Radical Reconciliation: Witnessing Justice at Witherspoon Street

imageOn Sunday, April 24th, I delivered the benediction at my church, immediately hopped in my car, and drove some three hours away to Princeton, New Jersey to attend a very special service at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. It was a worship service “Witnessing for Unity, Reconciliation, and Healing,” correcting a more than a century-old injustice imposed upon the congregation by its own Presbytery.

programIn 1879, Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church called its first black pastor, the Reverend William Drew Robeson (you may also know him as the father of Paul Robeson). Rev. Robeson served Witherspoon Street for twenty-one years before the pastoral relationship was dissolved by the Presbytery of New Brunswick. By all accounts, his removal was racially motivated. Robeson was an ardent opponent of Jim Crow and was a force in the church and community for the rights Princeton’s Negro community. The congregation vocally opposed dissolving the pastoral relationship, and his removal severely decimated its membership (see the story explained at Presbyterian Outlook).

This week’s worship service was the culmination of efforts on the part of the Presbytery of New Brunswick and the Synod of the Northeast to rectify a racially motivated injustice that left a church ravaged and a minister and his family in dire straits. Acts of restitution have included a public apology from the Presbytery of New Brunswick and the forgiving of the remainder of the debt on the Robeson House, which the church had to sell after Rev. Robeson’s departure but was able to repurchase in 2005. A series of powerful acts indeed by a Synod determined to live into its call to racial justice and a Presbytery that understands that, even though no one living was guilty of these injustices, to paraphrase remarks given at the service, those who are here now are yet responsible.

And it only took 115 years.

There I worshiped with sisters and brothers from throughout and beyond the area, from all different races, backgrounds, and walks of life, all committed to justice and reconciliation, and I thought about how chronological distance might be facilitating such an act. I suspect it’s easier to apologize and make restitution for something from which we have a good amount space (the distance helps us see it clearer). It’s much more difficult to reconcile and apologize for something that’s more “fresh.”

At my denomination’s General Assembly this summer, an overture offering an apology to the LGBTQ community for harms done will come before the body for a vote. So far, the overture has been received in a variety of ways, ranging from enthusiastic support to concerned rebuke, and some offering compromise on the parts that may be viewed as problematic. It’s certainly one overture to watch as we go into our proceedings this summer. Yet, I often wonder how this overture would have been received if it were presented 10, 20, or even 50 years from now, once some distance has been created. It has only been five years since ordination of LGBTQ candidates was allowed in our denomination, and a little over one year since same-sex marriage rites were permitted. Similarly, we have overtures calling for the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, offering an apology to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, and acknowledging and reconciling for killing Korean civilians in July 1950. None of those overtures have elicited the same response or fervor as the one calling for an apology to our LGBTQ family.  Is our reaction to this particular overture informed by our proximity to what it addresses? I have no answers; I simply wonder.

Sunday’s service certainly has me thinking about reconciliation — when it’s easiest to do, when it’s hardest to do, and what realizations facilitate it. And I hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in my spirit, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” I would hope that when institutional sins and injustices are brought to light, or when we recognize there are breaches that must be repaired, we courageously address those things and do so sooner than later. Witherspoon Street should not have had to wait 115 years for justice and reconciliation, but Sunday’s moment gives me hope. It gives me hope that the breaches we’ll bravely face this summer can and will be repaired. I don’t know what the final outcome will look like, but I have faith that it won’t take over a century to do it this time.

Love An Other, Episode 1

Friends, I’m very excited to have collaborated with Theocademy to bring you this new series Love An Other: the Bible’s Call to Unity, Justice, and Equality. This first installment sets the intention for what we hope to achieve with this series, in which will be talking about the sociological practice of “othering” and the Christian’s responsibility to eradicate it. Watch for more videos in the coming weeks, and subscribe to Theocademy’s YouTube channel for other inspiring series. I pray this series blesses you and your conversations!

“How Long?”: Imprecation, Indignation, and the Language of the Oppressed

Photo Credit: ABC News
Photo Credit: ABC News

“…they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’”

-Revelation 6:10

The Bible is a book full of uncomfortable language. In it, we find prayers for God to break the teeth of our enemies and pour out anger over them. There’s talk of “evildoers” being thrown into a furnace of fire.

These are the portions of scripture we love to gloss over or ignore in our preaching. They certainly don’t invoke images of hands joined in unity, singing “Kumbaya” around a campfire. They’re anything but romantic and tidy. They’re disturbing. They’re uncomfortable. They’re downright awful.

We’re tempted to explain them away, to suggest why the writers or redactors probably didn’t really mean them.

Except they did. They absolutely said what they meant and meant what they said.

How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

-Psalm 13:2

These imprecations (as they have been called) are the language of the oppressed. They are cries for justice. They’re cries for vindication. They’re promises of justice and vindication for those who have been targeted, attacked, and abused. Any reading of the text that fails to acknowledge this is naïve and does violence to not only the text, but to the people to whom it was written — to whom violence has already been done.

The spirit of Advent can in fact be summed up by the cry “Kumbaya,” which is an old Gullah saying, meaning “come by here.” These scriptural imprecations are indeed calls for God Most High to “come by here.” Because if God comes by here, perhaps we can be vindicated. If God comes by here, my enemies have to retreat. If God comes by here, then darkness must flee. If God comes by here, then we can finally breathe.

We sit today in the darkness wrought by yet another grand jury’s failure to indict an officer of the law in the killing of an unarmed man. As Eric Garner felt in his final moments of life, we, too, feel suffocated. We feel suffocated by the fact that his killer — who had been sued twice for excessive force, but has managed to stay employed by NYPD — will not have to answer for Garner’s death. We feel suffocated because there is seemingly little to no accountability for the people we are supposed to trust to protect us. We feel suffocated because this incident is not isolated, but is indicative of the widespread brokenness of our justice system.

And suddenly, those passages we often skip because they make us uncomfortable now make sense. They are real. We get them. We may even pray them because we understand that God will always side with the downtrodden, which is bad news only to the oppressor.

No one need be uncomfortable about the cries of the oppressed for justice — except for the unjust, of course. I believe if we have a problem with the Bible’s language of imprecation, it might be because the boot on the neck of the speaker is on our own foot.

Even still, God is patient, not out of indifference, but because all of us need to be redeemed from these systems that oppress and suffocate. There is yet opportunity for all of us to get on the right side of the text and of history. My Advent prayer is that we take advantage of such grace. Kumbaya.

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

-2 Peter 3:9