Preaching on Racism
We all have our blind spots. Yours is a little more obvious to the rest of us than it is to you. Mine is so much a part of me, I might need your assistance to find it.
“Well, one thing I know–I’m not a racist.”
No one automatically thinks of themselves as in bondage to prejudice. Not even the fiercest member of the most radical white-supremacy group would admit to such. No, he’s just fully aware of the differences in people, he would probably say, and proud of his own identity.
Since racism wears so many disguises, all of them attractive and comfortable–just being who we are, authentically human, our true nature, and “I’m no hypocrite!”–we may require an outside source to call our attention to this alien force which can poison our relationships, betray our commitments, and abandon those looking to us as Christ-figures.
I once preached on racism to the largest church in the state, a congregation without a single minority member, and some of whose leaders were known as staunch defenders of segregation. It will not surprise you to know I was very young at the time. (Translation: bold, daring, and somewhat foolhardy.)
Looking back, my youth was probably an asset. It allowed me to speak boldly and have the old Pharisees simply dismiss my words as the rants of a young turk. When church was over, no one got particularly upset and my job security was never at issue.
What text did the sermon use? I have long since forgotten–probably Matthew 22:39 about loving one’s neighbor as himself–but it dealt with various blind spots in God’s people. I mentioned three or four of these vision blackouts, of which racism was one. Each point took no more than five minutes. But it was the one on racial prejudice that got their full and undivided attention.
After the service, a retired pastor came up and offered a bit of advice. (To this day, I still do not know whether he approved of the sermon, or was advising me on how to do what I had been attempting. I suspect the latter). “Joe,” he said, “Carlyle Marney used to say, ‘The people are mired down in quicksand and you throw them a rope. Now, if you jerk the rope too hard, it breaks and they’re in there for good. The way to get them out is to keep a steady pull on that rope.’”
Who can argue with that? I surely do not.
When I began pastoring in late 1962, the kind of racism afflicting our society was an entirely different animal than today. In 1968, the Sunday after Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was so burdened that I unloaded on my all-white congregation (in the Mississippi Delta, yet) in anguish and anger–at myself, at my white brethren, at our society. And they received the message.
These days, the form of racism practiced by church people tends to be much more subtle. It may show up in hiring, in the choice of friendships, and in conversation. Some churches welcome minorities into their worship services but would never think of asking one to teach a class or serve as a deacon or elder.
Most churches where I preach are integrated to some degree. Once in a while, I’ll see a mixed-race couple in the congregation and one or two minorities in the choir. And–this needs to be said–in New Orleans where I live, quite a few of our churches are nearly fifty-fifty in racial composition.
Here are 7 suggestions for the pastor who wants to help his people do right in the matter of race relations–
1) Ask a minority member of your church to tell you their story privately, their experiences in your church, and how they have been treated. Listen closely for what they are not saying–the times they were dismissed because of skin color or some other criteria, the uncomfortable feelings some members project when in their presence, harsh words spoken or something less than love shown.
2) Bring several minority members together (if you have them) to talk with you plainly and honestly. Assure them of the confidentiality of this gathering, that no one will be quoted, and that they too should keep it to themselves. (That said, you will want to avoid saying anything you do not want to hear coming back at your from other members. Be wise; be harmless.)
As they open up and share their feelings and experiences, ask them what scriptures gives them most comfort and direction? What sermons would they love to hear that would be good for the entire church? (Never promise to preach something they suggest. Still, it would be helpful to know what they are thinking.)
3) Talk with two or three of your most trusted lay leaders and determine how much this congregation would welcome in order to “get past” the racism of former days. That could involve Sunday School lessons, sermons, testimonies, swapping pulpits with a minority pastor, or inviting in a local pastor along with his entire worship leadership team (choir, musicians, etc.) for a Sunday night service.
4) Settle with the Holy Spirit how much control you are willing to relinquish to the most fearful of your church members, those who threaten to leave or who predict an uprising from some in the congregation “if you preach that” or “if that preacher comes here.” Look to the Lord.
Not long ago, a pastor in a nearby state made international news when he allowed a few naysayers to stop him from conducting a wedding in their church for an African-American couple attending their services. I believe the pastor’s motives were pure and that he was unwilling to sacrifice the ministry of that church in order to make a point. But others have been quick to say this could have been an excellent growing experience for the church which the pastor missed.
The bottom line is always that the pastor must hear from the Lord in these things. According to Matthew 16:18 Jesus himself is the owner and the operator of the Church. His should be the only opinion that matters.
5) Befriend the minority pastors in your community. Have lunch occasionally with one or two. As you find your spirit bonding with one in particular, pick his brain on the subject of racism as it pertains to your hometown. You might be surprised to find an entire world of experiences completely foreign to you.
6) In your services, consider a testimony from a member whose attitudes toward other races God has changed. Or, perhaps you would prefer to interview them in a worship service or, if you have the means, to video their testimony and edit it down to a manageable time.
7) In your sermons, particularly if you have members who guard their prejudices and hold their racism dear, bear in mind that a great way to make a point when people are on edge is by telling a story. Something about hearing what happened to others makes a truth less threatening and a lesson more palatable. Jesus did this regularly by using parables.
We have said “minority” rather than “African-American” for the simple reason that racial minorities vary from place to place. For some, it’s the Arabs and Muslims; in other places, the minority group (but quickly heading toward majority status!) is Hispanics or even Asians. There was a time in the Northeast USA when my group, the Irish, were discriminated against.
Someone has said that if overnight all skin colors were eliminated and tomorrow morning, we awakened to find everyone on earth looking alike, by nightfall we would have found some other basis of discrimination.
We are such sinners, and must work against these carnal tendencies all the time. Sin is relentless and self-discipline must be just as diligent. “We who are in this tabernacle do groan,” said Paul (2 Corinthians 5:4). Indeed we do.
The Lord’s admonition to “love thy neighbor as thyself” originated in Leviticus 19 where the Lord told Israel that the stranger in their midst was to be welcomed as a member of the family and dealt with fairly. He was to be loved as oneself, because after all, “you were strangers in Egypt yourselves once.” You know how it feels. (cf. Leviticus 19:34)
One of the chief criteria by which we shall be examined at Judgment, our Lord said in Matthew 25:35 is: “I was a stranger (foreigner) and you took me in.”
If that doesn’t speak to racism, nothing does.