Confronting the past

Bill Tammeus

Earlier this year, my pastor, Paul Rock, preached a sermon in a series about racism called “America’s original sin.” Soon after that, one of our members described to me the reaction of a white woman sitting near him.

When Paul listed the ways that he as a white man has had advantages in society that black men and women don’t have, the woman – under her breath, but loud enough for my friend to hear – said: “Oh, stop. Get beyond this.” Clearly, she wanted to be done hearing about racism, about white privilege, about the considerable work that remains to make sure all Americans are equal under the law and aren’t immobilized by individual bigotry or systemic racism.

And for sure she wanted to be done with it in our predominantly white congregation. After the service, she said more about her distress over the sermon, making it clear that America should be well past further discussions about race relations and social justice. We’ve been there and done that, was her essential message, my friend told me.

A problem: That woman is not alone in the pews of America’s churches, including Presbyterian congregations. She is swimming in a sea of advantages that white people enjoy just because they’re white. And yet, like a fish that has never known another environment, she seems not even to recognize the water around her.

By contrast, later that night an African American woman who had heard that same sermon stopped me at a church event and asked me what I thought of Paul’s sermon. I said it was both poignant and necessary. “And you?” I asked. She was thrilled with it, she said, especially because she had found a white pastor who could deal with these difficult issues without softening reality or excusing inaction.

Those two reactions tell me that our denomination’s antiracism work, which is being guided by our General Assembly, is still badly needed, but it’s going to be long and difficult. That work needs to reach people who don’t want to hear about it and who may not even recognize the need for the work. Can the church’s voice reach them? I don’t know.

What I do know is that the move in the 2016 General Assembly to include the Belhar Confession in our Book of Confessions needs considerably more attention paid to it so that we Presbyterians can understand the failures of the Dutch Reformed Church in its defense of apartheid in South Africa. That will help us take the measure of ourselves to see where and how we have failed to work toward racial justice throughout our denomination. Perhaps we can learn from the painful Dutch Reformed sins.

It also means that when the Special Committee on Racism, Truth and Reconciliation (created by the 2018 General Assembly) gives its interim report to the 2020 General Assembly and its final report to the 2022 General Assembly, it will need to show in convincing detail how we Presbyterians are to face both our racial sins and our opportunities.

None of this is to deny that there has been important, measurable progress in the way Presbyterians have dealt with racial issues. When I was a child in the mid-1950s, my hometown church in Woodstock, Illinois, sponsored Boy Scout minstrel shows. And the records of my current congregation show that in the 1960s the session actually debated what to do if black people showed up for worship. Debate was all that happened. No decision was made.

We’re clearly past that kind of obvious nonsense, though many of us still aren’t eager to acknowledge that the U.S. was founded on the sin of white supremacy. As for what’s ahead, we will break the sacred heart of Jesus if we don’t confront our past and commit ourselves to a future in which racism is theologically anathema.

Bill TammeusBILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog ( Read about his latest book ( Email him at