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May 26, 2019

“Racism: The Church Responds”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Exodus 23.27-33

Leviticus 19.33-34

May 26, 2019

Talking about racism is exhausting work. We might think we are just “talking,” and that conversations do not take energy, but talking about racism is emotionally exhausting. Conversations challenge how we look at the world. We question our previous interactions with people of color. We wonder how we will move ahead. There are some days that it seems the news is only talking about issues of race, and all of that can be exhausting. So, as we approach our fourth and final week of this sermon series of race and privilege, I want to share with you a story.

Really, this isn’t a new story, so much as an extension of the story I shared last week. I talked about my experience at General Assembly and how Kennerly David Benraty spoke about the fact that black PCUSA churches are dying. Before he went to the floor of General Assembly to speak, he spoke in our committee which was focused on synod work. He brought up his concerns at the point when we had new business on the agenda – when we had spent days working and looking at synod minutes and were tired and hungry – because that was when he had the floor, and that was when it was decently and in order. He brought up his concerns about how the black churches are dying and the committee of mostly white people were concerned, but someone suggested we break for dinner and come back later. There was a hush that fell over the room because we knew that meant that either people wouldn’t come back after dinner, or that we would rush through the decision so we could just end our day. There was silence, and then some chatter back and forth. Finally, one person spoke up. She was white. She said “White people have the privilege of walking away from this topic. We can go to dinner, take a break from conversation, eat up, and then come back with full stomachs and maybe bat around this idea. People of color cannot walk away from racism and issues of race. They live it every day, whether we take a break or not.” The committee unanimously decided to stay and work out a motion to take to General Assembly.

As uncomfortable as it can be for white people to talk about race, it is necessary. We have the privilege of walking away, but we need to remove that privilege and sit in the discomfort, and learn from it.

During the first week of this sermon series we visited some historical stories in scripture and in our country and talked about retelling our stories. The second week we examined systemic and individual racism and talked about how racial healing can only happen through both group and individual changes. Last week we saw how churches have harmed people of color and have not helped in bridging the divide. Today we finish with privilege and how we can move ahead as a congregation.

The scripture we read today is similar to that of the first week of this series. I have mentioned in my sermons that I have chosen scripture passages from the same testaments so as not to pit the two against one another. Both have been harmful and healing in conversations of race. One is not better than another. The Sunday School class has been reading a book called Race in Post-Obama America and discussing the passages and the book for me to create into a sermon. The class finished the book before, though, so I gave them articles on Black Lives Matter and privilege as seen by a white NBA player.

At first glance of the Exodus context we might be ready to write it off as one of those passages someone wrote to justify the way hurting people saw God in a broken world. That is probably part of it. Yet, it is also interesting to note that earlier in the chapter issues of justice are addressed. In fact, in my Bible translation, the title of this chapter was “Justice for All.” This hardly screamed “justice for all” when I read it. The earlier verses mention years of jubilee and rest for the land and taking sabbath year. Yet, we then read about God throwing people into confusion and terror. How is this justice for all?

The article the class read about Black Lives Matter pointed out that often there is a counter that “all lives matter.” I would challenge us to look at this passage. Do all lives matter in Exodus? We want everyone to matter, but the reality is that not everyone does. This is not an embodied practice, but a slogan that has been coopted. The author poignantly puts “until all lives matter, black lives matter.”[1] Whether or not you agree with that specific group, whether or not you choose to march for this issue, whether or not you agree with politics, I think we can see that there is not currently justice for all, and that we have far to go.

The Leviticus passage tells us to care for the alien or stranger. We have some discussion in the class about the word “alien” which has many different connotations – someone from outer space? Someone who is “illegal”? Dr. Johanna Bos intentionally translates this word – “ger” in Hebrew – to be stranger. This is someone who is an outsider. She describes it as someone “socially and psychologically their lives are vulnerable.”[2] This could encompass many people – but certainly people without privilege.

The other article we discussed in class was by Kyle Korver, a basketball player for the Utah Jazz. He wrote about how systemic racism has permeated how he views the world – and how he wants to change that. He gave examples of how his friends of color on his team had been arrested, harassed by fans, and treated differently because they were not white. He has come to realize that white people are “not guilty of the sins of their forefathers”… but “responsible.”[3] His experience in the NBA has been that interruption of the Spirit that we talked about last week. “While we are brooding – the Spirit interrupts.”

The Spirit interrupts in interesting ways. This past week I attended the Summer Institute of Theology and Disability. One of the presenters, Amy Julia Becker, spoke on privilege. She was speaking specifically of the privilege of people who do not have disabilities. Becker has a daughter who was diagnosed with Downs Syndrome. She talked about the two different kinds of privilege she has experienced. As a person who identifies without a disability, she said that she had experienced “radical individualism.” She was taught to go to college, obtain a degree, keep reaching for higher and higher intellectualism, and to keep achieving. Her value system was based on intellectual ability. She has since seen how that privilege can be harmful. She talked about how many affluent, white families attempt to achieve the “American Dream” but often meet that dream with stress, anxiety, depression, and maybe addiction. We are harmed by privilege.

The church has privilege. We might not always see it, but we do. With churches decreasing in membership, that privilege might seem like a myth. But think about this. At General Assembly we marched in the streets of St. Louis to end cash bail. Roads were blocked. Traffic stopped for over an hour. The PCUSA did this without a permit. What would have happened if an individual had marched? What would have happened if it was an organization that was not the church? What if it had been an organization that was not primarily white? I do not think it would have been as welcomed.

I mentioned that Amy Julia Becker experienced two kinds of privilege, but I only named one. The second was the idea of privilege as an honor – something undeserved. In her own experience she considered it an honor to be welcomed into this world of disability as an outsider – to experience something other than what was familiar to her. This is an invitation to a world not our own.

Consider yourself invited. How will you enter into a world that is not your own? Listen. Be an advocate. Speak up. Partner with friends. Don’t give up. Turn your privilege of gifts into a privilege of honor. Amen.

 

[1] Tanya Denley, “Until All Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter” https://www.presbyterianwomen.org/2015/09/17/lives-matter-black-lives-matter/

[2] Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 28.