In a 1968 interview in Esquire magazine, James Baldwin powerfully captured the necessity of dealing honestly with our country’s racist history:
I’m not trying to accuse you, you know. That’s not the point. But you have a lot to face … All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history … which is not your past, but your present. Nobody cares what happened in the past. One can’t afford to care what happened in the past. But your history had led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself and save yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history.
In other words, it is impossible to have an honest account of the present without dealing with our past. It is impossible to have just, reconciled, whole relationships unless the truth is told about past sins.
My denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. As part of that celebration, we are being called to look back and give an account of our history. But will it be an honest one? Will the our racist legacy and its present consequences be told? Many in our denomination would like to be about racial reconciliation, but I fear that too few are willing to do so if it means telling the truth on ourselves. It is impossible for our churches to take up the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20) unless we are willing to tell the full truth about our history and reckon with its effects today.
The truth is this: White Presbyterians have been some of the most ardent proponents of anti-Black racism in our country’s history. The PCA was born out of the support of many church leaders who actively upheld racist ideas and structures. The present state of our denomination on matters of racial reconciliation and justice remains an open wound that is a direct result of our racist history.
Whatever hope we have for true reconciliation and justice as a denomination begins with truth telling. In this brief and inadequate post, I will survey the racist history of White Presbyterianism as it informs the racial challenges and obstacles of the PCA today.