Author and scholar Dr. William Yoo previews the talk he’ll deliver at the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 Summit

The author of ‘What Kind of Christianity’ was the guest on the most recent installment of ‘Being Matthew 25 Summit Edition’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. William Yoo

LOUISVILLE — Dr. William Yoo, who teaches at Columbia Theological Seminary and wrote the heralded 2022 book, “What Kind of Christianity: A History of Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Presbyterian Church,” gave “Being Matthew 25 Summit Edition” viewers a preview Wednesday of what he plans to discuss as a featured speaker during the Matthew 25 Summit, set for Jan. 16-18, 2024, in Atlanta.

Listen to Yoo’s 25-minute conversation with Melody Smith, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Associate Director for Digital and Marketing Communications, by going here.

The Matthew 25 Summit, “An Invitation to Innovation,” will be held at New Life Presbyterian Church in College Park, Georgia. It’s designed to bring mid councils, churches, worshiping communities and individuals together to deeply explore the Matthew 25 vision and learn from one another. Register here.

Yoo will lead a workshop at the summit called “The Role of the Church in a Marred History.”

“I earnestly desire for Christians and all people to engage the fullness of history,” Yoo told Smith. Doing that “may both inspire and infuriate us.”

“There continue to be deep injustices,” Yoo said, including “racial injustice and anti-Black discrimination that exists not only in the world and in the nation, but also in some of our churches … What needs to end is our pervasive prejudice against Black people, which exists in white communities — not only in [former] slaveholding states, but also throughout the United States … Addressing that, we can get a better look at the past and a better look at ourselves.”

“If we can better understand what happened in the past,” Yoo noted, “We can be equipped and engaged to address what is happening in our present.”

Smith asked what Yoo might say to people who are ambivalent about the church’s history “and our involvement in perpetuating slavery.”

The challenge for some people of faith is both not knowing about history and not wanting to know, Yoo replied.

“There is an almost willful, aggressive resistance to really knowing what is happening, to really knowing where our wealth is coming from,” Yoo said. For Black and Indigenous Americans and Christians, including Presbyterians, “that option to not want to know is not there … even to have the option is evidence of privilege, right? And so that is the challenge: If we want to be good siblings, if we want to be good partners with all of God’s people,” it requires “giving up on your ambivalence, giving up on your unwillingness to know … even if it is going to be challenging.”

Seeing how Presbyterians and other white Christians “were deeply implicated and involved in slavery, it did shake their faith,” Yoo said. “It is in the shadow of the valley of death where we confront evil — evil that our ancestors may have committed or allowed to happen,” Yoo said. “Or we can have a more resilient faith.”

“The worst” of pro-slavery and anti-Black theologies comes from four verses in Genesis 9, the so-called “curse of Ham.” Another way is through land dispossession of Indigenous peoples through the Doctrine of Discovery, Yoo noted. “In addition to the loud sermons that were hateful and wrong, I do hope that we can also better understand the quiet compromises that other people of faith made — not those who were declaring, because of this curse that happened in Genesis 9, [that] we can continue to practice Black enslavement.”

The gospel brings us both “great comfort and discomfort,” Yoo said. It comforts us when we’re suffering, but at the same time “pokes us and makes us uncomfortable and calls us to be a better witness” and build a better world and be better disciples.

Churches “have sometimes struggled and sometimes succeeded” in getting “people of faith to simultaneously be comforted and discomforted by the gospel,” Yoo said.

The Matthew 25 movement includes calling Presbyterians to repentance as well as “discerning together,” Yoo said, “how to have hard, sometimes contentious dialogues and conversations and teachings so that churches can be better civic partners” and their members and friends “can be better civic participants and better understand” what is happening in their neighborhood. “What are the issues that are keeping people from the rivers and streams, metaphorically, of justice and righteousness and access — economic, social, spiritual and educational access?”

Then there’s the challenge of modeling civility in congregations and worshiping communities that are “purple,” with people of faith on both sides of the political aisle. How do these faith communities have hard conversations? “There are few spaces in the United States, sadly, where we can engage in full hard dialogue” over issues including reproductive justice and access, immigration and “the challenges of what it means to be a nation state, and how to keep secure borders and have faithful pathways to legal immigration, questions about gender and sexuality and identity. These are complicated issues,” Yoo said. “It discourages me with some churches where you have all that built-in trust, and you have this group of people who really do care for another” as well as their neighborhood and their country but are “avoiding some of this work.”

Yoo told Smith he wants people attending the Matthew 25 Summit to leave not only with good answers, but with “new questions,” such as “how can answering this hard question get me to more faithful, more full answers to how I want to envision and enact God’s love and justice” in the world.

The next edition of “Being Matthew 25 Summit Edition” is scheduled for noon Eastern Time on Wednesday, Dec. 13. It can be seen here.

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