May 12, 2019

“Racism: The Church Responds”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

John 3.19-21

Philemon 10-25

May 12, 2019

Last week I asked us to consider retelling our stories, especially the stories about diversity and racism – historically and spiritually. This is the second week of a sermon series on how the church responds to racism and white privilege. The Sunday School class is reading Race in a Post-Obama America, written during President Obama’s term. The class discusses the scripture passages and the book the week before, and then I attempt to put together a sermon that challenges us to think about how to respond to racism as a church.

I want to begin by asking you to think of one of your earliest experiences of race. What do you remember? How did that story shape you? Knowing how diversity was introduced to us can help us understand our own patterns in life and reactions. I’ve had this conversation with my family, and my father shared with me his experience, growing up in rural upstate New York. He grew up on a dairy farm and had limited access to humans, especially to people of color. The first black person he met was a boy who had a hearing impairment. My father, who was probably in elementary school, just assumed that all people of color also had a hearing impairment. When he met the boy’s parents later on, and they could hear, he had to adjust his understanding. In the Sunday School class we have discussed how views on differences are shaped, but also how they are reformed. Experiences seemed to be one of the biggest factors. It is important to share our stories, to examine them, and look at our experiences, and even retell our stories in a new way.

The class has had much discussion about whether racism is an individual issue, or a societal issue, and whether it can be changed individually or as a whole. The consensus seems to be both – that racism is both systemic and individual, but our actions must also be in daily interactions as well as larger and systemic. We noted that people changed based on their individual experiences. If one person is taught that a person of color is “lazy,” it takes one interaction with someone of color to recognize this is a taught prejudice, and that people of color do not have the same privileges as whites. Yet, the problem is also systemic when our country was built upon the concept of enslaving people who were not white. The problem is systemic when white people have the privilege of being able to dress down and not feel as if someone will see them as lazy.

The more the Sunday School class discussed these issues the more we recognized that we cannot have a conversation about racism without also looking at some of the other -isms, like sexism, ageism, and classism. At one point the class began talking about slavery, and the conversation jumped to how laws that were created to keep children safe were – once upon a time – based on laws that kept animals safe. Then, we began talking about the safety of women and the #metoo movement. Sometimes these issues are all tied together. Whenever there is prejudice and power, the -ism appears. Not everyone is viewed as equal in our world.

Often, we look to scripture to see how we should behave with one another. Yet, if you’ll remember last week’s scripture passage, one of them was not as helpful in knowing how to treat people – there was genocide and war. We need to look critically at our scripture passages to understand the meaning and also understand that sometimes scripture is used to harm rather than to help – which is why we should reframe and retell our stories.

Today’s passages both come from the New Testaments. If you’ll recall, each week I am taking the scriptures from the same testament to show that there are harmful passages in each, and helpful in each, and to not pit one testament against the other. Neither the scripture from Philemon or the Gospel of John is overtly negative. You might even wonder why they were chosen. One deals with slavery, but in underlying tones – it is sort of the backdrop of the conversation. Rev. Mindy Douglas, a minister in North Carolina, wrote: “Racism operates invisible, silently.”[1] It is easy to point to the KKK and shame, yet there are other words and actions that are used regularly that go ignored by many people.

One of those more covert themes is found in the Bible – the dichotomy of light and dark. Writer and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor embraces darkness in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark. She writes: At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part…It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true…It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from these things.”[2] We must be aware of our words and how we speak. Actor Taye Diggs wrote a children’s book called Chocolate Me! In a podcast on NPR he explained that his mother helped him reframe how he saw himself as the only black child in a community of white people. The kids, who had never encountered someone with a different color skin, said his skin was “dirt.” While the metaphor can be twisted as positive, knowing that good things come from the dirt, we know that generally when someone refers to another as dirt, it isn’t a compliment.

The Gospel reading is part of a larger conversation Jesus is having with Nicodemus. The most popular part of this scripture is found in verse 16, when we hear “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, Jesus Christ.” The passage goes on to say that this was not to condemn. Our passage today, though, tells us that there will be judgment. We cannot have it both ways.[3] I believe that is key to our understanding of racism – and any -ism. We cannot support people of color and allow covert forms of racism to continue. We cannot speak up in public and turn away when we hear something that makes us uncomfortable. We cannot have privilege and not be afraid of losing it.

The second scripture passage is a letter written by Paul to Philemon. Philemon was a wealthy man who owned slaves and we meet one of those slaves – Onesimus – even though we never hear from him.[4] We are unsure of the circumstances of Onesimus – whether he ran away or if Philemon thought he was doing some sort of favor to Paul and offering him a slave.[5] Either way, Paul is ready to help Onesimus find freedom. Paul’s wordplay here is stunning. He writes about how Onesimus was useless, but now he is useful – a play on the meaning of his name, useful. Last week we talked about “somebodiness” – phrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used. White privilege means that we can take for granted our “somebodiness.” Bodies of color are not treated like “somebodies,” and that must change.

Paul attempts to change the dynamics a bit. Instead of referring to him as a slave, Paul insists to call him “brother.” He is no longer to be viewed as a slave, but as a family member. In many ways, Paul is shifting the power dynamic, not just the relationship dynamic. To ask Philemon to release him from slavery means that Philemon is risking his own privilege.[6] What will happen to him? How will he be viewed in society? Paul is telling him it is a risk he must take.

Paul’s slick wordplay continues as he tells Philemon that if Onesimus has a debt it should be charged to Paul’s account. What is interesting about this is that Paul goes on to say, “Oh, and don’t forget – you owe me.” So, whatever the debt is, Philemon is already in debt to Paul – so Paul has the upper hand.

This passage shows good changes made at an individual level, but this is not the whole story. At the systemic level not much changes. Slavery still existed, and Paul did not speak out against slavery as a whole, just speaking up for this one person he knows.[7] To empower one person is important, but to ignore the system means it will happen again. Even in his own life, Paul had privileges as a Roman citizen, which he often used to sneak out of the trouble he was causing.

We see that the issue is complicated. We have to look at the systemic and individual, and act on all levels. The authors of the book the class is reading write: “Dismantling systemic racism begins with small steps: educating ourselves, acquiring the languages for the struggle, building our capacity to think systemically, and refusing to ignore the racism that is right in front of us. It does, require, however, big steps. Institutions such as the church have to examine and interrogate their own complicity in the logics of white supremacy that feed systemic racism.”[8]

We have much work to do.

As we consider how to act as individuals and as a system, I leave you with the words from Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Executive Director, Diane Moffett: Be love with skin on it. In all that we do, let us be love with skin on it. Amen.



[1] Mindy Douglas, DisGrace: The Church Addresses Racism, 19.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark. (New York: HarperOne Publishing, 2014), 7.

[3] Joseph Small, “John 3.14-21” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 118.

[4] E. Elizabeth Johnson, “Philemon 1-21” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 38.

[5] Craig S. Wansink “Philemon” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1233.

[6] Johnson, 40.

[7] Johnson, 42.

[8] David Maxwell, ed., Race in a Post-Obama America. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2016), 74.