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An Open Letter to the Faculties of Columbia and Austin Seminaries

To the faculties of the Columbia and Austin Presbyterian Seminaries,

As we approach together with all of you another of our denomination’s General Assemblies, we noted with interest your recent sincere statements of goodwill in which you call for patience, humility and forbearance. A number of items set to come before the assembly in Detroit certainly will be controversial. Your statements make clear your concern about the prospect of schism which could follow depending on how the voting goes. Should some among the intended audience of your statements receive certain votes unhappily, you foresee the loss of friends, congregations and donors. You fear that your institutional portions of the “unbroken body of Christ” might become broken.

Who does not shudder at the prospect that your beloved schools, among other beloved agencies within our church – and our denomination itself – could suffer because of the voting in Detroit? Many of us have walked your halls in Decatur and Austin, as well as in Louisville. We, too, long for peace. We, too, savor sharing the same pew with friend and adversary alike. We believe that the Apostle Paul was right to argue in his letter to the Galatian disciples that in the church, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek; there is no longer slave nor free; there is no male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

We also know that Paul’s argument was controversial. Many in those small, fragile Galatian congregations saw Jews as different from Greeks, slaves as different from the free, and men certainly as different from women. We know that his argument did not carry the day – in his lifetime at least.

Still, he made the argument, and he was right to do so, despite his provocation of controversy. Strivers for justice have always done so, and we celebrate them for their striving. That is why we take exception to your statements. Rather than striving for justice, you call for settling for an intolerable status quo. Rather than trusting that our commissioners at the assembly in Detroit will sincerely seek and find the mind of Christ together, you call for a superficial unity. While even acknowledging that justice delayed is justice denied, you call for delay.

Sisters and brothers, in considering the issues that divide us, you insist on a clarity that has never existed in the pursuit of justice. Many of us enjoyed the movie “Lincoln.” When was the issue of racial equality amicably clear while that equality was being pursued? When was the issue of women’s suffrage harmoniously clear while that right was being pursued? When was the issue of women’s ordination broadly, let alone unanimously, clear? Never while the faithful struggled to discern, persuade and fight their way to justice.

That is why we object to your well-intentioned, and no doubt deeply felt, call “to be patient…waiting for consensus…” With respect to some of the items set to come before the assembly, the wait has been heart rending. You write, “Perhaps the one thing worse than those in disagreement sitting on the same pew is those in disagreement NOT sitting on the same pew.” Martin Luther King Jr. knew of something worse: one “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

On April 17th, 1961, when calls for civil rights and racial justice provoked violent disagreement, some impatient professors at what used to be the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary welcomed a polarizing preacher to speak in the seminary chapel in Louisville, Kentucky: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When news of the event spread, the reaction was so intense that the seminary board of trustees voted to “express regret for any offense caused by the visit of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the campus of the seminary.” Deriders of the event delighted in pointing out that the seminary lost more than $250,000 in donations because of it, which would amount to more than $2 million today.

Were those impatient professors right to welcome Dr. King? Time has proven them brave and brilliant. As for that $250,000 lost in spiteful, hateful protest, we say that was money well spent.

We share your deep concern over the prospect of schism, and the impact that could have on all of you. We disagree with you over how to avoid schism, and perhaps over whether we can even avoid schism. What we can promise you is that we will not break our bonds with you.


David Oliver-HolderYours in Christ,

David Oliver-Holder
Bayfield, Wisconsin
Member of the Coordinating Team of Presbyterian Voices for Justice