“Racism is sin.”
So begins a statement about the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, issued by the leadership of the Christian Reformed Church.
The statement, signed by most of the CRC’s ministry leaders, said that “while these incidents create moments of crisis in the lives of non-black people, they actually expose centuries-long patterns of racism and prejudice in the United States that are lived every day by people of color.”
“These high profile cases are not anomalies,” the statement reads. “Instead, they underline the systemic nature of racism and its pervasiveness in our culture.”
The 19 leaders who signed the statement invited church members to join them in moving beyond “thoughts and prayers,” noting that pursuing change is costly, that it will require sacrifice, especially for white members of the community. “We believe that such sacrifice is not only necessary, it also reflects the type of sacrificial love Jesus showed most gloriously on the cross.”
Council of Delegates Statement
At a special meeting, the CRC’s Council of Delegates, acting on behalf of Synod 2020, supported the leaders with a resolution of its own, but not without considerable debate.
It reads, “By this resolution, the Council of Delegates, acting on behalf of Synod, declares its abhorrence regarding the sin of systemic racism; declares its support of our denominational leaders who signed the statement about the death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor; and, declares its hope that in the midst of our struggle against racism the power of the gospel of justice and grace in Jesus Christ can be displayed.”
The debate came about the line supporting the denominational leaders and their statement.
Elsa Fennema, an at-large delegate, spoke in favor of it. “It is important that we say something, even if we don’t agree with every jot and tittle.”
Adrian de Lange, Classis Rocky Mountain, agreed with the Council’s resolution. “I think we all agree our world is a mess. People disagree deeply on how to change it,” he said. “If we can’t say even this, that is such a low bar. Even these words might seem significant, but if this is all we do, we’ve done nothing. This should be a starting point.”
Tyler Wagenmaker, Classis Zeeland, was not in favor. “There are some significant statements here that are problematic,” he said. “We haven’t discussed the term ‘systemic racism.’ That’s a loaded term.” He also expressed concern about some of the links posted at the end of the leaders’ statement, calling them very troubling.
Colin Watson, interim executive director of the CRC pointed out the note on the end of the statement that reads, “Note that for those that were produced outside the denomination, we do not necessarily endorse every link or every statement on their websites.“
Bruce DeKam, Classis Northern Michigan, also voted against the Council’s resolution because he didn’t like the statement written by the denominational leaders.
In the end, the Council’s resolution passed 31 to 8. DeKam, Wagenmaker, Ralph Wigboldus of Classis Huron, George Young of Classis Hudson, Roger Sparks of Classis Minnkota, and Tony Lara of Classis Arizona registered their negative votes.
After the vote, Paul DeVries, president of the Council said, “If this is difficult here, one can only imagine what it is like to live with it in our society.”
Statements Do Not Change Hearts and Minds
Reginald Smith, the CRC’s director of diversity where, he says, he gets to work with the fastest growing segment of the CRC: ethnic and multiracial congregations, did not sign the June 4 statement.
“I am really wary of statements,” he told The Banner.” From his recent experience as director of the Office of Race Relations and the Office of Social Justice, he said statements can become a game of competition with other ministries in order to be first. “In my observation, the time to find common ground is missed,” he said.
He said statements do not change hearts and minds. “I know our denomination has a tough time dealing with race in our own front and backyards,” he said. “We deny its history, feel sorry about it, and find an office to take responsibility, and we move on to our culture wars. I have seen this routine too many times.”
He said getting lathered up to fight for another statement is a total waste of time if hearts and minds are not pricked by something greater or profound. “I know our church knows what to do,” he said. “It just isn't going to do it. Statements will not change this dilemma.”