A conservative Presbyterian seminary in St. Louis will host a conference on leadership and race this weekend organized mostly by African Americans who are asking white attendees to recognize that their participation “means hearing, repenting and listening more than you speak.”
Whites are also being asked to devote one seminar hour to “intensive training in anti-racism,” according to guidance for whites on the conference website.
The website features a letter from Joel Littlepage, a white North Carolina pastor, to his “white brothers and sisters” in which he explains, “For whites, our position as majority-culture citizens of America grants us privilege and safety that people of color are not afforded. It is good and wise that we have time together, as white people, to have honest discussion and explore the ways that we can expose our own biases and be effective in the fight for racial justice.”
The conference will be held at Covenant Seminary, which is affiliated with the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and which recently started offering courses in Nashville. PCA churches in the Nashville area include Christ Presbyterian in Nashville, Covenant Presbyterian in Green Hills and Christ Community in Franklin.
Called LDR Weekend, the fairly new annual gathering is “designed for and by people of color” although “people of all ethnic backgrounds and denominations are welcome to attend.”
Last year’s conference director was Michelle Higgins, a Black Lives Matter activist who told Religion News Service that “the decentralized movement of Black Lives Matter allows local pastors or local groups to use the phrase to mean all black people are despised systemically in such a way that our country does not hesitate to refuse them proper health care, quality education or fairness in the face of potential arrest.”
The PCA was formed in the early 1970s as a reaction against liberalism in mainline Presbyterian churches. Today the denomination is characterized by growing conflicts between conservatives and progressives on a number of topics, including race. Conservatives maintain that present-day injustices against racial minorities are being grossly exaggerated for political gain and that the emphasis on the supposed need for radical social change is causing division and drawing attention away from the gospel.
While much smaller than the Southern Baptist Convention, the PCA has a large intellectual influence in American evangelicalism and its leaders often collaborate with Baptist leaders and those in other denominations. Past PCA leaders included the late D. James Kennedy, a traditionalist who pastored a megachurch in Florida. Current PCA leaders include Tim Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and a promoter of social justice.
At its annual denominational meeting in June, the PCA chose as moderator Alexander Jun, a progressive academic and co-author of a new book titled White Out: Understanding White Privilege and Dominance in the Modern Age.
The conference this weekend is an initiative of the Reformed African American Network (RAAN), the PCA’s Mission to North America, The New City Network and South City Church, a PCA church in St. Louis, where Higgins, the Black Lives Matter activist, is the director of worship and outreach and where her father, Mike Higgins, is the pastor. He is also dean of students at Covenant Seminary.
RAAN includes thought leaders from various backgrounds who contribute to its website, including Jarvis Williams, a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. In an interview with The Gospel Coalition in February, Williams recommended that Christians read, among other books, Michael Emerson’s Divided by Faith. “This book shows how [the] evangelical movement and white supremacy are closely connected,” Williams said. “Evangelicals tend to ignore racial discussions because evangelicalism has historically benefited from racism. This book will help evangelicals see this and hopefully move them to repent.”
Last week, RAAN co-founder Jemar Tisby wrote in a piece that it’s hard for blacks to integrate at predominantly white churches because “it’s hard to have a 401 level solidarity with people who are on a 101 level of racial awareness.”
Also last week, RAAN published a declaration on the recent violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and radical leftists. A woman was killed and others injured when a man identified as a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd. Fights between radical leftists and white supremacists led to other injuries. Two state troopers monitoring the area were killed when their helicopter crashed accidentally.
The RAAN declaration calls on Christian evangelical leaders to condemn white supremacy, even though PCA and Southern Baptist leaders and others have time and again done just that in recent years with numerous statements and resolutions condemning historic injustices and lingering racism.
The declaration alleges that the white supremacists in Charlottesville were but a small reflection of widespread white supremacist sentiment in the culture and in the church. The declaration states:
From the founding of this nation until the present hour, the idolatry of whiteness has been a pro-death spirit within our republic. It is easy for us to scapegoat the domestic terrorists who incited violence that ended in the deaths of three Americans. We can call them extremists who do not represent American values, but upon closer examination, the ideology deployed as a weapon in Charlottesville haunts every institution of the country, including the Church.
The Charlottesville declaration has been signed by many pastors, professors and church members of different races across the country. In Tennessee, academics who have signed include David Dark, a professor at Belmont University, a Christian school in Nashville formerly affiliated with Southern Baptists, and C. Ben Mitchell and Frank Anderson, professors at Union University, a Southern Baptist school whose main campus is in Jackson in West Tennessee. A number of signers nationally are affiliated with Cru, formerly called Campus Crusade for Christ.
One prominent critic of some of the philosophies promoted by groups like RAAN is Darrell B. Harrison, who attends a Reformed Baptist church in Georgia and is a fellow of the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) of the Princeton Theological Seminary. Harrison wrote a post for his blog Aug. 15 titled “Is the Gospel No Longer Enough for Black Christians?” In the post, Harrison said that “words like slavery and oppression are applied so flippantly and, dare I say, ignorantly today as to divest them of their historical significance” and that “not every perceived injustice involving black people can be attributed to ‘racism’ (another term which, like slavery and oppression, is losing its force due to overuse.)”
Harrison made an appeal to his fellow black Christians to return to a greater focus on the Bible and Christian living and make that their first priority, writing:
The truth is there is no gospel and, conversely, no church – regardless of ethnic composition or denominational affiliation – apart from the life-changing message that ‘Jesus Saves.’ It is that message which, I fear, is being lost as increasing numbers of black Christians become convinced that their primary loyalty is to an ecclesiastical legacy rooted in a socio-ethno missiology that emphasizes societal reformation apart from spiritual transformation.