Don’t Say Nothing: Preaching and Racism

In the summer of 2015, I was a chaplain at a camp in North Carolina. I preached to hundreds of campers and mentored approximately fifty counselors. In the summer of 2015, about four and a half hours from my camp, Dylann Roof walked into a church and murdered nine black people who were praying. In my preaching and teaching at camp, I said nothing. I knew what happened and I chose to say nothing. Honestly, I cannot say whether I stayed silent out of fear or out of foolishness or, perhaps, because of my own inherent racism. None of those reasons are acceptable. Lord, forgive me for the things I’ve said and the things I’ve left unsaid.

In the summer of 2017, I’ve been gifted with another opportunity to preach. This time, the community is a wild group of all kinds of people called Anchor Community Church. And though Anchor is more diverse than many churches in Fort Wayne, racism is still alive in our neighborhood. Confederate flags fly from two different houses near to the church building. As I walk to my church’s building, those flags remind me that we need to keep preaching to confront racism. The question is how do we preach to confront racism?

This post reviews two books (both kindly provided for review by their respective publishers) that have helped me begin to formulate responses to that question. Sondra Wheeler’s The Minister as Moral Theologian (Baker Academic, 2017) explores the pastor’s role in shaping the ethical character of the community. In Who Lynched Willie Earle?, Will Willimon focuses specifically on racism and preaching through extended reflections on the lynching of a black man named Willie Earle in the 1940s and a sermon preached by a Methodist minister in response to that lynching. I’ll briefly summarize the two books before putting them into conversation with one another.


The Minister as Moral Theologian by Sondra Wheeler

In this readable book, Wheeler introduces the “ethical dimensions of pastoral leadership.” She is convinced this book is necessary because “all who perform the routine tasks of ministry will be doing moral theology—the exposition of how their theological commitments shape their lives in the world” (p. 2).

In chapter one, she suggests why doing ethics is inherent to ministry and why, at its core, the church is a moral community. The three middle chapters consider how to morally practice three specific tasks of the pastoral life: preaching, teaching, and counseling. The final chapter engages the difficult truth that ministers are the moral examples within their communities.Throughout the final four chapters, Wheeler lists practical insights for pastors. These lists are born out of her many years of teaching and reflection.

Undoubtedly, many new pastors will find this book a handy resource. Depending on the quality of their ethics course at seminary (or lack thereof), seasoned pastors may enjoy this book as a clear and concise reflection on moral theology as a central aspect of the pastoral life.

Who Lynched Willie Earle? by Will Willimon

Will Willimon’s approach to Who Lynched Willie Earle? is provocative. Through telling the story of Willie Earle, a black man who was stolen out of jail and brutally murdered by a white mob, Willimon captures the seriousness with which racism must be taken. It is a matter of life and death. As Willimon suggests, the story of Willie Earle is still relevant. “Willie Earle became Trayvon Martin, Cynthia Herd, or Michael Brown” (p. xiii). More pointedly, Willie Earle became the nine praying sisters and brothers murdered by Dylan Roof in South Carolina two years ago.

Willimon proceeds by interacting with perhaps the only sermon that addressed the murder of Willie Earle. Hawley Lynn, a white South Carolina Methodist, preached the sermon two weeks after the lynching. Willimon asks what Lynn got right and what he got wrong. Finally, in the last two sections, Willimon suggests ways of speaking about and preaching to confront racism in the church.

Like Wheeler, this book will be helpful for pastors, young and old. It is written for white pastors and, if I had to guess, will stretch and even frustrate many who are not already onboard with what Willimon has to say. Perhaps this book will frustrate because Willimon writes unapologetically, at times harshly; but Willimon frustrates most because he calls us white preachers to repentance. The whole book is an example of personal and social penance for the sin of racism.

Preaching to Confront Racism

Wheeler offers “seven guidelines” on what not to do when preaching on morally difficult texts and occasions. Don’t Say Nothing is number one. She explains why we can’t afford to say nothing. “You serve as an ethicist,” she writes, “through what you preach about perennial moral problems as well as in the problems you avoid naming or addressing at all” (p. 2, emphasis added).What is the congregation to think when the pastor has nothing to say about racial violence? Who will help the congregation to think faithfully about racism if the pastor does not?

Race is an issue that has been placed under the “political” umbrella in American Christianity. For that reason, pastors are skittish when it comes to naming and condemning racism. Will my words cause division? Will I cross the line between spiritual and political? Such fear is unwarranted. Paul adamantly rejected social divisions created by political parties, including race, in his own ministerial activity. In fact, writing to the Galatians, he recalls how he rejected Peter’s racism to his face! Jesus also preached against racism when he told parables like the Good Samaritan. If you suppose preaching should not touch something as hot as race in America, you have underestimated the controversial nature of the earliest church’s preaching. Hawley Lynn faced the possibility of controversy when he decided to condemn the racism of his fellow white southerners. “The most remarkable aspect of Hawley’s sermon,” Willimon suggests, “is that it was preached” (p. 37).

So, if we are going to say something about racism from the pulpit, what should we say? That depends on the passage, the event, the community, or any other number of variables. No blog post or book can answer that question. The more appropriate question, it seems, is how should we say what we have to say? Wheeler and Willimon offer many suggestions. Three stand out as particularly helpful starting points.

  1. Preach as a member of the community. “With you I am a Christian,” Augustine wrote, “but for you I am a bishop [or pastor].” We might modify this statement just a little to clarify the first clause. “With you I am a Christian who belongs to this particular community.” The pastor is a part of the gathered community. And so, preaching is always speech towards a certain community, made up of unique and specific people. A preacher who wants to actually confront racism must speak to her congregation in a way that enables them to receive her words. Speaking in vague, broad language is unhelpful. Parroting the rhetoric of an op-ed journalist from New York City to midwestern factory workers is casting seed upon the stones. If you’re going preach to confront racism in your church, then you will need to know your church first. Willimon tells the story of a pastor who became “personally convicted” about his church’s complacency in the matter of racism. After preaching and encouraging his congregation to resist racism, he became discouraged at their seeming lack of interest. Eventually, he discovered his church was more “actively, personally engaged with people of color” than he was (p. 122). We pastors might be surprised what we discover when we get to know our people.Conversely, your congregation ought to know and trust you. My sister-in-law told me about how her church brought in guest preachers to preach against racism. She felt accused by these guest preachers whom she did not know. While sermons should confront us with our sin, how could these guest preachers know the congregation in such a way that they could pastorally deliver a painful word?So, what about you as a Methodist who has just been sent to a new congregation? Or you who has just come out of seminary and has been hired on at a church in a new city? Wheeler offers some sage advice. While Wheeler does not rule out preaching against racism or other “hotly contested” issues, compared to Willimon, she does pump the brakes. After describing the complexity of ethical controversies, she writes, “all this being said, most of the time the pulpit is not the best place to bring up matters likely to be hotly contested within your community because the communication is generally one-way. For those strongly opposed to any view you may express…preaching on such a topic may seem like an abuse of your role” (p. 55-56; alternatively, see Willimon, p. 91: “God has chosen preaching as the weapon of choice in the divine invasion and reclamation of Creation.”). Moreover, she reminds us that the brevity of a sermon inhibits even the best preacher from describing the intricacy of an issue like racism. Because of this, Wheeler advises pastors to address divisive issues in settings where people who disagree can have an opportunity to ask questions and voice their dissent. Any time a sermon strikes on a sensitive topic, there should be a time for communal reflection. This is especially the case for new pastors or pastors new to a community. Nonetheless, Wheeler reminds us, “despite the risks involved, there are times when it is vital to speak of controversial and divisive topics in worship” (p. 57).
  2. Preaching is speaking, but listening is a prerequisite to faithful preaching. Anyone can talk. Preaching, on the other hand, requires careful listening, both to God and to others. Wheeler presents prayerful listening or reflection as the “foundation” for maintaining Christianity’s distinct moral identity (p. 8-9). Willimon suggests that preaching is “instigated by the Trinity” (p. 91). Faithful preaching comes out of faithful listening for God’s word in prayer, meditation, and reflection on the Scriptures; more will be said about preaching and God below.For now, I want to focus on carefully listening to others, specifically to people of color. Pastors often have or develop a “savior” mentality, where we think it is only us and our words that set things aright in our church. Professor Amy Laura Hall would describe this as the problem with superhero movies. Superheroes swoop and save, but they do not provide the collective transformation that is necessary to sustain life together. Pastors sometimes get the urge to swoop and save — and sometimes we think our voice is the only one that can do the job.Willimon rejects this outright. In his preface, he acknowledges that he uses “copious annotations” to African American writers in an attempt to avoid “‘the white gaze’ — in which a white scholar presumes to speak of African Americans without listening to African Americans speak” (p. xiii). Beyond the simple fact that people of color think and write and speak with an excellence worth sharing, research also shows that listening to other kinds of voices helps overcome bias. “Educational research,” Willimon writes, “has shown that racism can be modified with the assertion of counterstories and through whites hearing black testimony” (p. 115; see also Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ, pp. 79-101).This is a useful insight. Huntington, Indiana, my hometown, is 96% white. Many other midwest towns are similarly uniform. In these cities, racism breeds like mosquitos in a swamp because many of the white people have never interacted with black or brown people. They’ve heard the rumors: lazy, dirty, criminal; but they’ve never met the people. If they never meet a person of color to challenge those rumors, why would they ever change their mind? A pastor who tells stories, who counters the false narratives, can help a congregation begin the journey of repentance. “We are shaped,” Wheeler reminds us, “by all we see and hear…and we are formed by the company we keep” (p. 9). Pastors who preach to confront racism must find ways to make in-roads between the white community and communities of color. That can start with storytelling or quoting non-white voices in sermons. We must remember that our voices and our thoughts are not the only ones worth sharing.
  3. Remember, preaching is about God. Willimon hammers on this point again and again. “Before consideration of the obviously ethical ‘What ought we to do?’ preaching considers the theologically determinative and ethical ‘Who is God’” (p. 111)? And again, “Preaching is not primarily about racism or any other human sin. Preaching is about the God who, through Jesus Christ, justifies, seeks, and saves, loves, forgives, sanctifies, and transforms sinners” (p. 58). Wheeler also addresses this reality. “As preachers, we must confront the demands of holiness and our perennial failure to meet them because this confrontation is at the heart of our confession, and God’s answer to it is at the center of our proclamation” (p. 35).Yet we have spent all of this time considering how to confront racism through preaching. Have we been off track all along? I do not think so. In his discussion about repentance, Willimon suggests that “preaching that confronts racism begins with God, focusing upon who God is and what God is up to in the world” (p. 74). We preachers are singularly focused on proclaiming God’s salvation. We preach what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Racism runs exactly contrary to God’s work of salvation. “Racism not only diminishes human life,” Willimon writes, “it is an offense against God, a contradiction of who God is and what God intends for the world” (p. 63). Racism is a rejection of the community inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection: “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Faithful preaching tells the truth about God and upon hearing it we recognize the truth about ourselves. Faithful preaching exposes God’s holiness and convicts us of our sin. We must always remember that, in preaching, we confront racism by preaching about God.

These books, each in their own way, have helped me to think more clearly about confronting racism through preaching. For that I am grateful. It is clear, however, that I will need grace, for this is a lifelong work.


2 thoughts on “Don’t Say Nothing: Preaching and Racism

  1. Pingback: Weekender: June 10, 2017 – Theology Forum

  2. Pingback: Weekender: July 8, 2017 – Theology Forum

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