PORTLAND, Ore. – On June 20, the Social Justice committee of the 222nd General Assembly poured energy into addressing matters of racial justice and cultural proficiency.
About 10 proposals call for forthright, prophetic and impactful actions to be taken to address past and present, intentional and implicit manifestations of racial bias and injustice in our country.
The committee launched into the subject by considering a proposal from the Advisory Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC) that all six agencies of the denomination collaborate in developing, promoting and implementing a program of cultural proficiency training. Teaching elder Richard Young, of Grace Presbytery in Texas, commented, “This seems to be long overdue and needs to be enacted as soon as possible, and it is a common sense way of getting it done.” The committee adopted the proposal unanimously.
The Presbyterian Mission Agency board, on behalf of the Churchwide Antiracism Policy Team, also recommended adoption of a Churchwide Antiracism Policy that calls upon the whole church “to do self-examination of its participation in structured that support and maintain racism regardless of the good intentions of individual Presbyterians.” The committee also recommended that the Office of the General Assembly be directed “to make the revised policy and accompanying study guides available to congregations for study and discussion.” In fact, it calls for virtually every entity within the denomination to dedicate time and effort into taking proactive steps to address pervasive racist patterns.
The committee considered an overture from Baltimore Presbytery, calling for the denomination to establish and convene a “Racism Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The commission would be “charged with conducting a churchwide listening campaign to hear the voices of peoples long silenced regarding the state of institutional racism and oppression within our church.”
Jack Carlson, vice-moderator of the Presbytery of Baltimore, appealed to the committee to adopt the overture. “During the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray, we felt the anguish and acknowledged that our church has been complicit in promoting the culture of racism … [including] … the unconscious bias in our language. We believe that the time has come for our beloved church to deliver on its promises of recent decades.” He specifically pointed to the need to fulfill promises made in the 1999 GA paper, “Facing Racism: A Vision of the Beloved Community.”
Specific to the need for cultural literacy, the committee was introduced to language that crystalizes much of the dilemma of racism in the American churches: the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Addressed in an overture from National Capital Presbytery and by a report of a church Churchwide Conversation on Race, Ethnicity, Racism and Ethnocentricity, the doctrine is the assumption that America is a land “discovered” by its European invaders and oppressors – it did not truly exist until Europeans’ arrival.
The doctrine dates all the way back to 1452 when Pope Nicholas V issued a Papal Bull “Dum Diversas” and in 1496 by King Henry VII of England as a patent granted to John Cabot, which authorized and justified the destruction, killing and appropriating of the lands of indigenous peoples and nations. It was incorporated into U.S. law in1823 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case, Johnson vs. McIntosh, that European nations had assumed dominion over the lands of America upon discovery and as a result Native Americans had lost their rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations and retained a mere right of occupancy in their lands.
The resulting pervasive mentality dismissed the native “first peoples” who called this their homeland for millennia.
The recommendations call for the development of an extensive study of this mindset/doctrine, a wholesale repudiation of it and broad educational effort to extract it from the thinking and resulting practices of the church.
The two proposals on the subject were merged and adopted overwhelmingly by the committee.
All of these committee actions will next be considered by the General Assembly in its plenary sessions that will run from Wednesday afternoon through Saturday morning.