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‘This is work all Presbyterians can benefit from’

Dr. William Yoo, author of ‘What Kind of Christianity,’ is the guest on ‘Leading Theologically’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. William Yoo

LOUISVILLE — Dr. William Yoo, whose book “What Kind of Christianity: A History of Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Presbyterian Church” was published last year by Westminster John Knox Press and received almost instant acclaim, including from members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and from a local gathering, was the guest of the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director of theological education and funds development with the Committee on Theological Education and the Presbyterian Foundation Wednesday on the broadcast “Leading Theologically.” Listen to their half-hour conversation here or here.

“This is important work,” Hinson-Hasty told Yoo, Associate Professor of American Religious and Cultural History and Director of the MDiv program at Columbia Theological Seminary. “’It debunks persistent myths,’ says one reviewer. It gives me chills when I read that,” Hinson-Hasty said. “This is work that has to be done so we can imagine a different kind of future.”

“This is work all Presbyterians can benefit from … I am overwhelmed in a good way and a painful way,” Hinson-Hasty said of the book, which details the complicity during the 19th century of a majority of Presbyterians in promoting, supporting or willfully ignoring the enslavement of other human beings.

“What Kind of Christianity” was published in 2022 by Westminster John Knox Press.

Yoo opens his book with a quote from the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, the first Black woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church: “Where was the Church and the Christian believers when Black women and Black men, Black boys and Black girls, were being raped, sexually abused, lynched, assassinated, castrated and physically oppressed? What kind of Christianity allowed white Christians to deny basic human rights and simple dignity to Blacks, these same rights which have been given to others without question?”

“At one level, it is a disorienting question and statement, and it’s powerful, because it can be interpreted as ironic or paradoxical,” Yoo told Hinson-Hasty. One response he’s heard to that: “Christians were not responsible for those atrocities. Rather, they were fighting it … The reality is, a few Christians were … but the reality is, it was not many, and so that answer is not sufficient,” Yoo said.

The other more common answer is it was “the wrong kind of Christianity,” Woo said. It was, at one level, “wicked people who were misusing the name of Christ” or “white Christians, or Presbyterians, who just didn’t know better,” who adhered to literal interpretations of scripture and saw, in their worldview, that slavery was divinely permitted. He called those “the two answers I grew up with, the waters I was swimming in.”

Asked by Hinson-Hasty about the role that economics played in perpetuating slavery, Woo said the monetary value of an enslaved person in the prime of life was “likely commensurate” to a middle-class family’s income in 1860.

According to Yoo, abolitionists argued that while slavery was “foundational to the U.S. economy, it was so wicked and so inhumane that we have to go against our economic self-interest and find another way to thrive and flourish economically as a country.”

“This is what was happening, and this is what some white Presbyterians … feared,” Yoo said. “In my mind, I really do believe that many white northern Presbyterians, particularly middle- and upper-class … were simultaneously anti-slavery — they knew it was wrong — but also anti-abolition. They feared the consequences of a world without.”

Hinson-Hasty noted the book indicates that up to 75,000 Presbyterians were enslavers in 1860 at a time when only 2% of the population were slave owners.

It’s the kind of debate in which Presbyterians typically engage across their roles in the church. One positive component of Presbyterian polity, according to Yoo, is that “it describes a plurality of elders.”

“We discern together in communities and in committees,” Yoo said. The Scots Confession reminds us that all councils may err, and in fact some have erred, Yoo said. “It is to recognize our depravity and our sinfulness,” Yoo said. “Our hearts are like idol factories. We are prone to make idols,” he said, referring to a description in John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion.”

Even while discerning God’s will together, “sometimes we have our own interests, and it is hard to divest ourselves of those interests, and it is hard to honestly and boldly pursue God’s justice,” Yoo said.

Hinson-Hasty was also interested in Yoo’s discussion of the denominational goals of unity and purity back in the day.

Those roots go back to the 1795 General Assembly, Yoo said, when Transylvania Presbytery was “having some disagreements about the rightness and the wrongness of slavery.” The General Assembly’s counsel was, “keep the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace.” Rather than taking a pro- or anti-slavery position, Presbyterians were taking a pro-unity position, Yoo said. “That’s the foundation.” The message was, “you all can figure out how to agree or disagree and debate how to live together.”

“I do think that is a challenging impulse in our Presbyterian life together,” Yoo said. “It is right for us to seek the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace. We want to be in fellowship and in communion, and we want to honor diversity, not only in terms of age and ability and ethnicity and race and gender identity and sexuality, but also in difference of perspective or opinion or theological identity.”

But sometimes, “the purity of the church requires disunity,” Yoo said.

“I believe it’s in the DNA. I want it to be in the DNA of the Presbyterian Church,” Hinson-Hasty told Yoo. “It’s why we don’t have bishops, but we have councils. … Discerning the will of Christ and where God is leading us, that takes some really bold work. There’s a counter-cultural quality to the gospel no matter what you think.”

“For me as a Presbyterian, unity should be a priority, but not the priority,” Yoo replied. “I get that’s complicated … in part because of our polity, in G-4, (in the Book of Order) that church property is held in trust. That does make unity more than a priority on many occasions … I do believe that is a wrinkle, but it doesn’t mean that unity should be the priority.”

Yoo said that seminaries at the time “failed to exhibit not only moral courage, but even morality” in the ways they trained ministers, exegeting scriptures in ways that perpetuated slavery and notions of Black inferiority and white superiority. That was “not only detrimental, but exceedingly harmful, both for Black and white Americans.” Some abolitionists “were furious at theological seminaries, because they provided the sanctity of religion to justify these horrendous sins,” Yoo said. “That’s where I think seminaries ought to be held accountable — not only then but also now.”

People ask him what Columbia Theological Seminary “should do now. I think we are doing some things. We made a commitment, our Board of Trustees and the President’s Council in June 2020, in the wake of all the racial uprisings and protests … to repair the breach. But I do think repairing the breach needs to be backward-looking in addition to forward-looking.” That includes looking at making material reparations, Yoo said.

Yoo said the Rev. Dr. Perzavia Praylow, the pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., said “the wisest thing” during an event at which they taught together: “We need to know better and do better.”

“Some of us in the PC(USA), we’re kind of satisfied with knowing better, when we need to be doing better,” Yoo said. “People ask me, ‘What other books can I read, William?’ My rejoinder is, ‘I have five other books for you, but what five things are you going to do now that you know better?’”

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

“Thank you,” Hinson-Hasty told Yoo, “for looking back and helping tell the story of these origins so we can do the work today and to look forward … I am truly grateful, and I know so, so many others are. Thanks for your wisdom, your inspiration, and your challenge as well.”

At Hasty-Hinson’s invitation, Yoo offered this blessing: “God, we are called in your Word to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with you, O God, and as we do so, may we also strive and sometimes stumble, but ultimately seek and pursue your justice, your love and your righteousness in our congregations, in our neighborhoods, in our schools and in our world. We thank you in all this work, you are the God who goes before us, who goes with us and goes after us. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.”

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