Guest commentary by Brad Clayton
I am truly grateful that I had the opportunity to serve as a commissioner to the 224th General Assembly this summer. In the years to come, I think some Presbyterians will see this GA as one that made history, while others will see this meeting as a missed opportunity to be a prophetic voice in the war against racism and bigotry. I observed participants with two different attitudes: One group looked at these online meetings and thought there was only so much we are able to do. Others looked at this time in history and thought there is so much that we must do, no matter what obstacles we face.
I began the meeting with the first attitude, thinking that there was only so much that we could do given this assembly’s limitations. Our assembly was abbreviated considerably. The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) determined that the assembly would consider only critical business, and many worked hard to put together a docket of action items that could be handled considering the limitations of the online meeting. We had no committees to debate motions or offer counsel. There were things that had to be done to keep the work of the denomination moving forward — from electing the co-moderators and the stated clerk, to approving a budget and filling committee vacancies. This business was essential to the current structure of our denomination, and it seemed reasonable even with the limitations of the online meeting. There was no question that a statement against racism and a statement in response to the worldwide pandemic was needed, and I assumed the assembly would meet these statements with resounding agreement.
As the meeting continued, it was clear that there were others who had a very different idea of what is “essential.” For those who were brave enough to face the reality of racism and bigotry, the elections and the budget were secondary. What was essential was for a church to stand up, to apologize and to look at the systems and the history that got us here, benefitting from the pain and suffering of others. Standing up for Black lives could not wait two more years. Standing up for Black women and girls could not wait two more years. Repentance that changes hearts and changes actions could not wait two more years. General statements were not enough. Specific, clear statements that called for action, that named the victims, the subjugated and the oppressed and called them valuable were required. The lack of committees and the tedium of amended motions did not matter. Confessing sins and caring for those who are hurting was essential and the time to act was now, not two years from now.
In the end, much was put off for two more years, and many have said that we did not do enough. In the time since the meeting I have found myself with a new attitude, wishing I began with a different definition of “essential.” Don’t get me wrong — we did some good work. We elected co-moderators that I believe will be powerful ambassadors for change and will represent our denomination well for the next two years. That resolution that was passed (“Responding to the Sin of Racism and a Call to Action”) affirming that Black lives matter was strong and clear, and I would urge everyone to read closely the goals of the Poor People’s Campaign, because standing in alliance with those values will require incredible change within our churches and our denomination. But we should have also looked at Black women and girls and said, “You are essential.” We should have told those in Cameroon, those in Palestine and Israel, “You are essential.” We should have told victims of sexual abuse, “You are essential.” We should have told those who need mental healthcare, “You are essential.” We should have told our environment, “You are essential.”
Maybe if we had pushed those items through, we would have made hasty decisions. Maybe the 225th General Assembly in 2022 would have questioned our judgement and decided not to ratify the work that we did. And as the saying goes, we could always do more. Even Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.” But those words are only powerful if they inspire us to keep helping, rather than provide us an excuse to give up.
For my part, I am sorry for the ways that I failed. I will try harder to look for those people who are lost and forgotten, people that have somehow been hurt by the life that I lead, and continue to apologize, not just for what we did not accomplish at this GA, but for my daily habits that perpetuate the problem.
Richard Rohr said, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, but we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Maybe if I can change my actions, then my mind will one day recognize what is truly essential: each and every child of God, and their place in this world.
BRAD CLAYTON is a pastor in Tallahassee, Florida. He lives with Julianne, his wife, and several four-legged children.