Don’t Preach a Sermon, Until

Don’t Preach that Sermon on Racism… Until

Perhaps the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmad Aubrey in Bainbridge, Georgia have shaken our slumbering nation awake. Perhaps. Perhaps we have been woke and deep hungers for righteousness will now stir within our communities. Protesters have flooded our streets in anger and despair.

A courageous seventeen-year-old young woman videotaped the 8 minutes 46 seconds as George Floyd’s life ebbed away with an officer’s knee on his neck. “Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.” It is a cry from the streets; the length of time peaceful protesters take a knee; and, a way to summarize the injustice of four hundred years of racism in our nation.

Friends ask what they might do in response. Some clergy friends are preparing sermons on racism. They are surprised when I say, “Don’t preach that sermon, yet.” One surprised pastor said, “But this is exactly the time to preach against racism.” Perhaps he is right, but first, a warning.

Back in 1973-1975 I was part of a research team for Project Understanding. a national effort to address racism. My dissertation, written on this research, is Racism and Suburban Congregations: Strategies for Change. I recall my disappointment when the data showed the least effective way to change racist attitudes and racist institutional practices was through preaching. (The effect of preaching, by itself, is negligible).  While the pulpit can be a helpful additional, backup resource, a reinforcement — a supplemental provider of encouragement — it was almost never a pivot point for change.

Sadly, teaching and educational approaches weren’t much better if enduring transformation is sought.  Again education can be a supplemental benefit.  And, only slightly better than these two are regular pulpit exchanges among racially diverse congregations.  

The most effective approaches were discovered to be interracial teams working to address various civic or institutional matters that didn’t need to focus exclusively on racism. For many, probably most, this is counter-intuitive thinking. I had been taught that you change one’s attitude first and behavioral changes follow.  Of course, the idea of behavioral change being the lead priority, was the research behind the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

There are multiple actions possible. Perhaps you could work on the Equal Justice Initiative to set up markers memorializing each of the lynchings in your state. (In Indiana there are 12 such known lynchings.) Perhaps you could join groups monitoring racist practices in education or housing or policing. Or, learn about and join the “white coats, black lives” actions of medical workers in your community. Start an interracial prayer or book group. Charity is not the goal here. You need to become the one who is tutored, and not the tutor. Turn off that natural White tendency to keep the power differential in your favor.

So, before you preach that sermon, especially if you are a White pastor to a predominantly White congregation, what can I suggest? First, do your homework. I understand the urge to go fight and speak for justice. Even so, you need to prepare yourself before encouraging others. More importantly you need to listen to African Americans and determine where you might take some action.

So, in this order then are steps to take — LISTEN, STUDY, ACT, all before you preach. If you don’t know African American leaders in your community, what are you waiting for? If you haven’t yet joined a protest, and can do this safely during the COVID-19 pandemic — perhaps this is the way to start. Or, join an opportunity to work for racial justice — and — get moving.

Dear White friends, don’t expect African Americans to tell you what to do. Instead, listen, carefully and humbly listen. Then study; then ACT. Only then will your sermons make a difference. Here are some resources for study:

  • Ibram X. Kendi’s fine book “How to Be An Antiracist” (2019) is a good place to start. We must move beyond the notion of being a non-racist to leaning how to live lovingly as an antiracist.
  • Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It is So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” (2018). Take 20 minutes and watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwIx3KQer54.
  • Mona Hanna-Attisha’s “What the Eyes Don’t See” (2019) is a story as told by a physician of the crises, response and hope from the Flint, Michigan water crises.
  • Jonathan M. Metzl’s “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland” (2019) is a collection of interviews on the deep underlying myths carried by white racism.
  • Will Willimon’s “Who Lynched Willie Earle: Preaching to Confront Racism” (2017) and “Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (2016). There is also a five week video study for church groups.
  • Jim Wallis’ “America’s Original Sin” (2016) is a Biblical and theological analysis that offers hope for a different way.
  • Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law (2017) outlines the way housing discrimination has shaped our nation.
Demonstration Against Cruel Immigration Policies, Evanston, Illinois, 2017

It does appear this is a time of change, an inflection point, a time theologians speak of as Kairos time — when signs of God’s kingdom might become more manifest in our institutions and communities. So, before you preach, PREPARE. Listen, Study, Act and then preach away — all of you — ordained clergy and non-clergy. Let’s preach our hearts out, and do it as part of a deep and enduring narrative, that will bring to our grandchildren a lasting change.

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