On Not Preaching about Charleston

I can only think of one good reason to not preach on the Charleston shootings: you can’t think of anything to say. Maybe you had exhausted all the things you could say after Ferguson or Staten Island or Baltimore, or Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice. I understand. I don’t quite condone it, since speaking to the sins of the world is part of the preacher’s duty. But I understand: preachers get redundant enough as it is. Perhaps you wanted to wait a week to have some clarity. That’s okay. But to not preach on it at all seems…well…unwise.

Actually, I can think of one other reason: you fear retaliation. (Which is a real concern.)

Nevertheless, people come to church with current events on their minds and hearts. The church does not have to cater to every headline, but people in crises need holy guidance. Charleston epitomizes a national crisis: a crisis of identity when it comes to race, violence and justice. Who are we? Who is included in “we”? How can we love our neighbor who is so different from us? How can we love our nation when its glorious ideals are wrapped in violence and division? How can we come to grips with the fact that our family members did some ghastly things? What truths must we come to terms with in order to love with equality and dignity? What must be done to shed ourselves of the skin of privilege? These are deep and difficult matters. It’s hard to talk about them. It requires a stiff spine to bring them up in a room full of people. Moreover, none of these questions can be adequately addressed in a sermon. Bible studies, prayer groups, service projects all must be on the table if we are going to overcome these divisions. In this sense, the sermon calls the people to attention and invites us to the larger work. How can this larger work happen if there is never an invitation? You can bet people who want to do this work are looking to the church to lead. And when they see us failing to lead, they will do this holy work without us.

Image “IMG_7834” of Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC by jalexartis (CC)

While I’m not the greatest preacher, I’ve decided to take on this crisis. Admittedly, I need to ‘set the table’ for the larger work better. Nevertheless, I’ve given my views on Trayvon Martin (to a church founded by the KKK nevertheless). I’ve preached on Ferguson. This past Sunday I addressed Charleston. Yes, I feel like a broken record. And I have recognized people’s discomfort with the topic and have observed people dismiss or minimize their way out of the larger work. But the broken record syndrome is a false concern. We don’t stop talking about God’s grace just because we talked about it last week. I’ve said mostly the same thing in most of these occasions: calling people to confession, speaking to the need for white people to pick up the effort, helping white people be aware of privilege (by confessing my own struggle with it). Do these things not still need to be heard?

How I Spoke of Charleston

Here is an expanded version of what I preached this past Sunday. (Expanded because I don’t preach from a manuscript and don’t have a recording. Therefore I recollected the main points and expanded them here for clarity and content.)

I utilized Hebrews 11:32-12:3. It speaks of those who had suffered for their faith, turning then to the notion of a cloud of witnesses, and calls us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely”.

This notion of sin clinging so close is how white privilege feels to me. It is so ever-present, that it is easy to miss. That is the biggest challenge to white privilege: every ounce of progress requires focus, diligence and unwavering effort. And well, I can be lazy. But God calls us to awareness and discipline to address sin in our lives IN ALL ITS FORMS. I can’t address this by myself. So God calls us to Christian communion, to address our sin creatively and become more perfect.

This sin is so close that I have driven past a Confederate shrine multiple times a day for months without noticing it. Three Confederate flags VERY visible from the interstate approaching MY town in a private park dedicated to Jefferson Davis. (It’s really hard to say or write Jefferson Davis without adding a Hogg to it.) This week, I noticed the flags. Then I Googled to understand the various iterations and what they actually meant. Then I noticed the sign dedicating the spot to Jefferson Davis. Then I read about the group behind it. Then I took pictures. Now I have a website. I’ve emailed the local NAACP. And now I can’t forget it. Awareness…it’s a Christian thing.

Concerning the “great cloud of witnesses”. I often use this text at a funeral. I talk about the Hebrew and Greek words, ru’ah and pneu’ma which each refer to wind, breath and spirit. I usually talk about how our deceased are watching over us, and that heaven is as close as the air we breathe. But the cloud of witnesses need not be reserved for the dead. The Lord needs witnesses on earth to bring humanity out of this pit of sin that is racism. Our voices cannot be added to the chorus of witnesses unless we harness the spirit within. Each of us is called to bear witness to God’s overcoming grace. We cannot do that without talking. We cannot do this without listening to the voices, the spirits of others.

Ways to Get in the Conversation

You may have run out of things to say. Here are few options to get back in the game.

  • Confess sin of privilege. If you’re white, understand and confess your own complicitness to systemic racism in our country. If you are non-white, well…don’t let me tell you what to say. But I would advise a person of color preaching to white people to appreciate the obstacle of seeing something that ‘clings so closely’. (See here and here)
  • Preach the Jesus that overcame his own day’s divisions. Call your people accordingly.
  • Build bridges of understanding. While not all oppressions are alike, there may be on-ramps of understanding that will allow people a clearer picture of the issues, their position in those issues and God’s will within the issues. For example, I am starting to understand the whole Confederate flag matter through my Appalachian heritage. This won’t translate homiletically. Nevertheless, this on-ramp of understanding has helped me.
  • Read what others are saying…especially Colorlines and Black Voices blog from Huffington Post. Here is a brief Twitter list if that’s your thing.

The information is out there. The need is dire. Nothing progresses without effort. So keep the conversation going. It is a matter of life and death; it is, therefore, a matter of deep spiritual concern. Preach on.

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