“Two Sundays after the murder of George Floyd. Again, no mention of BLM, George, Ahmaud, or race from our pulpit,”she said. “I’m heartbroken. If the Christian faith has nothing to say at a time like this, makes me wonder if it’s got anything to say about anything.”
That was what an active United Methodist layperson said to me last week. If we white preachers sit on the sidelines during the current national debate over white supremacist systems of violence against people of color, if we allow our congregations to miss out on the saving dimensions of Christ’s work, we are in danger of impugning and sidelining the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A watchword of racial justice activists is, “If you see something, say something.” The present moment is an opportunity for us white preachers to speak up and to speak out about racism, America’s original sin.
Effective 21st century preaching demands a more perceptive understanding of both race and Christian faith.
How do pastors of white, mainline Protestant churches preach effectively in situations of racial violence and dis-ease? Even though you long to address contemporary social crises, how do you know where to begin when it’s simply not possible to relate to black pain? Who Lynched Willie Earle? uses the true story of pastor Hawley Lynn’s 1947 sermon, a response to the last lynching in Greenville, South Carolina, to help pastors preach on race and violence in America, inviting and challenging the church to respond.
Back in in 2017, after Who Lynched Earle? Preaching to Confront Racismwas published, we had a wonderful day at Wofford College focused upon the issues of the book with many clergy, students, and scholar gathered there to explore the subjects of our racist past and our responsibilities for race and bias in the church today and tomorrow.
I see this book as my modest contribution to the church’s conversation about race in America. Even though such a conversation makes many white Christians nervous, it’s my contention that Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, gives us the means to have this challenging but essential conversation. What follows is another excerpt from the book (p. 72ff).
Jim Wallis says that white Christians engaging in acts of honest confession and self-sacrificial repentance is “a prerequisite for white Americans to get our own souls back.” Wallis advises,
We must look more deeply into our inner selves, which is a practice people of faith and moral conscience are rightly expected to do. And we must go deeper than the individually overt forms of racism to the more covert forms, especially in our institutions and culture…. Awareness of our biases, personal introspection, empathy, and retraining our ways of thinking are all difficult, but they are necessary. . . . Whether we or our families or our ancestors had anything to do with the racial sins of America’s establishment, all white people have benefited from them…. You can never escape white privilege in America if you are white.
To benefit from oppression is to be responsible for changing it…. I am asking…my fellow white Christians to engage the true meaning of sin and repentance.
My church typically begins Sunday worship with a corporate prayer of confession. In a society of racial denial, blaming, and falsehood, rituals that enable repentance are great gifts that the church offers. When so many white Americans adamantly maintain our innocence, our guiltlessness, it’s a remarkable witness to be in a community where sin is admitted, confessed, and given to God. Christians are not free to accept our sin as “the way things are,” or “just the way I was put together.” If the truth about race is ever told in a predominately white American church and received by that congregation as God’s address to them, it’s a miracle, a public testimony to the world that Christ miraculously is able to produce people who look and act like his disciples.
Two weeks after the shooting of Walter Scott (and a month before the shootings at Mother Emanuel), preachers Wendy Hudson-Jacoby and Megan Gray presented a dialogue sermon at a Charleston prayer service in which they called people to repent:
Wendy: The day after the video of the Walter Scott shooting was released, one of my members, who is white and a retired teacher, called me, distressed. “I never understood it before now,” she said. “I always assumed that if a person was arrested or detained or shot that they must have brought it on themselves. But now, now I know that I was wrong. I always told my students that if you are doing what you are supposed to do in the place you are supposed to be, you can’t get in trouble. But now, I see that I have been wrong.”
As members of the white community in North Charleston, we come today to ask for forgiveness and to repent for the sin of white privilege and institutional racism. The sin of being wrong. This is an evening of prayer. But before we can get to prayer, before praise and petition, we must confess. We just say “Jesus, Jesus, we were wrong.”
Our privilege has made us participants in the sin of institutional racism. We live it in our churches, where our pastors of color are paid less than their white counterparts, serving churches of equal size. We support it in our juvenile detention facilities, where here in the North Charleston 47 percent of the population is African American, 86 percent of juvenile arrests are of African Americans.
We support it in our school system when we turn an apathetic back to the achievement gap among students. We were wrong.
Megan: But today, today we come to acknowledge our sin. To repent of our hard hearts and our closed ears. To ask God to forgive us. To turn us around from a path of isolation, judgment and willful ignorance and place us on the path to the beloved community, to deep and meaningful relationship with our brothers and sisters.
We not only seek the forgiveness of God, freely offered through Jesus Christ, but we will put hands and feet to the work of our repentance. We were wrong. But today, in the eyes of God and this community, we come seeking a new way.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove speaks of the “double miracle of the Black church in America”:
The first miracle is that a people torn from their homes and brutally enslaved in a land not their own would learn the gospel from their white oppressors and hear it as good news. But the second miracle is even more profound: that after centuries of oppression and disenfranchisement at the hands of white folks, Black Christians would pray for us, love us, and invite us to come and learn from them what it means to plead the blood of Jesus. There are some things that nobody but God can do.
The Methodist magazine Catalyst recently published this article I wrote on preaching as daring to speak about and for God. You’ll find more along the lines of this argument in my forthcoming book Preachers Dare.
Barth said that Christ is not only the content of faithful preaching, public speech about and addressed to Christ; Christ is preaching’s active agent. It’s not a sermon until Christ utilizes the sermon to walk among his people (Bonhoeffer). Christ elevates a sermon from an exchange of religious information to a miraculous, personal address by Christ. Says Barth, preaching rests upon the bold assertion Deus dixit, “God said.” By the grace of God, in even our poorly wrought sermons, God speaks.
We are able to preach because, as Bonhoeffer said, there’s only one preacher—Christ. The sermon is the most distinctive practice of the Christian faith because of the sort of God we’ve got. God is relentlessly self-revealing, doggedly determined to be in conversation. We speak in the light of the wonder that the Triune God not only speaks to us but also miraculously enables us to hear.
I led a Bible Study this week for the Congregation at Duke Chapel on the psalms of creation, specifically the 104th Psalm. We talked about what it means to read and pray a psalm like this during our double pandemic of COVID-19 and racism.
After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, my friend Dr. Willis Johnson invited me to speak at his church during their Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration. It was a great, humbling honor. I encouraged Willis to share his thoughts on antiracism, particularly addressed to white congregations like the ones I’ve served, and the result was his fine book Holding Up Your Corner. I also appeared with Willis at the Leadership Institute at the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas. Willis and his book are changing the way that many of us think about white supremacy and racism in the church. I therefore commend Willis’ workshop that takes place tomorrow. You can register here. The full invitation is below.
Take Responsibility Now for Justice Join Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, author of Holding Up Your Corner, on Zoom for a special Civic Saturday on June 13 at 11am PDT/2pm EDT. He will share his ideas with Citizen University CEO Eric Liu about how we all can take responsibility now for justice. Then join in the dialogue in Civic Circles — small groups that begin in structured discussion and lead to commitments to action. RSVP NOW
F. Willis Johnson currently leads Living Tree Church in Columbus, Ohio. Prior to starting Living Tree, he was senior minister of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri, where thousands have been influenced by his prophetic, faith-filled reflections and strategies on social justice and racial understanding. He counsels bishops, general board agencies, conferences, and local churches across the country. He has also served in professional ministry in Indiana and North Carolina for the last 15 years. Johnson’s writing and lecturing credits range from TIME Magazine, National Public Radio, universities, and seminaries to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History Culture. He has been adjunct faculty at Drew Theological School, Methodist Theological School of Ohio, and Eden Theological Seminary.
Conrade Yap posted this five-star review of my recent book Aging: Growing Old in Church. He writes,
This is one of the best books on aging that I have read. Filled with wisdom and insight, it is written by one who had seen many cultural shifts. With biblical insights, we are reminded once again not to be blindsided by the worldliness and cultural outlooks trying to shape our faith into its mold….
Learning to age well is not about replacing this task but to continue this ministry. Aging is about sharpening this calling to meaning making and meaning receiving. Powerful book!
I encourage all Church leaders, pastors, and anyone in any position of influence within a Christian community to read this book. Read it more than once.
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.
A white male (Paul Tillich), preaching to white males, preached a famous sermon: “You are Accepted,” as if unconditional acceptance were the core of the Good News. That I am graced, loved, and accepted by God, just as I am, racism and all, at first sounds charitable. But there is a more sinister side to such cheery, sentimentally blissful ignorance. Preaching is also a call to conversion, transformation, detoxification. The evil we face is more than wrong thinking about ourselves; it’s our captivity to principalities and powers.
Grace, Wesleyan grace, is not a paternal pat on the head; it’s the power of God that enables us to live different lives than the lives we would be condemned to live if we had not been met by God in Jesus Christ.
The degree to which I am not racist (or any other white person for that matter) is the direct result of the intervention of the Holy Spirit through the church, is the resurrecting power by which Jesus defeated sin and death still working to tear down every stronghold of sin which remains.
Moralism (substituting law for gospel, exhorting better human behavior without dependency upon God’s grace) is no match for racism. While urging us to preach justice, Lutheran James Childs warns: “Preaching that always goes directly from sin to salvation or from cross to resurrection without ever stopping off at sanctification is missing something of crucial importance…. The grace of God in Christ, which justifies, also sanctifies … The good tree bears good fruit … (Matt. 7:18).” (Childs, Preaching Justice, 2000). I thank God that I am a Wesleyan Christian who, after admitting that I’m guilty of the sin of racism can say that’s not all I am. I’m someone in whom the grace of God is actively, daily, persistently at work healing me of my sin, perfecting God’s intentions for me, in spite of me.
Moralism is unavoidable if a preacher conceives of the congregation as good people who come to church to be even better. The Christian faith is presented as common sense with a spiritual veneer. Moralism is notoriously anthropological rather than theological in its assumption that listeners already have all they need in order to be good. History, structural injustices, the human propensity to self-interest, the various psychological binds in which we are caught, human feelings of vulnerability and threat are all ignored in moralism’s appeal to our “better angels.” The sermon is in the imperative mood as the preacher fills the air with should, ought, must.
As Chuck Campbell points out, preaching on social issues tends to imply that good people of good will have the power to solve their own problems (a thought dearly loved by liberal white people who enjoy thinking of ourselves as the masters of our domain). Moralistic preaching overlooks how structural, systemic, principalities and powers have us under their sway. Campbell urges us, “always rely on the power of God, not on our own strength, in resistance.” (Campbell, The Word Before the Powers, 2003).
Sermons whose intent is to build guilt are universally resisted. Not only does Jesus tend toward forgiveness rather than guilt but also preaching that provokes guilt backfires as hearers are encouraged to become more introspective, more obsessed with ourselves and our histories, more egotistical, not less. White people ascribed far too much power to our egos and are already narcissistic without help from the preacher. The default Christian position with regard to guilt is to confess sin, offer it up and then allow ourselves to be unburdened by the justifying grace of God and to be spurred on by sanctifying grace in our acts of contrition.
Conservative, Reformed pastor, John Piper’s sermon, “Racial Reconciliation” begins by asserting (without citing support) that, “There is strong evidence that stressing differences does little to improve race relations, and may even exacerbate them.” The rest of his sermon attacks the notion of racial difference. Using Scripture, Piper asserts that, “God made all ethnic groups from one human ancestor,” and that all “are made in the image of God.” Your “ethnic identity” is of no consequence when compared with the biblical truth that we are all created “in the image of God.” That’s why programs in “diversity training” “backfire.” We ought to teach our children to put all their “eggs in the basket called personhood in the image of God and one egg in the basket called ethnic distinction.” The problem is not the sin of white racism, the problem is a failure to think about our humanity in a biblical way. Though Piper is a strong Calvinist, there is nothing in the sermon about confession of sin, forgiveness, repentance or the need for the grace of God.
While it’s good that Piper attempts to think theologically beyond rather limp, secular notions of “diversity,” Piper’s exhortation to color-blind Christianity overlooks that persons of color did not come up with the idea that skin color was a valid way of defining humanity in order to oppress nonwhites — that nefarious idea came exclusively from white people. Piper, perhaps unintentionally, bolsters white evasion of engagement in issues of systemic racial injustice when he ends his sermon with a stirring call to “banish every belittling and unloving thought from our minds,” “to show personal, affectionate oneness” with Christians of all ethnic backgrounds, and to be “salt and light” “with courageous acts of inter-racial kindness and respect.”
We don’t need “diversity training” because racial reconciliation is a personal matter of individual piety in thoughts, speech and kindness, according to Piper’s sermon. We wouldn’t have racism if Christians refused to acknowledge the reality of race. This is the call for “reconciliation” white folks love to hear.
“Reconciliation” too often focuses, as in Piper’s sermon, upon interpersonal reconciliation without focus on systemic and structural justice. Many black people push back against the call for “reconciliation” because it presumes there was a time when we were in a right relationship. It also implies that we work toward reconciliation from an equal footing. “Hospitality” also implies that we, the powerful, are the hosts; the less powerful are the guests, outsiders whom we graciously welcome. Talk of reconciliation without recognition of power arrangements degenerates into sentimentality. (see Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians, 2014). And speaking of my church family, sentimental accounts of human nature, racial harmony and Christian ethics is killing us. Recently a United Methodist told me that her preacher had preached a sermon on racism.
“What did you learn from the sermon?” I asked.
“That we ought to be nice to black people,” she responded. Far from being confrontation with the sin of racism, sentimental narrations of racism and sentimental appeals for white people to be nice are a primary means of avoiding conversations about race among United Methodists.
A white male (Paul Tillich), preaching to white males, preached a famous sermon: “You are Accepted,” (Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, 1963) as if unconditional acceptance were the core of the Good News. That I am graced, loved, and accepted by God, just as I am, racism and all, at first sounds charitable. But there is a more sinister side to such cheery, sentimentally blissful ignorance. Preaching is also a call to conversion, transformation, detoxification. The evil we face is more than wrong thinking about ourselves; it’s our captivity to principalities and powers.
Grace, Wesleyan grace, is not a paternal pat on the head; it’s the power of God that enables us to live different lives than the lives we would be condemned to live if we had not been met by God in Jesus Christ.
As Luther said, apples do not come from a thorn bush. Good deeds arise from good people. At our best, we preach to defeat racism every Sunday because every Sunday’s sermon contributes to the character of Christians. That’s why some of our best preaching against racism will not seem to the congregation a direct attack on racism. Preaching’s value is often in the subtle but powerful ways it forms us into people who have empathy for others, who assume responsibility for the needs of strangers, who feel that they are under judgment from some higher criterion than their own conscience, and who believe that, with the Holy Spirit set loose among us, who believe that we can be born again.
Before consideration of the obviously ethical “What ought we to do?” preaching considers the theologically determinative and ethically formative, “Who is God?”, “What doth the Lord require?” Human action is responsive reaction to God’s initiatives. Our discipleship is our human affirmation of how God is already busy in the world. It’s not for us to defeat the sin of racism; God in Christ is already doing that. Our chief ethical question is, “Will I join with Christ in his world-changing, world-ending, resurrection-work or not?”
Chuck Campbell, speaks of preaching in the face of powers like racism as “exorcism”:
Don’t many folks — preachers included — long to be set free from the powers of death that have us in their grip and won’t let us go — powers from which we cannot seem to free ourselves no matter how hard we try? After all, this is the key characteristic of demon possession: We are no longer agents of our own lives, but go through the deadly motions dictated to us by the powers of the world that hold us captive — that “possess” us. And we need a word from beyond ourselves to set us free from our captivity. (Campbell, “Resisting the Powers” in Purposes of Preaching, 2004).
The challenge is for us to move beyond being non-racist to being actively anti-racist, always remembering that,
We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. (Ephesians 6:12-13)
That’s why it’s not enough for us to share our personal story or to exhort the congregation to greater striving for justice. “We don’t preach about ourselves. Instead, we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord…” (2 Corinthians 4:5). In Campbell’s words, “We need a word beyond ourselves to set us free,” Jesus, the Word made flesh, God’s word in action.
My friend Jim Somerville, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Richmond, conducts a weekly Wednesday Night Bible Study for his congregation. Jim asked me to sit in with him and look at the gospel lesson for this past week, the story of Easter evening from John 20. I hope you will enjoy our discussion of this biblical text.