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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Saying No
August 24, 2017

I am writing this on my first day back from a brief sabbatical, for which I am immensely grateful. I was able this summer to complete the three-month sabbatical that I had been granted two years ago but had to curtail after two months. I trust that this brief time away will yield much good fruit that will be evident in this weekly letter, as well as elsewhere in my labors.

Yet I must set aside my intent to share sabbatical gleanings due to the urgency of something else pressing hard upon us at this moment. The recent horrific demonstrations of hatred in Charlottesville cannot pass without my comment.

And my comment is, in a word: NO!

There is no place in American civil society for wanton expressions of hate for classes of people based on race, ethnicity, origin, sexuality, or disability. There is even less of a place for such in the church, in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).

As Presbyterians, we honor freedom of conscience. We hold that right beliefs cannot be coerced. But we hold with equal tenacity a commitment to refrain from contempt toward others who differ from us.

It is a perverse lie that “freedom of speech” includes freedom to indulge in discourse that intimidates and terrifies those whom it excoriates. Such speech can cause injury even more grievous than direct physical assault. Vile words are violent acts and must be confronted as such.

The apostle Paul reminds us that the freedom we enjoy in the Gospel can never justify such self-indulgence. (Galatians 5:13) As those who follow Jesus, we are called to look out for the interests of others, rather than for our own interests. (Philippians 2:4)

Pittsburgh Presbytery has stood long and resolute in its resistance to racism of any kind. We devoted the year 2014 to extended discussions of the costs of racism among us at each of our presbytery meetings. We have recently commissioned an Anti-Racism Transformational Ministry Team to lead our congregations in addressing and eradicating the systemic racism that still is with us. To all who speak or act disparagingly toward people because their skin color is not the same as their own, no matter their rationale, we say together with every ounce of our power: NO!

Pittsburgh Presbytery has spoken unanimously our belief that God calls us to welcome strangers and refugees from other parts of our world. There is bounty enough and to spare for all who seek shelter among us, and we are committed to grant them welcome and safe harbor. To all who would seek to repel immigrants to promote our own interests, we say together with every ounce of our power: NO!

Pittsburgh Presbytery has a long history of close friendships with the Jewish community. This led several of us to join the congregation of Temple Sinai last Friday at its Shabbat service to express our solidarity with them and our willingness to stand with them against all who would denigrate or attack them on grounds of their Jewish identity. To all such assaults, we say together with every ounce of our power: NO!

Two of the documents in our Book of Confessions were forged in the crucible of systemic social maltreatment of large population groups. The Barmen Declaration arose as a statement of Christian resistance to the rabidly anti-Semitic movement of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s. The Belhar Confession unmasked the sinfulness of racial apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. Both documents take the form of “Yes/No” statements – our “Yes” to Jesus and his way requires us to say “No” to declarations and ideologies that defy his way.

Alas, people who claimed to be Christian stood at the vanguard of both German National Socialism and South African Apartheid. Rather than publicly proclaiming the Gospel against prevailing cultural winds, many churches became enclaves that cultivated ideologies contrary to the Gospel in the interest of preserving their status quo. When today any church lies silent, condones, or even blesses hate speech toward ANY group in ANY form, it fundamentally betrays its identity and calling. To all such capitulation to the evils we deplore, we say together with every ounce of our power: NO!

Our denominational leaders issued this powerful statement in response to the Charlottesville debacle. Pittsburgh Presbytery’s Amos 5:24 Ministry Team and Black Presbyterian Caucus have prepared this follow-up statement for our sober admonition and positive instruction. Let us open our hearts to hear what the Spirit is saying to us in this time and place.

Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore;
Let the gift of Thy salvation be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving Thee whom we adore!
H.E. Fosdick, 1930

Yours in the Good News,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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