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Preaching While White


Published in the issue.

I am a White preacher who wants to contribute to racial healing and yet, all too often, doesn’t take advantage of opportunities to do so when they arise. But the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, the brutal murder of George Floyd and exposure of the systemic nature of police brutality towards people of color, the racial and economic disparities revealed by the pandemic, and the proliferation of anti-racism literature on various best seller lists encourage all White preachers to use the moral authority of the pulpit and Christian formation as tools in the dismantling of structures of oppression.

It might be helpful to explore when I am more or less likely to talk about African American history or racism in my congregation.

What has helped me take a public stand against racial injustice?

Personal experience

I was fortunate to have gone to college, and then grad school, and then more grad school, in Boston between 1974 and 1989. 1974 was the first year of court-ordered busing, and my racial awakening started when I saw White mothers throwing rocks at buses of Black children in South Boston. In 1985, many things converged: J. Anthony Lukas’ book Common Ground came out and used the Boston desegregation order to reveal the layers of race, class, privilege, and politics that undergird every major U.S. city (it’s still an engaging and insightful read); I was in seminary, worshipping with Harambee, the Black student congregation, because it was one of the few places where people openly talked about loving Jesus; the Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon taught “Ethics from the Perspectives of Black Women’s Literature,” and I discovered how much richer an understanding could be when silenced voices were brought to the fore. The good news was that if patriarchy and racism and class divisions were socially constructed, they could be deconstructed, and the Reign of God would come on earth!

Context and accountability

My Ph.D. cohort, the domestic violence shelter where I wrote my dissertation, and my first two congregations all included men and women, White, Black, Brown, gay and straight, from homeless to very wealthy, who more or less understood systemic injustice because of their lived experiences. I had people around me who would hold me accountable and show me the limits of my perspective. Advocacy and working to eliminate barriers to resources as they became obvious were central to the work.

A new understanding of Jesus

As a child, I loved church because there were adults who showed me that I was a beloved child of God, whose choices could make a difference for good in the world. Yet in my childhood church—lily white—there was little mention of the social gospel: to be a good Christian was to be nice, not to lie or cheat or steal, to respect other people and other people’s property, not to make waves, to be saved, to be a good person (read somewhat morally superior) and hence to be able to go to heaven. And yet, I was in love with God; and I knew, from deep prayer, that I was deeply loved by God. In seminary, I discovered how Jesus sought the vulnerable and marginalized; how he helped me confront and deal with sexism and patriarchy; how he was killed because he would not stop loving when religious and political forces wanted to silence his way of love. I discovered how God refused to let the principalities and powers have the last word and raised Jesus; how in the “take, bless, break, and give” motion of Eucharist, I can experience how “all of creation is groaning in travail” for both personal and corporate salvation. To discover all these things represented a seismic shift in faith that led me to ordination and congregational ministry.

Bishop Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, is preaching this understanding of Jesus—but we need to have far more conversation in our congregations about the limits of a theology that is, for many, confined to personal salvation and private morality.

What gets in the way of preaching about race?

White privilege

So much has been written about this lately, but the short version is that I too often assume that my perspective is universal when it is, in fact, very limited.

Fear

I don’t want to look racist or be racist, and I don’t mean to hurt or exclude anyone. But when so much of everyday life is shaped by policies and practices that privilege White people and obscure the underlying dynamics, I’m going to miss things. Instead of getting defensive or silent, it helps to remember that mistakes, wrong assumptions, and incorrect information are inevitable and correctable and that, with a bit of humility, they will lead to greater understanding. Ibrahim Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, asks everyone to evaluate choices based on whether they contribute to racial oppression—in which case they are racist—or to the dismantling of racial oppression, in which case they are antiracist. On any given day, any one of us can do both; our task is not to judge or condemn ourselves, but to keep moving.

When I have moved into predominantly White congregations, I’ve paradoxically been even more afraid to talk straightforwardly about race. Naming racial dynamics usually makes White people defensive. Even though African American writers and activists have been clear about structural oppression since, say, the early 1700s, it seems like new information to White folks again and again. The depth of racist practices still surprises and appalls me. Acknowledging the pervasiveness of racism will mean us White folk changing our fundamental understandings of ourselves and our history. “The truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable,” and who wants to make people miserable? In a White crowd when someone makes a racist comment, who will notice if I am silent? Who will get upset or angry or feel shamed when I speak up? Why do I talk about race, when our real issue is congregational growth, or the budget, or personal spirituality? The pressure not to rock the boat comes from within me as well as from others. Someone I know said something about “perfect love casts out fear” (!), but on the way to more perfectly loving we, White preachers, can also think about Trayvon Martin’s or Philando Castile’s or Ahmaud Arbery’s fear—fear unto death, found in going about their ordinary business while Black.

White preachers need to talk about why we don’t preach regularly about race, and then we need to fix that if we want to maintain any credibility as moral authorities. We may be ignorant, but there are plenty of books to read when we begin asking “what don’t we know.” There may be willful denial: “I don’t have to preach about race because there are no people of color in my congregation or town.” If that’s so, we need to investigate, with our congregations, why it is. I have found amazing energy when I’ve finally figured out another piece of the puzzle. There is healing for White folks too when we work to heal wounds of racism. Seeking the Reign, kin(g)dom of God, confession and absolution and food for the journey are part of Sunday worship and the rhythm of Christian life, and along the way we will see Jesus.