Towards “Biblical” Preaching about Race and Racism

This is the paper I delivered yesterday at the Society for Biblical Literature, in the Homiletics and Biblical Studies section:

This paper came out of an experience I had last spring, as I was talking about diversity with a group of white mainline church leaders, both lay and clergy, at a retreat. I was asked to speak about this subject because of my research interests on helping white preachers preach about race in white congregations, and the people there had self-selected to be in my workshop. I began by listing the many ways diversity is present in congregations: age, sexual orientation, gender, race, worship style, backgrounds, nationality, politics. I then opened up the conversation to the participants to ask what they think a preacher should say about diversity?

One person spoke up: “They shouldn’t say anything. That’s not what I came for. I came to hear a sermon preached from the Bible, and none of those issues you’ve listed are in the Bible.”

Are issues of diversity present in the Bible? Specifically, what does the Bible say about race? In some ways, it is anachronistic to suggest that biblical texts address race. According to Cain Hope Felder: “the biblical world predated any systemic notion of races and theories of racism”[1] (Stony the Road, 144). “Race” as we know it, is not a scientific category, but an idea that emerged to justify slavery in the “New World.” Skin color as a category distinguishing groups became systematized during the era of colonial expansion and the slave trade, at least a millennia after the latest writings in the Bible were penned. If white preachers relied only on the biblical text for guidance on what to preach about, they would never preach about race or racism. The same could be said of other important issues that may not be named specifically in the Bible, and yet are topics preachers need to address in sermons. Additionally, avoiding preaching on race seems wrong when so much of the history of racism is connected to Christian practices of preaching.

This paper looks at the concept of “biblical” preaching—what it means, and how it relates to preaching on racism.

So my first question is: “what is ‘biblical’ preaching? And do others share the sentiment expressed by the white participant who seemed to say that preaching from the Bible would not include discussions of diversity?”

As a homiletician speaking at the Society for Biblical Literature, to start with the question “what is biblical preaching” sounds a little ridiculous. You might be asking: who is this person, anyway? How does she not know what biblical preaching is? I teach homiletics, and yes, my students have to preach from the Bible. But the phrase “biblical preaching” has a particular connotation that sets it apart from simply assigning students to preach on a biblical text.

Just as in other polarized parts of society, the field of homiletics tends to be divided by political tendencies. Within the Academy of Homiletics, for instance, my own professional guild, you will find professors from mainline seminaries and theological schools who mostly fall on the “liberal” side of the political spectrum. While some may consider themselves “evangelicals,” it is not an organization that would classify itself as such. But on the other side of the spectrum, there are homileticians that do identify as evangelical, who form their own guilds and lead their own conferences. And these two groups rarely include any crossovers. But within mainline denominations, there are congregations and pastors who identify as evangelical. The phrase “biblical preaching” mainly emerges from evangelical contexts.

Haddon Robinson, recently deceased, was known as the primary voice of “biblical preaching,” writing homiletical textbooks that advocated for expository preaching and warned against applications and incorporation of the social sciences into preaching. In the giant tome he helped edit, The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, Robinson writes the first entry on the “Convictions of Biblical Preaching.” He writes:

“To do the tough work of being biblical preachers, men and women in ministry must be committed to certain truths. (1) The Bible is the Word of God. …(2) The entire Bible is the Word of God. …(3) The Bible is self-authenticating. …(4) This leads to a ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’ approach to preaching. …(5) The student of the Bible must try to get at the intent of the biblical writer. … Simply put, ‘The Bible cannot mean what it has not meant.’ (6) The Bible is a book about God. …(7) We don’t ‘make the Bible relevant’; we show its relevance.[2]

 

While there are several elements of these “convictions” that I want to take issue with, I want to say more generally that I believe that some of the convictions behind Robinson’s notion of “biblical” preaching are not truly “biblical.” I say this, particularly because the statement “The Bible cannot mean what it has not meant” is a factual error. The Bible has meant, and continues to mean, more than one thing, depending on your interpretive community. To say the Bible cannot mean what it has not meant suggests a static and unilateral interpretive community.

 

But even within the days of Jesus’ ministry, the Bible was meaning different things to different people. The views of the Samaritans as raised in the encounter in John 4 between Jesus and the Samaritan woman reflect different interpretive communities. The Sadducees who said there is no resurrection from the dead in Mark 12:18 again are representative of different interpretive communities. The history of the church in Acts shows different interpretive communities as Peter converts to seeing the Gentiles as part of Christ’s intended recipients of salvation. Interpretation, trying to understand what the Bible means, is not unilateral. It is multivalent and depends upon our social context—it depends upon the interpretative habits of our communities of faith.

 

Renita Weems writes: “how one reads or interprets the Bible depends in large part on which interpretative community one identifies with at any given time.”[3] She continues: “the average reader belongs, in actuality, to a number of different reading communities, communities that sometimes have different and competing conventions for reading and that can make different and competing demands upon the reader. …For in the end, it is one’s interpretative community that tends to regulate which reading strategies are authoritative for the reader and what ought to be the reader’s predominant interests.” (ibid).

Which brings me back to the claim of that white participant that biblical preaching doesn’t talk about race or racism. If you are part of a community of faith that interprets scripture by focusing on the original intention of the author, then perhaps he is right. The original intention of the author may not have been to talk about race, since race as an ideology was not yet in existence. But there are other interpretive communities who share this passion for “biblical preaching” and yet who do name the evils of racism. This includes African American preaching contexts.

Cleo LaRue writes: “In many black churches, biblical preaching,[is] defined as preaching that allows a text from the Bible to serve as the leading force in shaping the content and purpose of the sermon…”[4] So within some traditions of black preaching, there is a similar emphasis on biblical preaching. But in these same churches where biblical preaching is a central focus, letting the Bible serve as the leading force in shaping the content and purpose of the sermon, there is still room for naming the sin of racism that impacts so many persons within that interpretive community.

A look at the history of biblical interpretation among African Americans can help shed insight into the varieties of ways the Bible has functioned in communities of interpretation over time.

Vincent Wimbush has outlined five different movements within that history of African American biblical interpretation. At the beginning of the African experience in North America, enslaved Africans noticed the impact of the Bible on their European captors. Wimbush writes that the initial reaction among many Africans was one of rejection, suspicion, and awe for what they saw as the “Book of Religion” held in such esteem by the whites. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Great Revivals were taking place in the North and the South, African Americans were converting to Christianity in great numbers. In particular, the evangelical movements of the Methodists and Baptists conveyed a message of direct-experience with the Bible and faith, encouraging a view of the Bible as accessible to all, including slaves. Wimbush identifies this period of African American interpretation as the emergence of the Bible as a language-world, a shared language in which they could interact with one another and with whites on a different plane that that of their current social context. The bible as a language-world enabled enslaved Africans to inhabit a shared language with one another, when white slaveowners had often intentionally thwarted their ability to communicate by separating people from the same tribe so they could not speak to one another. But in the words and stories of the Bible, the slaves could enjoy a form of communication that they shared, a story they could live into and identify with that differed from the story they were told about themselves by whites.[5]

David Walker, an African American abolitionist in 1829 argued that white Americans do not believe the Bible when they fail to love their black neighbors as themselves. This period of interpretation in the black religious tradition marks the emergence of a distinctively oppositional hermeneutic to the way white pro-slavery apologists used the Bible. Wimbush continues to outline two more periods of African American biblical interpretation, but the latest he writes about, in the late 20th century, is what interests me here. Wimbush says that the most recent trend in African American biblical interpretation is fundamentalism. He links this with a sense of crisis in the black church. While fundamentalism in the white church could be linked with the crisis of consciousness brought about by the scientific revolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fundamentalism among African Americans has emerged in many ways in reaction to the “inadequacy of culturalist religion” as Wimbush calls it. As a result, some African Americans have moved away from black churches and into white fundamentalist churches. He writes: “buttressing this perception [of the inadequacy of culturalist religion] is the assumption that anything distinctively black is inadequate in the dominant white world.”[6]

So in the context of understanding biblical preaching, there has been the desire in white evangelical circles as well as some African American communities to see as “true” biblical interpretation, that which is devoid of racialized language or cultural interpretive references. For white evangelicals, this may be because they have not seen race or racial oppression as a central part of their experience of faith. For black evangelicals, some may see an emphasis on black experience as insufficient to help them succeed in the dominant white world.

But while racism continues to exist and infect our communities of faith, naming it as evil and naming the social contexts that remain in place today, is necessary, and focusing simply on the original intent of the biblical authors is not always sufficient for helping us to address this evil.

First, to require a commitment to the meaning of the author’s original intention, if that were even possible, is to force the reader to separate from her or his own life situation. Vincent Wimbush makes this argument in his contribution to the commentary True to Our Native Land, arguing against the very nature of a biblical commentary, and I see this argument as similarly positioned against the idea of returning to original authorial intent. Wimbush writes: “the commentary as intellectual project is (politically) very problematic…because the commentary necessarily forces a certain delimitation and qualification of questioning and probing. It forces the interpreter to begin not in his or her own time…but in another one—that (one that is imagined or assumed to be) of the text.”[7] This is problematic, particularly for persons who remain at the margins of society, who hold the least amount of power. Again, here’s Wimbush: “There are high stakes in such practice for peoples on the periphery. At the very least, it keeps them distracted, unable to focus on their world situation.” (ibid). For this reason, Wimbush spends time focusing directly on the experience of African Americans living in the United States. “I begin—perhaps somewhat defiantly—not with a text but with social (viz., African American) textures.” (ibid).

Also, returning to the Robbinson’s conviction that “biblical” preaching must mean only what the text meant, trying to return to an original intention of the biblical authors does not necessarily reflect other biblical messages, such as Galatians 3:28. New Testament scholar Mitzi Smith identifies the problematic elements of the ideology of slavery present in the synoptic gospels as well as in John, where Jesus’ parables contain images of slaves as disposable and the “locus of abuse.”[8] And even the manumission of slaves did not resolve this dynamic: in the Roman world, even freedpersons were never truly equal to those who were freeborn. This hierarchy was maintained, keeping freedpersons as always subjugated to the will of the freeborn Roman citizens. These social patterns were not questioned within the parables of Jesus related by the gospel writers, nor by authors of the epistles.

Most notable among these texts are the “households codes”: the texts in which slaves are told to obey their masters and wives to submit to their husbands. Clarice Martin demonstrates how enslaved African Americans learned to reject these texts as white slaveowners preached to them. Blacks slaves and proslavery whites had very different interpretative approaches to these texts. Charles Hodge used these biblical texts to argue for slavery in writing about the Fugitive Slave Law, and legal courts cited scripture when an 1829 judge argued that cruel battery of slave women was not illegal since the master’s will had to be obeyed, as by the “law of God.”[9] (State v. Mann, North Carolina, pp.266-267, quoted by Clarice Martin in Stony the Road, p.215).

While African Americans have rejected this interpretation of the household codes as they relate to slavery, Martin points out that black women continued to bear the weight of the household codes’ injunctions against women in leadership. Early 19th century black women preachers, Julia Foote and Jarena Lee, both had to resist the interpretations of these biblical texts that suggested women “learn in submission” and “not to have authority over a man.” They lived into their calls to preach, but faced strong resistance from others within the black community. Still today, many black women face challenges to their ministry because of these texts. Women in other cultural contexts experience this as well.

In evangelical circles, it is easy to sacralize these hierarchical codes, talking about the complementarian nature of women and men, justifying a subordinate role for women. When I attended an evangelical college for undergrad, I heard a lot about complementarianism, and for many of the people who believed it, it was a way of reacting to what they saw as a secular rejection of “biblical” marriage. They saw feminism as a strictly secular movement, and in order to demonstrate their proximity to the “truth” of the Bible, the place of women was firmly reinscribed by reference to these biblical texts. In other words, it was reactionary.

I think today we continue to see reactionary responses to biblical interpretation, trying to return to a pre-multiculturalist understanding of Christianity, and a way of seeing the Bible through an unambiguous attitude of devotion and respect. To critique the Bible, for some evangelicals, is to critique God.

So, how can white preachers who come from evangelical communities of interpretation preach about racism amidst the assumption that “biblical” preaching requires silence regarding social context?

John Stott, another notable evangelical leader, writes that: “The characteristic fault of evangelicals is to be biblical but not contemporary. The characteristic fault of liberals is to be contemporary but not biblical. Few of us manage to be both simultaneously.”[10]

 

This characterization, that evangelicals fall too often on the side of being biblical but not contemporary, and liberals being contemporary but not biblical, is something I want to contest. I want to argue that liberals can be contemporary and biblical, particularly when it comes to preaching about racism. I also believe that evangelicals can be biblical and contemporary when preaching about racism.

A couple of examples of persons who are already doing this: On the evangelical side, Rick Richardson makes the case in the same anthology edited by Haddon Robinson, in an essay on “Cross-Cultural Preaching,” that preachers need to be aware of the history of slavery and the evils of the Middle Passage. He says: “As a white person, when I preach in a black context, the baggage from all that evil [of the Middle Passage] lingers. I have to show I am aware of that or I cannot be trusted. …The trust issues are immense, and only people willing to recognize the evils of the past can even be heard.”[11]

On the more liberal side of the homiletical spectrum, William Willimon insists that preaching on racism be “biblical,” and that the preacher focus on “theology rather than anthropology” in his book Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism.[12]

So, some guidance for liberals wanting to be more “biblical” and evangelicals who are wanting to be more “contemporary.” Some revised convictions about biblical preaching:

  1. Biblical preaching believes that the Bible is authoritative because it is the text that tells us about Jesus Christ, God in-flesh, who came to redeem all of humanity, in our flesh, and to redeem humanity from all our ways of devaluing the image of God that is found inscribed on each and every human body.
  2. Biblical preaching sees all of the Bible as being potentially turned to evil, every bit of it capable of being turned into something demonic, since the Devil himself could use scripture to try and tempt Jesus. So the words of the Bible must never be seen as unequivocably good, but as potential harmful when used the wrong way.
  3. Biblical preaching respects the Bible as a collection of writers who came from different interpretive communities and who could never have anticipated being put directly in conversation with one another. We have this canon because members of interpretive communities through the millennia have found in these texts the message of salvation, but that message comes through different voices and finds resonance in the lived experiences of believers today.
  4. Biblical preaching never says “Thus sayeth the Lord,” as though preachers could unmistakably speak for God, but prayerfully hopes that God’s message of love and hope and redemption may come through the work of preaching.
  5. Biblical preaching requires that students of the Bible learn the history of interpretation, of how certain texts have been used harmfully, in order to address these harms in the current era lest these harms are perpetuated in the preacher’s own words.
  6. Biblical preaching believes that the Bible is a book about God’s work to redeem humanity, which never stays in the past but always continues into the present, which requires that preachers attend to current forms of oppression and evil that flourish in society today.
  7. Biblical preaching believes that words are powerful, but that the power of the Holy Spirit is what makes preaching effective in the lives of its hearers.

 

 

These 7 tenets of biblical preaching I feel do a better job of communicating to students of preaching that biblical preaching is hard. It is not easy. It is always ambiguous. And yet it is necessary. Our current contexts are changing constantly. We cannot set our hopes on particular theories or social analyses as saving us. Only God can do that. And the Bible that has been handed down to us from generation to generation is a testimony to the power of God to work and redeem even when this same Bible has been used to do great harm.

And when we see and hear about the harm of racism that continues to this day, preachers must be able to find words to say that challenge racist ideology and point to God’s redemption. And white preachers in particular need to acknowledge that through much of the history of Christianity on the North American continent, white Christians have largely been the source and proponents of racist ideology.

It is important that Christians preach biblically about racism because of this history. It is part of our heritage and we must address it.

Because racism is not just part of our history, but continues on today in the marches of white nationalists and more prevalent instances of discrimination and segregation, preachers need to name this sin in their preaching.

For preaching, there are a number of scriptural themes and texts that support and generate sermons that name racism. If time allows, let me briefly discuss some of these resources: First, beginning with Cain killing his brother Abel, we see the trajectory of humanity at war with itself, refusing to see itself as “my brother’s keeper.” Also, Noah’s “curse of Ham,” in which he curses his son Ham, was used to justify slavery.[13] Stephen Haynes’ book Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery can be a good resource for this. A preacher can draw from these texts ways to inform the congregation of the history of racism and the harmful ways Christianity has fueled it.

A story about the leading figure of the Abrahamic traditions—how Abraham took his slave Hagar to have a child, and then abandoned her at the command of his wife Sarah—is, too, a story that has resonances with slavery in this country.[14] Biblical scholars such as Delores Williams in her book Sisters in the Wilderness, have made connections between this text and the ways enslaved African women were forced to be concubines to their white masters and were also left to die, their children never recognized as part of the master’s family.

The Exodus narrative of God bringing the Israelites out of slavery is a story that connects with many persons of African descent whose ancestors escaped slavery in the United States.[15] Eddie Glaude’s book Exodus! Race and Religion in Early 19th Century Black America describes the variety of ways black Americans lived into this narrative through the struggle for the abolition of slavery.

Other resources for preaching on racism include the Psalms and the voices of the prophets who call out for justice on behalf of the oppressed; these too call our attention to the oppressed who are among us today. These are just of a few of the many passages just in the Old Testament that can foster rich discussions and sermons that address the history and ongoing legacy of racism and remind us that our brothers and sisters continue to suffer. The New Testament is also a rich resource for such preaching, and early Christian literature shows African theologians reflecting on difference from the beginning of the church’s history.[16] Gay Byron’s groundbreaking work Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature identifies some of the earliest ways Christians have tried to understand difference and diversity.

The framework for preaching on race I teach to my students includes the three processes of recognizing racism, recognizing ourselves within the story, and recognizing gratitude for the grace of God. Recognizing racism involves opening our eyes to the ways the scripture text informs our understanding of the subtle ways sin continues to operate in and around us, particularly through insidious and slippery expressions of racism. Recognizing ourselves within the story means that the preacher needs to help white Christians understand how racism impacts them, how they are connected to their brothers and sisters who continue to experience racism, and how their own spiritual growth is stunted through the system of racism. Recognizing ourselves includes understanding the difficult emotions that may be brought up for us as white people unaccustomed to talking about our whiteness. Finally, recognizing gratitude for the grace of God means looking within the text for the signs of God’s grace that remind us God is already at work in us, continuing to work for our redemption. Gratitude is the third of these three processes because it is gratitude for God’s grace that motivates us to live and act differently, not the shame of our sin. I encourage my students as they preach on difficult issues such as racism to look for a way to end with gratitude, some sign of the promises of God.

These resources are but a few of the many way white preachers can preach biblically about racism, which is necessary, not only for the redemption of our congregations, but to redeem the history of demonic “biblical preaching” that has reinforced and denied the evils of slavery and racist ideology. Thank you.

 

[1] Cain Hope Felder, “Race, Racism, and the Biblical Narratives,” Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, edited by Cain Hope Felder. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 144.

[2] Haddon Robinson, “Convictions of Biblical Preaching.” The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching. Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson, General Editors. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 23-24.

[3] Renita Weems, “Reading Her Way through the Struggle: African American Women and the Bible.” Stony the Road We Trod, 67.

[4] Cleo LaRue, “African American Preaching and the Bible,” True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Brian Blount, General Editor, Cain Hope Felder, Clarice Martin and Emerson Powery, Associate Editos. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 65-66.

[5] Vincent Wimbush, “The Bible and African Americans: An Outline of an Interpretive History.” Stony the Road We Trod, 83.

[6] Ibid., p.97, emphasis mine.

[7] Vincent L. Wimbush, “ ‘We Will Make our Own Future Text’: An Alternate Orientation to Interpretation.” True to Our Native Land. 44.

[8] Mitzi J. Smith, “Slavery in the Early Church.” True to Our Native Land. 17.

[9] Clarice J. Martin, “The Haustafeln (Household Codes) in African American Biblical Interpretation: ‘Free Slaves’ and ‘Subordinate Women.’” Stony the Road We Trod, 215.

[10] John Stott, “A Definition of Biblical Preaching,” The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, 27.

[11] Rick Richardson, “Cross-Cultural Preaching: How to Connect in our Multicultural Word,” The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, 172.

[12] William H. Willimon, Who Lynched Wille Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017).

[13] Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[14] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993).

[15] Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Exodus! Religion, Race and Nation in Early Nineteenth Century Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

[16] Gay L. Byron, Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature (New York: Routledge, 2002).

 

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