Preaching about Racism (Carolyn Helsel) -- A Review
PREACHING ABOUT RACISM: A Guide for Faith Leaders. By Carolyn B. Helsel. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2018. 132 pages.
It is a rare person who will admit to being racist. Yes, there are many who fiercely defend the superiority of their own kind, but at the same time resist the label. So how do you have a conversation about something most people believe is someone else’s problem? Me? Racist? No way!! And yet, perhaps I am, without even realizing it. It may depend on how we define the word. Considering that churches, for the most part, are racially segregated, how do we have that conversation without feeling shame and guilt, two emotions that rarely improve the situation. In the end, despite the conversations and training, we don’t seem to be getting very far with overcoming the challenge of racism in our society. So, what do we do? How should we as the church address this persistent challenge, that seems to run contrary to the message of Jesus?
I approached Carolyn Helsel’s book Preaching about Racism, with a degree of skepticism. Like many mainline clergy, I've gone through anti-racism training. My denomination has publicly declared itself as an "anti-racist, pro-reconciling" faith community. It's a worthy goal, and the training is useful, as far as it goes. We learn definitions of racism and become sensitized to the possibility that we, especially if we're white, at the very least have been given certain privileges, and we could even be racists without knowing it. Now what? How do we live into this vision of becoming an anti-racist community? The idea of becoming a melting pot or a color-blind society has simply reinforced white privilege, so what is the answer? Just recently, in my own community, at the high school, someone put up a noose in the boys’ shower. It’s not just the current president or a particular political party that is at fault. It’s deeply rooted in our culture. Ignoring the problem hasn’t worked, because it’s not going away.
When I picked up Carolyn Helsel's book, I figured it might be another guide to preaching against racism. In one sense, it is that kind of book, but I found it to be more realistic about the nature of racism, the difficulty in defining it, along with the challenges of communicating this reality to predominately white congregations. Preaching about racism is more than standing in the pulpit and railing against white privilege and white supremacy, using guilt and shame as the key motivators. That "righteous indignation" that often goes by the name prophetic preaching might get some applause in certain circles, but it likely doesn't get us far toward change. It might make the preacher feel good, but if it doesn’t lead to real change, is it worth the breath used? At the same time, racism is something that must be addressed from the pulpit if change is to take place. Silence is not the appropriate response.
This is a book written for preachers, by a professor of preaching who is white, Presbyterian, and has devoted considerable attention to the subject of racism in church and society. This book accompanies a book written for congregations titled Anxious to Talk About It, also published in 2018 by Chalice Press. She recognizes that this is a politically powerful subject, which makes the conversation more difficult in congregations that like to avoid politically sensitive issues. The reality is that while this is political, it's not partisan. It is a concern of the polis, the community, of which the congregation is a part. Yes, preachers could lose jobs if they broach the subject, but again it is one of the most important conversations of our day. If affects so many other conversations, including immigration, poverty, the police, and more. What Helsel tries to do here is provide foundations and strategies that can succeed, without simply making people feel guilty or leading to job loss by preachers.
Helsel begins with a chapter on "preaching to ourselves." For white preachers, called to preach to predominantly white congregations about racism, one must start by looking at our own identities as preachers who are white. This should lead in the end to gratitude for the awareness that comes when we take steps toward recognizing our own identifies, including the fact that we are sinners and that we rest in God's grace. That is the starting point.
In chapter two, she turns to the task of interpreting the issue of racism to the congregation. It is an invitation to embrace the call to interpret sacred text and world in ways that can change realities. Before we step into the pulpit, we begin the process of meaning-making. Interpretation also involves recognition of the reality of racism, and what it means for congregations and the world beyond. This leads in chapter three to the task of defining racism. I have learned over the years a very specific definition of racism as essentially being "prejudice with power." That definition is good as far as it goes, but it’s not the only definition. So, part of the process is expanding our definitions and understandings of what racism might be, so that the congregation might begin to see how it impacts them. What does it mean for instance to live in a racialized context, where whiteness leads to power? This will likely involve story-telling. If chapter two is a call to the task of interpreting racism, chapter three offers us a look at varying definitions, recognizing that definitions change over time. One important feature of chapter three is a presentation of ten myths regarding racism. This annotated list is most helpful, and it begins with myth 1: "Racism is not our problem." It concludes with Myth 10: "racial discrimination is against the law; what else can we do?" While there are laws against certain overt forms of racism, much more is needed. Laws yes, but more is needed. As we tell stories, she encourages preachers to do with compassion and understanding.
Chapter four was especially helpful, for it is here that she speaks of the importance of "talking about racial identity with white people of faith." This is important because most of us who are considered white make assumptions about what that means, without doing much in the way of exploring our own racial identity. She notes that white folks tend not to identify ourselves as white, or at least less so than persons of color (and that is in itself a conversation piece, as white is not the absence of color, but one color among many). Here is where she puts her finger on something important— recognizing congregants own felt needs. One of those needs is moving toward greater justice for all. She writes: "key for preachers today is helping white congregants gain a new identity, an identity that recognizes the painful legacy of racism and connects them to a promised redemption that includes all of God's people" (pp. 44-45). The goal here is moving toward a "positive white racial identity" that isn't "based on illusions of supremacy." (p. 45). This is important because the goal of preaching isn't to make white folk feel ashamed of being white but recognizing that having a positive view should lead to acknowledging the harm done by racism. The way this happens begins with contact with persons of color, and moving along several stages to "autonomy," that is moving beyond previous assumptions about what it means to be white, so that there is no longer a need to fear the other, and thus feel the need to marginalize the other.
Chapters five and six deal with scripture and theology, the foundational pieces to preaching. In the chapter on Scripture, she addresses what it means to engage in biblical preaching. Part of that conversation involves recognizing that different communities have different frameworks for interpreting scripture. In other words, there is not a one-sized definition of biblical preaching. To straight-jacket the definition prevents us from engaging in preaching that draws from scripture but addresses real concerns. Chapter six, which addresses theology, explores the use of the term sin to describe racism. She focuses on three definitions of sin, under the headings of idolatry, estrangement, and bondage. She addresses pros and cons of each and suggests making use of the theological language most familiar to the congregation. But she doesn't end with sin, she takes us to messages of redemption and hope. She notes that "redemption and healing are mysterious and often elusive. However, what these theologians help us to affirm is that God will not leave us in our idolatry or estrangement or bondage." (page 82).
It is only after laying this important groundwork that Helsel offers strategies for preaching. She discusses possible forms but warns us against always telling stories where people of color are the victims. We need to tell positive stories about people of color being agents of change in the world and recognize that these sermons aren’t just about people of color. They’re about moving congregations toward being anti-racist in orientation. Here is the word that is so important for we who are white preachers called to preach on racism to white congregations: "We cannot motivate ourselves or our congregations through moralizing or shaming one another." A more helpful motivator is gratitude, which involves being thankful for "a sense of our human need for connection, and the blessings that relationships with others can bring. Most of all, we are moved by our love for God, and the gratitude we feel for God's loving presence in our lives -- inviting us into the work of redemption and healing the wounds of our community of faith." (pp. 94-95).
One key reminder of this book is that the task is never ending. It is nonetheless part of our calling. This is an important book. It speaks to deep realities of our day, when we see the creeping presence of racism in our midst. As she notes in the book, much of this is ingrained and unrecognized. It's why the work is so difficult and requires patience and a great deal of grace, but redemption is possible. Preaching is not the only answer, but it is an important contributor.