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We, And Our Fathers, Have Sinned

“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.

Matter of ‘Authenticity’

One of my dearest friends, who also happens to be black and a high-ranking official in our city, told me soon after he started attending our church, “You’re sincere but not authentic.” He explained, “There is no outward indication through the composition of your leadership or your public statements that you distinguish yourself from your racist past.”

We are a sincere denomination and we are becoming more authentic. Let us become even more so. Overtures are acts of sincerity. But they must spur us to more authentic and objective acts of unity and reconciliation. Joint worship services and shared leadership are good steps. But there must also be true partnerships to effect observable changes in our communities—partnerships that involve mutual risk, trust, potential embarrassment, even persecution. In other words, if we’re going to call ourselves brothers and sisters in Christ, there must be some outward proof that actually makes a name for Jesus.

Matter of Personal Integrity

Not only did I grow up in the Southern Presbyterian Church, I am the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia, where that denomination was founded in 1861. While I cannot speak to all the motives for all Presbyterians in the antebellum South, I can say with some authority what our pastor and members were thinking at the time. Ostensibly, they were protesting against governmental interference in the church’s business. That point in and of itself may have been valid, but in our particular case as a congregation we were opposing governmental intervention that threatened our members holding the slaves sitting in the second balcony of our sanctuary. Eight months before First Presbyterian hosted the founding Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States, our pastor, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, preached a sermon titled “Mutual Relation of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible.” In it he argued slavery is not only sanctioned by “both the utterance and silence of Scripture,” but is also a “prime conservator of the civilization of the world, besides being one of the colored man’s foremost sources of blessing.” Benjamin Morgan Palmer, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, was elected moderator of that assembly. In his “Thanksgiving Sermon” the year before he alerted his people to an “emergency,” a threat against a “providential trust.” What was it? “I answer,” he said, “that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.”

Every week Wilson’s pulpit and Palmer’s chair remind me of three things. First, I must not be self-righteous in judging men’s past sins. I too have blinders that will surely necessitate the repentance of my children’s children. Second, the God who endured with my forefathers only because of Christ must endure with me as well. Third, I must live in a posture of repentance, daily asking the Spirit to free me from conformity to my age and transform my life by the renewing of my mind. Otherwise, I will inevitably repeat words as heinous as my forefathers’.

I haven’t come to these realizations on my own. I’ve learned them from mentors, like my father. When I was a relatively new pastor, my uneducated dad taught me an important lesson on repentance. He showed me how important it is to learn how to feel the pain of oppressed people and to be willing to let one’s heart be smitten by the truth at any point in life—no matter how threatening it might feel. One summer, he and I read Charles Marsh’s God’s Long Summer, an account of the atrocities in Mississippi during the 1964 voter registration drive. I felt like I’d discovered a deep dark family secret and feared he’d be angry that this book was just another “troublemaking liberal trying to make white Southerners feel guilty.” One evening at my parents’ home in Corinth, Mississippi, we discussed what we’d read. My dad, who had never lived outside the Deep South but whose heart in recent years had been transformed by the gospel, reflected with tears and said, “I never knew, I never knew. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I even went along with the conventions of the day, like calling a black man older than I was by his first name.” He taught me how important it is to allow the gospel to keep one’s heart soft to the pains of the world.

I’ve also learned these lessons from my church elders in Augusta. They’ve taught me how vital public confession of past sins—especially by a majority—is to racial reconciliation. What may feel to us something small—something that doesn’t cost very much—communicates integrity and a desire for genuine relationship. As we’ve admitted our church’s past sins we’ve gained relationships with African American brothers and sisters in our city. Our city is being healed as a result of such public confession by whites and blacks. Gospel-centered churches across racial lines are cooperating for the first time to do genuinely transformative ministry in our city. Further, African Americans are beginning to visit and join our church because they are attracted to this repentant posture. In fact, nearly one-third of our last new members class of 60 were men and women of minority ethnicities. 

Matter of Reconciliation

“They will know you are Christians by your love for one another,” our Lord says—not merely your doctrinal precision. And Paul reminds us often that the gospel of the Lord Jesus produces reconciliation. As Francis Schaeffer put it, “If we do not love one another in a reconciling way, the Lord gives the world permission to dismiss our message. A lack of reconciliation weakens all.” James Garfield, our nation’s most reluctant president, grew impassioned when he said the extension of full rights to African Americans had “liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both.” Seventeen centuries earlier, Justin Martyr reported: “We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.” When we view ourselves as one new humanity in Christ, even our enemies will be forced to say, “See how they love one another!”

Out of love for one another, with a prayer for authenticity, with a humble plea for integrity, and with a desire for King Jesus to get a name for himself, let us live in a posture of repentance for our own and our forefathers’ sins against our neighbors.


Editors’ note: This article originally appeared on First Presbyterian Church Augusta’s blog

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