Lessons on Racism?

Guest author of this blog is Glenn Jerrell, retired OPC pastor. Recently he posted on The Aquila Report a response to  Bennie Castle’s “Lessons Learned? Allegations at the OPC General Assembly” posted on the Aquila Report, June 20, 2022. He has since revised his response and expanded it with a new third point. See here and here for the articles dealing with reports of racist behavior at the General Assembly.

The rapid response of the 88th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, under the guiding hand of the moderator and others, was exactly what was needed regarding incidents of reported racial disparagement. Mr. Castle makes a salient point, which should not be lost, that we live in a negative culture.

  1. A negative world is nothing new. Ask the Suffering Servant about a negative culture. From our first parents Adam and Eve through Christ to the apostolic witness, sin is exposed in every generation and that is why the Word makes clear from beginning to end that a Savior from sin is absolutely necessary. Racial disparagement is a destructive and negative manifestation of sin.
  1. I share Mr. Castle’s criticism of social media, though he and I may have distinctly different takes on the criticism. But, nonetheless, we should both confess that sins of the tongue can be like a fire, they spread rapidly in a negative and as well in a positive culture.  Given the ability of social media to spread information rapidly (a curse and a blessing), the 88th General Assembly (GA) was pastorally on target to make a statement rapidly. The GA’s statement on race addressed a specific situation and contains statements that we would use in a sermon without having a trial. Those statements are simply good applications of the Scriptures to a specific situation.
  1. Mr. Castle’s response highlights a seeming minimizing of the seriousness of racial problems when he writes, “In this announcement we were told the substance of the four instances. As has been recounted elsewhere, one of the four was so beyond conception that no one at the Assembly gave it any credence. The other three were probable.” OPC ruling elder David Mahaffy responds to that point when he writes, “It is wrong to say that ‘no one at the Assembly gave it any credence.’ Did we find it hard to believe? Yes. Did we all think that there was no way a commissioner could have said that? No. Mr. Castle summarily dismisses an outright racist comment as being so ‘beyond conception’ that an officer of our church couldn’t have said that. To do this indicates a huge blind spot: any accusation of outright racism against an officer of the OPC is ‘beyond conception’ and should not be given any credence?! It’s unlikely that officers with such an attitude would actually deal with any sin in that vein, since they believe it ‘beyond conception’ that we could commit it. That leaves the church wide open for that sin to go on without correction, since the officers don’t believe it can happen. I believe that’s an atrocious position and inappropriate for one who should be guarding God’s flock.” David Mahaffy adds: “Serious accusations need to be seriously addressed, not summarily dismissed.” Is this emblematic of the blind spot the PSE seems to have shown in its letters to Amiee Byrd and Rachel Miller, which were considered at this Assembly? This blind spot, which assumes that no officer of our church could be a racist, or an abuser, or abusing his authority as an undershepherd, is very real and allows the sin of denial to creep in. I would hope that Bennie Castle reconsiders his comments, or even recants them. They actually lower the standard of accountability for pastors!
  1. The expression, “doubling down on Presbyterianism,” fuels questions which may not be fair to the OPC and its GA. What is within the power of a GA to deal with in such a situation? Many situations are resolved without formal charges. From a Presbyterian governmental perspective, what tools did the moderator have available to him to address this situation? If it had occurred on the floor in debate the moderator would have called it out of order and even perhaps reproved the person from the podium. But this incident occurred outside of the Assembly’s hearing. It came to us initially by a report from a party outside the church. The moderator and the Assembly realized the immediate need to respond in a Christ-like, pastoral fashion. The Assembly and its representatives worked tirelessly on the situation with prayer and with communication to the University. They took solid steps towards dealing with the situation.
  1. A further Presbyterian governmental point is this: the 88th GA no longer exists. It has been dissolved. Furthermore, original jurisdiction is not given to the general assembly, but the general assembly may communicate the Word in pastoring the church.
  1. It appears to me that the Assembly’s statement served well in that it handled pastorally a real problem that could have proven explosive in our negative culture in which social media governs much debate. If not dealt with rapidly it could have turned out much more poorly. Now it belongs to a presbytery or session to do the rest! The officers of the Assembly recognized that news of the incident would be on social media whether or not the OPC posted anything. Better to acknowledge what happened and how the church was dealing with it. 
  1. It has been reported that the comments were meant as a joke. We learn several things from this:1) Don’t wait five days to own it! Be forthright on day one. The delay magnified the problem. 2) Be careful with humor; it can reveal callousness, insensitivity, or even a lack of love. 3) Mr. Castle writes that the “the only real instance of a GA commissioner giving offense was the instance of a bad joke made at the wrong time.” But that minimizes the importance of the biblical call to wholesome, upbuilding speech (Ephesians 4:29). Not long ago, the use of demeaning, abusive language towards several women and men, posted by some (not all) participants on a “private” website, was dismissed as bad humor. Particularly as officers of the church of Jesus Christ, we need to guard our tongues and not minimize the negative impact of disparaging words. Humor can be destructive. Perhaps we need to think about our “humor” in the light of the ninth commandment and the commandment to love our neighbors.
  1. While it is useful to look forward in cultural analysis, it may prove more useful to look back at our own history. John Newton’s hymn, “Amazing Grace” should be played in one’s mind while considering the 13th Amendment. Newton’s history and our nation’s history intersect when considering the sin of slavery.
  1. When it comes to offenses, hurts, and injury we should be quick to listen and to seek to resolve matters, but slow to defend ourselves.

If Presbyterianism is confused with procedure, it will prove to be hollow and devoid of the heart-warming pastoral shepherding that is embedded in a genuine Presbyterianism. Our hearts and minds should be attuned to our resurrected Lord and echo the words of the elders around the throne in glory as they sing “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty.”