Guest commentary by William Yoo
In the painful aftermath of the hateful activity and horrible tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, many Presbyterians condemned white supremacy as evil and committed to speak out against racism. Pastors revised or rewrote their sermons. Congregations offered prayers for the grieving and the afflicted. We participated in community rallies and vigils to stand in solidarity with the brave students from the University of Virginia who defied a band of torch-wielding white supremacists at nightfall and the courageous pastors and faith leaders who sought to drown out the racist rants and Nazi chants with Christian songs and hymns the following morning.
As a church historian, I find it heartening that more and more Presbyterians are convicted to end white silence and combat racial oppression. This wasn’t always the case. In 1831, three Presbyterian missionaries working in Cherokee land within the state of Georgia were arrested for their activism against unjust policies to forcibly relocate American Indians under President Andrew Jackson’s administration. Several presbyteries and synods in Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia protested the imprisonment of the white missionaries. But there was less support among Presbyterians for the graver injustice toward the Cherokees. By and large, Presbyterians in the 19th century remained silent as the U.S. government coerced most American Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River to sign unequal treaties and surrender their ancestral lands.
During the civil rights movement and the push for racial integration in the 20th century, the majority of white Presbyterians also remained silent. Reports from the General Assemblies of the northern and southern denominations denounced racism and promoted racial justice. In 1958, the uniting General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. called upon every congregation to welcome all “without regard to their racial, economic, or cultural background and condition.” But many congregations in the very neighborhoods that were becoming more racially and ethnically diverse opted to flee to the white suburbs. In Atlanta, several white churches stayed, but a high number of white persons, including some white church members, moved out of the city. Between 1960 and 1980, the white population in the city decreased by more than half – from 300,000 to 127,000. Some white Presbyterians were not silent, but they spoke out to preserve white domination. One congregation in Kirkwood, a neighborhood in southeast Atlanta, partnered with five other local white churches in 1961 to prevent realtors from selling homes to black residents and to discourage bankers from providing loans to black buyers.
As we look back at our troubled history and ask why far too many white Presbyterians chose to be silent about racism and complicit in racial discrimination, I don’t believe it was because they stopped attending their churches. Columbia Seminary’s library keeps the congregational histories of many white southern Presbyterian congregations in the archives. The Committee of Women’s Work in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.) initiated this project in the early 20th century to encourage local female church members to record the rich stories of each congregation for future generations to remember. When studying these documents, my students and I marvel at the ways in which these female historians wrote with meticulous precision and copious detail, which illustrates their profound sense of belonging to their congregations. But we lament how little they wrote about racial justice. We turn to the pages of congregational histories in Selma and Birmingham during the civil rights movement and all we find is silence.
In Romans 12:1, the apostle Paul instructs Christians, as recipients of divine mercy, to offer our bodies as “living sacrifices” as a form of “spiritual worship” to God. Because the Greek word for “spiritual” is logike (from which the English word “logical” is derived), some English versions of the Bible translate the phrase as “reasonable worship” or “logical worship.” As we seek to respond faithfully and effectively to the rise of the “alt-right,” a relatively new term to identify the enduring and evil program of white supremacy within the mainstreams of our nation’s history, we must discern reasonable actions and logical outcomes. Denouncing white supremacy is the first sermon. What shall we say in the second and third sermons?
We can begin by asking God to give us eyes that see the painful realities of racial discrimination and white privilege embedded deep in our country’s moral, political and religious life. In 1787, the U.S. Constitution defined enslaved African-Americans as “three-fifths” of a person when determining the number of seats a state was allotted in the House of Representatives. Three years later the U.S. government determined that only “free white persons” could become citizens. Persons of African descent became eligible for citizenship in 1870, but the changing legislation exacerbated anti-black racism with the escalation of public lynchings, discriminatory housing laws and lending practices, and unjust voting restrictions. Over 3,400 African-Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968, which amounts to nearly one black lynching every nine days. Unfair immigration laws favored applicants from northern and western Europe until 1965. In 1893, a prominent white Protestant pastor named Josiah Strong contended that “to be a Christian and an Anglo-Saxon and an American in this generation is to stand on the very mountain-top of privilege.” Despite his sincere commitments to social justice, Strong’s idea of ministry centered on the racist notion that God created white Christians to rescue persons of color from their debased conditions and degraded communities.
Presbyterians today do not talk about white people and communities of color like Josiah Strong. But an honest appraisal of our history reveals that while Presbyterians have been skillful academic interpreters of the Bible, they have been less effective at enacting scriptural teaching to form racially just and culturally diverse relationships in our everyday lives and local congregations. Whites comprise over 90 percent of our denomination’s membership and 98 percent of all white members belong to mostly white (over 80 percent) congregations. White privilege can manifest for Presbyterians when the message of racial reconciliation is undercut by the expectation of white assimilation. The signs outside the church doors welcome all, but the accompanying assumptions are that newcomers will adapt to white-dominant ways once they come inside.
We can no longer be silent. Yet we also must speak with honesty and integrity. If you are a white Presbyterian in a predominantly white context, a reasonable action and a logical outcome of your ministry is to call out the sinfulness of white supremacy as contrary to the love of God and challenge other white people to do likewise. But we should carefully consider what we say next about confronting racism and practicing racial reconciliation. The two are related but distinct ministries. White Presbyterians can do the former in predominantly white contexts, but the latter can only truly occur in authentic communities in which a diverse group of different church leaders and members representing a multiplicity of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds learn each other’s testimonies, share each other’s sorrows and build powerful circles of trust and accountability over a long duration of time. Some Presbyterians are doing this very work in diverse neighborhoods. Others will need to step out in faith and leave everything that is familiar to follow God’s call. As the redeemed people of God, we simultaneously hold on to the promise that all things are possible for those who believe and heed Christ’s admonition to count the cost of discipleship.
WILLIAM YOO is assistant professor of American religious and cultural history at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of “American Missionaries, Korean Protestants, and the Changing Shape of World Christianity, 1884-1965” and the editor of “The Presbyterian Experience in the United States: A Sourcebook.”