There was a moment during the Friday morning business meeting at General Assembly recently when an all-too-familiar wave of something akin to nausea swept over me. Perhaps you’re familiar with it, too: that gut-cramping, face-flushing moment when you realize you’ve been caught in sin; that moment when you know you’ve done something really bad, and now somebody else knows about it—and worse, is calling you out on it.
The latest episode occurred for me when Elder Leon Cole, Moderator of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America— and for whom we initially did not even rise in respect—ascended the dais to read the Resolution of Forgiveness, Unity, and Resolve that our sibling denomination had approved just a day or two earlier. It was in response to our own Resolution of Repentance, Apology, and Resolve, approved during our General Assembly a year ago. The reading was received, appropriately, with applause and a unanimous “Hallelujah!” But I was left with a churning sense of shame—a sense that my denomination had done something really bad, that someone else now knew about it, and that they were calling us out.
I can’t speak to what others in the room heard that morning, but what I heard in the words Moderator Cole read included far more verbiage between the lines than what’s written in black and white. I heard our denomination—and us as Caucasians—being called out for our history of “failures to love brothers and sisters from minority cultures in accordance with what the Gospel requires” as I assume most listeners did. Perhaps more importantly, however, I heard us being called out for our very current “failures to lovingly confront [our CPC/Caucasian] brothers and sisters concerning racial sins and personal bigotry” as well.
Think about it. There has been no shortage of opportunities for our denomination to add its voice publicly to those of other institutions in condemning instances of bigotry, exclusion, and disenfranchisement in our nation, and yet we have responded to virtually every opportunity with—silence. The CPCA has taken us to the woodshed, and deservedly so. Seems to me there’s a world of hurt buried in their resolution.
We have spent a great deal of time and energy through the years talking about and working toward unification with our African American sibling denomination. There have been a number of sincere and passionate efforts to bridge the gaps that separate us. In my opinion, there has also been an unfortunate amount of effort spent focusing on org charts and legal considerations. Frankly, I think there have been a few “feel good” moments as well—efforts that, even if we weren’t conscious of it, we pursued either to assuage deep feelings of guilt or to demonstrate a semblance of “getting with the program”. In any case, it appears to me—and it is a painful conclusion for me to have reached—that we are no closer to unification today than we were at the end of our first failed effort, some three decades ago.
While there is probably blame enough to extend at least some to both “sides”, the root issue that dogs us, as I see it, is the persistent, systemic, almost cultural antipathy toward people of color that seems to exist in the Caucasian psyche. The fact is, whether we are willing to admit it or not, most of us cannot even begin to imagine what life as a person of color is like—especially in our own society. And it is that utter inability to empathize—genuinely empathize—with the day-to-day realities of people of color that will doom our efforts toward unification unless we find a way to address it.
We cannot imagine, for example, what it’s like to have to teach our children—especially our sons—that they must behave deferentially when interacting with law enforcement personnel. We cannot imagine what it’s like to be Philando Castile, pulled over for a broken taillight but then shot seven times, even after following every “special rule” a person of color must learn, because his killer, merely in the presence of a black man with a gun, “feared for his life.” Consider Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott… The list goes on. We simply don’t have a clue.
We cannot imagine what it’s like to live as a person of color in a society governed by someone whose documented history, pattern, and practice of exclusion—not only by race, but by gender, religion, and economic status—is celebrated as an acceptable means of making our nation great. We can’t imagine what it’s like to have our very right to even participate threatened by racial gerrymandering and made-up claims of voter fraud. We simply don’t have a clue.
We embrace our “heritage”, but we cannot imagine what it’s like to live in a society where men who fought to protect the right of their fellow citizens to enslave our ancestors are memorialized on pedestals. Or what it’s like to be vilified ourselves when we ask that those painful reminders be removed. We simply don’t have a clue.
We cannot imagine what it’s like to live still with the legacy of segregation in public schools—a legacy that is perpetuated by poverty, sub-standard housing, hunger, unemployment, and systems that favor white suburban and—now, potentially—private schools. We simply don’t have a clue.
During an especially powerful and moving sermon at General Assembly, Dr. Stanley Wood recounted an experience he’d had with one of his white colleagues. They’d worked together in ministry and, as I recall, enjoyed each other’s love and respect. By all indications, the colleague was one of those persons who “had not a prejudiced bone in his body.” And yet, as they talked one day, the colleague used the term “boy” to refer to a black man. He quickly realized his mistake and apologized, but words once spoken are impossible to retrieve. And words, as a reflection of all that has contributed to who we are, matter.
Not two days earlier, one of our denominational leaders, during a meeting attended by a number of our African American siblings, referred to the CPCA as the “Second Cumberland Presbyterian Church”—a term that has not been in use for at least 20 years. It was unintentional, and the speaker was probably mortified at the mistake, but again, words matter. As unintentional and “innocent” as such utterances may be, they reveal a truth about just how deeply the tendrils of racism reach into the Caucasian psyche.
Is there any hope for unification? I don’t know. What I do know is that after having talked with persons from both denominations—some of whom are members of the Task Force—I’m certain we’ve still a lot of work to do. I don’t believe that one “we apologize” resolution, answered by one “we forgive you” resolution will be enough to unify us. They’re good first steps, to be sure. But as I see it, Caucasian Cumberland Presbyterians must convince justifiably distrustful Cumberland Presbyterians of color through meaningful action that we’re serious about our apology—action like public, corporate advocacy against systemic vestiges of racism and bigotry such as I’ve cited here.
Actions speak louder than words. If we are serious about our apology, we should be willing to publicly and corporately “confront [our Caucasian] brothers and sisters concerning [their] racial sins and personal bigotry”—within the church, of course, but more importantly, in the public arena. A resolve to do that may be one of our last hopes for the unity we say we desire.