Everyday God-Talk explores Union Presbyterian Seminary’s complicated history around race

Next installment to focus on how to move toward racial justice

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, president of Union Presbyterian Seminary, joined host So Jung Kim, at right, for two editions of Everyday God-Talk. (Screen shot)

LOUISVILLE — In the latest edition of Everyday God-Talk, Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, the president of Union Presbyterian Seminary, shares the complicated history of the seminary in the context of slavery, the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter.

In part one of the conversations with the host So Jung Kim, associate for Theology in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Theology & Worship, Blount described how the writings of professor Robert Lewis Dabney before, during and after the Civil War became some of the most influential and problematic works of their time.

“They helped give a theological justification to slavery,” Blount said, “and that the church should not involve itself in issues of social concern or social justice.”

Blount said this theological understanding that Dabney and other Union faculty spoke of the inadequacies of Africans and then African Americans. Union graduates carried this kind of thinking to the churches they served, Blount said.  As a result, many pastors and their congregations didn’t get involved in issues of racial or social justice.

The Rev. Dr. Brian Blount is president of Union Presbyterian Seminary, with campuses in Richmond, Virginia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Union Presbyterian Seminary)

Blount said when Union moved from the campus of Hampden-Sydney College in central Virginia to Richmond in 1898, a new way of thinking took shape at the seminary. As the faculty and students engaged with modern urban complexities and the challenges of the new century, they began to challenge the old theological framework of a socially disengaged spirituality of the church.

Union professors began to teach that there must be a connection between what Christians do theologically and how they live socially and operate in the world politically. This, Blount said, opened up possibilities for seeing African Americans in a different light, particularly in relationship to students who were beginning to protest for civil rights in Richmond. As students at Virginia Union University and Union made connections, mission endeavors for students at the seminary in Black communities around Richmond began to bubble up.

Today, Union Seminary is telling its complex history with slavery, race, and civil rights as a means for reflection, repentance, and renewal — and Blount says as a way of addressing social and racial justice in the light of contemporary and historical matters.

At the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation — which Blount said was established to further these kind of efforts — there have been conversations with scholars not only in the U.S. but around the world. These conversations have been about not only the pandemic, but also about issues of racial justice and police brutality toward unarmed African Americans.

Blount also mentioned the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership, which examines theological issues related to race, gender, economics and politics.

“Between those two centers we look at a broad cross section of issues: sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity and geography,” Blount said, “how they interact with what we do or think theologically and how we put that into social and political action — or how we refuse to do that.”

In part two of this Everyday God-Talk conversation, which will be released Wednesday, Blount discusses how unbiblical racism and white supremacy are — and how necessary it is for Christians to recognize this and repent of it.

Repentance, he said, indicates the need not only to be forgiven, but to change and be transformed — in both behavior and attitude that moves away from people negating the rights of others for their own agenda and life preservation.

Blount also talked about what he calls “engaged spirituality,” where one engages with biblical material that transfigures both the interior and exterior ways one relates with others. This kind of spirituality, he said, calls us to examine our interior disposition and feelings and measure them against God’s expectation for justice. When we fall short, we change how we think on the interior so that we can be compelled from the inside to act differently in the world around us.

For Blount, reparations would be a major way for tangible change to occur, because it would represent a concrete effort that says one wants to be in reconciliation with a community that it has abused. After slavery was abolished, Blount said, more injustice took place instead of reparations.

“Not only that, there was a doubling down on segregation,” he said. “We went the other direction and piled on the lack of reconciliation. I don’t believe we’ve ever had that with African Americans in this country, and I dare say we haven’t had it with Native Americans.”

Both parts of Kim’s Everyday God-Talk conversation with Blount can be viewed here.

Located in Richmond, Virginia, Union Presbyterian Seminary also has a non-residential campus in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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