Preaching on Race: Theology Rather Than Anthropology

November 28th, 2016

Preachers talk about God, a subject more interesting than our aches and pains, a higher calling than wasting time in the pulpit talking about sex, balance, anxiety, stress, meaning in life, a positive self-image, or other drivel with which the gospel is unconcerned.

Much of my church family wallows in the mire of anthropological morals, therapeutic deism, a “god” whom the modern world has robbed of all agency, an ineffective idol who allegedly cares but never gets around to doing anything. Such a “god” is an idol who is inadequate to the challenge of our racism.

Ta-Nehisi Coates begins his riveting Between the World and Me by announcing that he is an atheist.[1] Between the World and Me is an honest but brutal, sorrowing, eloquent, hopeless lament over the intractability of American racism. Coates castigates those African Americans who speak of hope and forgiveness. The thoughtful approach to racism is to bow to its invincibility.

Eschewing metaphysics or any possibility of God, Coates is unable to plumb the depths of racist evil. He says that for those like him who “reject divinity,” “there is no arc . . . we are night travelers on a great tundra . . . the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us.” Coates’s despair is justified: facing racism without God—with no hope but the work “done by us”—is hopeless. Then he equivocates, saying, “Or perhaps not.”[2]

Christians answer to a theological vocation whereby we must demonstrate to an unbelieving world, by our little lives and in our pitiful churches, that in spite of us there is nevertheless hope because God is able. Jesus has promised that he will give us the Holy Spirit to teach us lessons we are unable to learn on our own and remind us of the truth we are prone to forget (John 14:26).

As I said in a sermon, Jesus loves us enough to expect not only love but fruit.

On his way to the cross, Jesus pauses to curse a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14). Walking past a fig tree in leaf, he notes that the tree bears no fruit. Mark comments that “it wasn’t the season for figs” (Mark 11:13 CEB). Refusing to praise the tree’s foliage, Jesus curses the tree.

Why curse a tree for having no figs when it’s not the season for fruit?

The next day the fig tree that Jesus cursed—even though it was not the season for fruit—had withered. Better pray for fruit, because if you’re unfruitful (in spite of the season) Jesus will curse.

A district superintendent told me about a church that was, like most United Methodist churches, comprised mostly of older folks. A member’s granddaughter brought a friend with her to church—a friend of a different race from everybody else in the congregation.

The next week the grandmother received a call from a fellow member of the congregation. “I hope that your granddaughter will not bring her little friend back next Sunday. It’s not that I am prejudiced, it’s just that I am sure the child and her family would be happier elsewhere.”

The little girl never visited the church again, nor did the grandmother or her granddaughter. They got the message: it’s not the season for harvesting fruit.

Less than one year after this event, the superintendent had the melancholy task of announcing that church’s closure.

“Jesus isn’t nice to a church that refuses to be his church,” said the superintendent, shaking her head in sorrow.

But it’s not the season for figs! And isn’t the purpose of the church and its ministry to care for our members and their needs?

Jesus implies that no fig tree is planted for shade. “You will know them by their fruit” (Matt 7:16 CEB).

My denomination is over 90 percent white.[3] We halfheartedly tried to solve on a general church level the problem of racism that is most effectively addressed within the local congregation. Our bishops issued pronouncements on race rather than encouraging individual pastors to preach on race.

As Jesus and his disciples walk past the dead tree, Jesus urges, “Have faith in God!” explicitly relating fruitfulness to faithfulness (Mark 11:22 CEB).

Why would Jesus demand fruit, even in an age when a conversation about race is “out of season”? He must have faith in us to believe that with his help, we could become fruitful.

Do we lack faith that Jesus can make us fruitful?

Preachers are not permitted to acquiesce to our own racism or to that of our congregations because God in Christ has not given up on us. We preach about race as those who believe we have seen as much of God as we hope to see in his world when we look upon a brown-skinned Jew from Nazareth. To us has been given the truth about God—truth that we, through our faithful words and deeds, are commanded to hand over to the world.[4] Creation begins with a God who preaches to the formless void: “God said . . .” (Gen 1:3 CEB). The re-creation of God’s fallen creation begins with this:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed. (Luke 4:18 CEB)

Christ is more than a model for better preaching; he is the unsubstitutable agent of proclamation. We don’t work alone. Christ wants us to succeed at our evangelistic task, helping us even in our weakness to be fruitful. “My Father is still working, and I am working too” (John 5:17 CEB). Our assignment as preachers is to invite, cajole, and welcome people into “the kingdom he has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races,” as we say in our Service of Baptism.[5] Preaching works because Jesus Christ—in the power of the Holy Spirit, determined to get back what belongs to God—works.

Will Willimon is professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School and retired bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church. This article is excerpted from his book Who Lynched Willie Earle? (coming in February 2017 from Abingdon Press).

[1]. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Random House, 2015), 48. How can Coates be sure that his atheism, which he presents as an act of intellectual rebellion, is not capitulation to the mores of white supremacy?

[2]. Coates interview quoted by Benjamin Watson with Ken Peterson, Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race—And Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2015), 165.

[3]. See the depressing truth on mainline Protestant racial diversity: Michael Lipka, “The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups,” Pew Research Center, July 27, 2015.

[4]. James Cone says that “the norm of Black theology must take seriously two realities . . . the liberation of Blacks and the revelation of Jesus Christ.” James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1986), 37.

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