May 5, 2019

“Racism: The Church Responds”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

May 5, 2019

Deuteronomy 7.1-11

Deuteronomy 10.17-19

Where did racism begin in individuals and society, and how can we make it end? Our country has been ripe with conversations about racial justice for some time now. Protestors hold signs. Groups have been formed. Shootings have taken place and hate speech has been spouted. It seems the rhetoric is growing louder and louder. Where does the church step in and what is the role of the church?

Today we are beginning a four-part sermon series. The Sunday School group is reading Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds. This was written by various authors who are all people of color. I also want to make clear that this was written in 2016 before Donald Trump was in office. This book is not pointing at particular politicians. Though, Obama is mentioned often in this book. Many had the assumption that when a black president was elected the issue of racism ended, but one black president does not negate the generations of racism that has occurred in our world, especially our country. The pain people of color have endured cannot be erased by the inauguration of one president of color.

Before we dive in, I feel I need to state the obvious. I am a white female. I do not know first hand the struggles of being a person of color, but I am willing to learn. White people must have these conversations about race because we must learn from past mistakes and work toward justice. We also must remember that racism is not just a black and white issue – that there are many races and ethnicities, and a person of color does not just mean someone who is African American. The book reminds Americans of the history of displacement and genocide of Native Americans, of the history of Japanese internment camps, and the anti-Semitism that has happened as a way that white people have misused power.

The book defines racism as having power plus prejudice.[1] Now, power plus prejudice can really create any -ism. For example, power plus prejudice against females equals sexism. Power plus prejudice for wealth equals classism.A person can have privilege without power. The idea that white people have privilege does not mean that all white people are racist, but that we live in a system that offers privilege to people because of the color of their skin.

I invited the Sunday School class to do a privilege exercise last week. They looked at seven different sheets of paper that had statements on it. For each statement that was true to them they took one paper clip. The statements said things like: “People don’t ask why I ‘chose’ my sexual orientation” or “I can assume that I will easily have physical access to any building” or “I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or be questioned if I don’t change my name” or I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or closely watched by store employees because of my race.” These questions were based on sexuality, race, gender, ability, and religion. We realized that we all had some privileges, but not all the same privileges. We aren’t meant to feel guilty for those privileges, but to realize what we do have, and how we can use our privilege to better pursue justice.

Rev. Cindy Cushman, a minister in our presbytery, wrote a beautiful article in Presbyterians Today about white privilege. She first quoted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “I would like to suggest some of the things that you must do and some of the things that all of us must do in order to truly be free. Now the first thing that we must do is to develop within ourselves a deep sense of somebodiness. Don’t let anybody make you feel that you are nobody.”[2] “A deep sense of somebodiness.” Rev. Cushman, a white woman who is the mother to three black children, wrote: “Some bodies still matter more than other bodies…we as a nation have diminished the somebodiness of black people in this country. I’ve seen it happen to my children…White privilege is being able to take our ‘somebodiness’ for granted.”[3] She goes on to give examples of white privilege to make it more concrete for us: “Not having to worry about an occasional lapse in good behavior is white privilege. Going grocery shopping with friends without being harassed is white privilege. Simply driving without being stopped is white privilege.”[4]

Now, when we hear this, we might feel a little bit discouraged. These are systemic problems. If we are privileged because of the color of our skin, how can we change that? How can we change a system that was put in place so long ago? Perhaps we can change the system, one bit at a time by retelling our stories.

Our scripture passages today are different. You may have noticed. They express different messages. Both, however, are from the Hebrew scriptures. While I preach these sermons the two passages will come from the same testaments. This is important, because one testament does not disprove another. We can find harmful passages in both testaments, and we can find helpful passages in both. I believe it is important to see redemption in both. As Amy-Jill Levine says, “If to get a good message you need to make Judaism look bad, then you don’t have a good message.” [5] If we have to point at one testament, especially the Hebrew scriptures, and discount it, then we are merely perpetuating more racism, more anti-Semitism.

So, our passages are at odds with one another, and they both come from the book of Deuteronomy. All of the passages we will use over these four weeks will be opposites. This will show how the Bible has been used to harm and to help in our world. The first passage, from Deuteronomy 7, is harsh. The author of this section tells of God handing over people to be slaughtered. Yet, deeper, this is about covenant and keeping away from that which distracts from God – those idols. Dr. Johanna Bos writes in her book that this is the perception of the author – it never really happened – these people were not murdered. She goes on to say “it could never have happened and that it did never happen…it should never happen.” When we learn the historical context, that this is not God telling people to murder, but perhaps someone’s justification of taking over a land and trying to avoid idolatry, maybe we need to retell some stories.

How much of our story is what we have heard and repeated, and how much is what we actually experienced? What narratives do we need to be telling? Maybe we need to change our narratives at times. The authors of Race in a Post-Obama America go through hundreds of years of American history and explore the ways it was told, and the way it actually happened. For generations Christopher Columbus was exalted as a hero and explorer, and it wasn’t until about my generation, maybe even a little bit after, that people began talking about colonialism and how white people didn’t discover land – we stole it. That is reframing our stories, and taking control of our narratives. It means telling what really happened, being honest, and promising to change the future.

At General Assembly I had the honor of hearing Rev. Floretta Barbee-Watkins preach. She told a story about how she once asked her mother to make homemade biscuits. She begged and pleaded for her mother to make homemade biscuits and her mother refused, saying she didn’t know how. Years later, she found out that her mother had made biscuits once and they were terrible, and her father told her mother that, so her mother refused to make biscuits ever again.

Rev. Barbee-Watkins said that the church has made some bad biscuits – that we don’t want to make them from scratch but want to just open a can of those biscuits that pop. She states that just because we have made a few bad biscuits, we cannot stop trying. We have to keep trying. We have to change the narrative. We have to stop telling ourselves that we’re making bad biscuits. We have to stop telling ourselves that this was our history and this is how it will always be. We have to retell our history – the parts that come from Deuteronomy 10, reminding us to be kind to the stranger, because we have been the stranger. We might not always understand other people, but we have to try. Just because we cannot fully comprehend the trials of someone else does not mean that we give up. We keep trying. Just because we feel that the system is broken and we are but one person in it, does not mean we give up. We keep trying.

The executive director of Presbyterian Mission Agency, Diane Moffett, has a beautiful saying: “We are called to be love with skin on it.” This starts with the inner love within us. We are, at the base, love. We are not colorblind, and we do not ignore the skin, because it is all beautiful, but we are called to be love with skin on it. May it be so. Amen.


[1] David Maxwell, ed., Race in a Post-Obama America. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2016), 15.

[2] Cindy Cushman, “White Parents, Black Sons” September 20, 2017,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Elizabeth Palmer interviews Amy-Jill Levine, “Knowing and Preaching the Jewish Jesus” The Christian Century,