Dear White Preachers,
I have been watching and listening to your reflections on the task of preaching to predominantly white congregations in the wake of the non-indictments in New York City and Ferguson, in the wake of the powerful movement in the U.S. and around the world to affirm #BlackLivesMatter. I am not currently serving in a ministry setting that includes weekly preaching, so while I listen to your conversations I wonder what I might preach. The season of Advent is rich with scriptural longing for a world that has not yet been realized, for an appearance by God or God’s messengers in response to the world’s great need.
Advent and the daily news and — importantly — the persons in the pews all converge & commingle & require prayerful exegetical work by every preacher from Sunday to Sunday. I’m encouraged to witness the support being shared among you as you prepare sermons for such a time as this, and then as you offer affirmations to one another when you report on the impact of those preaching moments…
…And I confess that I am troubled by a particular word that recurs often in those post-sermon conversations, so let me offer this reflection and caution from one colleague to another: White preachers, we are not prophets.
That sermon you just preached on race to your predominantly white congregation was not prophetic. Admonishing America’s racist soul — or, taking the more pastoral approach, affirming God’s love for all people/the least of these/the poor & oppressed — in your sermons for two Sundays in a row is not prophetic. Your invitation to church folks to gather for a vigil in prayerful solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not prophetic. Naming directly the racism that you hear from congregants on Facebook or in person is not prophetic.
Yes, these actions may be hard to do in your context. Yes, these words may be rare in your place of ministry. Yes, you may feel uncomfortable or nervous or even fearful as you speak in these ways. Yes, there may be difficult conversations as a result. Yes, it’s possible that you could become a lightening rod for congregants’ tensions. Yes, there’s even a chance that your job stability could be risked. And yes, mustering the courage and Spirit to move past all those fears and to do something — whether preach or pray or protest — may qualify as brave.
But friends, these actions and these words do not make us prophetic.
(1) Because we’re white. Let’s start there.
Because, as uncomfortable as you may feel naming race from the pulpit, it’s not your life that America is debating or devaluing. (Which isn’t to deny you the struggles you may have with America’s valuation of your life, but it is to distinguish and to recognize bluntly that your white life is not being killed by police at almost the same frequency as lynchings occurred in the Jim Crow era.)
Because we are uncomfortable saying “#BlackLivesMatter” clearly and unequivocally from the pulpit — think on that for a moment — and so we hedge and say #AllLivesMatter and we slip Eric Garner’s name into a pastoral prayer, thus concluding that we have spoken truth to power. Yet we are the power. You, my white colleague, are the power — by virtue of being part of the dominant culture and by virtue of your office, no matter who cuts your paycheck — so I ask you: Is “God loves everybody” a truth that challenges and upsets your power?
Because we haven’t done our own work on race and racism or not enough of it — we can never do enough work on it, white folks. Because we don’t know our place when the outcry is “Black power!”, so we cheer “No justice, no peace.” Because we’re uncomfortable standing next to our Black colleagues in solidarity, so we take a white buddy with us.
Because the movement isn’t about us. (See #2 below.) Because prophets are called out from among a people to speak to or on behalf of those same people — and white folks, we are not the people in question when it comes to #BlackLivesMatter. It is not about us. Yes, there is a response to #BlackLivesMatter that is incumbent upon white people, white ministers, white churches — but we are respondents to the message not prophets with the message. At best, white preachers repeat the message with a lens for how it will be received in our pews, challenging our churches (and ourselves) on the idea that our context is limited to our church walls or even to our geographic regions. But even when we relay that message effectively, friends, we are not prophetic.
Why aren’t we prophetic?
(2) Because we don’t tell our own stories. That “prophetic” sermon you gave? Did you mention Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Tanesha Anderson, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin? Did you tell a story about your (one) Black friend? Did you reflect aloud on — hear me closely & honestly, white colleagues — your own Black or brown child if you have an interracial family as I do?
When you told someone else’s story in your sermon — no matter how heartbreaking the story, no matter how personally close you are to the person — you (subconsciously) guaranteed that there was no risk to you. Maybe there was the risk of tears, maybe the risk of someone walking out, but there was no risk to your own whiteness. In fact, by highlighting someone else’s story as the primary illustration of race, you implicitly affirmed to your white congregation (even if they said they were offended), “See — I/we are not that.”
To be sure, the affirmation of #BlackLivesMatter necessitates the recognition that someone else has an experience of daily life that is other from our experience. Yet in our progressive white liberal resolve to know and to name (to consume*) the other story, we manage to avoid the more soul-searching question: “If we are not the other, then who are we?”
[“White identity…has remained largely exempt from examination or self-questioning.” And on *consumption: “Whiteness…has not come into being as a form of overcoming but rather as a form of plunder.” Both quotations from White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity by James W. Perkinson, pages 171 and 164 respectively.]
Wondering, then, what story to tell when you preach if not the other’s story? Tell your story, tell your church’s story, tell your community’s story of whiteness. I don’t mean your story of German-ness or your story of Norwegian-ness or your story of New England-ness (or whatever region has shaped you). I don’t mean your story of white guilt and liberal lament.
I mean that story of how you came to pastor a predominantly white church in a predominantly white town. That story of whether you noticed that the search committee that hired you was all-white; whether you preached your trial sermon and thought to yourself how odd it was to look out over a sea of white faces. That story of why a predominantly white town is a comfortable place for you to call home. That story of how the congregation feels good because mostly white isn’t all white, and how you feel affirmed to have three persons of color as members in the congregation thus confirming that you are a racially inclusive pastor and that the congregation knows how to welcome (allow) the other to sit among them.
Wondering what story to tell when you preach on race? Tell the story of how your congregation came to be predominantly white in the first place. Did the founders choose to establish a white faith community? Do your congregants remember those rare instances when a person or family of color visited on a Sunday, but “Of course they didn’t feel welcome here”? What are the stories of your church choosing — individually and collectively — not to see the non-white faces in the pews (“We don’t see color”) and in the community?
Tell the story of how your predominantly white town came to be so white in the first place. Was it a sundown town? Were there laws about who could own property where? Are there still implicit codes among local realtors about home ownership? Is the town predominantly white due to the displacement or slaughter or erasure-by-education of American Indians?
Before you stake your and your church’s identity on the dubious theological story of liberal do-good-ism and white saviour-ism, first excavate your story of participation in American racism and your removal (whether by conscious choice or unconscious default) from an integrated Kingdom of God, taking seriously that “one cannot partake in heritage a la carte.” By confessing our own, our churches’, our communities’ stories of whiteness, we do not make ourselves to be prophets but we begin to prove ourselves to be allies.
Friends, take a close look and a long listen. In the U.S. these days, the prophets are not in the pulpits. The prophets are in the streets. The prophets are staging die-ins and staring down police lines and shouting at city council meetings and organizing efforts to interrupt commuters and businesses and daily routines. The prophets are calling us to a new way of being — and not just calling, but making it happen.
We are not those prophets.
Though by our office as preachers it is our job to proclaim God’s word, we must be clear that this word, this movement, was not given to us by God to proclaim. Someone else — someones else — have the honor of proclaiming this particular day of the LORD and of calling all people to this particular repentance of racism.
When we call ourselves “prophets” for speaking against racism, we unintentionally reveal the very white privilege that we believe we are denouncing, for we plunder and steal the prophet’s mantle when it is not rightfully ours.
Friends, “prophet” is not a self-proclaimed title.
“Prophetic” is not a synonym for bravery.
The kingdom of God for which the true prophets are now in the streets crying out, demanding, will upend our white world no matter how much we believe ourselves to be allies. Perhaps we can participate in that coming kingdom, but we do so in a confessional posture…not a prophetic stance.