I recently had a conversation with another Southern Presbyterian minister about local race issues inside our Presbytery. In the course of our conversation I made the assertion that if we really took repentance and confession seriously churches in the area would collectively ask forgiveness to our African American faithful for the clear racism and paternalism of our past. The response I got is an unshockingly common one.
“The people in those white churches don’t remember that history.” “What good will dredging that up do?”
I hear this a lot from those who hear that their history has been oppressive to another. Whether it is an individual or a collective community denial of participation in sin it is a lie. It is a privileged position to have collective amnesia about the sins we have perpetrated against others. This is especially true in the church.
Americanizing Native Americans, denying equal voting rights at presbytery from Latino congregations, the investments we call good stewardship that oppress the poor, the disparity in pay that our presbyteries allow between women and ethnic pastors, Seminary Presidents who began the theology of Ham against African Americans… The Presbyterian Church has been a partner in some horrendous actions on the basis of white supremacy, patriarchy and classism.
It is hard to hear and as a white man I know it is difficult to internalize. Still, we have become an elitist group that has a dangerous view of sin. The revelation of sin is not merely an excuse for the type of self-help accompanying New Years Resolutions. Nor is the rote recitation during a weekly liturgy enough. The revelation of sin is a time when communities of faith and individuals rent our cloths in sorrow for what they have done that has obscured the divine in this world, diminished full humanity and run counter to the liberating good news of Jesus Christ.
Still, there is one more aspect of a current view of repentance that engenders paralysis instead of action. It is the idea that confession or even turning away from something is enough. Saying corporately that we reject racism is not enough. We are not merely turning from something, but turning toward something else in the act of repenting. This means action. Amends, reparations, understanding and face to face reconciliation are all part of a biblical understanding in the discipline of repentance. Conflict avoidance however is not. It is amazing that any of us could believe that we could grow spiritually as a church without action toward wholeness and salvation.
Maybe it is passed time for a new type of document in our Book of Confessions. A document not put together amongst theologians who parse out the right words, but composed by our historically oppressed, marginalized and unheard victims. It is time for a confession that offends the dominant Presbyterian culture. One that seers our hardened hearts and reforms us into a body that protests against our own sins that continue to be perpetrated in our society. This confession could be the beginning declaration of our turning and new path toward the Kingdom.