In all my years of going to church, the only times I have ever heard a sermon about racism was when the priest was black. I have never heard a white pastor give a sermon on white supremacy. I have never once witnessed a white priest, deacon, bishop, or pastor preaching a homily on how to be anti-racist.
I don’t think this is because I go to the wrong church or belong to the wrong Church, although people will undoubtedly make this case. Being a Roman Catholic in an interdenominational marriage, I’ve been to many different Churches in many different cities over the past decade and my above statement holds quite well across all denominational boundaries.
I know for a fact that there are some denominations where many pastors address racism regularly, and I know for a fact that there are many priests and pastors, black, white, Latinx, and otherwise, who address racism regularly in their churches. If that is you, know that I am very grateful for your continued witness, and also know that this blog post is not primarily for you (although I’d love it if you found something helpful here).
This post is for everyone else. I divide “everyone else,” that is people who don’t preach about racism, into three overlapping groups: pastors who wish to speak but did not get enough (or any) practice in seminary on how to talk about racism from the pulpit; pastors who feel too overwhelmed by the present events to speak confidently on the topic; and pastors who feel that racism-related discussions are too political and should be addressed outside of the setting of the Mass.
The rest of this essay will address the concerns of each group before providing an outline for a first sermon on racism. It will be important, however, to start with the first overarching concern:
Why speak about racism at all?
I have never been more convinced of the continued need for pastors to speak confidently and eloquently about these matters, especially at a time when confidence in Church officials and Christianity in general is quite low. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Rev. Dr. King wrote:
“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”
The homily, the weekly sermon, is the only time during the week that the vast majority of the Christian population connects their daily life to their faith. For this majority, there is no other time for engagement. If we do not talk about difficult issues from the pulpit, people will connect the dots how they see fit. Silence gives consent, sometimes to the most dangerous forces.
Furthermore, people go to religious institutions to offer voice to the concerns they hold up in daily prayer. They want the Church to be a place they can trust to guide them in moral decision-making, whether or not they agree with every piece of doctrine. The fact that the Church is struggling with trustworthiness around the globe is all the more reason why pastors should address difficult issues from the pulpit.
Concern #1: Untrained and no time to get trained
“I don’t even know where to begin, and I don’t have time to read 10 books to become an expert! I’m just as likely to say something wrong as I am something right!”
I am going to err on the side of graciousness and argue that most white pastors fall into this group when it comes to the issue of discussing racism. Blame it on seminary training, blame it on a culture of avoidance in white communities, blame it on fear, it doesn’t matter. Most church communities fall into two categories: those that discuss and confront racism, and those that don’t. If you became a pastor of a church that doesn’t discuss racism, and you didn’t have a background in the topic, you might feel completely underprepared and overwhelmed. But you know, that’s ok.
First, while I do have a list of books you could read, and there a million lectures for you to listen to and a thousand particularities to discuss, the fact is that you don’t need any of that to begin discussing racism in your Church. You don’t need to be an expert to give a 15-minute sermon. And despite how much I want everyone to become experts in discussing this topic, I also realize that everyone has their own expertise and pastors are pulled in about a hundred different directions on a weekly basis.
Concern #2: Overwhelmed by current events
“I want to speak and I know a little about the topic, but there’s just too much going on and the issue is far too divisive.”
I understand things are overwhelming. It should be mentally and spiritually difficult to see the rise of white supremacy become normalized and ignored. Add that to the strain of the continued abuse scandal; the rise of mass shootings, especially those explicitly connected to racism; the unparalleled divisions within the Church; and the continued rise in political polarization…and yeah, it might seem easier to just exegete a few verses from Paul than try to find a voice in the chaos.
But I urge you to re-read Dr. King’s message and think about the message your silence on this topic might be sending. The vast majority of people of faith are trying to deal with these issues. The vast majority of people of faith are struggling with these divisions and discord. They may be as overwhelmed as you, and if you are white, many of your congregants of color are probably a lot more overwhelmed than you are.
Remember: you don’t need to give a 60-minute lecture, just a short sermon. No one expects you to write the next bestseller on the topic. They trust you, listen to you, and need your vocal support. That is what a homily on racism can be: support for those who are way more overwhelmed than you are.
Concern #3: The pulpit should not be political
“I do speak about this topic, but in small groups and in areas outside of church. The pulpit is for biblical exegesis and spiritual guidance, not for politicizing Christianity.”
First, a sermon on racism does not have to be a sermon on Donald Trump. In fact, as you’ll see below, mentioning any political figure is a sure-fire way to tune out a lot of your congregation. Racism has never been and will never be aligned with any one political party. The alliance between Christianity and racism runs deep, but so does the alliance between Christianity and anti-racism.
Modern racism did not exist in the time of Jesus, but bigotry and politics certainly did. I won’t even get into the ways that Jesus was political, but showing others how to be actively anti-oppressive was a big part of his ministry. The connection between racism and politics feels pretty strong in 2019 America, but the Church is global and eternal, and racism remains a deep and vile evil that must continue to be ripped out of human culture one inch at a time.
So I agree: If you’re not comfortable with it, don’t start preaching about politicians, but do preach about racism. They are not the same thing.
Now for the main event: an easy guide for your first anti-racism sermon.
Preaching Your First Sermon on Racism: A Guide for White Pastors
Step 1: Locate the lectionary readings for the next few weeks. As with any Sunday, start here. Read through the readings with the following question in mind, “how can this relate to ideas of fighting against hatred, bigotry, violence, and disunity?” I guarantee that you will find connections. The words of scripture are rife with the concepts, and God often calls people to unity, healing, hope, and faith. Reflect on the scripture and find one or more pieces that connect.
Step 2: Consider the following three-fold simple idea: (1) Racism is evil; (2) Ideas of racism are still alive in today’s society; (3) the only way to expunge the evils of racism is to be actively anti-racist.
Note: You DO NOT need to prove these three points, but you do have to define them in one or two sentences, because there’s a lot of inaccurate and malicious information out there. Let’s delve into each idea briefly.
1) Racism is evil. Racism is the continued discrimination against people of color that encompassed slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, anti-immigration policies, and many other avenues of human debasement.
IMPORTANT: Please don’t say, “any type of racism is evil: against black people, against white people, against immigrants!” Racism is about people with power, usually white people, discriminating against people of color. People of color can also be racist against other people of color. No one can be racist against a white person because modern racism was born from the determined and systematic oppression of non-white people. You can be biased against white people, just like I can be biased against Patriots fans, but that is not racism. Racism is about power, violence, and the vestiges of slavery.
If you want to delve deeper, I have a few books for you to read at the end of the post. But remember, you can preach without reading 1000 books first. You know enough to take a stand against a simple yet often unnamed evil.
2) Ideas of racism are still alive and influencing people in modern society. There are a lot of examples here that can be grouped into two chunks: legacies of racism (often called systemic or institutional racism) and active racist ideas. Protest movements often deal with both. Examples of legacies of racism involve statistics regarding black and white education, housing, and wealth. Examples of active racist ideas include the El Paso shooter, the rise of Neo-Nazi groups, and the Charlottesville massacre, but they also include horrific situations at anti-immigration detention centers, and economic decisions to overlook differences between white and black elementary schools.
I think it is important to mention both types — legacies and active ideas, but I leave it to you to decide which examples to give. Remember: your goal is not to prove these points, but describe them. You are not teaching a class, you are giving a sermon. People will either agree or disagree, but they will listen.
3) Finally, you complete the cycle. There is only one Christian response to racism: become actively anti-racist. Racism cannot be cured with silence and cannot be cured with passive, peaceful listening. Refer back to your scriptural reference: God calls to active participation in unity, not passive waiting for unity to occur. Expand upon this–what does it mean to actively participate in anti-racist unity in your community? At your church?
So let’s look at the sermon:
- Exegete the readings, focusing on the connection to fighting against hatred, bigotry, violence, and disunity.
- Pivot to the meat, with a line like, “I want to talk about a difficult topic today: racism.” Don’t beat around the bush, say the word racism plainly and simply. It helps to demythologize. This might be the hardest part of the sermon for you, don’t underestimate practicing.
- Talk briefly about the three points above. Don’t be circumspect and give lots of qualifications, let the points speak for themselves. Refer back to scripture or church documents as often as you find helpful.
- Finally, conclude with one of the following:
Ending 1: End here! Leave people with a strong statement, rooted in scripture, on becoming active participants in fighting against racism today. Save the rest for another day!
Ending 2: Conclude by talking about yourself. Talk about how this notion of active participation is what led you to give a sermon on the topic, and that you hope you and your community can begin to do more.
Ending 3: Give a personal example (or invite someone else to give an example) of someone else in the community who has allowed you to share. This could include an example of a racist action against a community member (like a racial slur or violence), or something in the wider city area. Something to connect the people in the pews to the difficult topics they have just heard.
And you’re done! Congratulations! You’ve preached your first sermon about racism and gave many people in your congregation, including lots of young people, something powerful, straightforward, and Christian to trust. You’ve also alerted some people, especially white teenage boys, that delving into racist jokes and racist language online is not in line with the Church. It might sound ludicrous, but many will get into this and never think it is against Christian teaching.
A Few Books that Might Help
I told you that I wouldn’t make you read books, but some people love to read and find ways to carve out time, so these books are for them, and you, and maybe your parishioners too. There are many to choose from, but in the interest of not overwhelming people, I’m going to pick just a couple:
On Racism and Christianity:
Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (2009) – A wonderful volume analyzing decades of documents, actions, and sometimes failures of the Catholic Church when it comes to racism.
“Open Wide Our Hearts,” the latest USCCB document against racism, from late 2018. – A document that seeks to connect human dignity with Catholic faith. “But racism still profoundly affects our culture, and it has no place in the Christian heart. This evil causes great harm to its victims, and it corrupts the souls of those who harbor racist or prejudicial thoughts. The persistence of the evil of racism is why we are writing this letter now.”
Shawn Copeland, edited, Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience (2009) – A collection of essays by prominent figures in the Black Catholic community in the US, including from Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, DC, on the experience of black Catholicism.
Chris Pramuk, Hope Sings, So Beautiful (2013) – A book by a white author who delves into issues of racism and bias through a contemplative, yet active, approach inspired by Thomas Merton.
Emilie Townes, Breaking the Fine Rain of Death (2001) – A challenging and poetic book that focuses on theology and ethics of race, health care, and Christianity.
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (2015). – A book written in response to the death of Trayvon Martin that will challenge the way you think about God.
On Racism and its History:
Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (2010) – A haunting and intellectually challenging work that outlines several specific ways in which Christian imagination was warped and transformed in its support of the rise of the Atlantic chattel slave trade.
Ibram Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016) – A sweeping book that recounts American history in terms of racist and anti-racist ideas in often unexpected ways.
Audrey Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview (2012) – Now in its fourth edition, this relatively short textbook is a powerful and very readable entry into the challenging world of race and racism.