The Way Things Are: Conversations on Who Killed Willie Earle?

We had a wonderful day at Wofford College focused upon the issue of the Willie Earle Lynching and Preaching to Confront Racism. The many clergy, students, and scholars who gathered there explored the subjects of our racist past and our responsibilities for race and bias in the church today and tomorrow. Who Lynched Earle?  Preaching to Confront Racism is to be published later this month. 

It’s my modest contribution to the church’s conversation about race in America. Even though such a conversation makes many white Christians nervous, it’s my contention that Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, gives us the means to have this challenging but essential conversation.

Jim Wallis says that white Christians engaging in acts of honest confession and self-sacrificial repentance is “a prerequisite for white Americans to get our own souls back.”   Wallis advises,

We must look more deeply into our inner selves, which is a practice people of faith and moral conscience are rightly expected to do. And we must go deeper than the individually overt forms of racism to the more covert forms, especially in our institutions and culture…. Awareness of our biases, personal introspection, empathy, and retraining our ways of thinking are all difficult, but they are necessary. . . . Whether we or our families or our ancestors had anything to do with the racial sins of America’s establishment, all white people have benefited from them…. You can never escape white privilege in America if you are white.

To benefit from oppression is to be responsible for changing it…. I am asking…my fellow white Christians to engage the true meaning of sin and repentance.

My church typically begins Sunday worship with a corporate prayer of confession. In a society of racial denial, blaming, and falsehood, rituals that enable repentance are great gifts that the church offers. When so many white Americans adamantly maintain our innocence, our guiltlessness, it’s a remarkable witness to be in a community where sin is admitted, confessed, and given to God. Christians are not free to accept our sin as “the way things are,” or “just the way I was put together.” If the truth about race is ever told in a predominately white American church and received by that congregation as God’s address to them, it’s a miracle, a public testimony to the world that Christ miraculously is able to produce people who look and act like his disciples.

Two weeks after the shooting of Walter Scott (and a month before the shootings at Mother Emanuel), preachers Wendy Hudson-Jacoby and Megan Gray presented a dialogue sermon at a Charleston prayer service in which they called people to repent:

Wendy: The day after the video of the Walter Scott shooting was released, one of my members, who is white and a retired teacher, called me, distressed. “I never understood it before now,” she said. “I always assumed that if a person was arrested or detained or shot that they must have brought it on themselves. But now, now I know that I was wrong. I always told my students that if you are doing what you are supposed to do in the place you are supposed to be, you can’t get in trouble. But now, I see that I have been wrong.”

As members of the white community in North Charleston, we come today to ask for forgiveness and to repent for the sin of white privilege and institutional racism. The sin of being wrong. This is an evening of prayer. But before we can get to prayer, before praise and petition, we must confess. We just say “Jesus, Jesus, we were wrong.”

Our privilege has made us participants in the sin of institutional racism. We live it in our churches, where our pastors of color are paid less than their white counterparts, serving churches of equal size. We support it in our juvenile detention facilities, where here in the North Charleston 47 percent of the population is African American, 86 percent of juvenile arrests are of African Americans.

We support it in our school system when we turn an apathetic back to the achievement gap among students. We were wrong.

Megan: But today, today we come to acknowledge our sin. To repent of our hard hearts and our closed ears. To ask God to forgive us. To turn us around from a path of isolation, judgment and willful ignorance and place us on the path to the beloved community, to deep and meaningful relationship with our brothers and sisters.

We not only seek the forgiveness of God, freely offered through Jesus Christ, but we will put hands and feet to the work of our repentance. We were wrong. But today, in the eyes of God and this community, we come seeking a new way.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove speaks of the “double miracle of the Black church in America”:

The first miracle is that a people torn from their homes and brutally enslaved in a land not their own would learn the gospel from their white oppressors and hear it as good news. But the second miracle is even more profound: that after centuries of oppression and disenfranchisement at the hands of white folks, Black Christians would pray for us, love us, and invite us to come and learn from them what it means to plead the blood of Jesus. There are some things that nobody but God can do.

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