Confronting racism from our pulpits

May 17th, 2022

Chuck Campbell speaks of preaching in the face of powers like racism as “exorcism”:

Don’t many folks—preachers included—long to be set free from the powers of death that have us in their grip?...This is the key characteristic of demon possession: We are no longer agents of our own lives...we need a word from beyond ourselves to set us free from our captivity.[1]

The challenge is to move from being nonracist to being actively anti-racist, always remembering “We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. Therefore pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand” (Eph 6:12-13).

That’s why it’s not enough for us to share our personal story or to exhort the congregation to greater striving for justice. “We don’t preach about ourselves. Instead, we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). As Campbell says, “We need a word from beyond ourselves to set us free,” Jesus, the Word made flesh, God’s word in action.[2]

When mainline Protestant preachers succumbed to the error of thinking that America was a basically Christian culture, that one became Christian by being fortunate enough to be born in the USA, there was no need for teaching sermons or for invitation to metanoia. Church degenerated into a place we go to bolster our belief that we don’t need metanoia because America is the kingdom of God. That’s why most preaching in my church family is in the evocation mode—evoking better attitudes and behavior in basically nice people who are urged, in the sermon, to be a bit nicer.

Should we be surprised that a racially accommodated church reduces Christian worship to the cultivation of subjectivity and interiority, presenting the Christian faith as a therapeutic technique for acquiring personal, individual meaning and joy in life? A narcissistic faith turns away from the crucified, bodily present Christ who is active here, now, judging the powerful, forgiving sinners, suffering with the oppressed, and rising in defeat of oppression. Preaching lapses into deistic, humane, commonsense wisdom for how to be a better person.[3] Affluent, self-satisfied folks prefer to be less miserable than saved. Rather than risk sermons that require a dying and rising Savior to succeed, we forsake Christ’s mission to the world and content ourselves with mostly therapeutic, interior concerns and psychological advice to help the mildly afflicted white middle class face their anxieties with a positive attitude.[4] Some of the stress and anxiety we are attempting to soothe is a sinful reaction of white people realizing that they are losing some of their privilege. A righteous God tends to produce stress in the unrigh- teous. Jeremiah condemned false prophets who “treat[ed] the wound of my people as if it were nothing” rather than preach judgment and repentance (Jer 8:11).

James Cone asks why white theologians obsess over theodicy, “asking why God permits massive suffering, but they hardly ever mention the horrendous crimes Whites have committed against people of color”?[5] Most attempts at theodicy (“Why would a good God permit suffering and evil in the world?”) are attempts to evade our own complicity and responsibility.

Though moral, therapeutic deism takes the guts out of preaching, truth, smothered by therapeutic mush and self-pitying theodicy, will rise. Preaching—raising the dead, casting out demons, going head-to-head with the principalities and powers—is a more interesting way to expend one’s life than therapy.

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Can We Talk?

In the face of racism, contemporary preachers face two possibilites: we can join in the onslaught of God’s kingdom and speak up, enjoy the disruption of changed hearts and lives, trust that the good news is more truthful than the lies that enthrall the world, or we can be silent and miss the miracles.[6] One of the slogans of many antiracism activists is, “If you see something, say something.”

To us has been given the charge to “plead for the widow” (Isa 1:17) and speak up for those without a microphone. We clergy must acknowledge not only our privilege but our empowerment by God and the people of God, take authority, and use the grace that’s given us, confident that God’s word will not come back empty (Isa 55:11).

Much has changed in America since the moment that I reflect on in Who Lynched Willie Earle?, but the challenges of preaching about racism remain. Surveys show that 61 percent of whites believe that equality has been achieved and that racism isn’t a major factor in American life; 20 percent believe that full achievement of equality is near. Eighty percent of our listeners (I suspect the numbers are even higher in a mainline church) see no need for sermons about race and become jittery when race is mentioned.[7]

Unacknowledged white privilege accounts for why white people are skittish and defensive when we are subjected to talk about race.[8] Some white Christians have sincerely worked to be more faithful in their racial attitudes and practices. They are unlikely to welcome a preacher who dares to say that, in spite of progress, the church still must converse about race.

In our homiletic boldness, we must also be appropriately humble. I speak in the pulpit only because I, even I, have been externally authorized to speak. If I am less racist than I was programmed by family, church, and school to be, it is because God has given me countless opportunities (privileges) through education, interaction, the patience of black friends, the truth-telling of bold preachers, and the generosity of a loving family. If I’ve been delivered of some of my racism, if I continue to work on my residual racism, it is not my moral achievement; it is a gift, proof of a living, transformative God, or as Christians name it, grace.

Many of the people to whom I preach have not received similar opportunities. That insight produces humility in me as a preacher and patience with the intransigence of some my hearers. As a white male, my preaching on racism will tend toward confession and testimony that prove, despite me and my history, God is able.

It will be sad if, in the interest of confronting racism, we preachers lapse into the self-righteous identity politics of some political progressives. In some cases, these liberal “progressives” show contempt for their fellow Americans who are lower class, poorly educated, sinking economically—and white. White male privilege is real, but that phrase probably mystifies a fifty-nine-year-old Walmart greeter in southern Ohio. A study by two Princeton researchers shows widespread despair among poor whites that often feeds bigotry, misplaced anger, and the racism that Donald Trump leveraged to his political advantage.[9] Apparently, white racism trumps common sense, or even political self-interest in evaluating the fitness for public office of a man like Trump. Carol Anderson documents the unspoken but devastatingly effective strategy of the Republican Party (which I witnessed firsthand in North Carolina) to work white rage through passage of laws that have disadvantaged black Americans.[10]

Nearly every Sunday, as a pastor in South Carolina churches, after the Prayer of Corporate Confession I stand and pronounce, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong” (1 John 1:9). Therein is our hope.

The preacher on race must take care to identify with, rather than stand above, hearers, pointing at them with smug indignation. Even as I have been courted, coaxed, beguiled into consideration of so painful a subject, so must I woo my listeners.[11]


“From that time Jesus began to announce, ‘Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!’” (Matt 4:17).

Two hundred and fifty years of American slavery, nearly one hundred years of legalized racial discrimination and Jim Crow, and today’s easily documented continuing bias and inequity demand more of white Christians than a change of attitude. Nothing less than metanoia will do, the sort that was once expected and joyfully celebrated in my Wesleyan, radical, conversionist tradition.[12]

Evangelization characterizes the church evoked by the Trinity. How many thousands of United Methodist congregations are dying because white congregations are unable or unwilling to be evangelically open to persons of color in their changed surrounding neighborhoods? The church that works with God to evangelize the world is also the church in grave need of evangelization. Fortunately, God is eager to work (in Darrell Guder’s phrase) a “continuing conversion of the church.”[13]

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who has done the hard pastoral work of not only teaching against racism but also forming a true racially inclusive Christian community, extolls the radical reorientation that occurs in evangelical Christian conversion:

White supremacy has been more determinative than the blood of Jesus in shaping our worship, our readings of Scripture, our economic relationships, our political affiliations, our notions of what is beautiful, even our preferences in entertainment. The abolition of slavery did not fix this disorder. The Civil Rights Movement did not either. Desegregation, affirmative action, and multi-cultural education together have not been able to challenge the power of race. As my teacher Willie Jennings used to say, “The only force in the modern world that ever challenged the power of race was the evangelical conversion experience.”[14]

My “evangelical conversion” was in my youth. Even as Christ came to me before I came to Christ, I have been the beneficiary of ministry from African Americans before I was able to receive them as Christ had received me.

I grew up in the segregated South; an unashamedly racist culture. Every day I boarded a Greenville bus with a sign: South Carolina Law. White patrons sit from the front. Colored patrons sit from the rear. Nobody I knew questioned that sign, especially no one who sat next to me in church each Sunday.

My Damascus road conversion came when my church sent me to a youth conference at Lake Junaluska and I was assigned a room with another sixteen-year-old from Greenville. When I walked in, there he sat on the bed opposite me, better prepared for me than I was for him. We had never met, even though he went to a school four blocks from mine and played on ball fields where we never ventured. He was black.

I recall nothing from the conference worship or lectures, but I’ll never forget our conversation that lasted until dawn. He told me what it was like to go to his church and not mine, his school rather than mine, and he described his world to which I was a stranger. In a paraphrase of Langston Hughes, my Greenville was never Greenville to him. By sunrise, I had my world skillfully cracked open, exposed, and also infinitely expanded, ministered to by another who was kind enough to help me go where I couldn’t have gone without help. I once was blind but then I saw.

Many Americans, white and black, tire of talk about race. People of faith who care have been butting their heads against this wall for a long time. And yet Christ commands us not simply to think, to listen, and to include but to love. We white Americans have got to love our black sisters and brothers enough to talk, to listen, to repent, to grow, and to repair. Black Americans have got to love their white sisters and brothers enough to be patient, to explain, to teach, and to risk relationship.

I understand “racism fatigue,” yet as Christians we are not free to grant sin sovereignty. No evil is safe from the incursions of a living Christ who is not only our Savior but also our reigning Lord, who demands not only love but also obedience. The keepers of the status quo have a stake in our believing that, in regard to race, our histories enslave, our psychologies determine, and “people don’t change,” an attitude that Tony Campolo and Michael Battle scorn as “the politics of resignation.”[15]

Gary Wills once said that if you are a white male, over fifty, and from the South (I’m all three), you cannot be convinced that people can’t change.[16] Having experienced radical change in your world, in your family and friends, and in your heart, you really believe the possibility of radical reorientation of heart and hands.

Preachers will understand why I worked that Wills quote for all it was worth when I was bishop in Alabama. Preaching on Jesus’s parable of the judgment, I focused upon Matthew 25:34-40:

Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come.... Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then those who are righteous will reply to him, “Lord, when did we see you?”

Then the king will reply, “When you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”

In the end, Jesus says that there will be surprise for everybody. This is good news. Sometimes we think of church as where you come to get the inside line so that God will never surprise.

But often God’s bar is raised too high. You leave church feeling more distant from God than when you came. Turn the other cheek when somebody slaps you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, volunteer for a mission trip to Honduras, give away all you have to the poor: it’s depressing. Who can chin that bar?

But this Sunday it’s different. Jesus says that when all is said and done, at the very last judgment we will be surprised that our lives are assessed on the basis of unspectacular, unheroic deeds of mercy performed for the “least of these.”

Maybe you can’t be a missionary to Chile. But just about anybody here can hand a hungry sister or brother a plate of food, smile when you do it, sit down, and share the meal and conversation.

You may not have the means to solve the epidemic of mass incarceration in America, but you can get to know someone who is in jail, write letters, make sure that he or she knows that someone cares. And you can vote.

Someone in this congregation writes to two different prisoners every week. She would be the first to tell you that she is no spectacular saint. But Jesus tells her, “I assure you that when you have written a letter to just one of these brothers and sisters of mine, surprise! You have written a letter to me.”

You can do this!

Jesus didn’t demand that we ensure potable water in the whole world; he said, “Surprise! When you give just one little cup of cold water to somebody who’s thirsty, you give it to me.”

You can do this!

Of course we should search for systemic solutions to help those who are oppressed and pushed down by our unjust systems. If God has given you power to change such systems, you must. But Jesus says that face-to-face, otherwise small acts of goodness are often the way he works best through people like us.

You can do this!

But that’s not all. This isn’t just a story that encourages us to perform small acts of goodness for those in need. It’s a story about how we meet Jesus.

I bet that you are here this morning, listening to this sermon, because that’s what you want: to meet Jesus.

Jesus says that we privileged people—people with more than enough freedom, water, food, and clothing—can best meet him in encounter with the “least of these.” When we act for “the least of these,” Jesus acts upon us. The thirsty person who was given a cup of water gives you, the presumptive giver, Jesus. While we were just visiting the prisoner, Jesus visited us. When we invite hungry people to join us at our table, Jesus invites us, making our table his.

Surprise! How many times have you gone forth to do something good for someone in need only to discover that the person you presumed to help had helped you? Something about Jesus Christ meets us when we dare to meet some of the needs of our sisters and brothers in need. In such moments, we discover that we are not the gifted, privileged, self-sufficient people we thought we were. We are those who need Jesus to come to us and minister to us through “the least of these.” We discover that we need those whom we thought so badly needed us.

On Good Friday I was guest at a gathering that some of you attend every Friday. A group of you go to government housing for the elderly and offer Bible study, prayer, and song to residents. All of the residents are without income or families with the means to care for them.

When I asked one of you what you do for the residents, you said, “Not much. We just give them an hour or two of singing, Bible study, prayer, and cookies.”

Well, that Good Friday visit was the summit of my Holy Week. We sang about the cross. We read the story of Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion. Then we had conversation.

Two of the residents shared that they had served time in prison, just like Jesus. One had been abused in jail by a guard, just like Jesus. Another had suffered scorn and been outcast from her family, like Jesus.

Because nothing like that has ever happened to me, I had to admit that it’s difficult for me really to understand the Bible. These economically disadvantaged who didn’t know Greek, who had never done advanced theological study, knew more about Jesus than I.

Their closeness to Christ was made plain when we prayed. I petitioned for peace in the world, for a less-difficult life; they gave thanksgiving that God had allowed them to live another day. I asked God to comfort and support these people in need; they thanked God for their friends in this church who visited them and that Jesus had died for them. I prayed that people would stop sinning against others because of the color of their skin; they prayed God to forgive and convert those who have mistreated them.

I was taught by those I thought I was teaching. Because they had lived their lives in Durham, North Carolina, they were “underprivileged”—because of the color of their skin they were denied educational opportunities, deprived of access to economic advancement, and shut out from the paths to what we define as “success.” And yet, surprise! Because of Jesus, they were privileged to have seen more of Jesus than I.

Surprise! I thought I was bringing Jesus to these sisters and brothers in need; they brought Jesus to me and thereby exposed my need masquerading as goodness.

We brought cookies. Surprise! They brought Jesus.

A noblewoman wrote to John Wesley beseeching Wesley’s help with her spiritual life. Miss March (that was her real name) was converted at one of Wesley’s meetings. But now the flame of faith that once burned brightly in her had cooled. Could Wesley suggest some spiritual practices that might strengthen her faith?

Well, Wesley wrote back to her without sympathy, telling her that he had contempt for superficial “gentle women” like her, telling her that if she were to be a true Christian then she needed to obey Jesus.[17] Whereas she had told him that she was visiting in the prisons one day a week, a rich person like her probably needed to be with prisoners three times a week.

It was as if Wesley said, “Hey lady, don’t come whining to meabout your lack of religious feeling—allow the people you despise to be your saviors. Go where you have the best chance of meeting Jesus!”

Today’s parable implies that if we are to see Jesus at the end, right now we’ve got to go where he hangs out.

Here’s the good news: because of who Jesus is and what he is doing among “the least of these,” you can do this.

When President Obama spoke at the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he not only attacked those outposts of racist hate that produced the violence on that bridge. He also chided people, white and black, who intimate that “bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America.” Obama countered, “If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950’s.... To deny this progress—our progress—would be to rob us of our own agency...our responsibility to make America better.”[18] Once again Obama demonstrated that he is a fine preacher.

When my extravagant Wesleyan assertions about the operative power of God’s grace are challenged, I respond, “Trust me, you wouldn’t have wanted to know me before Jesus intruded and, despite my desires, commandeered me. By the grace of God, I’m better than I was bred to be.”

Justifying grace, experienced in dramatic, evangelical conversion, continues with the ministrations of sanctifying grace. We “grow in grace” (as we Wesleyans once put it), allowing God’s grace to make us people who live differently than if left to our own devices.


This article is excerpted from Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism by William H. Willimon (Abingdon Press, 2017).


[1] Chuck Campbell, “Resisting the Powers,” in Purposes of Preaching, ed. Jana Childers (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2004), 27. William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco, TX: Word, 1973) said that his attempts to confront the sin of racism drove him into a fresh appreciation for the reality of the biblical “principalities and powers.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Duke’s C. Eric Lincoln presciently noted that the American church “consistently failed to take to heart” its racism but “more than that...has been reluctant to resist...the contemporary onslaught of narcissistic hedonism, in a variety of guises,” wrongfully “idolizing the individual self as the center of all values”; C. Eric Lincoln, Race, Religion, and the Continuing American Dilemma (New York: Hill and Wang Publishing, 1984), 19.

[4] Discussed by Tricia Rose “How Structural Racism Works,” Brown University, published on December 14, 2015,

[5] James H. Cone, “Theology’s Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Su- premacy,” Black Theology: An International Journal 2 no. 2 (July 2004): 142.

[6] After the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, President Obama said, “We...not only have to help the police, we’re going to think about what we can do, . . . to make sure that we’re providing early education . . . reforming our crimi- nal justice system so it’s not just a pipeline from schools to prisons, so that we’re not rendering men in these communities unemployable because of a felony record. . . .

“It would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant.” Thus the president called for preaching! Barack Obama, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe of Japan in Joint Press Conference,” Rose Garden, April 28, 2015,

[7] Rose, “How Structual Racism Works,” lecture.

[8] See Robin DiAngelo, What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy (New York: Peter Lang, 2012).

[9] George Packer, “Head of the Class,” New Yorker, May 16, 2016, 31–32. Eudora Welty captures the complexity of the toxic mixture of racism and class resentment felt by many poor Southern whites in her classic short story, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” found at

[10] Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

[11] Richard Lischer (in Preacher King, 142–62) shows how King’s sermons, par- ticularly in his first decade, attempted to identify with his fellow African Americans when he was speaking to them; King’s “theological language closely mirrors the dominant theological and homiletic movements of his day” when attempting to enlist white liberals (148). By 1967, King managed to be both “inclusive” and “confrontive” in regard to his audiences, white or black (148).

[12] Conversion is at the center of Wesleyanism; see Kenneth J. Collins and John H. Tyson, eds., Conversion in the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001).

[13] Darrell L. Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

[14] Wilson-Hartgrove, Free to Be Bound, 133. Benjamin Watson, in Under Our Skin, says that only a “supernatural solution,” a divinely wrought conversion, cures racism (166). When Jennings lauds the power of the “evangelical conversion experience,” surely he means a complexity of new corporate practices, ideas, and initiatives, not merely a personal “experience,” supernatural or otherwise.

[15] Campolo and Battle, Church Enslaved, 8.

[16] I heard Wills say this in a TV interview. Cited in Michael A. Turner and William F. Malambri III, eds., A Peculiar Prophet: William H. Willimon and the Art of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), 185.

[17] John Wesley, “To Miss March, Athlone, April 14, 1771,” The Letters of John Wesley, 1771; see ley/wesleys-letters-1771/.

[18] Barack Obama, “50th Anniversary of the Marches from Selma to Mont- gomery” (speech, Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL, March 7, 2015); see https://

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