During February Abingdon Press will publish my, Who Lynched Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism. The book is a “labor of love,” a tragedy that has captured my imagination over a lifetime, a topic that has been one of my major concerns.
Who Lynched Earle? opens with a lynching in my hometown when I was one year old. After the lynching, a young Methodist preacher, Hawley Lynn, preached a courageous, historic sermon to his all white congregation in the South Carolina town where the lynching occurred. I move from a narrative of that great sermon to an appeal to white preachers like me to preach to their mostly white congregations about the sin of racism.
We are having a day-long conference with scholars, bishops, and students at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. on February 17 (seventieth anniversary of the lynching of Willie Earle) to talk about the book and its concerns.
“The most controversial sentence I ever wrote,” says Jim Wallis, was that America “was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of one race and then the enslavement of yet another…racism is American’s original sin.” William Stringfellow told white Christians in the early sixties that orthodox Christians ought to believe:
sin is not essentially the mistaken, inadvertent, or deliberate choice of evil by human beings, but the pride into which they fall in associating their own self-interests with the will of God. Sin is the denunciation of the freedom of God to judge humans . . . the displacement of God’s will with one’s own will. Sin is the radical confusion as to whether God or the human being is morally sovereign in history.
Sin is worship degenerated into idolatry.
Sin hasn’t been discussed much in my church of late, and there’s the pity. An evil like racism cannot be adequately confronted anthropologically. It’s too insidious to be a “mistake” and no consideration of mitigating circumstances can lessen the enormity of its evil. Something deep within us, widespread among us from generation to generation, inclines us to organize the world as if God were not. Racism is worse than the bad things we sometimes do; it’s who we are in contradiction of who God is.
European colonialism could not succeed without European racism to reassure us it was right for whites to colonize nonwhites. Southern slavery was unsustainable without a church to give theological justification to the thievery of the lives and work of Africans.
Though Nietzsche’s “will-to-power” is helpful in describing human cruelty and violence, he has no way of explaining genuine, at times even self-sacrificial, human beneficence. There are some human beings—I sit beside them in church on Sundays— who give without expecting return, who are genuinely, deeply moved by the suffering of others (especially by the suffering occasioned by racism), who take active responsibility for the needs of strangers, who do not vote their self-interest, who pray and work without ceasing for the day when the church will be more obedient to Christ, and who are able to look at others through the eyes of love rather than will to power. We attribute such remarkable, countercultural behavior to the grace of God that overcomes our sinful will.
If there is no God—who not only creates but continues to create, re- create, co-create, and intervene, who not only actively loves but also righteously holds to account—then the will to power is about the best we can do. If there is no suprahuman power available that enables us to break the bonds of our history and in all these things to “win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us” (Rom 8:37), then the best the church’s preachers can do is to present a “soft” will-to-power appeal: you are basically good people who come to church to summon a bit more resolve to fix yourselves by yourselves through the power of your right attitudes and sincere desires.
A church that no longer knows how to name sin has no need for talk of redemption because we have lost the ability to know that we need redeeming. We have been so wonderfully successful in saving ourselves by ourselves that a monthly drop-in at church for a moral pep talk is sufficient.
Such has always been the faith of people in power, people on top, people who assume that this world, for any of its faults, is our world, people whose faith is mostly in ourselves. People on top come to church to stabilize things as they are rather than to dare to live into a new heaven and new earth in which God “pulled the powerful down” and “lifted up the lowly” as Mary sang in her Magnificat (Luke 1:52; see vv. 46-55). Apocalyptic preaching engenders in the congregation the conviction that this is not all there is, that power, goodness, justice, and action exist beyond and above that seen in the presently experienced world. Thereby apocalyptic destabilizes a world that is officially sanctioned as all there is. Advantaged people are always made nervous by eschatological language that promises some- thing more than present arrangements and dreams of divine disruption, the sort of apocalyptic speech that King dared in his “I Have a Dream,” ending with apocalyptic Isaiah 40:4-5, “Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened…. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”
By God’s disruptive, revealing work, we can pray and work for even more than restoration, restitution, and reparation—we can expect nothing less than resurrection!
African American Christians generally have not had the luxury of reducing church to the reassuringly personal, the safely introspective, and the individually inspirational. African American prayer was about more important, more biblical concerns than the anxiety and the health needs of older adults. Church had to be free space, a place where people went for equipment, resistance, and rebellion, for refurbishment of vocation and proleptic participation in God’s new heaven and earth.