Events in Charlottesville broke on Friday night and Saturday in the US, and by late Saturday night a good number of America’s priests and ministers were scrambling to re-write whatever homilies and sermons they’d prepped for the next morning.
Photo: Rodney Dunning
I came across this tweet, by Traci Blackmon, the executive minister of justice-and-witness ministries for the United Church of Christ:
I SURE DO PRAY THAT THE SERMON YOU WROTE EARLIER THIS WEEK IS NOT THE SERMON YOU ARE PREACHING TOMORROW.
— Traci Blackmon (@pastortraci) August 13, 2017
In the last couple of days, eyes have turned to the white Christian community to see how they will react to the events in Charlottesville: Will white US Christians speak out against white supremacy? Will they acknowledge their community’s role in slavery, Jim Crow and ongoing structural racism?
Some church leaders have made unequivocal statements, as Emma Green notes in the Atlantic: “Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted that ‘the so-called alt-right white-supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core.'” Others, like Franklin Graham, have been as mealy-mouthed as Trump: “Pray for Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe, law enforcement, and everyone struggling to deal with the chaos and violence that reared its ugly head in Charlottesville.”
There were white priests and pastors who didn’t take a strong stance from the pulpit last Sunday and who likely won’t in the future. If you are a member of their congregations, you may want to encourage your pastor to speak out against white supremacy. But this can be intimidating — priests and ministers are in positions of authority, after all, and it’s hard to tell them how to do their jobs. And yet, if you are a practising Christian and a citizen concerned about the rise of white nationalism, you probably want to turn the conversation in your church — from the pulpit and otherwise — to the political and news events that are dominating the headlines.
But how? I spoke with Rev James Martin, a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America, and author of many books including the recent Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity; and Nicole Leigh Shaw, a licensed minister in the United Church of Christ, for some advice.
Open the Conversation with a Question
Martin, who spent some years as a missionary in Kenya, has talked to me before about the importance of broaching difficult topics by asking questions. “What would I say to pastors who didn’t preach on it? Well, first I’d ask them why they didn’t. I would imagine some of the reasons would be: … ‘I didn’t want to get too “political'”; [or] ‘I didn’t want to offend anyone,'” he said in an email. Listen to the response — it will inform your next move.
Foment a Lay Movement
The Protestant church is lay-led, says Shaw, so if you’re concerned about racism and the rise of white supremacy, form a lay group with fellow congregants to study and pray about the issue. “Speak to some of your friends at church and say ‘do you want to meet and discuss?'” suggests Shaw. “Because as whites, we can ignore racism and white supremacy. But we need the white community to talk amongst themselves and not be silent.” This can be especially useful if your congregation is politically diverse: “If we’re not sure where other people stand, we can be scared to confront them. But if you’re discussing Christianity and morality,” the topic is going to come up organically. And this, says Shaw, will guide your minister, who should be responding to the needs of his or her parishioners: “Create a path your pastor can follow. Signal to him or her where you are and what you need.”
Be Specific with Your Language
Many people avoid politics (which is a luxury and a privilege, but that’s a topic for another day), but the conversation doesn’t have to revolve around politics per se. “Especially with politically mixed congregations, be specific with your language,” says Shaw. “Say ‘here’s what I’m against,’ but don’t paint with a broad political brush,” for example, “all conservatives are racists.” Martin says, “[Y]ou can avoid ‘politics’ and still speak out against injustice… Church leaders have the responsibility to preach, as the saying goes, with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
“Start reading some Christian ethicists,” says Shaw. “Just like talking to your pastor, it helps to see what other Christians have confronted. White supremacy is not new. Some theological study that might spark meaningful conversations are the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr and James Cone.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Broach Difficult Topics, and Support Your Pastor when He or She Does So Too
“Not offending your congregation means that you’re not following the example of Jesus, who often offended,” says Martin. “You may also offend an equal number of people by avoiding something that people need guidance on.”
Gently Encourage Your Pastor, and Fellow Congregants, to Consider Their Responsibility as White People and Christians
Martin says, “Christians bear an even greater responsibility [than white people in general]. The entire concept of ‘supremacy’ is the opposite of what Jesus preached. In the Gospels, Jesus asks us to love one another, to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another. The idea of ‘supremacy’ is absurd to Jesus. Indeed, Jesus tells us explicitly that we are never to ‘lord’ power over others, and that we are to be one another’s ‘servants’ (Mk. 10: 42-43) The whole idea that anyone is ‘less than’ because of his or her race is likewise antithetical to Jesus’s message… No one should be made by the community into an ‘other,’ as white supremacists do to non-whites. There is only us.”
Want an example of a terrific sermon written on the fly Saturday night? Take a look at this one, by Christopher Arnold of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Arnold, an Episcopal priest, notes his discomfort with the topic, but acknowledges his responsibility as a spiritual leader:
“From time to time the church must speak against the actions of the Devil in this world, and that means preachers must preach these sorts of sermons… I am a priest, and I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, and so I say it: This racist demonstration is immoral, wicked and evil. It is of the Devil, and Christians must not stand for it.”