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Preaching Grace for an Anti-racist Church

By Will Willimon

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“Two Sundays after the murder of George Floyd. Again, no mention of BLM, George, Ahmaud, or race from our pulpit,” she said. “I’m heartbroken. If the Christian faith has nothing to say at a time like this, makes me wonder if it’s got anything to say about anything.”

That was what an active United Methodist layperson said to me last week. If we white preachers sit on the sidelines during the current national debate over white supremacist systems of violence against people of color, if we allow our congregations to miss out on the saving dimensions of Christ’s work, we are in danger of impugning and sidelining the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A watchword of racial justice activists is, “If you see something, say something.” The present moment is an opportunity for us preachers to speak up and to speak out about racism, America’s original sin.

To a people caught in the web of racist attitudes and structures, we Wesleyans must preach the new birth. Don’t despair because of your racist sin. God is able. Jesus transforms everybody he touches. Grace, Wesleyan grace, is not an indulgent pat on the head as the Lord murmurs, “I know you are doing the best you can and that’s good enough for me. Promise me you won’t change a thing.”

Wesleyan grace is the power of God working in you to give you a more godly life than the one you were bred (by structures of white supremacy) to live.

Wesleyan grace is the power of God working in you to give you a more godly life than the one you were bred (by structures of white supremacy) to live.

I’m not the most valiantly anti-racist older white male but, trust me, you should have known me before God’s grace began its transformative work in me.

God is giving the predominately white church (most congregations in United Methodism) some daunting work to do, work we have been evading for centuries. Black Christians did nothing to bring the four-hundred-year scourge of white racial oppression and violence upon themselves. If we white Christians are going to think like Christians, and then be commissioned to act like Christians, it will be by hearing it addressed by God from the pulpit. For reasons known only to the Lord, sermons are when Jesus does some of his most important work, confronting us with the truth, calling us out, and sending us forth.

God is giving the predominately white church (most congregations in United Methodism) some daunting work to do, work we have been evading for centuries.

My book, Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism, was my invitation to fellow preachers to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ is our most potent weapon in the fight to confront the sin of our white racism and our best means of answering, “What doth the Lord require?” Who Lynched Willie Earle? says that preaching that confronts white racism:

  • Speaks up and speaks out.
  • Sees American racism as an opportunity for Christians honestly to name our sin and to engage in acts of detoxification, renovation, and reparation.
  • Is convinced that the deepest, most revolutionary response to the evil of racism is Jesus Christ, the one who demonstrates God for us and us for God.
  • Allows the preacher to confess personal complicity in and to model continuing repentance for racism.
  • Brings the good news that Jesus Christ loves sinners, only sinners.
  • Enjoys the transformative power of God’s grace.
  • Listens to and learns from the best sociological, psychological, economic, artistic, and political insights on race in America.
  • Celebrates the work in us and in our culture of a relentlessly salvific, redemptive Savior.
  • Uses the peculiar speech of scripture in judging and defeating the idea of white supremacy.
  • Narrates contemporary Christians into the drama of salvation in Jesus Christ and thereby rescues them from the sinful narratives of American white supremacy.
  • Is not silenced because talk about race makes white Christians uncomfortable.
  • Refuses despair because of an abiding faith that God is able and that God will get the people and the world that God wants.

(Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism, 129-130)

White Christians have got to move from cost-free lament of our racism, or from fragile, defensive denials to actively, resourcefully living anti-racist lives. The Methodist in me notes how rarely Jesus said, “Think about me,” and never “Feel something in your hearts about me.” Jesus said, “Follow me.” It’s time to be done with therapeutic preaching that emphasizes our personal wounds and private quandaries (“Where does it hurt?”) to sermons that help put the body of Christ in motion (“Let’s march!”).

White Christians have got to move from cost-free lament of our racism, or from fragile, defensive denials to actively, resourcefully living anti-racist lives.

Wesleyan Christians move from talk about the love of our Lord to our disciplined obedience to and service with the Lord. We tell the truth, confess our sin, seek God’s forgiveness, and pray for empowerment so that we may be fitted for service.

“I listened to our church service this morning, hoping to receive a word of comfort and consolation during this fearful pandemic,” a Methodist said to me.

“Was my sermon helpful?” I asked.

“Not very,” she replied. “I came seeking help with my problems, only to have God give me problems I didn’t have before I met the Lord and then hand me an assignment!” A vocative God in action. “Here I am, send me.”

If the world is having at last a disruptive, emotional, truthful conversation about race, it’s appropriate for Christians to ask their preachers, “Any word from the Lord?”

With a redemptive God, times of division, turmoil, and tumult can be opportunities for the church to demonstrate that God has indeed given us words of judgment, repentance, confession, restoration, and reparation. Let’s say the word! Let’s preach!


Will Willimon is professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina; retired bishop of the North Alabama conference of The United Methodist Church; and former dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He is the author of the Abingdon Press book, Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism, and he blogs at https://willwillimon.com/.

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