What about reparations?
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Special Committee on Racism, Truth and Reconciliation – which the General Assembly created in 2018, and will report to the next assembly in 2022 – dug into that concept and talked about what’s needed for a mostly-white denomination to have honest discussions about race during an online conversation Aug. 5 with Mark Lomax, who is pastor of First Afrikan Church in Lithonia, Georgia, and an associate professor of homiletics and worship at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.
Lomax also served for three years on the PC(USA)’s Task Force on Reparations, which reported to the General Assembly in 2004.
Reparations for Black Americans asks for a nation to consider the humanity of people who have been “grievously harmed for over 400 years,” Lomax said — by enslavement; by sharecropping (“a perpetual system of impoverishment”); by systems using incarcerated people to provide cheap labor; by segregation and unjust systems that produced disparities in education, health care, wealth and more.
Most Americans oppose reparations — only about 1 in 5 are in favor, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released in June. The history of providing reparations includes from the United States for Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II, for example, or from the German government to the families of Holocaust survivors.
But when it comes to reparations for Blacks, there is opposition — and “the perception is whether consciously or unconsciously that we still are not perceived as fully human,” Lomax said. “There’s something that’s amiss in the consciousness, in the psyche, of the country” — and still a need, as evidenced by continued police violence against Blacks, to convince people “of our humanity, of our worth, of our value.”
For Lomax, the gospel provides the framework for discussing reparations. He recalled stopping to speak with a homeless man, who told him: “Thank you for recognizing me as a person.” As Christians, “we are called to have care and compassion and concern for the Samaritan, for the other,” Lomax said. Reparations are “a way of showing that we care for a significant part of God’s creation,” and a recognition that “there’s no real difference in human beings, regardless of skin color, regardless of hair texture,” although systemic injustice has grown from a false construction of race created 400 years ago by people motivated by an agenda of colonialism and domination.
The PC(USA) task force
What came from work of the task force on reparations? asked committee member Fran Lane-Lawrence.
Not much, Lomax said. Aside from the assembly’s accepting that group’s report and the denomination’s eventual adoption of the Confession of Belhar, “I’m not aware of any other steps that were taken” as a result of the task force’s three years of work, Lomax said. “For the church to really just kind of walk away was a very painful thing —extremely painful. Yeah. But not surprising, I should say.”
He said later that there was “no real follow-up, no real commitment” to act on the report. “It was what we do as Presbyterians. We talk.”
That unwillingness to do more can provide a lesson to the PC(USA) today, Lomax said. “Until we come to this place where Christ is more important to us than confessions, where following Jesus means more to us than political affiliation … we won’t do these fixes,” he said. “Until we are able to accept to the humanity of the other, we won’t take real action.”
Lomax said he’s excited about what he sees happening in the streets and the relationships being built — where “for maybe the first time I’m seeing diverse communities raising tough questions in the public square,” and “people who are putting their bodies in harm’s way and joining the fight.”
Those relationships across lines of race, age, religion, class and more matter, because for the most part “we have lived in separate communities, separate enclaves. We perceived it as dangerous on both sides … to cross those borders,” Lomax said — and the responsibility typically fell to people of color to do so; whites were not willing.
While it’s rare for whites to “cross the railroad track,” often Presbyterians of color are asked to show up — at meetings of presbyteries and synods, for committee meetings “that have absolutely nothing to do with Black life and Black welfare,” Lomax said.
When the church does discuss racism, “we’ll do a conference, we’ll do a workshop, we’ll do a seminar — then what?” Lomax asked. There’s been no sustained momentum for justice. And for that to change, white people have to do the work — because whites created and have supported systemic racism. “White people have to do something about white people’s problems.”
In response to questions from committee member Stella Webster, Lomax said Presbyterian pastors and other leaders need to preach and teach Bible studies that interpret the church’s confessions in terms of contemporary issues — to talk about “racial justice, social justice, LGBTQ justice, justice that pertains to women.”
In doing that, “we have to risk discomfort,” to be vulnerable, to tell the truth and “to engage each other in confession and acceptance and forgiveness.”
Committee member Pam Tajima Praeger asked for suggestions “for the white book club to study.” Lomax responded that there are many books and other resources – including this video from Phil Vischer on race in America, but also “we have to find ways to engage each other in conversation. May
be the Zoom room is a less threatening room than the living room or the classroom” — but hard conversations that fully grieve the realities of racism, including the anger it generates, he sees as part of coming to wholeness. Whites need to confront white supremacy, acknowledging “it is a sin that we have allowed to take root, not only in the world, but also in the church,” Lomax said.
How can the special committee get Presbyterians to be willing to be more open-minded about the idea of reparations? asked Marta Pumroy of Iowa, who is the committee’s co-moderator along with Byron Wade of North Carolina.
“Somehow we have to begin to see Jesus as a human being of color” who experienced oppression, Lomax answered.
“We have to help our members understand we’re not following white Jesus. Jesus ain’t George Washington. Jesus is a man from Nazareth who experienced oppression. … To be the church again has to mean that we follow Jesus. Colored Jesus.”
The conversation will continue at 3 p.m. EDT on Aug. 6 on the committee’s Facebook page, with a presentation on Presbyterians and race from William Yoo, associate professor of American religion and cultural history at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
The full discussion can be viewed here https://www.facebook.com/PCUSASpecialCommitteeRaceTruthReconciliation/videos/871788259897309/