On November 4, 2008, some seven months after I became a father, I saw something unfold on television that I never expected to witness in my lifetime. The United States of America had elected an African American president. My son was asleep by the time the final results came in. Nonetheless, I lifted him from his crib, carried him to the television, and whispered into his still forming imagination: We have a black president; all things are possible. I wanted to make a record. I wanted my son to witness the seemingly impossible so that if someone someday doubted him because of the hue of his skin, I could tell him that God does more than we ever ask or imagine.
In light of recent gun violence, some of which appears to be racially motivated, the church’s response to racial controversy is once again in the spotlight. We have to ask ourselves: What will our testimony be? What do we do when violent events occur with such startling frequency that we don’t know what to do or what to say? How do know when it is wise to be silent or when it is necessary to speak? Pastors, in particular, have to ask: How do we use the pulpit to preach against racism?
We find some guidance in Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Many of these controversies are well known to us, including the question of paying taxes to Caesar (Matt. 22:15–21) and the question about the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:34–40). Of these various interactions, the cleansing of the temple relates most directly to how we lead churches and ministries in times of crisis.
When the chief priests and the elders ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus replies with another question. “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” The reply is telling:
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So, they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Matt. 21:23–27)
What I have always found interesting about their answer is the lack of concern for truth. The elders never debate the origin of John’s baptism. Instead, they consider the response of the crowds. Left without a response that doesn’t cost them something, they choose silence.
I call this to mind because I remember composing sermons as a black man in a largely white church and knowing that if I said certain things in certain ways, I could count on emails come Monday or Tuesday. All pastors, if they are honest, make these calculations, even if they decide to speak the truth anyway.
Pastors who have spent time milling around at coffee hour or listening to unguarded small talk know the political opinions of their congregants. They know exactly who will be upset over any mention of race. In response, some choose silence for the sake of unity. Other pastors are silent not out of fear but out of conviction. They believe it’s the church’s job to preach the gospel (and by that they mean the plan of salvation), and anything beyond that is a political distraction.
Given the chance to converse with these pastors, I would express serious theological concerns about their stance. I would ask them if the black church—which began its life in this country by opposing an established law (slavery) and by preaching salvation by faith in Christ—was distracted by politics. Those who are silent by conviction have simply not paid sufficient attention to Jesus’s own words about Herod (he called him a fox), John’s criticism of Rome in Revelation, and Paul’s claim that the whole age—including the political leaders within it—was evil (Gal. 1:4).
“If you stand commended to the guidance of the word of God,” said James Pennington, a black pastor and abolitionist, “you are bound to know its position in reference to certain overt acts that crowd the land with curses. Take the last and greatest of the curses that I named above. I mean slavery. Is the word of God silent on this subject? I, for one, desire to know.”
In other words, it is not enough for a pastor to preach doctrines without applying those doctrines to the issues of the day. In Pennington’s time, the question was slavery. It was a widespread evil written into law that informed public practice from one end of this country to the other. Eventually, every pastor had to make his feeling on the subject known. Being silent was an implicit vote for the status quo.
Today, there are a host of issues clamoring for the attention of this generation. If a pastor commented on every single event, little else would be done on Sunday. Although the news cycle shouldn’t overcome the liturgical cycle of the church, nonetheless, our people need theological resources to think through these issues. Both majority white and majority black and brown churches need to know in no uncertain terms where the church stands on racism and white supremacy. And majority white churches need opportunities to discuss and repent of the myths they might harbor about black and brown people.
Pastors also need to educate themselves. I have often found that the most superficial discussions of race occur among my white Christian friends, who repeat platitudes that are deeply offensive and historically inaccurate. Accordingly, I am exhorting pastors and other leaders to apply the truths of the gospel to the issues of the day and to call their congregants to higher ground.
But what does this look like, exactly?
First, I would ask clergy to do a rough audit of their sermons over the last few years and ask themselves how often they have discussed this issue in depth. I’m not talking about a passing reference in a sermon but a theologically, historically, and exegetically weighty examination of racism and its influence on the church’s witness in America. If the answer is “I haven’t addressed it enough,” then consider a sermon series on the topic or plan a lecture-and-discussion event that provides congregants with an opportunity for reflection and conversation.
In the context of a Sunday service, I see three potential ways to respond. The first and most basic is through congregational prayer. In my Anglican tradition, we pray for the same things every week. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to pray weekly about overcoming racism and injustice. The content of these prayers should be considered carefully, of course. But a specific, timely prayer that names the issue at hand can encourage and teach those who hear.
The second level of response might include a brief announcement in the service. Take recent events in El Paso as an example. Before the start of a sermon, woven into a sermon that was already composed, or during the announcements, a pastor can acknowledge the racism that motivated the border city shooting and make it clear that his or her church respects the essential worth of all people. (This same work can be done through a pastoral letter sent out to the congregation in times of crisis.)
The third level involves making substantial changes to the service, including the music and the sermon, and also creating expansive opportunities for prayer, confession, and lamentation. Of course, I can’t provide a rule of thumb for how often or when each of these responses might be necessary. Nonetheless, there are two key questions to ask yourself: What do the most vulnerable members of my congregation need from the church in this moment? And conversely, what will challenge the most comfortable members of my congregation?
All of us are called to embody the love of Christ, which is not bound by race, gender, or class. What I want, then, is to see the church become the family that Paul describes when he says that we should “carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). The burden of deconstructing racism and white supremacy should not be the sole province of black and brown Christians. It should belong to the whole family of God, which is comprised of people who believe the same Scriptures, confess the same creeds, and share in the common bread and the common cup.
I need this united church for myself and also for my children.
By the time Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, I was a father of four. I did not wake my children and tell them what happened. Nor did I murmur doubts into their ears to replace the hope that I had whispered so many years ago. Instead, I sat down and wrote my fears of what his presidency would bring. I wrote because I wanted my children to know there were Christians who saw what was happening and left a witness. There had to be a record.
One day, I fear my sons or daughters will look in frustration at the church’s complicity and begin to doubt their place in this community. I hope that when they do, they can take courage in the men and women who spoke at great cost, in the same way that I, during my own time of struggle, found hope in the testimonies of black pastors, abolitionists, and civil rights leaders. Their witness helped save my faith.
Esau McCaulley is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He serves as a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and directs the Next Generation Leadership Initiative for the Anglican Church in North America. His book on Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope is due out with IVP Academic in 2020.