Preaching after Charlottesville

Guest blogger: The Rev. Marcus Halley, Rector at St. Paul’s, Lake of the Isles

In the wake of the horrific attacks by White Supremacists that have devastated the local community in Charlottesville, Virginia, cost the lives of the 3 Americans (1 counter-protestor and 2 law enforcement officers), and stunned the nation, many have issued clarion calls on social media for white Christian ministers to “say something” about white supremacy and racism. These demands range from impassioned pleas to virtual ultimatums (“if your pastor doesn’t say something about Charlottesville this Sunday, leave and never look back”). While I, a Christian minister and person of color, can appreciate the desire to do something about what we see in front of us, I must confess my own fatigue.

People of color in the United States of America deserve better than just something cobbled together. We deserve a clear, unequivocal, cogent, and articulate denunciation of white supremacy as a sin that runs throughout our society. We deserve statements, and more importantly actions, that are thoroughly informed and supported by fact and empirical evidence.

In short, we deserve informed and intentional responses, not ignorant (non-informed) reactions. Anything less only serves as a steam-release to white anxiety that is fundamentally unable to loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free.

Demanding that white ministers do better is simply asking them to be better allies in the work to dismantle white supremacy in our society. It is not, as some have suggested, “reverse racism.” It is not even “returning anger for anger.” It is simply a call to engage the work of anti-racism in a more intentional and informed manner that takes seriously the road that brought us to where we are and seeks to creatively and courageously reimagine how we might get to beloved community.

The reason this creative reimagining is necessary is because of a few realities of which I am aware:

  1. White Christian ministers largely shepherded the 58% of white people who voted for Donald Trump despite his dog-whistle rhetoric and overt appeals to racial anxiety and fear, either by directly supporting him or by committing to “not being political.” This statement might appear partisan, but I assure you it is not. While I personally identify as a progressive, what alarms me is not the President’s party affiliation, but how he speaks about women, queer and transgender people, immigrants, and communities of color. As I heard the Rev. Dr. William Barber, former president of the North Carolina NAACP, state at Moral Revival meetings a few months ago, “Some issues are not left versus right or liberal versus conservative, they are right versus wrong.” The attack and erosion of the fundamental dignity of human beings exhibited by our current President during the most recent presidential campaign and in the months since his inauguration should cause us serious alarm. His words and actions as well as those of his administration have emboldened and revealed racism that has always been present in our society. White Nationalists, neo-Nazis, and neo-Confederates look to Donald Trump as their leader and he is unwilling to clearly and definitively distance himself from that affiliation. If you as a white Christian minister only have the ability to denounce “violence on all sides”, but can’t bear to name the demon of white supremacy for fear it might be in your pews and, like the Seven Sons of Sceva (Acts 19:11-20), you are unable to cast it out – just don’t.
  2. Some white Christian ministers are simply ill-equipped to speak to what Dr. john a. powell, author of Racing to Justice, calls the “highly-adaptive, self-perpetuating system” of racism. powell affirms that it looks as though even some of the most capable people of color scholars, thinkers, and activists are often playing a game of checkers with a system that is more like chess. As such, if we are not constantly reading, studying, reflecting, and acting against this system, we risk falling behind. In my experience, many white Christian ministers haven’t read a book by a person of color (particularly women and/or queer persons of color), watched a documentary, enrolled in a class, or sat through a training on anti-racism in years. The lack of awareness leads to sermons and statements that offer too-comfortable words to a too-terrible problem. For many white Christian pastors it is simply a matter of triaging the finite resource of time. What is evident in this, however, is the reality of privilege. It is a privilege only afforded to white Americans not to think about race all the time. People of color in the United States are constantly reminded of our otherness everywhere we turn. To be certain, people of color aren’t absolved from the task of working towards antiracism by becoming better informed on issues of justice. Not only must we work simply to stay alive in a system built to dehumanize, diminish, and ultimately destroy us, but we must also work to prevent the negative images from lodging themselves in our psyche, causing us to internalize and then outwardly project that racism. It is simply that our existence forcefully initiates us into a racist system that many white people can opt out of any awareness of whatsoever. If you can’t cogently and authoritatively talk about white supremacy, systemic racism, white privilege, and about how all of this exists within all our faith communities – just don’t.
  3. White supremacy lives in our churches. It has been baptized in our fonts. It has been ordained at our altars. It is depicted in stained-glass. It is reflected in staffing and leadership choices. It resounds loudly from the utter lack of voices of people of color that inform our sermons and opportunities for Christian formation. I am fully aware that many of the young men carrying torches, issuing Nazi chants and salutes, and rallying around General Robert E. Lee, arch defender of the Confederate State of America, a rebellious nation founded, according to Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the CSA, “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” are baptized and raised by families who would define themselves as Christian. If this is true, one of two other things must also be true: either our churches radicalized white supremacists by authenticating a dominant, racist narrative or we were derelict in our task of forming true Christian disciples by allowing these young people to become deformed by the sin of racial hatred. If you plan to stand in a Christian pulpit, be prepared to look in the mirror. Be prepared to tell the truth about where we are, otherwise – just don’t.

As an advocate, activist, and priest, I am not only concerned with dismantling the oppressive systems of the world as they are, but I am also interested, if not more so, in reimagining what the world can be by offering constructive solutions to move forward. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but if you are a white Christian minister who is looking for ways you can join the work of dismantling white supremacy, here is what you can do:

  • Talk about how the horrific scenes in Charlottesville, Virginia made you feel and about how you feel unprepared to speak on it. Follow that up with sharing with folks how you intend to better prepare. Devote some continuing education time and money into it and keep your congregation aware of the spaces where you are learning, what feels challenging, and concrete actions you are taking as a result. Your journey will give your congregation permission to follow. Your silence and inaction will also give you congregation permission to do nothing.
  • Repent openly for being too busy, disinterested, or otherwise just couldn’t be bothered to learn about the white supremacy that people of color experience daily. Follow that repentance up with tangible steps to make amends like enrolling in class or seminary. If you are looking for books to begin the process, consider consulting with your local library about books you might start reading and consider starting or joining a book club that immerses you in voices of people of color. If you feel particularly brave, intentionally invite your congregation on the journey with you (and if nothing else, make your leadership councils, boards, and vestries do it). Having people with you will give you accountability partners when the news cycle turns away from Charlottesville and time becomes an issue once again. If you struggle with time, consider making it a part of your contract or letter of agreement and ask your senior lay leaders to hold you accountable to it.
  • If you recognize your own inability to speak on this issue, invite and compensate a willing and capable person of color to speak for a Sunday service or teach a class in the meantime while you better prepare. This is not about pornographically consuming the grief of people of color; rather, it is about inviting different voices into dialogue, breaking through the echo-chambers, and building new networks and relationships across difference to mobilize us towards concrete action. Compensate them as you would do any other guest speaker. Devote resources to making it happen.
  • Listen to people of color, particularly women and queer people of color. One of the most shocking things I have heard from many well-meaning white people in response to the scenes from Charlottesville is “I can’t believe this is America in 2017.” This response is unmistakable evidence that there hasn’t been a lot of listening going on. People of color have been ringing the alarm for a long time regarding the resurgence of white supremacy and the danger it poses to civil society. Such concerns have largely been dismissed because it wasn’t convenient or didn’t fit well within the larger myth of what we believe our country is. People of color have been on the frontlines fighting for survival and basic human dignity even when no news cameras were present. Pay attention to the margins and amplify those voices.

The work of manufacturing, instituting, and disseminating a white supremacist ideology in the United States did not happen overnight. The work to dismantle such a system will likewise not happen quickly. This is not an appeal to incrementalism. It is, I believe, a statement of fact. Each of us will need to put our hands to the gospel plow and do our part in taking apart this system stone by stone so that we can hand our children a world that is at least a little more equitable and just than it is today. The only other alternative is to persist in apathy and to watch the worth either crumble around us or continue in injustice. The choice to reimagine that world is ours to make.