Preaching About Racism in Lent

"Remember You are Dust." Image by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The emotions of Lent: what feelings are evoked from putting ashes on our foreheads or talking about Jesus’ journey to the cross? What kinds of emotions do these stories bring up for our listeners in the church? Because Lent is about waiting, introspection, contrition, and confession, it is an appropriate time to help our congregants call to mind the realities of our society that should also evoke these kinds of responses in us, such as the continuing presence of racism.

Preaching about racism needs to occur regularly; consider how you can include preaching about racism once a month. This does not need to actually include saying the word “racism” in your sermon, but it does include telling stories that highlight the experiences of racism that continue today. It also includes telling stories about people who are actively resisting racism and working to bring God’s love to all people.

The Bible is full of texts that help us talk about racism. The following texts are all part of the lectionary readings for this current liturgical season, and they may not appear at a first glance like easy texts to connect to the subject of racism. Yet each presents an opportunity for the preacher to lift up an aspect of the current contemporary struggle.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

As much as readers of scripture can try to predict the thoughts and ways of God, we cannot. Looking at the history of how scripture has been interpreted to justify the evils of slavery and genocide, we approach the Bible with humility, knowing we could be getting it wrong even now.

In recent years, more conversations are happening across the country about the ongoing impact of racism, with suggestions for additional work that must be done to respond to the historical legacies and continuing inequalities. But often, when we come to these conversations, we have already in our minds the proper response. We have an idea of what needs to be done, or what cannot be done.

In the long road towards deeper community and justice, we must work to approach these conversations with the same humility that we have come to view our readings of scripture: we could be wrong. We do not know all the answers or have the solution. What can we learn from this current moment that can help us in our churches to be more effective in building deeper relationships and strengthening our ties? Who are the leaders in your community who can help your congregation work for change?

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7).

Many anti-racism discussions today deal with the concept of “white privilege,” or the unearned advantages that whites receive historically from a racist social system. At the same time, listeners may have questions about the appropriateness of this term. People of color and white people come from intersections of identity that include other ways they may be privileged or at a disadvantage.

When talking about the history of racism and how it functions today, it is important to help listeners see that whether they identify with some amount of privilege in society today or not, that their privilege is not all that they are. Feeling guilty or ashamed of privilege is not what enables people to work for change. What inspires us and motivates us to make a difference is the work of Jesus Christ in reconciling humanity. Help listeners connect to the power of Christ’s work and gratitude for the grace of God in Christ as the source of our motivation.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).

This verse reminds us of the humility it takes to talk about difficult subjects in our congregation. Even using scripture that references the word “slave” can be painful for some, particularly if white Christians use the language of slavery from the Bible without recognition of the painful ways such language justified the actual bondage of persons of color. But a helpful move here can be to draw from the work of theologians such as James Cone to paint a more direct comparison between Jesus and the suffering of African Americans, as Cone does in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Particularly during this Lenten season, as we journey towards the cross with Christ, Cone’s book can help listeners walk side by side with the victims of lynching whose stories have often gone untold, and alongside the persons who have died in police custody or as a result of state-sanctioned violence. Picturing Christ as being among those who have been crucified by this society can help listeners imagine Christ in our brothers and sisters, and wait with longing until he comes again in glory.