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PC(USA) Stated Clerk speaks out on police killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile

J Herbert Nelson portrait2LOUISVILLE (OGA) Once again the nation, and the African American community, in particular, is faced with two more high-profile killings of African American males. Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile of the Twin Cities area of Minnesota are the latest among a long list of publicized and unjustified killings by law enforcement officers in the United States. The questionable nature of African American males and females dying at the hands of police in our streets and in police custody is so pervasive in the United States that the U.S. Justice Department is leading the investigation in the Sterling case and has been asked to investigate the Castile case.

While these police killings are occurring, it is apparent that we remain a denomination that struggles to engage the truth about our own privilege. As church leaders, we find it easy to offer prayers for the families while mentioning a statement in our Sunday morning sermons about the struggles of racism in the U.S. Yet our depth of commitment to resolve the problem of blatant racism within our own communities is often shallow and meaningless. Therefore, police departments charged with the responsibility to protect and serve remain unchecked by common citizens, because we are not calling powers and principalities into accountability as a response to the gospel message. The Bible reminds us that, “You are from God, little children, and have overcome them, because greater is the one who is in you than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:4). Our ability to overcome the world by the God-bestowed power within us requires faith and courage.

The 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) renewed the denomination’s commitment to eradicating the vestiges of racism in every sector of our society, including the Church. Three significant actions were taken.

  1. The adoption of the Confession of Belhar provides a theological basis to call the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) into repentance for its complicity with the ongoing struggle of historic and current racism in the United States.
  2. The Stated Clerk and Presbyterian Mission Agency have been directed to present to the 223rd General Assembly (2018) a detailed six-year plan with explicit procedures for renewed implementation of the church-wide strategies in“Facing Racism: A Vision of the Intercultural Community,” approval by the 222nd General Assembly (2016).
  3. The assembly has called for specific efforts – both financial and through direct action – to address the worsening plight of the African American male.

The time is right to act! However, the time has always been right to act. These assembly actions have no meaning unless we as people of faith act to eradicate racism in our nation. Our efforts must begin in our own communities and require courage. Racism is a cancer that has historically pervaded our society. It blatantly disrupts the flow of building Jesus’ call for the Beloved Community.

Eugene Carson Blake, a former Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., spoke at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, better known as “The March on Washington.” He spoke chilling words of indictment related to Protestant mainline denominations. He said, “The white Church is late, but we are here now.” It is my prayer that in these critical times we can exclaim that we made significant decisions to engage the historic vestiges of racism in our time. This will require us being spiritually and physically present now, avoiding another institutional sin of being late on arrival. Our silence on the race issue is not an option anymore, and it really never has been. I invite sessions and mid councils to take concrete actions to address this epidemic in local communities and our nation.

Today I am traveling to Baton Rouge to be in solidarity with local and national leaders. I am hopeful to meet with Presbyterian clergy and lay people who are willing to engage this pertinent issue of our time. Please be in prayer for our deliberations and reliance upon the Spirit.