A few years ago I had the privilege of baptizing a young adult who had recently embraced Jesus as Savior, Lord and King. As I sprinkled water upon his head, a young child in the congregation turned to her father and said loudly enough to be heard, “He’s not a baby.”
Like that young child, I grew up seeing many infants baptized in my home church. I never questioned it. It was what we did. We baptized babies.
I also don’t remember any explanation for why we baptized one unable to articulate their faith. I don’t remember being taught about God’s covenant of redemption that stretches from the Garden to Revelation.
By God’s grace, through my reading of Scripture and the instruction of many godly teachers – particularly the teaching and writings of O. Palmer Robertson – I have come to rejoice in the biblical truth of God’s gracious covenant, by which He calls to Himself a people, including their children, so that one generation might teach the next “to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18.19).
Through the years I have had the privilege and joy of instructing many in the glories of God’s unfolding covenant which permeates all of Scripture. But I have been terribly slow in coming to appreciate one particularly significant aspect of what it means to be a part of the Lord’s covenant community.
It has taken me years to recognize that as a covenant people we are the recipients of God’s blessing and judgment. When we as a people are faithful to the Lord, we experience, as a people, His blessing. When we as a people are unfaithful to the Lord, we experience, as a people, His displeasure.
I confess that far too often I have fallen into the heretical idea that it’s “me and Jesus,” which leads to the conclusion: If I am faithful, I know His pleasure; if I am unfaithful, I experience His loving but painful discipline. There have been many times in my life, when because of a particular unconfessed sin from which I have not repented, I have experienced with the Psalmist “my bones wast[ing] away . . . [and] groaning all day long. For day and night [the Lord’s] hand was heavy upon me [and] my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer”(Ps. 32.4).
But far too seldom, until of late, have I understood that it isn’t just “me and Jesus.” Only in my old age have I begun – and I have only just begun – to realize that as part of a covenant community the sins of my people are also my sins, and that I am responsible before God to confess these sins, to ask His forgiveness, and to repent both personally and corporately of such sins, to turn from them, and to return once more to the way of the Lord.
It has taken me a long while to embrace the idea that the sins of my people, as well as my own sin, impact us as a covenant community. Which is why I have resisted in the past any thought of being responsible for our failures as His people to act biblically toward those who have been the victims of horrible injustices and hateful prejudices.
I recently read a book about the trial of four young black men falsely accused of raping a white girl in central Florida in the late 40s. The book also mentions other victims of stunning injustice and shocking prejudice.
I was born in 1947. I do not remember these events. But I do remember my home church deciding in the 70s to move to the suburbs because the neighborhood in which we were situated had become predominately black. Sadly, I must confess, at the time I thought that decision made sense. Surely, it was argued, we could not as a church minister to “such” people. They would be uncomfortable worship with us – to say nothing of the discomfort we would experience. They’d never be able to embrace the “depth” of our teaching and preaching.
I grew up in New Jersey. I never thought twice about attending school with blacks. I played on sports teams with blacks. But . . . I can’t remember their names, none of them were part of my circle of friends, I never had any of them to my house for a meal, and I certainly never invited any of them to my church.
Gratefully, to my knowledge, the horror of the events in central Florida I read about were not part of my personal experience. But neither do I remember anyone in my church ever speaking of similar events. I don’t remember anyone voicing concern about injustice and prejudice. But I do remember being told that if blacks were to move into our neighborhood, our property values would decrease. I also remember being told that “blacks are as good as us, but we certainly aren’t going to invite them to dinner.”
My extended family lives in South Carolina. I grew up in New Jersey because my father went north after WWII to find work. On one of our many trips south, I remember stopping at a gas station in Virginia so Dad could fill up and I could empty. I had just learned to read. The sign outside the rest room confused me, but I went ahead and used the facilities.
Back in the car, I decided to ask my parents about the sign. I told my mother, “Mom, the sign said ‘color red,’ but the bathroom was white.” Mom struggled to understand what I was saying. Finally, she understood. “No, honey, the sign didn’t say the bathroom was painted red. It said ‘colored.’” “What does that mean?” “It means that bathroom was for colored people.” “They have their own bathroom?” “Yes.” That was the end of the conversation. No further explanation. No hint of what that sign indicated about the thinking of the people of Virginia. And, no further concern on my part.
I also remember being at my mother’s home place. A black tractor driver came to the front door to speak to my uncle. I heard my uncle tell him, “Get your black ass around to the back door.” Others heard him. No one commented on what had been said. It confused me, but I didn’t dwell on its implications.
While none of these personal examples compare with what I read about the events in central Florida, they are all part of the same mix. The events in central Florida were far more brutal – by the time of the second trial two of the four accused had been shot dead attempting to escape “justice” – but they were simply the logical consequence of a culture turning a blind eye to the perpetration of unspeakable injustice and prejudice, and living silently with such realities.
Nowhere in the book I read is there a church mentioned which either actively or verbally opposed what was taking place, unless that church was “black.” There may have been churches that did and are not mentioned. I don’t know. But if there were, I assume they were few.
The reason I assume they were few is in part because of my recent reading of Sean Michael Lucas’s book about the history of my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. While I would assume that some in my church in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s spoke out against injustice and prejudice, the overwhelming majority in my church and its leaders seemed more concerned about the possibility of whites and blacks intermarrying than about blatant injustice and mindless prejudice. In fact, some even twisted the Scripture to defend the “ways thing are.”
As I read through Scripture, I come to Daniel 9, in which the prophet becomes aware of Jeremiah’s promise that after 70 years in captivity the Lord would restore His people to their homeland. Having read this promise, Daniel goes before the Lord in prayer, claiming His promise. But as he does so, he rehearses the reasons why the Lord sent the people into captivity. In doing so, he uses the first person plural: “WE have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. WE have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name. . . . To US, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because WE have sinned against you” (Dan. 9.5, 6, 8).
You are hard pressed in reading the book of Daniel to find any personal sin committed by Daniel. Obviously, he wasn’t sinless. But we’re not told of any personal sins. But when he prays, he prays as a member of the covenant community. Their sins are his sins. He doesn’t separate himself from their sins, even the sins committed by an early generation. He owns them.
The sins of my fathers, the sin of my father, my sin – they’re all mine. Now, as a denomination, at our meeting of the General Assembly in June 2016 we have the opportunity to confess, and by God’s grace to repent, of our sins. And as we do so, may God do as He promises – may He forgive, cleanse, and recreate us in His image. May we, by His grace, find the courage both to speak and to act in ways that make it clear before a watching world that we will not tolerate injustice and prejudice against any people. And, by God’s grace, may He help us to find the way to become a church “that no one [can] number, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages” (Rev. 7.9) – a covenant people who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7.14).