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The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins gives Synod School attendees a primer on what Presbyterians don’t believe

Spoiler alert: Christian nationalism is near the top of the list

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, Director of Advocacy in Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, is pictured on the South Lawn of the White House last year. (Photo courtesy of the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins)

STORM LAKE, Iowa — On Monday, the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the PC(USA)’s advocacy director, told the Synod School gathered at Buena Vista University what Presbyterians believe.

On Tuesday, Hawkins turned his attention to what Presbyterians don’t believe. What got the largest hand from the more than 500 people gathered to enjoy and learn during the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ 69th annual gathering was a definitive, “Presbyterians don’t believe in Christian nationalism.”

“It is ideology that equates patriotism and Christian theology as being compatible and easily merged,” said Hawkins, who directs both the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations in New York City. It also “ignores the fact that America is at its most diverse point in history.”

Presbyterians don’t believe in many things, Hawkins said during Tuesday morning’s convocation, including salvation by good works; reincarnation (“If I don’t get it right this time,” Hawkins quipped, “I will next time”); fate; transubstantiation; altars; (“We have a communion table. Altars are for sacrifice”); purgatory or limbo (“You’re either going to heaven or hell. I’m sorry”); the historic succession of bishops; praying to the saints or the Virgin Mary (“We lay our petitions before God”); and mortal or venial sins (“We believe sin is sin. Jesus listed many of the sins ranging from slander to murder.”).

“We are combatting this idea we are God’s new chosen people,” Hawkins said, quoting former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Then Hawkins added: “The church is called to proclaim the goodness of God, but it’s also called to have a prophetic voice. When there’s conflict between the state and the Word of God, we stick with Jesus. We stick with God.”

One such state conflict is a new Florida education standard that requires educators to teach their students that some Black people benefitted from slavery because it taught them useful skills. “I beg to differ,” said Hawkins, a history major in college who last year published “Unbroken and Unbowed: A History of Black Protest in America.” “The American brand of slavery was more brutal than the world has ever seen.”

American history has been infected by white supremacy. “You know the Lone Ranger was Black, right?” Hawkins asked. Part of the reason that’s not known more widely is that “in American history, there were no Black people and Hispanic people in the West,” Hawkins said. “In fact, they made major contributions.”

Hawkins traced Christian nationalism back to 1452, the year Pope Nicholas V first articulated the Doctrine of Discovery, which was repudiated by the 222nd General Assembly of the PC(USA) in 2016. That repudiated doctrine “is the bedrock of Christian nationalism and white supremacy, and it’s still part of the American psyche,” Hawkins said.

There are important Native American contributions to the U.S. Constitution, with the Iroquois Confederacy “wielding a significant influence,” he said. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter describing his view on the need for the Colonies to form a union similar to the Iroquois Confederacy, Hawkins pointed out.

Among some people even today, Christian nationalism remains an important force. Hawkins quoted U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who represents Georgia’s 14th District: “We need to be the party of nationalism. I’m a Christian and I say it proudly: We should be Christian nationalists.”

“Again I say,” Hawkins said with a grin, reciting a favorite movie line, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Christian nationalism “is bad theology and bad for democracy,” Hawkins said. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is leading the fight against its further spread, he said.

“When you hear things like ‘Make America Great Again,’ for people of color it signifies something completely different, going back to ‘the good old days,’” Hawkins said. “There is a racial component to this whole thing.”

Hawkins grew up in the midst of Jim Crow in a small city in North Carolina. By the time he was in 6th grade, community leaders finally desegregated the schools, “and it was a totally different experience. Most people here grew up in Jim Crow,” Hawkins said, gesturing to the large gathering in Schaller Memorial Chapel. “You know how the resources were allocated.”

“That’s why you see Black people reacting so strongly to what’s going on in Florida and with voter registration,” Hawkins said. “We cannot use our faith as in instrument to harm other people.”

Turning to the biblical account of Jonah, Hawkins called the reluctant biblical figure “just like us. The people of Nineveh repent. God changes God’s mind, and Jonah is hot.”

“Oftentimes, we are where Jonah is. We want to feel special in the eyes of God,” he said. “We pray God will reveal God’s will for us in 2023, but it’s unsettling and challenging. Thanks be to God that God is doing a new thing today.”

“Church, we cannot refuse to see [marginalized people] and we cannot allow our legislators to refuse to see them,” Hawkins said. “Impoverished people know what they need, but no one is listening … The church is their voice. We are the ones called to love our God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.”

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