Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Past Racism Imputed to the PCA?

I notice that the upcoming 2016 General Assembly for the PCA has somewhere in the neighborhood of forty overtures (see also here and here) expressing some form of condemnation, confession and repentance for what I'm calling the "institutional sin of perceived past church racism." Was there a judicial finding? And apparently quite a number of presbyteries want in on this. And it's all the more amazing given that the PCA only came into existence in 1973! It's kind of like looking into one's ancestry and finding that your great, great, great uncle was a slave holder. Your family is horrified and thus feels compelled that they should personally take responsibility not for any present overt sin of slave holding but those of the ancestor which through the magic of DNA has been imputed to the family through the bloodline. 

I'm sure much if not all of this is born of good intentions. Yet, it causes one to ask what's going on and whether it is indeed a good thing. From 76 years ago, C. S. Lewis offered some thoughts on matters like this...
Young Christians especially last-year undergraduates and first-year curates are turning to it in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England…. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done? 
If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happening) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society. 
When we speak of England’s actions we mean the actions of the British Government. The young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbour; for a Foreign Secretary or a Cabinet Minister is certainly a neighbour. And repentance presupposes condemnation. The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing but, first, of denouncing the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not ‘they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practising contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet. whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’ 

C.S. “Jack” Lewis, “Dangers of National Repentance,” The Guardian, 15 March 1940!Cited from God in the Dock (Eerdmans: 1970) 189.

(HT from a PCA Christian]


  1. Jack,
    I think part of this is understanding the history of the PCA and its formation--don't know if you're familiar with the book by Sean Michael Lucas, "For a Continuing Church," which chronicles some of the founders of the PCA who were vocal in advocating for segregation. It's more than just finding a great great uncle was a slaveholder. One of the reasons for leaving the PCUSA was the denomination was advocating for integration. See Morton Smith's book "How is the Gold Become Dim!"

  2. Hi Anon...
    Thanks for your thoughts.
    The slave owning uncle is an analogy speaking less to racism and more to a present generation feeling the need to repent for sins done by others long past. How is that a biblical view of repentance? Individuals repent of their own sins. And how, biblically, do institutions repent of individual's sins? If one invokes the ancient nation of Israel I would say that isn't an apt example. Israel was a theocratic nation under the Old covenant whose tenure in the land was dependent on the actions of those past and present. The new covenant is not the old.

    It goes without saying that racism is an evil thing. But this overture seems more about importing a current societal issue into the church in order to be able to say (as those present point the finger at others in the past), "As an institution we aren't like those before us." Biblically, why do this? Almost sounds a tad self-righteous (I'm not like that publican and I condemn his sin). Some have justified this biblically by saying that white racism against blacks is similar to the Jew/Gentile divide in the OT. But it was God who instituted the Jew/Gentile divide in the OT, and hardly for racist reasons. So on what basis and why the overture? - to advertise that the PCA is now to be seen as a more inviting place for minorities? What a church wins people with is what it wins them to.


  3. Jack, I don't know. Every Lord's Day in our church we do a corporate confession of sin. Isn't this comparable?

    1. Actually, I don't think it is comparable. In our congregation (OPC) we also do a corporate confession of sin every Lord's day. Yet that confession is for "our" sins, i.e. the current sins of the individuals sitting in the pews, not for sins of those long gone. That confession of sin is expressed by using the pronoun "We." But it's focus is on sins that have been recently done by the believers and thus in need of forgiveness and the assurance of pardon trough faith in Christ.