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U.S. Senator Chris Coons: The nation’s ‘deep racial inequities are sinful’

The longtime Presbyterian talks about faith and politics with a pair of PC(USA) leaders

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a longtime Presbyterian, shared his views on faith and politics during an online conversation Thursday with the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II and the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins. (Photo courtesy of Senator Coons)

LOUISVILLE — U.S. Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and a longtime Presbyterian, doesn’t hesitate to share his faith — even in front of a pair of Presbyterian pastors and an online audience containing dozens of his fellow Presbyterians.

On Thursday, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., hosted Coons for about 35 minutes, touching on topics that were personal, political and theological. Hear their conversation here.

For Nelson, the conversation afforded him a chance to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and the PC(USA). He told Coons and Hawkins he’ll never forget the sight of a young white girl who took two rubber bullets while protesting police actions on the streets of the nation’s capital.

“There are a number of people engaging in this [protest],” Nelson said. “They understand the powers of police systems around the country, recognizing that they could be victims as well.” He told Coons Presbyterians are set to march in Louisville and other cities Aug. 29 as part of the Presbyterian Week of Action.

Kentuckians and others across the nation, Nelson noted, are still waiting on the results of the investigation into the death of Breonna Taylor at the hands of police on March 13. “We don’t understand how the government can move so slowly,” Nelson said. “This is what we are dealing with in a place called Kentucky.”

The PC(USA), he said, has “not done a whole lot” to differentiate itself from the Black Lives Matter organization. “What we are saying is the Black lives do matter, that Black people should not be killed on the street simply because they are Black.”

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II is Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

As a life member of the NAACP, Nelson said he doesn’t identify as “colored,” as the organization states in its historic name. “I pay for a life membership in the NAACP because I believe in the causes they are standing for,” Nelson said. “In the U.S. historically, Black lives have not mattered — in slavery, in Jim Crow and in the police shootings we are now seeing.”

“I read a gospel where the fundamental principles include the dignity of all human beings and the obligation to treat all human beings as my neighbor,” Coons replied. “I worship and serve a Lord who was radical in his time and context in terms of who he saw and recognized, with whom he worshiped and for whom he advocated … We need to be witnesses to the fact that deep racial inequities in this country are sinful, not a matter of inconvenience or lack of government action or a cultural matter. They are literally rooted in sin.”

“My hope,” the senator said, “is that our faith and the engagement and witness of others who consider themselves Presbyterians or other people of faith will elevate the questions of injustice to the very highest levels.”

Coons also had something to say about another senator from Delaware — the former vice president and presumptive nominee for president, Joe Biden. This week, scores of reporters have been camped out adjacent to Coons’ own community of faith, First & Central Presbyterian Church in Wilmington.

Coons will speak to the Democratic National Convention online Thursday. He said he plans to talk about his friend’s faith, highlighting “the ways I’ve seen how Joe’s faith sustains him in moments of triumph and in times of great loss and deep despair.”

He said Biden “has made history” by choosing U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, D-California, as his running mate.

“I think this is a moment we need to turn away from racism, from nativism, from isolation,” Coons said. “We need to embrace the world and the fullness of Creation and our role in it.”

This week, he said, he was working with his daughter on her school assignment. They were reading 1920s editions of The Crisis, the publication of the NAACP. The magazine described mass protests against lynching, outlawed in the House of Representatives in 1922 but somehow never in the Senate.

“We still do not have an effective anti-lynching statute,” he said. “That is shameful. It is inconceivable. If that can’t call our congregations, the members of our faith, to action, I don’t know what can.”

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director of the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Asked by Hawkins about feedback Presbyterian pastors and other leaders sometimes receive — “You’re mixing faith with politics” — Nelson said he just encourages people to “read the Bible. It’s full of politics … Jesus would preach sermons in the Temple that people didn’t want to hear. We don’t preach [enough] sermons about the righteous indignation of Jesus Christ and the expectation of Almighty God for us to love one another … I struggle in every place that I can to be more like the One radical enough to lose his own life between two thieves and yet believe there is life beyond that.”

Coons said when people tell him they’re uncomfortable mixing faith and politics, he reminds them it’s a mission of the church to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What am I uncomfortable with and why is it I am uncomfortable?’” he said.

Many Christians will return to their churches after the pandemic to “hear nice music and nice words, socialize and go home,” Coons said. “Why don’t we want to look critically at the structures of inequality, power and injustice that underlie our whole society?” He said he chooses places to worship where sermons are preached “in ways that test, challenge and push me in ways that are perhaps not always fun or easy.”

Take Jesus’ first sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth, Coons said.

“At the end of the passage, the congregation lifted him up and sought to throw him off the brow of a hill,” Coons said. Jesus was sticking to the passage of the day from Isaiah, Coons noted — a passage that envisions “a resetting of economic priorities” as well as setting free the captives and binding up the brokenhearted.

“At the heart of the gospel is risk, a radical message of loving thy neighbor and defining thy neighbor as broadly as possible,” Coons said. “Not just those who look like us, make us comfortable, make us feel proud or help us get ahead. Jesus understood our neighbor [to be] outside the circle of polite company and polite conversation.”

Asked by Hawkins how young Presbyterians can further involve themselves in justice issues, Coons had three ideas: engage with your grandparents, listen more than you talk and think about the way that the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis approached people.

Lewis “was fierce. There is no doubt about where he stood,” Coons said of his friend, the famed civil rights leader who died July 17 at age 80. “But I saw him be open-hearted and loving and believe in the possibility of change, even in the hearts of those who had done him violence personally.”

A congregation “may not be as woke” as its young people are, he said, “but engage with them. You may find them re-examining their own assumptions and values. If you start with a wagging lecturing finger and you assume they need to be educated, you may not achieve that result.” Still, he urged, “dedicate your time and your heart to it. Reach out to people who will be voting the opposite way you would as a young person.”

Nelson was a seminary student in Atlanta when he met Lewis. “John Lewis was a person who would get up on top of a car in front of the Capitol building, railing about the need for justice and telling the story of crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” Nelson said. “But there was something about his spirit. It was grounded so deeply in love … He was never ordained as a preacher, and yet he had a word for this nation and for this world that many of us will never forget.”

The love Lewis displayed “was not a passive love. It was a love that says, ‘I care about you,’” Nelson said. “It has to be the motivation for us to share the gospel on this particular day.”

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