Remarks Given by the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II
221st General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Meeting
June 20, 2014
Good afternoon. I am J. Herbert Nelson, Director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC. Your Office of Public Witness is responsible for advocating the social justice policies approved by each General Assembly that has implications for the federal government. Presbyterians’ work in justice advocacy began with the founding of Presbyterianism in Geneva, Switzerland, by a lawyer named John Calvin who advocated for public education. Calvin believed so strongly that the Church of Jesus had a role to correct, influence and transform government that upon his death, he willed his writings to governmental leaders of Geneva, Switzerland, rather than the Smithsonian Institute of his day. He did this simple act to underscore his commitment to the belief that given the moral and ethical latitude of political leaders, their thoughts ought to be reminded of the mind of Christ in their deliberations.
A Scots Presbyterian Clergyman John Witherspoon was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. He was the only active clergyman to sign the document.
In 1963, African American Presbyterian Pastors and Women’s Rights Advocates led student and community movements across the country. We are often reminded of the role that Reverend Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church played in assisting White clergy of all denominations to engage the struggle for racial and gender justice. His monumental moment was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he stood with Dr. King in the March for Jobs and Justice, known today as the 1963 March on Washington, to declare that the White Church is late in coming to this movement, but he made it clear “we are here now.”
As Gradye Parsons suggest in his writing Presbyterians and Politics: Disturbers of Government, “So, on one hand, it would appear that those of the Reformed tradition have been defenders of the role of government, and on the other hand, disturbers of governments.” This paradoxical call places us in a significant position to love our nation while possess a willingness to make it better.
The biblical mandate for our call to justice as a denomination is found in the words of Jesus’ emancipation address when he entered the temple at the beginning of his ministry and gave voice to the power of his commitment to justice and liberty for all when he read “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” This liberating, agitating and elevating personal mission statement from the reading of Isaiah sets the tone for discipleship and provides the basis for our work in Washington, DC.
We give thanks to God for the revamping and revitalization of our Summer Fellowship and Intern Programs, where we are engaging young people in the work of justice advocacy. Four of our summer fellows have been working at this General Assembly in your committees and on the floor. Additionally, we are excited about our partnership with the Young Adult Volunteer Program and Hunger Program that will bring one or two Young Adult Volunteers to serve in our office for the next two years. These training opportunities for young people could not be done without your gifts and financial support.
On yesterday we launched a new initiative with World Mission to educate children. I firmly believe that given our Presbyterian heritage in education, if there is PC(USA) congregation in town or on the corner no child should enter school without knowing their colors or numbers or how to spell their name! If there is PC(USA) congregation in town or on the corner no child should attend school from K – 12 and not be able to get a high school diploma! Our commitment to partnering with other entities of the Church extends to joining the Peacemaking Program and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in an effort to eradicate Gun Violence in the United States. Presbyterian congregations across this country have screened the movie ‘Trigger’ and developed action plans to address a policy entitled Gun Violence and Gospel Values approved by the 219th General Assembly (2010). We are training Presbyterians to go back to their local communities become change agents in the political realities they face every day. Over three hundred Presbyterians have come to Washington, DC annually for our annual Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Day and Ecumenical Advocacy Days. These persons are engaged in advocacy training with skills to return home and make a difference in their local communities through engagement with policy makers.
Friends, we face a time when our voting rights are being suppressed; a time when corporations are paying millions to CEO’s who have failed at their job, while people in our nations are working hard every day. In this country of opulence there are people working overtime and still don’t make enough to pay their bills and feed their children. We live in a nation that chooses war over peace and power over partnership. We live in a nation where leaders would rather shut down the government than make a righteous decision.
I’m so glad Jeremiah did not bow to the temple priest who locked him in the stock room. He declared that he thought about turning back during his detention. However, something within him allowed him to say, ‘I can’t turn back. What I feel inside is like a fire shut up in my bones. He continued to proclaim God’s liberty and truth. If that does not convince you, I’m so glad Isaiah called the exiles back home; I’m so glad Micah made it plain when responding to the question, What does the Lord require? He said, to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God!” And Jesus demonstrates this call in his earthly life and reminds us in Matthew 25: 41-45 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
We cannot remain silent in these troubling times. The world needs the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to stand up and be the Church. Join me in making a difference in this sin sick world. We can do it together. Thank you and God Bless!