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‘There is a God who sits high and looks low’

Presbyterian clergy from across the country participate in Week of Action Liberation Bible Study

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Adriene Thorne is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York. (Screen shot)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Though the Rev. Rola Al Ashkar grew up close to where Jesus Christ lived and shares a similar ethnicity to Christ, she still had to unlearn a Western-influenced, blonde-hair and blue-eyed image of Christ.

“I never thought that Jesus might look like me,” she said of her childhood. Later in life, as she entered ministry, she came to regard the western image of Christ as a betrayal and to understand “the colonizer Christ becomes kind of a distraction from the actual message of liberation.”

Putting Christ in the context of her own life, growing up in war-torn Lebanon, where her Christian faith and decision to go into ministry as a woman made her the target of discrimination, she now reads the gospels differently.

The Rev. Rola Al Ashkar was one of Presbyterian clergy from across the country to participate in Wednesday’s Liberation Bible Study, part of the Week of Action. (Screen shot)

“When I look at Jesus in context, with the Roman government occupying his nation, and with him growing up as part of an oppressed people living in constant fear and constant need, living in so much injustice, I get it,” she said in a video that was part of Wednesday afternoon’s Liberation Bible Study, part of the Presbyterian Week of Action.

“When we think about Black Lives Matter, when we think about the Civil rights movement, when we think about all the movements across the country to free people, all the movements across the globe to free people, we have to be reminded of the stories in the Bible that give us faith and let us know that even in perilous and difficult times, we’re not alone,” said the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who participated in the study. “We serve a God that is continuously working something out in the midst of us, even when we don’t see it, even when we don’t know it, even when there seems to be no evidence of getting beyond where we are.”

The Bible study was divided into two parts, with each participant also preparing a video meditation to inform their conversations about the role of God and Jesus in liberation. In particular, they examined the liberation of the Israelites from the Egyptians in Exodus, and the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman of the Gospels.

Participants in the first session of Black ministers, moderated by Bryce Wiebe, Director of Special Offerings for the Presbyterian Mission Agency were:

They focused on the Revised Common Lectionary text for Aug. 30, through a liberation lens.

The second session of pastors who lead intercultural congregations, led by the Rev. Samuel Son, Manager for Diversity and Reconciliation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, included:

Their discussion focused on who Jesus is and how it informs their support for Black lives and the work of liberation. Surprisingly, as the only white participant in the discussion, Murphy said she did not have to go through the unlearning Al Ashkar and others did because her parents did not go to church, having seen that white churches were on the wrong side of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“If the church had been the church it should have been for generations, there would be no need for liberation,” she said. “Because we have called evil good and good evil, God has raised up liberators.”

In her video and in the conversation, Murphy was a zealous advocate for actively integrating churches, even if it means some may close. The challenge, she said, is many are “unwilling to let go of things they love to embrace the people we say we love.”

Thorne talked about her impression of Jesus being formed by her father, who was not a church goer but was a tireless servant, willing to go change a neighbor’s flat tire at the drop of a hat or co-sign a loan for someone who needed support. She said for a long time she thought Christ’s admonition that “to whom much is given much is expected”was something her father came up with.

“The church is not here to serve the wealthy and well off,” she said. “The church is here to serve those who have been left on the side of the road.”

She said a key to how people’s image of Jesus is formed is in who they hang out with and how that informs whom you love, whom you fear and what you need.

The earlier conversation focused on the fears and faith the mother of Moses had to have in order to put him in a basket and send her baby down the river to grow up in the home of Pharaoh, who held the Israelites in slavery.

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), also participated in Wednesday’s Bible study. (Screen shot)

Nelson said when he reads texts such as these, he always focuses on the unnamed people, the “essential workers” of the day who don’t rate a mention but made the story happen. In this story, he also cited the efforts people in power such as Pharaoh put into maintaining their position, even sacrificing his own people.

“The bush all around the world is burning, and God has called us into conversation of what we’re supposed to do,” said Thomas, the pastor in Brooklyn. “In this liberation moment, in this Black Lives Matter moment, we need to call out Pharaohs by Pharaoh’s names whether that pharaoh is the prison industrial complex, whether that pharaoh is our government and political system, whether that pharaoh is the funding of police departments and what we’re looking at every day with police officers shooting people in broad daylight in front of video cameras.

“We need to name the pharaohs and go to those pharaohs and say, ‘Let my people go.’”

It can be easier said than done, the ministers in the first session acknowledged, but it is what we are called to do.

“Christ said, ‘Whoever does this will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother,” Khonje said. “How are you going to become Christ’s brother? Don’t claim to be a follower of Christ, if you can’t do what he would do.”

In his meditation, Nelson observed, “Certainly Black Lives Matter, in this period of history, as these young people get out into the streets, and as others support them in so many different ways — and I am grateful to say the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is supporting them as we have signs that say, ‘Yes, Black lives do matter,’ and as our staff and others around this building and Presbyterians around the country are engaged in this movement — as we think about these things, I am led to this text of possibility and freedom.

“We may not know where it’s coming from. And we may not know what some of the actions in this moment may even bring. But we do it on faith, like Moses’ mother. We do it because we know there is a God who sits high and looks low and reminds us that we will never walk alone.”

Khonje concluded, “God is our liberator and our savior.”

Read more about the Presbyterian Week of Action

Dayton’s College Hill Community Church engages in Black Lives Matter

Town Hall forum sees anti-racism progress in the PC(USA) but plenty of work remaining

Presbyterian Center bears witness on its walls

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