In this post I want to continue my reflections on the significance of William Willimon’s book: Who killed Willie Earle? Preaching to confront racism, not least in the light of the recent statement by the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada and the articulated need for more ‘prophetic’ preaching.
Willimon in his theologizing often draws on his own Methodist tradition in order to honestly name racism as sin and engage in acts of ‘detoxification, renovation, and reparation’.
Here, however, I want to focus on the more explicit ‘Baptist’ themes in his book.
To be sure there are many aspects of the evangelical conversionist Methodist strand upon which Willimon draws with which Baptists could resonate.
This said, I confess that as a ’Baptist’ I felt the sharp sting of…yes…shame, as Willimon recounted the following reconstruction based upon dozen of confessions given to FBI agents:
“So I drove myself to American Cab, checked my sheets with Mr. Norris and Mr.O. C. Berry. I went outside and I seen two Yellow Cabs pull up. One driven by Rector, the others by Marvin Fleming. They had gone and got whiskey at Poinsett and were liquored up good. I guessed. They knew I’m a Baptist. I don’t need to get drunk to do right’.
The ‘right’ which he was going to do was to take an untried and convicted ‘negro prisoner’ from prison and kill him.
Through this reconstruction Willimon exposes a view of Christian faith, apparently internally consistent, when and where liquor was bad but to kill a black man was okay. Rightly or wrongly it is here named as a Baptist sort of Christian faith.
Yet there is another Baptist side to Willimon’s story. For several times when and where Willimon looks for an inspirational figure, a model of what it means to be able to preach in a way that confronts racism, he turns albeit not always uncritically to Martin Luther King Jr. (In this respect Willimon is quite dependent on Richard Lischer’s excellent work: The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America, Rev. ed. 1999).
Perhaps one of the most important points which Willimon makes is to emphasise that despite the variety of other interpretations that people put upon him, Martin Luther King Jr. was first and foremost a preacher. Indeed, Willimon suggests that for many who would appropriate King as a political and social reformer that this description is one they most resist. (Next year which will see the 50th Anniversary of his assassination may be an opportunity for Baptist types to highlight precisely this?)
Thus, Willimon notes that following a Church bombing, one of the first things that Martin Luther King Jr. would do was visit the site of the bombing, bible in hand, not to give a press conference, but to preach a sermon.
What Willimon does not develop here is that such preaching by necessity would often be outdoor, public, and on the site of trouble. King’s preaching that confronted racism was deeply embodied and was performed not necessarily in buildings but in locations where the very act of the preaching was an event of witness that such racist acts were not to be the last word.
The above is worth stating because there appears to be a limiting default mind-set which as soon as the word ‘preaching’ is mentioned insists on an image of ‘in-church’ preaching that is preaching from a pulpit among a congregation gathered in liturgical assembly in a building. The history of transformative preaching is, however, much more varied.
Stylistically Willimon refers to King’s ability to simultaneously identify with his listeners, both black, and white, while confronting them with the necessity for transformation. Willimon would support this as a strategy in preaching that confronts racism. It is also an approach, however, which requires great skill. This is particularly the case if a preacher does not wish to ultimately base their arguments upon shared cultural ideas, such as the American Declaration of Independence, but upon theological convictions. The Church at least needs to draw on more than shared cultural values. This is the case because such values as held by a majority or the powerful may precisely be that which undergirds such evils as racism. We can note that while King appeals as it were to the ‘American dream’ (civil religion) in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (which contra Willimon I would classify as a sermon) he also declares that this cultural dream had ‘given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”‘. That is, on its own, American cultural idealism had not delivered the theological vision of the bible.
King as a Baptist preacher, at least as presented by Willimon, is one who not only believed in the sustaining and transformative power of preaching but is one through whom that transformative potential can be seen. King’s preaching was not simply ‘talk’ about racism but was an action and an event that confronted racism.
Willimon quotes Richard Lischer as saying that Martin Luther King Jr. ‘believed that the preached Word performs a sustaining function for all who are oppressed, and a corrective function for all who would know the truth but lead disordered lives. He also believed the Word of God possess[es] the power to change hearts of stone’ (p. 92).
This preached Word, however, came from one who knew oppression and was prepared to stand on the side of the so oppressed on the basis of theological convictions about the value of all human life. This gave a particular perspective not simply on life but from which the Scriptural text was read and interpreted. It was also a deeply embodied preaching in terms of content and context.
In Willimon’s account of preaching that confronts racism there is not simply a Methodist story but also a Baptist story of challenge to be sure but also of interest and inspiration.