Reflective Review: “Heal Us, Emmanuel”

A review of “Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church”

I am encouraged that a few of the Overtures (Overture 1 and 50 in particular) this year names particular sins, and directs the bodies of the church (presbyteries and local churches) to examine if and where they have occurred to address them at that level. I hope specificity and localness are embraced by the Assembly. Our sin problem is deep, and in need of deep exegesis, and deep grace from Christ to address.

 

“Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church” is a collection of 30 essays by PCA Elders on the subject of race and reconciliation (a hot topic especially as this year the PCA’s General Assembly approaches). Many of these elders have been pushing for some sort of statement or public confession by the PCA General Assembly that deals with Race, especially concerning the acts of “conservative Christians” in the Civil Rights Era.

The book is laid out in 6 sections: An Invitation to Listen, Awakening to Privilege, Sins of Omission and Commission, Historical and Theological Perspectives, Confession and Reconciliation Are Necessary, and A Way Forward. Under each are five or six essays on that theme.

This review will seek to summarize some of the content of the book as well as give a critical response. The book is a “call” but I hope to invite a conversation on it, rather than a monologue of demands. I found the book to be mixed in its effectiveness, depth, and quality. As such, let us first look at what are a few truly interesting and worthwhile articles for your time. So first, the positive:

Helpful And Interesting

Chapter 11 includes an entry by Samuel N. Graham, an elder on the session of Independent Presbyterian (IPC) in Memphis. This was one of the few entries in which the relating of personal biographical details was interesting and relevant to the topic. The Chapter on Independent Presbyterian in Stephen Haynes’ “The Last Segregated Hour” gives a better narrative of the process leading up to IPC’s racial repentance, however Graham’s article gives a glimpse of the inside process that compliments that narrative in helpful ways.

Another essay worth considering is by Kevin Twit of RUF (Chapter 15). Rev. Twit details some of the thought process behind the latest Indelible Grace record and the incorporation of different styles to reflect diverse cultural inputs. It certainly is worth considering, even if Twit’s Nashville context is perhaps a unique case of cultural and musical diversity.

Briefly, a few other chapters offer relevant information, and most interesting were the five essays on a Historical and Theological Perspective. Sean Lucas’ personal history in regards to race (Chapter 18) provides the background to his recent book on the history of the PCA and work with a movement for a Civil Rights Era statement from the PCA. Chapter 17 contains Bobby Griffith’s summary history of race in American Southern Presbyterianism, which despite its choppy structure, offers a few nuggets of historical interest. Chapter 19 contains William Castro’s critique of “racialist” views of the church, which tends to divide along racial lines rather than bringing them together. His critique of Frame and others who justify separate churches based on cultural preferences is intriguing, even though the solution is often allusive evidenced by the lack of integration in most churches on Sunday morning.

All of these essays seek to build a historical foundation for the conversation over race. These help us understand the questions of both “why now?” and “why this subject?” To show my cards, this reviewer tends to agree broadly that race is a present issue in the church and in particular in the history of the Presbyterian Church in America by reputation of certain particular churches especially in the south, and even of entire presbyteries (especially those of the former Synod of Mississippi which explicitly defended segregation in the 1950s and 60s).

The conversation broached in this book is a necessary conversation, even if uncomfortable. Part of that uncomfortable aspect is exploring the paradigms we use to approach this subject, and here is where critique is also necessary. Scripture tells us that when exploring a sin and solution, two ditches must be avoided. As the prophet Jeremiah puts it some “have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.“ (Jeremiah 6:14) While our Lord warns others “ tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders.” (Matthew 23:4) The essays of the book falter when falling into one of these two ditches.

A Critique

The weakness of the book is largely in what it carries as features of the book.

1) The book is heavily personal, but in so doing at times becomes too autobiographical in nature. The book is intended to be personal, but despite the number of writers, the biographical details become repetitive.

2) The book is intended to be a “call,” however this causes the essays to feel largely monolithic in perspective. Again, the book itself is not a dialogue, but rather a “call” as the title declares. Thus, let us explore having the conversation.

Can We Dialogue?

If this book is inviting a dialogue on the issue of race, let’s address why this topic is so messy: Racism is hard to have a dialogue about. Motives are constantly questioned and when writing about such a serious issue it is tempting to signal your virtue, rather than acknowledge the complexity and messiness of the issue. Racism is a result of the fall, not mere history, and so is universal in its subjects. Thus it is easier to signal your innocence than to actually process it.

My reservations with the book have nothing to do with the subject, or even most of the recommendations. I have set myself to the task the 2015 GA gave to elders, namely to explore racial sins and the relation of the denomination to those sins. I believe there are issues of sin related to race at the individual level, the local church level, and in more than one presbytery. I was interested if the book would touch on any of the questions I recorded nearly a year ago that accompany the current issue such as what is the nature of covenantal repentance, the types of racial sin that exist, and on what level of church government they occurred in the past, as well as practical ways to address them in the present.

There are omissions that hamper the final product in its execution. While the book wants to be a monologue (a call), I hope this book can be part of a dialogue. As such, I aim to push back and challenge the thrust of the book in two areas:

1) Resist the adoption of the terminology and categories of the political left

Beyond the acceptance of of terms like “Microaggressions” (page 21) the most troubling term of the political left used in the book is “White Privilege” (page 60, 91, 95, 238, etc.). White Privilege has arisen in the political realm, largely on the political left, and as such both carries baggage from that realm and has secular ideologies informing its use.

Granted, there is existing institutional power to certain families that can be identified along racial lines. Also, we should note that while everyone has obstacles to overcome, some have more obstacles based on their ethnicity than others. To frame this reality, and blame “white privilege” rather than focusing on true racism creates guilt burdens about realities that are not necessary to repent over. One should repent over placing obstacles in front of others based on race. One should not repent for not having as many of those obstacles.

Ethnicity exists alongside economic position, education, and two-parent homes as factors which shapes future success and progress of persons into adult life and society. Focusing on the fact that white families tend to have more factors that lead to education and job opportunities mixes too much correlation with causation. It also unnecessarily sweeps whites without those advantages into this stereotyped “white America” that all has these advantages. As I work in an area with much blue collar poverty, many in our area would be surprised to hear of their privilege based on their race, when their education, economic, and family situation is anything but privileged.

The most troubling aspect of this, however, is the diversion it makes from the ecclesiastical and spiritual realm into a focus on the secular and political realm as paramount. This shows itself most starkly in the repeated implied message that pastors need to side with specific political or current event controversies to be sufficiently race conscious. Let us take Doug Serven’s piece in Chapter 16 as the prime offender: Ferguson, Charleston, and the McKinney Texas Police incident, and the name of the Washington Redskins were all cited (pages 156-159) and the “right side” is always implied as synonymous with the right spiritual attitude to race. This suggests a need to be up to date on all the current media events, and to take public political positions on them.

I have my own personal opinions and thoughts based on what I know of those events. Yet, the requirement to be fully read up on media events (real or generated by the media for ratings), and to take the particular views Serven has taken as a precondition for being racially conscious is a human requirement, not a spiritual or Scriptural one. I certainly have my own thoughts on some of these events, but I have purposefully not made them public because I think it would be needlessly controversial, and misinterpreted – a barrier to the gospel rather than an avenue to it.
Why am I as a minister supposed to speak publicly on an issue that happened, for instance in Missouri, that is quite complicated (more complicated than I think Serven lets on)? It is not to argue that particular case, but one sees the issue of the sin of racism becoming bogged down in the particulars of media and social media events.
To have silence about those events equated to apathy is just wrong. Why am I morally required to speak on every event listed? By what authority? In fact, shouldn’t our judgments especially on murky criminal acts be tempered by the fact that we are not on the jury and not privy to all evidence? Shouldn’t wisdom be used to distinguish between clear instances of racism such as Charleston, and more complex issues such as etymological histories of the names of NFL teams?

The weight of the 9th Commandment would seem to dictate to not bearing false or at least not bearing uninformed or hasty witness. To take it a step further, why does the author think his opinion is the clear Christian opinion? In at least two cases, I disagree with his verdict, and so does that make my private opinion a sin? Why are these reactions and “hot takes” of media events the gauge of our biblical obedience rather than our individual interactions and actions with people? We must be careful not to think our political opinion on a complicated issue or event is synonymous with the law or the gospel.

That leads to my second challenge:

  1. Address Racism with Deep Biblical Exegesis

Scripture is sufficient to address all things we need for the man of God to be complete (2 Timothy 3:16-17). I wish there were more deep biblical exegesis and application in the essays of this book to the problem of racism, rather than the adoption of socio-political categories and theories. Sociology and Politics will not address this problem adequately, nor a general call to grace or the cross.

This is not to say there is no Scripture or exegesis in the book on these matters. In Chapter 19, “Toward a Compelling Theology for Unity,” Rev. Garriott makes a few brief universal theological points. Rev. Ward in Chapter 21 does as well by way of a thorough and fair critique of Morton Smith’s 1964 article that argued for segregation. This is helpful as a picture of the theological errors of the past, though I would be surprised if there is much agreement today in the PCA with Smith’s 52 year old article.

Yet, where is an extended look at Ephesians 2:11-22 or Galatians 3:27, or the biblical theological theme of the bringing in of Ruth the Moabitess to God’s People or Solomon’s Temple as a place for inclusion of the nations into Israel? Certainly, Galatians 3:27 and Ephesians 2:14 are cited, yet they are proof texted rather than expounded in the depths those passages can teach us.

A great missed opportunity of this book was to explore the nature of the repentance/confession that some call for. Chapter 24 is titled “Why we must confess corporately” but the article is only 4 pages long, and does not exegete Scripture so much as cite it and offer some quick application. Part of this exegesis should be anticipating objections: What are the limits, intent, and effects of covenantal repentance over racism? Who has covenantal relationships with each other to accomplish such a task? Is there a difference between confessing the iniquity of our fathers and confessing the sins of our fathers? How does the 5th Commandment relate to Daniel 9, Ezra 9 or Nehemiah 9? What is going on in those passages and why do they confess the particular sins they do, and not others? How does someone individually innocent relate to his covenantal guilt, especially of previous generations? What steps are taken after such confession toward repentance?

These questions have answers, but they are not in the book. I agree with the conclusion of Chapter 24 on the sins of racism within the church: “I did not personally commit them; nevertheless, they are mine.” (page 252) Yet mere “corporate identification” is not a sufficient argument for this conclusion. Rather, the corporate covenantal body, as an acting body with members that suffer corporate pollution and contamination of the sins of the past, mired in the iniquity of the fathers, is the point of Daniel 9, Ezra 9, and Nehemiah 9. Exegetical explanation should include the historical context (Babylonian exile), the past sins (Sabbath breaking, inter-faith marriage, etc.) that caused it, and what that particular repentance meant, namely 1) being currently guilty of sin by imitation, 2) being currently polluted by the consequences of those sins, and 3) being committed in the future to turn from the sins of their fathers to obedience of God’s Law.

These principles should have obvious application to the issue of racism today, which plagued many of our forefathers in the PCA. These are iniquities that still pollute the witness of PCA churches today that are associated with it, that certain churches have needed to address in order to move forward.

Thus, this collection of essays was a golden opportunity missed to make the case why denominations, presbyteries, and local church bodies need to repent and not just individuals. They could have also offered details on how these bodies repent with regards to Scriptural precedent. Merely citing Daniel 9, Ezra 9, and Nehemiah 9 are not enough, they need to be deeply exegeted and applied. Indeed, the Bible is capable of, and should, deeply impact our view of race and the sins of racism, so shouldn’t ministers bring that fully to bear on this subject rather than assume it?

Conclusion

First this book certainly has an important subject matter and notable good efforts to identify the history and personal aspects of the problem. Furthermore, the book excels when addressing real racism at the individual and local level that were solved by true and detailed confession and repentance such as at IPC. For those essays in the book I am thankful.

However, the book shows its deficiencies when there was a vague or undefined view of repentance, surface exegesis, or when it relied on non-theological diagnoses and prescriptions to the problem. The task of the church is not to syncretize political and sociological paradigms into its theology, but to bring the gospel of grace to bear on the problems of sin, not just in the notional or “awareness” realm but in the practical realm.

The solution to the problems of the sin of racism must be of a sufficient level to answer the problem. While this book may identify many of the problems, I fear it heals the wounds of the people too lightly and generally, while bringing unnecessary burdens with some of its adopting of outside sociological and political concepts.

Applying Lessons

During the upcoming PCA General Assembly, I hope that commissioners are aware of the history in this book (which if they have read Lucas’ book or Haynes’ book, they will be aware of the important details already). But the issues need to be framed in biblical rather than political ways. The PCA General Assembly should avoid vaguely confessing sins, with no specificity of the current polluting sins that linger, no biblical idea of its connection to those sins, and no plan of repentance. To treat the wounds of racism too lightly, or as a way to placate white guilt, rather than address racial sin nearly guarantees that the exercise will merely placate consciences while leaving a sin issue largely untouched in its treatment.

Since racism is not a mere cultural or ethnic problem, and is a human fallen condition, we must seek the answers to those problems in something bigger than political, sociological or historical analysis. It must be examined in the heart of every individual, and not just one ethnic group. It must be based on the Scriptures, on true covenantal connection to a particular body, with a right view of repentance, sin, iniquity, covenant, and costly grace.

I am encouraged that a few of the Overtures (Overture 1 and 50 in particular) this year names particular sins, and directs the bodies of the church (presbyteries and local churches) to examine if and where they have occurred to address them at that level. I hope specificity and localness are embraced by the Assembly. Our sin problem is deep, and in need of deep exegesis, and deep grace from Christ to address. I pray we can see with the eyes of Scripture to address this problem without either creating artificial burdens or crying “peace, peace!” where there is no peace.

Jared Nelson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of New Life PCA in Aliqippa, Penn. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.