Peculiarly Christian Talk about Race

I’m reposting a series from back when I published Who Lynched Earle?  Preaching to Confront Racism in late February 2017. It turns out preaching (especially from white preachers) still needs to confront racism three years later: no surprise there.

Who Lynched Willie Earle? opens with a lynching in my hometown when I was one year old.  After the lynching, a young Methodist preacher, Hawley Lynn, preached a courageous, historic sermon to his all white congregation in a little South Carolina town.  I move from a narrative of that great sermon to an appeal to white preachers like me to preach to their mostly white congregations about the sin of racism. 

We also had a day with scholars, bishops, and students at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. on February 17, 2017, which was the seventieth anniversary of the lynching of Willie Earle, to talk about the book and its concerns.


Racism now has little legal support after the legislation of the Civil Rights Movement. It doesn’t have to; racism continues through the practices and biases of the community. We are learning that unconscious choices are even more powerful than conscious ones. For instance, when we set up our public educational system to be funded by property taxes we thereby ensured that the best schools would be in the most affluent neighborhoods. School segregation, which we fought against, in the sixties continued, but by other means.

“I don’t have a prejudiced bone in my body” often indicates the person thinks of racism as an individual disposition, a psychological malady, a personal problem, a bias that has been overcome.  (Chris Rock says that America has the “nicest white people” in history.)

It’s not enough for us to condemn the blatant, obvious racism expressed by Donald Trump in his campaign to be President. White Christians must go deeper and confront our racial bias. Bias is racism’s subtle, resilient form. Comedian D. L. Hughley mocked those who praised Obama for being “articulate,”  saying that in a diet, the last remaining pounds are the most difficult to drop. The last traces of racism, subtle rather than overt racism, are the most difficult to shed.

Devon Page sent out virtually identical résumés with different names. Nearly twice as many white-sounding names were called for interviews.  I expect that few of the human resource persons involved held overtly racist ideas. Yet their unconscious behavior showed the continuing power of bias. God does not make such distinctions, (Acts 15:9), but we do.

That many whites voted for Obama to be president suggests that many white folks desire a different society. Alas, racism morphed into other guises during the Obama years, rearing its ugly head among politicians who promise to “make America great again.” Hey, we elected a black man as president, so there’s no way we could still be racist. Now we are free to say whatever we please and to dismiss opposition to racist statements as “political correctness.”

We will not be delivered of this demon easily.

Surely something akin to racial bias is the sin that Paul confesses:

I’m sold as a slave to sin. I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate. But if I’m doing the thing that I don’t want to do. . . . It’s sin that lives in me. . . . The desire to do good is inside of me, but I can’t do it. I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do. . . . I’m a miserable human being. Who will deliver me from this dead corpse? (Rom 7:14-19, 24)

People in power divide and conquer, turn one oppressed group against another. Racism warps everyone, creates distortions, renders society into a Hobbesean “war of all against all.” Christians witness that this is contrary to God’s will. Case in point: Governor Robert Bentley attempted to hoodwink African Americans in Alabama by telling them that he was getting tough on immigration in order to keep intrusive Latinos from taking their jobs. African Americans, having learned a thing or two from centuries of political oppression, didn’t buy this.

At one of our protests against Alabama’s unconstitutional immigration laws, I heard a black Methodist woman shout to a Spanish-speaking congregation marching by, “Don’t y’all give up! They didn’t want us here either!”

Politics is the way we fundamentally arrange and change configurations of wealth and power. Therefore we Christians must do politics. But it’s difficult to see how politics gets done without people with a will to change minds and hearts. Therefore we must preach.

Peculiarly Christian Talk about Race

“In 2015, for the first time in history more than half of the nation’s public school students belong to racial minorities,” said the speaker at a rally I attended. “People, you better talk about race and talk about it now!” Christians are forced to talk about race, not because of changing demographics but because of Jesus. A pressing issue for the mainline church is to theologically refurbish our conversation about race. Racism not only diminishes human life, it is an offense against God, a contradiction of who God  is and what God intends for the world. We can learn much from sociological, philosophical, psychological, and economic insights. But we must not forget that when Christians accepted Enlightenment redefinitions of humanity, definitions in which race was put forth as a valid, scientific signifier, Christian witness against racism was muted.

The defeat of white supremacy calls for more robust theologizing. This sort of sin requires an active God who not only creates and loves but also judges, converts, defeats, and triumphs. “Throwing this kind of spirit out requires prayer” (Mark 9:29).

Racism is not only injustice; it’s idolatry, worship of false gods. Asked to respond to an address by Rabbi Abraham Heschel at the First National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago (1964), William Stringfellow stunned the gathering of activists by dismissing the conference as “too little, too late, and too lily white.”

Then Stringfellow  asserted that the issue wasn’t  equality or finding some common moral framework to address racism because racism is more than an evil in human hearts or minds; “racism is a principality, a demonic power . . . an embodiment of death, over which human beings have little or no control, but which works its awful influence on their lives.”

Stringfellow’s most controversial statement: “The issue is baptism . . . the unity of all humankind wrought by God in the life and work of Christ. Baptism is the sacrament of that unity of all people of God.”

Race is a socially constructed, psychologically rooted attempt to name humanity through human designations. Christians defiantly believe that our identity and our human significance are bestowed upon us not by our culture, family, or skin color but rather given us in baptism.

“In the Service of Christian Baptism,” the church defeats race as a primary signifier, even though race is given passing reference:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

The baptized swear allegiance to a kingdom that is not characterized by white supremacy, progressive self-improvement, and national borders or gained by the gradual softening of white privilege; citizenship in this realm is constituted by the vocation and election of God in Christ.

Note that the baptismal questions call upon the baptized to energetically renounce personal sin, “evil powers,” and all the “forces of wickedness”; to own the “freedom and the power” that God gives to actively resist “evil, injustice, and oppression” in every form they take; and to serve with the church that is open to and empowers “people of all ages, nations, and races.” All peculiarly  Christian conversation on racism is best construed as

“Remember your baptism, and be thankful.”

Theology, said Karl Barth, subjects Christian speech to constant scrutiny in the light of the scriptures.  Growing up in South Carolina one learns that racism degrades speech: “It’s not about race, it’s about strict constitutional construction,” or “This is not a racial issue—it’s about states’ rights.” Today, when powerful people talk about protecting our borders from powerless “them,” when there is a call for a “war on drugs,” “higher standards in our schools,” or “ending fraudulent voting,” sandlapper that I am, I think, Race.

A religious expert asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Mark 12:28).

Jesus replied, “‘The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30).

Without missing a beat  Jesus joins the  Levitical command  we lovers of God are prone to forget: “The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12:31).

One thought on “Peculiarly Christian Talk about Race

  1. Dear Mr. Willimon,
    He is willing to come and heal our great sin and this terrible divide in our country. My thought is however, that those like yourself in positions of influence must plead with the sheep that they repent of their sin. We MUST “draw close to God, and God will draw close to us.” We MUST “wash our hands….sinners and purify our hearts….hypocrites.” “Let there be tears for the wrong things we have done (racism, slavery, hatred toward those of a different skin color).” “Let there be sorrow and deep grief.” “Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy.” As we “humble ourselves, then He WILL come and lift us up.”
    Here is a challenge for our pastoral leaders…….instead of a conference to discuss racism how about a whole day where not one word is said except “let us pray” and that the leaders, lay people, students, etc……get on their knees and pray for forgiveness. Then we will know where we put our trust and hope.

    My hope for myself is that the Father will break me and cause me to see those of a different race and color only through the eyes of Jesus.

    Yours in Christ,
    Chandler Armistead


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