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  • Nick McDonald

5 Lessons on Preaching Against Racism


"Who Lynched Willie Earle" is designed to equip preachers to address racism from the pulpit. Written by Duke University's William Willimon, the book is compassionate, well-written and insightful. Here, I've distilled a few key insights I took from the book (I would love to hear from my minority readers on these...the book was written by a white professor, and sometimes it's difficult for me to discern the helpfulness of the suggestions):

1. Racial reconciliation won't come about through condemnation. I have been guilty of this in the past. I've blasted folks with what I saw as blatant racism, only to feel their heels dig in. Willimon points out that Jesus takes a sideways approach to racism. He exemplifies the Good Samaritan. He asks challenging questions. We, too, need to expend our energy exemplifying hospitality to minorities rather than merely condemning those who don't. We need to know the frankly much-more-inspiring accounts of history's black Christians, and use them in our sermons. We need to be genuinely excited about the promised future diversity of God's church, and preach toward that vision. We need to be patient.

2. Racial reconciliation is founded on God's character toward us. Willimon blasts his own Methodist denomination for failing to appeal to the gospel in addressing racism. He points out that appealing to "American values" or any other appeal will fall flat, and demonstrates the way in which Paul uses the gospel - especially in Galatians - to break down the dividing wall of hostility. Reconciliation of cultures begins with our reconciliation to God. If we don't make this connection for our congregants, we have ultimately failed to transform them.

3. Repentance can't be impersonal, ESPECIALLY for white preachers. Again, I am guilty of this. Rather than saying, "Here's how I've failed," or "Here's when I changed my mind on this issue," I've treated others with judgment for failing to "get it" like I did. This is utterly inappropriate for white preachers, and ultimately ineffective. Repentance needs to be public and personal. This also means, as Willimon notes, repentance from the top-down isn't going to change things (as in, the denomination declares repentance - a good start, but not transformational). This was especially relevant to me as a member of the PCA.

4. Everything begins with listening. We need to stop thinking, "What do the black folks think?" and start asking individual minorities what THEY think and experience. A pastoral mentor of mine once shared that after listening to a black pastor recount his experiences in America, he said: "I've never heard any of this before." The black pastor replied: "Well, you never asked." Ouch. This means reading the literature, but it also means having a conversation over lunch or dinner. If we haven't truly listened, any preaching on the topic of racism is racist - presuming to know and understand the problem without first entering into it.

5. We need to give people clear actions to take. This is where I felt the largest question mark looming for me: if non-minorities hear all charges of systemic racism as "political", how can we possibly incite anyone to action without sounding political? Willimon doesn't give answers. He does say we need to give specific actions to folks, and especially highlights #4 above.

Overall, the book helped me to repent and reconsider some of the ways I've broached this topic in the past. I will say the book feels unorganized - well, actually I'll say the book's organization is just plain bizarre. It took quite a bit of work for me to arrange it into the principles above. On top of that, so much of the book felt like politically correct box-checking, sometimes contradicting itself in the name of saying everything one should say. For that reason, I'm not going to give the book a stellar rating. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be digested and discussed.

3 out of 5 stars

You can pick up a copy here: Who Lynched Willie Earle?


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