I had been a member of the southern Presbyterian church for ten years when, in 1954, two great issues confronted its General Assembly: (1) After our separation of 1860, should we unite with the “northern” Presbyterians? (2) Should we resolve to support the desegregation of this country’s public schools?
In that spring an official “yes” to the second question was on its way to Assembly vote from its Church and Society Committee. Ironically, just before the GA came the Brown decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ever after, southern Presbyterians were given little credit for that “yes.”
The two issues tragically intertwined. That same PCUS Assembly sent down to presbyteries a recommendation for approval of Presbyterian reunion. No one knows if the required 3/4ths majority of presbyteries might have come to pass, but we do know that the one issue fell afoul of the other, as huge resistance to Brown erupted across the South. The PCUS presbyteries voted “no” by a slight majority, far short of the required 3/4. No one doubted that Brown was one of the reasons.
The 122 years was a long time to wait for healing of Civil War wounds suffered by the Body of Christ in America. As a Methodist-born Virginian, I remember the reunion of the Methodists in 1939, achieved at the price of a compromise that ensured the survival of racial segregation in that church for years to come. American Christians mingle social ideology with their theology, ethics, and views of the church.
Behind the resistance of southern Presbyterians to church union was not only “The” War but also the teachings of theologians like Robert Dabney, who found support for slavery in the Bible and who helped invent what historian Ernest Trice Thompson dubbed the one original theological doctrine of the PCUS: “the spirituality of the church,” i.e., the insulation of the true church from all matters social, political, and ideological. It was original, and it was heretical!
When Thompson took over the Presbyterians of the South journal in the thirties — changed in 1944 to The Presbyterian Outlook — he sought to break the hold of that “spirituality” doctrine and to lead southern Presbyterians away from the prison of the Confederate past into some new futures: church reunion and deliverance from the hundred faces of racism in American and southern society. (See page 4 for a Thompson editorial on reunion.)
Having now lived for thirty years north of the Mason-Dixon, I have many reasons to know that racism, for centuries back, has been an evil haunting the whole history of this whole country. Southern whites know how frequently the worst case of racism has been credited to them in the minds of northerners. But a contest to determine who is the worst among evildoers all is bad business for Christians. Better, by far, the maturity of those disciples who, in the Last Supper, asked: “Lord, is it I?” Better too, by far, that friends of justice should have the grace to applaud struggles against injustice anywhere.
Ecumenical experience helped me personally here. The year before I was first elected as a commissioner to a General Assembly of the PCUS, I met with church leaders from around the world in the 1966 Geneva WCC Conference on Church and Society. There assembled were many critics of the Vietnam War. Some were northern Presbyterians. E.T. Thompson was wont to point out that military virtues are uniquely strong in southern culture. As chair of the committee in the 1967 GA that addressed the Vietnam question, I experienced the tightrope walk between war support and war resistance in that assembly. In our final resolution we questioned the war without declaring it deeply wrong. Meantime, UPCUSA Presbyterians were much more forthright in opposing it.
It was not so simple, however, to discern in that year our north-south differences on questions of racial justice. By then, under Randy Taylor’s leadership, some of us had joined the March on Washington of 1963 and marched in Selma in 1965. Our Church and Society Committee’s resolutions on segregation and Civil Rights, implicitly supporting Martin Luther King Jr., resonated with the UPC Confession of 1967. King made a controversial appearance in Montreat, but at least he appeared. Longer range, we in the PCUS GA were beginning to elect leaders to pastoral and denominational posts who defied the retrogrades of the 1950s. Eugene Carson Blake said of his own participation in a Maryland demonstration, “We come late; late, we come.” At least we were coming.
Those were the days when certain present and future leaders of Presbyterians north and south were already in advance of their own constituencies. My southern multi-generational short list of thirty: E.T. Thompson, James McBride Dabbs, Robert McNeil, Aubrey Brown, Robert Walkup, Malcolm Calhoun, George Chauncey, John Lyles, James Peck, Jack Marion, John Leith, George Telford, Albert C. Winn, Lawrence Bottoms, Bruce Robertson, Lucius DuBose, Carl Pritchett, Nell Morton, Jeff Rogers, David Currie, John McMullen, Rachel Henderlite, Joseph Roberts, Belle McMaster, Pat McClurg, James Lowry, James Andrews, Cliff Kirkpatrick, John Anderson, and J. Randolph Taylor.
Northern Presbyterians sometimes remarked with a certain puzzlement that so many southerners came to bureaucratic power in our new denomination. Was it mostly a matter of shrewd southern ecclesiastical politics? I have never thought so. The sample of names above comes from a much larger group of southern Presbyterians who deserved the name “prophetic.” One and all, they were rebels against “Rebel” stereotypes.
Easily forgotten is a historical fact often noted by E. T. Thompson. Several times in the post-1865 decades, presbytery overtures came to the GA of the PCUS asking that segregation of the races in the church be declared official PCUS policy. Every time the GA voted it down. Legal racial discrimination was on the rise in these decades in the South, but the GA had enough theological sense to know that segregation had no normative home in any Christian church that conformed to Acts 10.
After 1983, did we stop marching for justice as a denomination?
In the mid-1980s the National Council of Churches sponsored research entitled, “The Unchurched American.” Asked why they no longer were church members, some said there was too much involvement in social issues, and an equal number said not enough!
By 1983, hardly had the old evil of racism been opposed decisively by official Presbyterianism when we were having to address new forms of the evil: unemployed male African American youth in the cities, their imprisonment at a rate that shames the United States across the globe, immigration across our borders in numbers that unsettle our national commitment to a non-racial society, and the decision of our government to ask the poor of America to fight our wars. Meantime began the political rise of new conservative Protestants who turned the words “mainline,” “liberal,” and “ecumenical” into terms of religious contempt and captured media headlines around the issues of abortion and gay rights. Then came wars for oil and other American interests around the globe, upsurges of uncritical patriotism, terrorism, losses of good jobs, anxieties across the American middle class that fuel doubt about the blessings of economic growth in “globalization.”
Who is equal to all these issues? The caution, “Don’t pretend to address them all,” is wise, perhaps, but it sits uncomfortably in the tradition we call Reformed. A church whose current quarrels center on issues of sexual identity might be accused of skirting the great ethical ends of the church as mandated by Jesus in Matthew 25 and by the prophets of Israel. I am not sure that our General Assemblies are now less courageous in addressing issues of social justice than were our ancestors, but I am sure that, along with many “evangelical” friends, we have sometimes neglected the weightier matters of the law.
Two interrelated contemporary developments stand in the background of the above accusation of denominational agenda neglect: our drift toward congregationalism, and the resulting sag in financial support of our denominational structures. If we are to believe the statistics, overall gifts to the church by Presbyterians are not in decline. But lots of congregations, especially large ones, have decided that the GA should not set every priority. This is not the place to rehearse all the missionary reasons for a connectional ecclesiology; but, suffice it to say, the great issues of global poverty, war, immigration, environment, and corporate downsizing cannot be wisely understood or addressed from exclusive dependence on the resources of a local congregation.
To be sure, the professional expertise of many members of congregations, the Internet, and the rush of information into our homes every day via other media lessen our expectation of getting the “final word” on justice issues from church assemblies. But experience in attending a GA convinces many commissioners that they undergo some unique learning in those big meetings. Many testify that in a GA, “I learned a lot about the wider church. I listened to folk we had never met before. I changed my mind from some of the debates. And I will never forget how we worshiped together.”
For one, I will never forget how, in the 1983 newly united GA in Atlanta, we received reports from two delegations, one PCUS and one UPC, each rich with data from their trips to Central America to investigate the distresses of war there. Those two reports contained facts and insight denied us in reports of the U.S. State Department. It was the wider church at its best in deliberations on justice in international society.
If one accepts such benefits from active participation in all levels of a connected Christian movement, one has to pay for the benefits. Nothing is currently hampering the address of American Presbyterians to national and international issues of justice so drastically as the decline in our denominational support of national staff for work on these very issues. Dispute over this claim is bound to be vigorous, often beginning with the dismissive, “Who needs Louisville?” Or, “Who will need San Jose?” My uncompromising answer has to be: We all do.
Consider, to our grief, almost fifty percent staff cutbacks over the past decade in our denomination headquarters: Church and Society, Criminal Justice, Environmental Justice, Family Ministry in Peacemaking, communication, and other cuts in the Washington office, two staff of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Hunger Program, various cuts in the Commission on Religion in Appalachia, and–perhaps most momentous of all–the high-level Public Witness position which once, in the old PCUS, was called Corporate Social Mission. That latter position, until his recent retirement, was held by Vernon Broyles, who in my judgment has offered the most consistent support in the Louisville office for social witness. Coincidentally, this Atlanta-born minister has embodied that best of the southern Presbyterian tradition detailed at the beginning of this article.
Concerning all of these issues, we cannot expect an every-other-year GA spontaneously to generate leadership and follow-through without the work of such staff. I know that sometimes in the standing committees of the GA some commissioners distrust staff leadership, while others are learning how indispensable it is. To staff a concern is to take it seriously. To abandon a staff is to take it less seriously or not at all.
A declining national denominational budget and an increasing reversion to congregational mission may not be to desert social justice, but it lowers organizational energy for pursuing it.
I do not know for sure if the capacity of organized Presbyterianism for wrestling with, and speaking boldly to, issues of social justice in our country and the world, is in drastic decline. And I hope that the strongest advocates for justice in the history of the denomination will appreciate each others’ legacies enough to imitate the best in those legacies as encouragements for adding to them in a new day. Without regular attention to justice in society at large, no church can claim to be faithful to John Calvin. More surely, it cannot claim to be faithful to Jesus our Lord.
Donald W. Shriver Jr. is president of the faculty and William E. Dodge Professor of Applied Christianity, emeritus, Union Theological Seminary in New York. His most recent book (Oxford 2005) is Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds.