can involve simply not ever doing it. This is a problem among both black and white Christians.

It's incredibly refreshing to see prayer, self-examination, and repentance as the first steps in their recommendations for how each person should respond. There's an excellent sense of the biblical identification with one's group in passages such as Daniel 9, Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Luke 9 11. Americans tend to be so individualistic that we reject group responsibility, therefore distancing ourselves with thoroughly biblical understandings of responsibility and identification with those who did things that we didn't personally do simply because they are in fact identified with us in Christ.

They list some helpful questions to ask about whether your association with those like you is merely natural association with those who have similar background, interests, and preferences, which they say is fine. Are the desires of any involved for racial separation itself? Do the separations seem to be viewed as important and worth insisting on or merely an accident of history and family relations? Is someone's presence in the group viewed as a choice that they could have made differently, or is it just assumed that they would do this without thought of alternatives? When a community has a shared culture, value system, and language, it's much easier to use that for shared public worship and ministry to the rest of that community that shares those things. Even so, they emphasize that "such affinities become barriers to the Gospel mission and testimony of the church when the desire to associate only with like persons becomes justification for the active or passive exclusion or segregation of persons from different backgrounds or for the devaluing of their contribution to the body of Christ."

They seem to be saying that when a group wants to be separate in a context of diversity, that's wrong. When they congregate together because of geography or language barriers, it's ok. What I'm not clear on is what they think of two churches across the street from each other, one pretty much exclusively white and the other pretty much exclusively white. What should they then do? Should they continue their ministry to their own racial communities? Should right-thinking people in each join the other and leave the segregationists behind? Should one congregation go join the other? Should they merge, and if so how do they deal with different philosophies of ministry, of worship, of teaching, etc? They clearly want to say that it would be best if there weren't these segregated congregations, and I agree. It's less convenient to resist such situations, because it's easier to have a ministry in which everyone shares the same cultural values, manners of speaking, and preferences for things we have freedom to differ on within biblical guidelines. What I'm not sure about is what they think should be done about it and if it's wrong if they don't, given that these congregations are already established, choose to merge or to send half their members to invade the other congregation.

They do list some helpful second steps (beyond prayer, self-examination, and repentance) for ways to begin racial reconcilation. "Examination of the patterns, language, and culture within our churches that erect barriers to other races" is something most predominantly white groups won't do. It's silly to expect a white congregation to produce the best gospel music so that black people will become members of that congregation. I think it's silly to insist on any particular musical style, no matter your racial background. I'm not sure that should be a barrier. I do think some things white congregations do will necessarily be barriers to black attendees. Social justice is one. As much as liberation theology goes too far in replacing the gospel with social justice, many white theological expressions refuse to acknowledge that social justice is part of the gospel. It won't be until white congregations can express the gospel in terms that include its significance for social relations, including racial problems in our own context, that racial reconcilation will take place. Justice needs to be seen not just as the judgment of God that mercy will balance out. It needs to be seen as God's justice for the downtrodden and helpless.

Another important step should be "intentional efforts to raise up church leaders and share leadership in the church across racial and cultural lines". I tried to argue for someone's inclusion in a ministry team a few years ago, someone who happened to be a minority in that context, and a friend deeply committed to racial reconciliation dismissed that as a legitimate reason at all. I agree that it shouldn't be a sufficient reason, and perhaps we shouldn't have policies that require us to select someone on a racial basis when someone else is much better qualified, but this seems to me to be a legitimate factor when trying to build up a congregation that glorifies God in its representation of the diversity within the church as a whole. If someone is capable of the task, fits the biblical requirements for leadership, and will help reach out to a minority community, I think a white church is obligated to consider very strongly whether they should appoint that person to a position of leadership, even if someone else might be a little more effective at the position. It may be worth it. Having a more diverse leadership will also lead to more situations where the forms of worship would grow more diverse, which would help lower the defenses of those with wrong but deeply-seated opposition to worshiping in a "white" way.

Their advice on the poor is very wise. Race and poverty are so associated in many people's minds, and to some extent real numbers back up a disproportion, so dealing with poverty is crucial to dealing with race. However, assuming connections between race and class is one of the most dangerous things someone might do in this whole area.

Finally, they point out that racial reconciliation is going to involve cross-cultural ministry in our own backyard. Missionaries are trained for cross-cultural ministry abroad. That's where we see the action. Cross-cultural ministry right here is just as important. Sometimes it's with immigrants, and sometimes it's just because two racial groups have in many ways treated each other as culturally distinct. Sometimes this is exaggerated, but compare the average black church and the average white church, and then try to argue that there aren't cultural differences.

I love one of the statements in the amendments section. "The heinous sins attendant with unbiblical forms of servitude�including oppression, racism, exploitation, manstealing, and chattel slavery�stand in opposition to the Gospel." They're excellent at pointing out exactly what was wrong with American slavery and the practices that followed it, but they quite rightly won't proclaim all kinds of servitude wrong. I like it when people are careful enough that they don't say false things. But what follows is what's really interesting. They admit that the effects of that wrongful slavery have led to social and economic aftereffects, and they insist on not allowing this document to go as is without confessing it and repenting of their pride, complacency, and complicity in these matters. The all-too-common "racial reconciliation is being nice to the person from across the racial line" won't be allowed here. Any practices in society that are mere effects of the history of slavery and its consequences are still something I'm involved in if I'm taking advantage of any ways that white people tend to benefit from those effects of slavery. I think that's right.

9 Comments

Truly outstanding post. The document itself is very thoughtful, and so is your commentary. I especially like the statement about racism as idolatry.

I grew up (meaning salvation D-Day + 12 years) in a culturally black church (though it had something of a mixture of races), and I believe that associations based on shared cultural values are not only inevitable, but in general, OK. Are all churches in racially mixed urban centers supposed to be perfectly represented of the races in those cities? I don't think so. The key, to me, is that all sides should being willing to accept "the other", whoever that is, as much as humanly possible. I don't think you necessarily have to merge two disparate churches across the street from one another, but, on the other hand, a potluck or two on occasion would be a nice beginning for two churches that don't talk. Actually, I appreciate that some people realize it's can be a inherent problem and are taking some novel approaches in dealing with it.

But, I disagree with you (on small point, really) in that I feel what you call "residual racism" isn't escapable. It's not to excuse it, but all human behavior is sinful on one level or another, esp. the thought life. Human beings are inherently categorizers - the mind is built for it - and I don't think one can fully escape stereotypes and categorizations of another group of people anyway. Also, no group of people is without faults of group behavior in any case, and some stereotypes are based on a kernel of truth. I don't think that's the voluntarily sinful part as much as is letting it influence your decision-making. The great thing about that church was that we talked about it. Black people weren't afraid to talk about negative behaviors of white people in front of them (which isn't something that they normally do), and vice versa. But, that didn't mean we liked all behavior of the opposite group. In the end, you can't make people like a particular expression of culture, even when they understand it thoroughly. I think the PCA recognized this fact well, if putting it in more "positive" terms like "association", etc.

In the church that I grew up in, I came to see many negative aspects of group white behavior against blacks that I never previously saw or thought of being white myself, and having largely white associations before that time (for example, "white people are hard to get to know" was one complaint I heard many times, and over time I realized that, in general, they were right. When I left that church and went to a more "white" church with just a few black people, I knew all those black people within a few Sundays, and the rest of the congregation took me years to get to know). But my association with that church also showed me the negative undersides of black culture and group behavior as well, and my close proximity to it didn't assuage some of my previously held notions.

But, to me, in the end that was fine, because a) on some level, both perspectives were actually based upon on a kernel of truth (however distant), but more importantly b) neither side could claim blamelessness on the matter. What ultimately matter most, however, was that I as "the other" was thoroughly accepted in that church, so much so that I still consider them closer to me than much of my natural family today. IMHO, that is what was important, not whether or not some black people in that church had negative stereotypes about me.

In the end, I'm no so much worried about another person's thoughts as I am their actions. To me, it's like marriage: love isn't what we feel, it's what we do ('If you love me, keep my commandments'). In as much as peoples' thoughts cause them to act, then I believe their thoughts need to be called out. But, other than that, I say like Churton Collins:

"We are no more responsible for evil thoughts that pass through our minds than a scarecrow for the birds which fly over the seedplot he has to guard. The sole responsible in each case is to prevent them from settling."

Anyway, great post.

Cheers,

The problem with simply stating that associations based on differences are ok and leaving it at that is that the gospel is supposed to remove distinctions that prevent full fellowship between brothers and sisters. It's more complicated by the fact that the very traditions that serve as barriers are developments in how Christianity is practiced. Still, I can't be content with a whole bunch of cultures all in one place all purporting to represent the church of Jesus Christ in that place who haven't recognized that the barriers that have developed between these cultural groups within the church are totally opposed to the gospel. Association is one thing, as long association along other lines is encouraged and sought out. Exclusive worship and gathering within one group is quite another. So I have to remain with my conviction that there's something wrong with two churches right across the road from each other whose only difference is racial composition and cultural values.

How to begin dealing with that is another story, and it may not be simple or quick. I could see potlucks as a way to begin that, but it could only be a beginning toward the ideal and not a solution in itself. I can't condone paying white people to attend a black church. At least it's not commercializing church in the sense of turning the gospel into a good to be acquired for a price, but paying people sort of masks where the real value is.

I think you've misunderstood a number of my points. I have nothing against stating true generalizations, as long as it's clear that it's a generalization and isn't true of everyone in the group in question. I don't think we can fully escape the effects of sin this side of the resurrection, but that doesn't mean we should just accept them as good. Residual racism is an effect of sin. I'm not sure I'd say we're morally to blame for all the ways we've been affected by the history of racism, but that doesn't mean we're not responsible for fighting it.

Thoughts lead to actions, and Jesus emphasizes quite strongly that what's in the heart is more important than what appearances you can fake. If you have a real bias in your heart against someone, then you can choose to love the person and oppose that bias within you or you can choose to pretend you care about such things and just go through the motions. I assume you're advocating the first, but your words sounded too much like the second for me to like your way of putting it.

From your comment about the negative undersides of black culture and group behavior, I'm wondering if you thought I was saying we shouldn't have critical attitudes toward those of another race. I meant nothing of the kind. There are some harsh criticisms I have of some tendencies in black culture in general and in the black church, and I don't think that's racism in any sense. That's actually out of a genuine concern for the well-being of those involved, both for the overall academic and economic improvement of black people and for spiritual health in the black church. What I consider to be residual racism is not having a negative attitude toward genuinely negative tendencies but having a lower perception of spiritually neutral cultural practices, tendencies, or preferences simply because one doesn't appreciate those practices. The reality is more complex, because tendencies or preferences that can lead to bad things can also be very good, but the distinction I'm making is important to see even with a morally mixed cultural pattern.

J,

Don't get me wrong, I'm not encouraging exclusive associations. I'm just saying that from a practical point of view, associations based on shared cultures (which often result in racial groupings) are inevitable, and as you said, what's important is that steps are taken to bridge the gaps.

I don't think I misunderstood your points. I wasn't stating that you felt otherwise. I was just adding my own two cents. Most of what you said in your reply, I couldn't agree with more.

As for thoughts leading to actions, yes I am advocating the first, not the second. I didn't mean faking actions, but acting in spite of feelings. There is a difference to me. This may just be me, but a person's heart is a matter that, in a sense of speaking, doesn't really concern me. Meaning, I can't know what is in a person's heart anyway, and in the end, what I want as a Christian is that people should treat me as Christ would have them treat me (and vice versa). When they do this, I believe Christ's strength is made perfect through their weakness (or for that matter, my own). I don't expect them to be able to fully expunge their residual biases, but I do expect them to behave as Christ would expect them to. This is why: Ecc 7:21-22 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22 Your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.

No, I didn't think you were saying that we shouldn't have critical attitudes of other racial/cultural expressions. Personally, I think the problem in society right now is that such criticisms aren't tolerated and are called "racist". That to me is absurd.

So, is "The Conservative Brotherhood" racist? (http://www.mdcbowen.org/p2/tcb/index.htm)
Judging by the criteria cited above, they might be.
-jdm

The above criteria had to do with two things:

1. Christians placing their identity in their race above their identity in Christ
2. Christians gathering only with their own race for worship.

I'm not sure what the Conservative Brotherhood has to do with any of this. At least three of them consider their identity in Christ to be far more important than any racial or political identity. I'm not sure they're all Christians anyway, and they're not gathering for any purpose, never mind for worship, so I don't see how it fails on the second issue either. Were you referring to some other criterion?

Jeremy & Neil, well said!!

Before we as Christians can reach out to distant peoples, we first have to begin at "home" and critically examine our hearts, with regards to the following;

Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Gal 2:20 I am crucified with Christ nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

Applying these two verses, amongst others, to the white and black congregations, and core theology being identical, then gravitating to the white or black Baptist church just because of cultural affinity would be a spiritual & physical copout, not to mention a duplication/waste of precious resources, as well as a diminishing of the fellowship of Saints in the body of Christ.

Otherwise, it's understandable if there were fundamental theological differences (i.e. Pentecostal vs Presbyterian, etc) between the two churches across the street from each other.

I don't agree about theological differences justifying separate congregations:

http://mt.ektopos.com/parablemania/archives/000486.html

In a class I'm taking, we are supposed to write on the topic: why are white, Christian societies racist, and was it white Christians who created this concept?

I found this article that contends that they are not racist. What is your position?

http://www.davidduke.com/index.php?p=266#more-266

David Duke is commonly thought of as a racist. I'd want to separate his views from the ones your class question asks about. I'm not sure exactly what Duke's views are, but I don't think views are primarily behind racism. Attitudes are. He denies that he has the negative attitudes. It's consistent with that that his views are harmful to people along racial lines, and therefore they might contribute to institutional racism. As I said, I don't know his particular views well enough to comment more than that.

As for the class question, it oversimplifies too many important things. There is something close enough to what we call racism in many societies that aren't white or Christian. As it happens, Christianity was the dominant background to the cultures that were dominant in the world when the modern concepts of race developed in the 19th century. So when racism as we know it today developed alongside those concepts, it was in a Christian-influenced culture. Of course, Christianity has been on the decline in its influence among the greatest thinkers since long before that, Immanuel Kant and others who were behind modern concepts of race weren't exactly faithful and committed Christians.

My own view is that there are natural explanations for why people can find themselves feeling disgusted by those whose appearance and culture are very different, and it's something worth fighting against, but it will happen. I don't see anything in Christianity that should lead to this. In fact, I see many things in Christianity that fight strongly against this. It's hard to believe all the statements in the Bible about the gathering of all believers in heaven from every tribe, nation, and language and still think racism is ever ok.

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