Becoming a Beloved Community
1 Corinthians 12:1-13
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is coming to the Pittsburgh stage this month.
Do you remember watching it on tv? It was one of my favorites. As a kid, what’s not to love?
I heard a radio interview with the actor playing Willy Wonka--he said that like any good children’s story, it operates on different levels, has different messages for different people.
On the surface, It’s about pure imagination and chocolate treats--and lots of them.
But on a deeper level, it is about the perils of bad parenting and spoiling children. The moral of the story is: good children are rewarded and bad children (who chew gum, watch tv, and are selfish) are punished.
In the end, Charlie wins the factory because he is good and kind and selfless.
But, on a different level, as one online commentator claimed, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is about slave labor and injustice. The oompa loompa people are the “little funny colored people” who are enslaved in the factory and paid meager wages of cocoa beans. Responses to this claim were angry, “how dare you ruin my favorite childhood movie. Let me live in my own world of imagination.”
The readings of the Bible often operate on different levels and can have different messages for different people. Today’s reading is a good example. Paul writes to the church at Corinth: “Now there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
On one level, the message is that people have been given unique spiritual gifts by God and called to use them for the good of the church. In Community church, people who are wise serve as elders; people who have gifts of healing serve as deacons; people who can share faith serve as teachers.
On another level, the message is to the church universal. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” Within the body of Christ, God made a place for Orthodox and Catholics, Methodists and Baptists, Pentecostals and Presbyterians. We are all called to work together for good.
On a deeper level, this Scripture text has been held up as a model of the beloved community: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” This has been used as a call to end racial discrimination. Some of you may be thinking, “Wait a second, you are ruining one of my favorite passages of Scripture. How did we get from deacons serving coffee or elders serving communion to racial discrimination?” I am glad you asked. Let’s go back and understand the historical context.
What did Paul mean? He meant that all people are created equally in God’s image and blessed with gifts and that we are called to work together to reflect the beautiful differences of Christ’s body. Why did he write these words to the church in Corinth? Because they did not see difference as a good thing. They were divided over which spiritual gifts were most important. They debated who had the power; who was better, more valuable, more beloved. They were a broken community.
This text draws our attention to differences between people. And the question it asks us is: How do we deal with difference? It is how God created us--different and called it good. That’s how children see it. But soon we teach them otherwise. In our racism class, a man shared when his daughter came home from kindergarten one day, she was describing a boy in her class. “He is tall, has brown eyes, curly hair.” Her dad said, “Oh, you mean the black kid.” His daughter paused, and then said, “Yeah, I guess so.” She had not yet seen skin color as something that made us different. But she would soon learn by other people, and tv shows, and books that black is not only different but less than white, and in some cases bad.
In the 50 years since the march for civil rights in Selma (led by MLK Jr), so much has changed and yet so much remains the same. Concerning race relations, still we live in a divided and broken world. In fact, antiblack racism has been a structural component of the United States from the beginning.
The Constitution defined a black as three-fifths of a person, denying their full humanity.
The economic foundations of the U.S. were built on slave labor.
The legal system of the U.S. has consistently perpetuated the subjugation of blacks.
Racism is manifested in severe inequality in education, income, and opportunity.
For example, consider a white man returning from Army service in 1945. The G.I. Bill offered him college tuition and a low-interest mortgage. A black man returning from an equal length of Army service did not receive the same benefits due to racism in the administration of the G.I. Bill and widespread racism in housing. In 2015, the white man’s descendants have the benefits of inherited wealth (home equity) and increased education; the black man’s grandchildren do not. There is a trickle-down effect. Recently, The University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Race and Social Problems found that African Americans here in our region are significantly less likely than their white neighbors to graduate from high school, own a home, or hold a job, and more likely to live in poverty, reside in unsafe neighborhoods, be arrested, shot and killed.
As white people, when we are confronted with this historical reality of racism, we typically respond in one of two ways: deny or defend.
We deny: It is not so bad. It has gotten so much better. Blacks no longer have to drink out of a separate water fountain or go to a different school. They can vote. They can even become President. So what’s the big deal?
Louis Pasteur, the brilliant French microbiologist, conducted an experiment to demonstrate how animals adapt to dangerous conditions. He placed a bird in a closed container for 6 hours. The bird grew sluggish and inactive as the air quality diminished, but it did not die. When Pasteur introduced a second bird of the same species into the polluted container, this new bird died immediately. The sudden immersion in toxic air was a shock it could not survive.
In his editorial from the Christian Century, Peter Marty wrote “I don’t know exactly what conclusions Pasteur presented to his students that day, but his experiment prompts me to think about our human adaptivity to dangerous environments, especially ones in which the toxicity has increased gradually. In America, for example, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that people live on the streets and malnourished kids cry themselves to sleep in the richest country in the world. We’ve grown to accept that children are being taken from their parents at the border, and may not ever be reunited. We’ve gotten used to hearing about unarmed black boys shot by white police officers, without consequences. We’ve grown used to hearing of customers arrested at McDonalds and Starbucks, just because they were black. The slow creep of hate into new sectors of society should be of concern. White supremacists have successfully mainstreamed hate, emboldened by powerful people inside and outside the government. And we’ve grown so accustomed to the environment, so we don’t notice its danger.
I am working with a group of faith leaders through Pittsburgh Seminary to plan an anti-racism conference in Feb. A black woman in the group said that a white woman told her “I didn’t know racism was a thing. I don’t see it and I don’t think about it.” The black woman said, “I live with it always--I have to think about it every day--in how I dress, how I walk, how I talk, how I instruct my children to act. When I say goodbye to them, I say, “have a good day at school.” And then I say a prayer that they will stay alive that day.
Even in the Bible study this week, two people from our church shared that their nephew and granddaughter are being homeschooled only because they were being bullied because they are black.
Truth is racism is alive and well in our world today. We can’t deny it.
Another common reaction to racism is: We Defend: This doesn’t apply to us. We are not racists. We believe in equality. We are nice people. We haven’t done anything wrong.
Even when we believe in the equality of all people, as whites in the U.S., we collectively reap the benefits of white supremacy.
The Presbyterian Church’s policy on Fighting Racism says: No one today needs to commit an actual sin for this inequality to continue to thrive. Silence and inaction are enough.
Bono from the musical group U2 was honored as part of the Glamour’s “Women of the Year” awards because of his speaking up for gender equality. He said, “It seemed obvious to me that the sex who created the problem might have some responsibility for undoing it. Men can’t step back and leave it up to women alone to clean up the mess we’ve made and are still making.”
I think same must be said about speaking up for racial equality. Since we as the white race created the problem of racism, then we have some responsibility for undoing it. We can’t step back and leave it up to blacks alone to clean up the mess we’ve made and are still making.
Truth is racism is alive and well in our world today. We cannot defend our innocence.
I am preaching to the choir; as thoughtful Christians, we do not deny racism or defend ourselves, but truthfully we don’t know what to do. Nelson Mandela are correct, that people are taught to hate, and that “if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” That’s where we come in. That’s our job as Christians. So what can you do?
Open your eyes and ears and notice what is going on in the world around you. Look for differences and embrace differences and give thanks for the differences that God made in people.
Open your mouth. Don’t ignore racist comments you hear. Speak up--ask them what they meant by what they said? Tell them you see all people as God’s children. As whites, we are challenged to open our mouths and use our power and privilege to change the world for good, one person at a time.
Open your hands--not just to give handouts, but to reach out and meet others who are different than you. Get to know them and their stories. Let them teach you. Get involved in working together, side by side, and hand in hand, toward healing the brokenness and working toward a beloved community.
Open your bulletins today--three opportunities in February, Black History Month, to learn more about how to play a part in improving racial relations. First, on Feb. 15 Let My People Go: A Spiritual Journey Along the Underground Railroad, concert by the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. Second, the Pittsburgh Presbytery started the Freedom Rising project to help improve the plight of the African American male. And Third, on Feb. 9, the anti-racism conference I am working to plan is called a Community Conversation on Race and Faith. At Pitts. Seminary, free and open to the public. I hope you will take advantage of at least one of these events in our city this next month.
The PCUSA affirms the vision of a beloved community claiming that “every person’s right to be free, to be treated as persons not things, to be valued as full members of the human community are gifts from God.”
This vision of a beloved community came from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who died trying to make his dream real. As sisters and brothers in Christ, we carry on his mission today. He calls us to imagine a world, to pray for a world, to work for a world made up of of different people, in one Spirit--a beloved community. His words still call us today: “When we allow freedom to ring-when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, Free at last, Great God almighty, We are free at last."
May it be so. Amen.