I’ve never enslaved a person. For that matter, I’ve never removed Native people from their own property. I’ve never interred a person of Japanese heritage. Why do I have to apologize for something I’ve never done?
I have Black friends. I’ve gone to school with Black students. I was bussed from my own neighborhood to a school across town. And now I live in a neighborhood with Black and Brown people. There’s even a Black family in my church.
Why do I have to apologize for slavery?
Over the weekend, our Presbytery discussed whether or not we would concur with an overture to the General Assembly (the biennnial congress responsible for considering changes to our denomination’s constitution) regarding the history of slavery in our country and in the Church. It starts out like this:
The Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy overtures the 225th General Assembly (2022) to offer an apology to African Americans for the sin of slavery and its legacy.
(Note: Giddings-Lovejoy is the name of one of the 166 Presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church USA. It’s based in the St. Louis area.)
Included in this overture are the following statements:
- White supremacy is a conscious, calculated effort to perpetuate and institutionalize white supremacy and privilege through legal systems as well as economic and physical intimidation.
- We, as a people of faith, recognize that the only appropriate path to healing and reconciliation is to acknowledge the wrongs that we, the Presbyterian Church, as part of the institutional church structure, were and are complicit in perpetuating.
- Black lives have been devalued beginning with slavery, and their human dignity continues to be circumvented through the economic and legal systems that are racist as institutions.
- We recognize the necessity of building a trusting relationship between white Americans and African Americans.
- The PC(USA) apologizes to African Americans both in the church and outside of the church for all the wrongs that have been done throughout our history and those that are ongoing.
These are fighting words for many.
These words spark many layers of conversation from “Is White Supremacy actually baked into our U.S. history from the beginning?” to “Am I personally guilty of the sins of our Fathers and Mothers?” These words make many White people feel ashamed and defensive.
Speaking as a Christian in the Reformed Tradition, my faith is confessional. This means that we believe that although – from the beginning – God has called human beings to live in covenant with both God and each other, we have broken that covenant. Confession is a major part of our faith, meaning that – in simple terms – we can do better. We as individuals can do better. We as corporate humanity can do better. We as a nation can do better.
We all fall short of the glory of God. Even Mother Teresa. Even the Pope. Even our sweet grandmothers.
And so we confess those things that have separated us from God and each other. The sin of slavery is one of those things. It separated human beings in the worst possible ways from the beginning of our nation’s history. And after emancipation, the inequities continued. And they continue today from the shooting of people in Black bodies to the everyday ways people are treated whose skin colors are different from our own.
We have to be blind not to see this.
On Saturday, our Presbytery voted 71% to 29% in favor of concurring with this overture. The 225th General Assembly will discuss it, tweak it, vote on it this summer in Louisville, KY. Clearly there are many people who believe we have nothing to apologize for. In faith I disagree.
Image of the Briery Presbyterian Church in Keysville, Virginia (in the Presbytery of the Peaks). In 1766, slave holding members voted to raise money to hire a minister by investing in human chattle to build the church endowment. You can read about the church here and here.