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Mission Agency board tackles tough discussion of race and Matthew 25

Former co-moderator aligns GA directive with initiatives from Stated Clerk and PMA director

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Denise Anderson, coordinator of Racial & Intercultural Justice for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, discussed Matthew 25 and racism Friday. (Photo by Rich Copley)

STONY POINT, New York — The Presbyterian Mission Agency board meeting started Friday morning with a short worship service that took participants back to 1619. But for her talk, “A Conversation on Racism and Matthew 25,” the Rev. Denise Anderson brought up some slightly more recent history — 2016.

That was the year that Anderson was elected co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), when that gathering adopted “On Choosing to Be a Church Committed to the Gospel of Matthew 25 — From the Presbytery of the Cascades.”

“This was the Holy Spirit at work,” Anderson said, noting that at the time no one knew the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, was going to be elected Stated Clerk of the General Assembly and initiate his Hands and Feet initiative. And it was still a couple years from the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett being elected as PMA president and executive director and launching the Matthew 25 invitation.

“What they said was this is a moment of great opportunity in our church,” said Anderson, coordinator of Racial & Intercultural Justice in the PMA. “Momentum is building within our denomination and throughout our society to courageously confront the challenges of our time — a new Civil Rights movement, a new peace movement, a new economic justice movement is on the rise, and we are in a position to stand in solidarity with the poor in a uniquely powerful way.

“It is a time for us to define who we will be for decades to come.”

Friday morning was a time to work on some definitions, as part of the Matthew 25 invitation is “dismantling structural racism.”

Anderson started the conversation noting an interesting conundrum related to race and the Bible.

“Race, as we know it, did not exist for the first century church,” Anderson said. “If you’re looking to the Bible for strict instruction on race, it’s not going to be there.”

The concepts and constructs of race were formulated in the Doctrine of Discovery, issued in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, which essentially gave Europeans the right to take any lands they found that were not inhabited by people who were Christians. It is a doctrine that has been cited in numerous Supreme Court cases, even in this century, and has been used to justify things such as taking land from indigenous inhabitants of North America.

“The social construct of race is designed to concentrate capital — both material and social — within one group or one racialization of people over others,” Anderson said. “Race treats life as a zero-sum game. Privilege exists because someone else doesn’t have it.”

And lack of social and material capital is a common plight of racial minorities and people living in poverty, whom the Bible addresses repeatedly.

Presbyterian Mission Agency and staff participate in a group discussion during a conversation about racism and Matthew 25. (Photo by Rich Copley)

During a free-flowing discussion, the PMA board and senior staff members tackled the topic of race from a number of angles, including pulling apart the three parables in Matthew 25 and trying to look at them from different perspectives, as the 222nd General Assembly statement did. Discussing the seeming meanness of the brides who would not share their oil in the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, participants observed the oil represented righteousness, which cannot be shared. “You cannot do that for someone else,” said Bryce Wiebe, director of Special Offerings.

The Parable of the Talents proved a bit more vexing with the GA assertion that the slave who was punished was bold for “refusing to participate in the empire value of domination.” In group settings, that prompted a range of discussion from interpretations of language and history to contemporary responsibility for resources.

At the outset of the discussion, Anderson focused on two specific terms: righteousness and justice, which she pointed out are intertwined with one Greek word, dikaiosynē, in the New Testament. Righteousness rooted in personal piety, Anderson asserted, “was not what Jesus was talking about.” He was more concerned with the righteousness of the whole community, she said.

At one point, the group was cautioned not to view race and material poverty as synonymous, and Anderson elaborated that the issue extends beyond financial wherewithal to the treatment of people of color in legal and social circles.

“How did I not have five hours for this talk?” Anderson said, as the conversation wound down toward the end of its second hour.

One of the non-Presbyterian voices in the room complimented the board for having the conversation at all.

“A lot of organizations such as yourself would jump right into business and not have this conversation,” Chris Giesler, an ecumenical advisory delegate from the Moravian Church told the group. “It’s a tough issue a lot of people would just as soon steer past.”

And it’s an issue the United States has been dealing with since its inception.

The Rev. Kevin Johnson led worship Friday morning. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Board member the Rev. Kevin Johnson of Detroit opened the morning with a reflection on the first people from Africa being brought to North America as enslaved people in 1619. Slavery and racial oppression have often been supported by people speaking in the name of Christianity, he said, including Presbyterians.

He set up the conversation for Anderson by talking about the need to repair cracks in the foundation of the church and the nation.

“There is a storm called race that has been raging for more than 400 years, but over my head, I hear music,” Johnson said, leading into a chorus of the hymn, “The Storm is Passing Over.”

Tho’ the night is dark it won’t be very long.

Thanks be to God, the morning light appears,

And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!


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