Will Willimon: Christian Talk about the Sin of Racism


During February Abingdon Press will publish my book, Who Lynched Willie Earle?  Preaching to Confront Racism.  The book is a "labor of love," a tragedy that has captured my imagination over a lifetime, a topic that has been one of my major concerns. 

Who Lynched Willie Earle? opens with a lynching in my hometown when I was one year old.  After the lynching, a young Methodist preacher, Hawley Lynn, preached a courageous, historic sermon to his all white congregation in the South Carolina town where the lynching occurred.  I move from a narrative of that great sermon to an appeal to white preachers like me to preach to their mostly white congregations about the sin of racism. 

We are having a day-long conference with scholars, bishops, and students at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. on February 17 (seventieth anniversary of the lynching of Willie Earle) to talk about the book and its concerns. 

Here is an excerpt from Who Lynched Willie Earle?



Christians are determined by the conviction that a brown-skinned Jew-whose body was publically tortured to death on a cross by a consortium of government and religious officials, and whose crucified body was resurrected from the dead, opening up the realm of God to people of every color, including people who believe their skin is without color-is the truth about God.

The invention of whiteness is the sin of designating humanity by reference to physical characteristics for the purpose of one race (white) dominating nonwhite races. Race is humanly conceived, structurally maintained, deeply personal, and (from a specifically Christian standpoint) sin.

Because power is used to maintain and institutionalize racial privilege, racism is more insidious than disorganized, infrequent racist acts by disconnected individuals. Though a social construction, rooted in sinful misunderstandings of our humanity in Christ, race is a political reality that has far-reaching economic, social, and individual deleterious consequences.

While race is a fiction, a human construction, racism is a fact. Racist persons deny that racism is a social, intellectual construction, a creation of human sin and error. Sometimes racism has been bolstered through questionable historical or scientific research that attributes meaning to certain somatic qualities.  Racist sin is occasioned by the toxic combination of racial prejudice and antipathy that regards the "other" as enemy and is sustained by individual or group power.

Race is not a biblical category; Jew/Gentile is a major biblical concern, but white racism's history makes it sui generis. Though Christian theology played a part in the construction of race as human signifier, much of the ideology of labeling people racially was developed during Christian complicity with European colonization and the anti-Christian Enlightenment.

In order to subdue and colonize others, Europeans convinced themselves of the superiority and the ultimate dominance of whiteness. The Enlightenment's assertion of a "universal humanity" that progressively overcame tribal, local, specifically embodied identities and the Enlightenment's elevation of allegedly universal (i.e., white) "reason" as the defining mark of humanity embedded white racism as a signifier of essential humanity. It's no coincidence that an American philosophe like Jefferson could write the Declaration of Independence and be a lifelong slaveholder.

South Carolinian Dylann Roof, who committed the massacre at Mother Emmanuel, was neither insane nor original in his murderous racism. He was a product of a culture and a history unwilling to shake offsome deadly ideas.

Good News

Our racism makes the gospel of Jesus Christ all the more amazing. Paul names the great good news we preachers are authorized to announce  and to lead the congregation in embodying in our life together:

At one time you were like a dead people because of the racist things you did against others, which were also offenses against God. You lived with the same racism that infects everybody else.

You weren't even aware that you were disobeying God because of your bias and the way you looked upon people of other races. You were on your way to self-destruction, just like other white people in this culture.

But God is rich in mercy. God brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of our racist sin. God did this because of God's great love for us. You are saved by God's grace! And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. God did this so that future generations would sit up and take notice of the greatness of God's grace by the goodness that God has shown us, even in our racism, in Christ Jesus.

You have been rescued from racist bondage by God's grace because of your faith that God loves everybody, even you. This salvation is God's gift, not your achievement, not something you can boast about. Instead, we are God's grand accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do grand things for God, in spite of the way we were brought up. We are now free to live our lives the way God intended for us to live.

So don't ever forget that you were like Gentiles in the New Testament, you were outsiders who had no part in the promises of God to Israel. Though you tried to act as if you were special because of your white skin, you were without Christ, strangers to the promises and plans of God because of your racist thoughts and deeds. In that world of white supremacy, you had no hope and no God. But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away from God and one another have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Christ is our peace. He made Jews and Gentiles, women and men, whites and blacks into one group. With his body, he broke down the hateful barrier that divided us. (Eph 2:1-14, paraphrased from the Common English Bible)

Christians believe that the events and narrative that underlie Paul's affirmation are true. This is who God is, and what God is up to in the world and in us. Christ's reconciling work is the theological basis for this early Christian plea for Jews and Gentiles to be reconciled to one another in the church. Ephesians 2:1-14 is our theological justification for daring to speak up against racism.

Furthermore, this affirmation of miraculous reconciliation from Ephesians 2 is also our vocation: God has elected, commissioned, and summoned the people who have heard this good news to live this news, to embody God-wrought reconciliation in our congregations and our daily lives. The God who, in Jesus Christ, has elected to be God for us has elected us to be for God, and elected us to be for others.

Preaching is not primarily about racism or any other human sin. Preaching is about the God who, through Jesus Christ, justifies, seeks and saves, loves, forgives, sanctifies, and transforms sinners. We preach about racism in confidence that God wants us to succeed at this task, to free us from our sin against others and to liberate those who are oppressed by the sin and injustice of various domination systems.

From Will's blog, A Peculiar Prophet