Guest commentary from William Yoo
Recent encounters with students at my seminary and members of my church and presbytery remind me of Jesus’ two followers on their walk to Emmaus in Luke 24. After they witness the grisly crucifixion and hear perplexing rumblings about an empty tomb, the two left Jerusalem bewildered and profoundly disappointed. My conversations with fellow Presbyterians are likewise marked by anguish and confusion over the current state of affairs in our church. Regardless of our theological positions and geographic locations, we all bear wounds from the disagreements and departures of the past several years. Remembering Presbyterian schisms over revival, slavery and women’s ordination in the last three centuries, we know that divisive arguments are not a new development in our tradition. But because of our declining numbers and diminishing cultural influence in larger society, today’s PC(USA) is in unfamiliar territory. Like other mainline denominations, we are not accustomed to existing on the sidelines and margins of American religion and culture.
At the turn of the 20th century, Robert Ellis Thompson, a Presbyterian minister and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, observed that Presbyterianism occupied an important place in the national religious landscape because of its contributions to American theology, society and politics. It is hard for a church historian to argue with Thompson’s claim. Eleven of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterian, including John Witherspoon, then Princeton University president and the only Christian minister to sign the document. In the 19th century, college and seminary students across the nation fastidiously studied the works of Presbyterian thinkers like Charles Hodge and James Henley Thornwell. Pearl S. Buck, daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for her novel, “The Good Earth,” and emerged as an influential voice in American foreign mission policies. In the 1950s, Catherine Marshall rose to prominence as a nationally acclaimed bestselling author for her biography of her husband Peter, a Presbyterian pastor and chaplain of the U.S. Senate, and her own spiritual autobiography. Generations of Presbyterians before and after Thompson’s writing participated within the dominant centers of religious life, popular culture and political power.
As we move forward into a more uncertain future, it may be tempting to look back with nostalgic longing for the halcyon days of former renown. But I advise students in my church history classes to learn from the past but not dwell there. Rather than lament over what once was – the previous successes and failures of those who preceded us in the faith – I believe it is far more productive to utilize our past to faithfully interpret our present and guide our future steps. Like other Christian traditions, a multiplicity of diverse believers from within and outside the bounds of dominant culture shaped and enriched our denomination. Presbyterians on the social and cultural margins have shown us how to become a more inclusive and just community in our local worship and global witness.
Sang Hyun Lee, a Korean American theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary, incorporates the inherent creativity of his marginalized position as a racial-ethnic minority to envision new theological understandings of continuing Jesus’ ministry to the poor and the outcast. Katie Geneva Cannon, the first ordained African American woman in the United Presbyterian Church and professor of Christian ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary, demonstrates the power of the black woman’s voice to resist the evil forces of discrimination and proclaim the good news affirming the dignity of all persons as beautiful children made in God’s image.
Lee and Cannon are two examples of how Presbyterians find strength and creativity in the margins to construct an unbounded Reformed vision of life that enlarges our response to God’s grace as agents of reconciliation and love among the weak and vulnerable. Throughout our history, from the modest origins of the first Scots-Irish Presbyterian colonists to our newest immigrant congregations from Africa, Asia and Latin America, our churches serve as sacred places for God’s beleaguered – but beloved – people to receive healing, restore joy and revive purpose. Rather than yearning for past days of numerical abundance and cultural dominance, what would it look like if we embraced our marginality? How could we unite together as a denomination to discern new possibilities and enact our deepest convictions with hopeful resilience and imagination? In the midst of our division and weakness, God is calling us, as Cannon preaches, to be “prophets for a new day” who will not be tempted by the attractiveness of the way things have always been.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus, in the form of a stranger, accompanied the disciples on the road to Emmaus to converse and eat with them. After the stranger vanished from their sight, the disciples recognized he was the risen Christ and recalled how their hearts pounded with new life as Jesus walked alongside them in the marginal place between Jerusalem and Emmaus. They rejoiced and embarked on a new mission to share the gospel of their resurrected Lord and Savior to the ends of the earth. As we continue in our journey of faith, we too may discover God’s revelation where we least expect.
WILLIAM YOO is assistant professor of American religious and cultural history at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.