Pastors preach to confront racism!

This series of blog posts were initiated through my reading and reviewing of Will Willimon’s book: Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism in the context of a recent Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada statement against racism and a staff room conversation where a leader from the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia spoke of the need for more ‘prophetic’ preaching.

To preach against racism is ‘prophetic’. It is prophetic in ‘seeing’ the presence of such racism which may not be apparent to those of us who live in and benefit from white privilege. It is prophetic in ‘naming’ the issue and naming it as sin. It is prophetic in ‘talking’ publicly about the matter. It is prophetic in ‘disturbing’ the status quo. It is prophetic in ‘offering an alternative biblical theological vision’ of the way things can be. It is prophetic in offering the gospel resources of ‘repentance and grace’ as transformative of individuals and structures.

All of the above I think is in accord with what Willimon presents.

Yet, interestingly, Willimon uses the language of ‘prophetic preaching’ little.

There are two reasons for this:

The first is that he thinks that such preaching should be done by pastors rather than wandering prophetic preachers. For it is pastors, he argues, who have the context to build the sort of ‘ecclesial relationships’ that allows such preaching as part of the life of a congregation to become transformative. ‘Racism is best overcome in a community that is supportive of and dedicated to truthful preaching that encourages honest relationships and offers interpersonal help’ (124).

Drawing on the example of African American preaching (not least King, see earlier post) Willimon is concerned that white pastors in white congregations will preach against racism in the honesty of their own complicity while learning from their African American colleagues.

Following on from the above, for Willimon the second reason he stresses that pastors should preach against racism is because this is an issue that requires to be dealt with, not only at the national level through resolutions, but at tthe local and congregational level in word and action. The failure to deal with the issue at a local level while making resolutions at the national level is a charge he appears to lay against his own tradition.

To be sure, Willimon is clear that such preaching by pastors will require courage for ‘prophetic’ preaching can be disruptive. Building a multi-cultural congregation can be challenging. It can cut against a pastoral desire to simply maintain peace at all costs. It requires the development of a congregational context where preaching and talk about current issues is framed within the theological and discernment business of local churches.

Willimon writes: ‘Lesslie Newbigin taught us that the congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel. The preached word is validated in its embodiment. There is no substitute for the church – the living, breathing, taking-up-room bodies brought together by Christ, an in-your-face witness, a showcase for what God can do’ (p. 120)

Willimon’s ecclesiological concern as well as his specific concern to confront racism should resonate with aspects of Baptist ecclesiology and biblical aspirations to model in the ‘now’ that which we read of in Scripture and anticipate in the Kingdom come.


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