Chris Iosso is the Coordinator of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and General Editor of Unbound.

This issue of Unbound is about the response of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to racism; a way of joining the conversation begun in the street protests following the verdict that George Zimmerman was “not guilty” in the death of Trayvon Martin.

Why another discussion? Because a young man who was doing nothing wrong is dead; and that puts an enormous contextual burden not only on the man who shot him, but on us all. “We” is not just church people, or Christians, but we have a role in the problem and the solutions, along with others of good will. The US of the title, then, is both the United States and us.

What is new here? Some new voices, as well as some voices and resources to remember that can help renew us. As always in Unbound, we welcome your responses and urge you to have the conversations amongst your friends, in your classes and churches, and when you go to public hearings on community policing, gun policy and every other issue where power may choose to act either to protect privilege or to promote the common good.

From Building Community Among Strangers.
211th General Assembly (1999).Racism in the United States, as it has unfolded throughout history, goes beyond prejudice. Scholars observe that racism involves a system of destruction and denial, based on prejudice, as it is put into practice by a dominant force to maintain its power.
How did this conversation get re-started in the church? The Director of the church’s Washington Office of Public Witness, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, had visited Sanford, Florida, during the trial, and told us that the verdict might be significant. His sermon, preached the morning after the verdict, is posted on the OPW blog.[i] Another strong response to the verdict came from Rev. Claudio Carvalhaes, currently a professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. A sermon by Carvalhaes (a Brazilian immigrant and former pastor in Massachusetts) at the Youth Triennium prompted some to walk out of the closing worship service. We have posted that Carvalhaes sermon[ii], and we also share an excerpt from a sermon he delivered at the Big Tent gathering a week later.

However, it was general discussion by many in the church that prompted church leaders to put together a panel on the church and race on the closing morning of Big Tent, a gathering of 1400 Presbyterians in Louisville, KY. That discussion included 6 panelists and an audience of about 250. It was an ambitious attempt to address three agendas: the Trayvon case, which got short shrift; the church’s approach to racial diversity, which got some good discussion; and the role of General Assembly and Presbyterian Mission Agency staff, who provide both leadership that complements local and regional leadership and resources for the wider church’s ministry.

That panel consisted of the Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, who guides the proceedings of the biennial General Assembly, the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, Linda Valentine, who serves the central program board of the church; Bruce Reyes Chow, a former Moderator; Arlene Gordon, President of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus; Teresa Chavez Sauceda, pastor and consultant on racial diversity; and Marcus Lambright, a member of the Cross Cultural Young Adult Network. Associate for Gender and Racial Justice, Nancy Benson-Nicol, moderated and Sterling Morse, Coordinator of Cross-Cultural Ministries, convened the group. The Presbyterian News Service covered the event.[iii]

Unbound was there also and asked a number of attendees to comment. Four reflections have been submitted and we share them with you now. We believe these brief articles are a way to share in an important and often difficult conversation. Our commentators, Lou Knowles, Jerrod Lowry, Cindy Joe, and Larissa Kwong Abazia, are thoughtful Presbyterians, not experts on the subject of cultural diversity. Yet they admirably show that we all have a place and a stake in this conversation. We also re-post (with her permission) Nancy Benson-Nicol’s valuable pastoral letter issued after the not-guilty verdict was made public.

From Problems Caused by Racism: A Response. 203rd General Assembly (1991)
We acknowledge and confess that the Presbyterian Church has failed to respond faithfully to the gospel and the racial justice challenges it set forth for itself, as expressed in both its Confessional statement and it past pronouncements . . . The reasons put forth for failure and the lack of action by the church are very familiar ones and have been articulated frequently over the years . . . The major obstacle to racial justice in society, as well as in the church, is in the nature of racism itself. Racism has developed primarily as a means to protect and legitimate the privilege of one race over the others . . .

For a policy perspective on this situation we remember that many statements have been made against racism by the General Assembly, especially since World War II. Racists left the Presbyterian Church, as did others who felt the church was racist, or cowardly. In 1999, a comprehensive strategy, Facing Racism: A vision of the Beloved Community, was approved by the General Assembly.[iv] The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy developed a paper to encourage discussion, Building Community among Strangers that looked at racism as well as social class division, sex-based injustices, and religious intolerance and conflict. This document was translated into Korean and Spanish.[v] A fine 36 minute DVD, narrated by Phil Tom and Nancy Benson-Nicol, “Connecting Diversity in Community,” is also available for congregational use.[vi] And Interim Managing Editor Tricia Lloyd-Sidle has developed a “Posts from the Past” series of particularly good Church & Society articles to illuminate helpful church thinking and action for racial justice.

What Next?

Racism is still America’s original sin. And it is still our Presbyterian Church’s sin. Sure, we can always point to some progress, and we can point—cautiously—at the role of the mainline Protestant churches in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when we—as denominational institutions– clearly participated in a civil rights awakening. We argued at General Assemblies, allocated money, hired able staff, worked closely with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups. But as Jerrod Lowry reminds us, our leaders, like Eugene Carson Blake, were most persuasive when most confessional: “If I am asked why we are here today, I will gladly answer. I will be considerably embarrassed, however, if I am asked why we are so late.” (On July 4, 1963, upon his arrest at the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore).[vii]

The legal aspects of the George Zimmerman trial are beyond this discussion but do deserve attention: whether the prosecution aimed too high; whether the police work was flawed; whether an all female and all white jury was fair; whether the grounds for “self-defense” were expanded by the “stand your ground” law; and whether our system almost encourages gun violence due to our unique-in-the-world gun culture. How important is the ethos of “stand your ground” to people who feel they can kill to protect property as well as persons? How important for Zimmerman was his desire to act like a policeman, whatever his views on race? Laws and the processes of justice affect our moral environment and should reflect a basic respect for all human beings that we ground in the image of God. From Struck Down, But Not Destroyed: From Hurricane Katrina to a More Equitable Future218th General Assembly (2008):The primary author of the study was raised in New Orleans and, with their permission, shares some of the suffering of his own family, most of whom have struggled to stay, and stayed to struggle, in that city. As a professor of urban ministry, he also takes us to the hard truths beneath the deluge of data: … much of our culture and civic ethos remain stunted by structural racism. Any plans for rescue must recognize these mutually reinforcing legacies of segregation in employment, housing, and education.

The theological analysis of racism includes treatment of white privilege and the role of “whiteness” as an aspirational category, as in the response of J. Kameron Carter.[viii] Fred Davie looks at some of the attitudes that come under the heading of racism.[ix] Other commentators discuss how outrage, grief, and opposition to systemic racism relate to the potentials for repentance and forgiveness of individuals that are part of our faith.

All visionary leadership has a moral component, whether it is in church, state, or other venues. How do we shape a moral consensus when it is hard to hear what others are saying? What world will our children—and those of other countries—inherit? It is part of our faith to imagine a different world, one closer to the Reign and kingdom/commonwealth Jesus preached. May we not grow weary in this struggle and hope.

[vii] Eugene Carson Blake: Prophet with Portfolio, R. Douglas Brackenridge. New York: The Seabury Press, 1978; p. 94.


  1. Trayvon Martin did nothing wrong? He was on top of Zimmerman beating him. Everybody knows this. Who are you thinking to fool?
    Meantime, Roderick Scott got away with killing Chris Cervini.
    As to Martin, everybody knows better. Everybody. No matter what they say, everybody knows better.
    And Zimmerman, half hispanic and blacker than Homer Plessey, is an honorary white man for the purpose.

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