After Charlottesville: Not Enough

By O. Wesley Allen, Jr., Author of Preaching in the Era of Trump

First off, a confession: I am a white man.

As an American and a Christian I have been utterly disappointed and disgusted by our president’s response to last weekend’s event in Charlottesville. As everyone who has followed the presidential pendulum knows, on Saturday, August 12, President Trump blamed “many sides” for the violence that ensued and climaxed in white supremacist James Fields ramming his car into a crowd of counter protestors resulting in a dozen people being injured and Heather Heyer’s death. After some criticism, on Monday, August 14, Trump read a prepared statement that condemned racist violence without placing any blame on the side of activists. On Tuesday, August 15, at a press conference in which Trump intended only to address new infrastructure plans, he responded to journalists’ questions about Charlottesville with fire and fury by reasserting that there was “blame on both sides” and that there were “some very fine people on both sides” even though he continued to condemn white supremacists, the KKK, and Neo Nazis. Since then his tweets double and triple down not on condemning white supremacy but on supporting them.

Preaching in the Era of TrumpIn contrast to my frustration with President Trump’s lack of a moral vision in responding to Charlottesville, I have been pleased to see the widespread responses by political leaders (Democrats and Republicans), celebrities, late night hosts, pastors, bishops, business leaders, and even international voices condemning the white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan, Neo Nazis, and white nationalists. The kind of blatant and violent white supremacy emboldened by Donald Trump’s campaign and election must be resisted, countered, and conquered…and it seems that the only ones unwilling to do this are the white supremacists themselves (including our president).

Still, these condemnations have not gone far enough… not nearly far enough. To use Paul Ryan as an example, he tweeted in response to Trump’s press conference on August 15, “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.” I single out Ryan’s tweet not because it is unique but because it is typical, and I am pleased to see someone in Trump’s own party saying No quickly and firmly to any attempt to draw any type of moral equivalency between the two sets of protestors in Charlottesville this weekend. Yet, this type of condemnation is easy.

What I mean is that it is easy for any decent white person to reject those who spout loud, radical, explicit hate speech and who promote violence and act violently in enforcing their racist, terrorist ideologies. What is harder…and necessary…is for white leaders not only condemn white supremacy but also to condemn and speaking honestly about white privilege. White privilege is the foundation of white supremacy. It is easy to condemn those who are white supremacists while silently living out the privilege of being white in a racist society. After all, even James Murdoch of Fox News did this in spite of the fact that long time Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly explicitly criticized the left for wanting “power taken away from the white establishment” and for arguing that “white privilege in America [is] an oppressive force that must be done away with” as part of his support for Trump’s candidacy during the election.

How different would our national conversation be right now if the Republican speaker of the House had tweeted, “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. I commit myself to leading the House of Representatives in seeking a legislative agenda that dismantles institutionalized and implicit white privilege that provides a fertile soil for such hate speech and violence to thrive!” No one would be talking about Trump’s response anymore because serious conversation does not suffer fools.

I am not naïve enough, however, to expect the white majority in congress (Republican or Democrat) to find the courage to take up such a conversation while raising money from the white majority in their districts to be re-elected every two and six years.

I am naïve enough, however, to believe that the white majority of preachers who are called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ can find the faith and trust in the God of all humanity to do just this. I am speaking of white leaders and white preachers because leaders and clergy who are person of color have been doing this for generations. It is time for those of us who benefit from white privilege to join them in declaring its evil and sinful nature.

Indeed, confession is the starting point for discussing white privilege in sermons. As opposed to condemning racism “out there,” sermons by white preachers that will have to potential to lead congregations through repentance to social action will likely begin with honest self-reflection (“in here”) about the various ways we have benefited by being white in a racist society. We may not have participated in direct discrimination of people of color, but we have been able to climb higher on the societal ladder thanks to others being forced to occupy lower rungs.

When we white preachers admit that we have benefited from racist structures perhaps even while despising them, our white congregants will be able to admit their participation in ongoing, systemic white privilege as well. Then they will be able to recognize that the opposite of privilege is oppression and that while they are not protesting with Neo Nazis and the Alt-Right they have been living on the side of the oppressors. And then they will pray for forgiveness. And then they will work for change.

Of course, I am not naïve enough to think one or two sermons by one or two preachers will reverse generations of ingrained ways of thinking and acting much less overcome the heightened level of explicit hate in the current cultural atmosphere. But I am naïve enough to believe that if enough preachers start to discuss white privilege pastorally and prophetically, God’s word will not return empty.

So, when it comes to white pulpits being silent about white privilege …enough is enough. Let’s get talking. Let’s start preaching.

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.
O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

Rev. Dr. O. Wesley Allen, Jr. is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Allen serves as president of the Academy of Homiletics.

Overcoming the anxiety of talking about racism

Editor’s Note: Carolyn Helsel’s upcoming book from Chalice Press, Anxious to Talk about It, aims to help white people talk about racism. In this guest blog, she reflects on the August 11-12 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Carolyn Helsel
Carolyn Helsel

Sick. Sick to my stomach. I opened social media Saturday morning to reports of torches and racist slogans of white nationalists at a “Unite the Right” rally on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

I turned off my phone to get breakfast for the kids. We were traveling to San Antonio for the day, so attending to children occupied my mental space. But I wasn’t hungry for breakfast.

While I tried to keep current events out of my mind, they kept showing up. As we drove through downtown San Antonio, three white men carrying signs and wearing shirts with Confederate flags crossed the street in front of my car while I waited at a stoplight. These men were headed several blocks away, to join a protest against the removal of a Confederate statue from a San Antonio city park.[1]

Later that afternoon, while I sat at a restaurant, the news on the TV reported the alarming headlines: at the Charlottesville rally, a neo-Nazi drove his car into the crowd of counter-protestors, killing a woman and injuring 19.

Minutes later, I overheard a young white man joking at a nearby table, “I tell you, white men have it hard these days.” I’m not sure he’d been paying attention to the news from Charlottesville.

Driving back to Austin, my mind kept returning to the white men wearing Confederate flags in San Antonio and the white men in the pictures from Charlottesville, carrying torches. I kept wanting to distance myself from them: these white people are not the kind of white people I know and love. These are really bad people. Ignorant people. Evil people. But feeling sick-to-my-stomach did not go away. I could not distance myself far enough.

Returning to social media at the end of the day, several people called out to white preachers, asking: “How are you going to change your sermon for tomorrow?” Articles in major news outlets challenged the Christian church to respond with a definitive condemnation of white supremacy, asking: “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?[2] And “How Will the Church Reckon with Charlottesville?[3]

But I wondered whether the people who went to this rally even went to church? I doubt it. I wanted to think of them as crazy hate-filled heathens who would never step foot in a church. I want to think of these people as so very different from me.

But as a colleague of mine from Austin Seminary, Dr. Margaret Aymer, reminded me, these people still look like me and are not that different from me. Dr. Aymer posted the picture of the torch-wielding men, and instructed viewers to look them in the face: “If you are white or the parent of a white male child, as I am, look at these faces. Look hard. These are not monsters. These are not deformed or mentally ill people. These could be your sons. These could be my son. Look hard. There is no “they” out there. This is about you. This is about me. This about how you interact with family and how your raise your children. Do not look away.”

As uncomfortable as it makes us, we need to keep looking. We need to sit with the discomfort of these terrorizing moments, because they will not go away when we are not looking. They will keep happening. There will continue to be demonstrations that support this way of thinking. We need to denounce them as evil and to condemn this rhetoric.

At the same time, the depth and breadth of racism is thicker than this one event, bigger than a group of white nationalists protecting a statue, older than the history that these whites want to memorialize. And condemning racism as evil demands more than realizing that racism is a problem. We have to keep talking about it with other white people.

White liberals have prided themselves on “getting it.” There’s a sense of self-righteousness that comes from feeling you are on the right side of history. But self-righteousness fosters a sense of superiority. And superiority continues to compete for superiority. There will always be better labels, more critical analysis, and more radical calls for change; but if these only lead to self-satisfaction in our moral superiority, we have failed. Whites who want to make a difference need to accept that there is no moral high ground for us: no matter how “woke” we are, we continue to be part of a system that unjustly benefits us. We are not superior to these white nationalists. We bear the guilt as well.


[1] Emilie Eaton, “Dueling San Antonio protestors clash with each other, police over Confederate monument.” The San Antonio Express News. (August 12, 2017). http://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/Dueling-San-Antonio-protesters-clash-with-each-11814577.php

[2] Jemar Tisby, “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?” The Washington Post. (August 12, 2017). Accessed online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/12/after-charlottesville-will-white-pastors-finally-take-racism-seriously

[3] Emma Green, “How Will the Church Reckon with Charlottesville?” The Atlantic. (August 13, 2017). Accessed online at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/will-the-church-reckon-with-charlottesville/536718/

A Back-To-School Practice from “Faithful Families”

Excerpted from Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home by Traci Smith.

First Day of School – New Beginnings

Heading off to school on the first day can be daunting for parent and child alike, as there are so many questions in one’s mind. “What will the new year be like?” “Will I like my teacher?” “Will my child be happy?” This is a yearly tradition involving making a copy of your child’s footprints on the first day of school and saying a simple prayer for the year to come. This tradition also relates to the graduation ceremony listed next.

Designed for Ages Preschool—Senior in High School

Materials

1. Construction paper

2. Washable tempera paint

3. Wide paintbrush

4. Shallow pan of soapy water

5. Washcloths and towels

Time Investment: 30 minutes

How To

1. On the night before or the morning of the first day of school, paint the bottom of your child’s feet with a wide paintbrush and ask him or her to step on a piece of construction paper. As he or she does, say, “Your feet remind us of the journey you will take this year at school. I know that you will learn so many new things and go so many new places. I hope that you will go with courage and strength and know that God goes with you too.”

2. Before the child steps off the construction paper, say this short prayer,  “God please be with [child’s name] as [he/she] heads off on [his/ her] first day of school. May the year be full of new experiences and knowledge, and may [he/she] walk in light and truth every day. Amen.”

3. Wash off the paint from the child’s feet and head off to a new year!

Notes

• The time investment for this activity is listed at 30 minutes, but it actually takes much less time. The reason for the inflated time is simple: nobody should be rushed on the first day of school! Take the extra time to avoid a stressful morning, or do it the night before.

• Those who are coming to this tradition with older children might be tempted to skip it, thinking, “Well, we haven’t done it in the past, we should just skip it.” I think it’s never too late to start a new tradition, and this is an easy one to start at any time! Go ahead and start it, no matter how old your children are!

Variations

• Do handprints instead of footprints.

• Show the footprints from previous years and notice how the child has grown and changed.

• Trace around the hand or foot and make handprints or footprints that way.

• Do this every year on the last day of school instead of the first, and talk about all of the places the child has gone in the past year.

This practice, and more than 50 more simples ideas for turning everyday family moments into sacred ones, can be found in Traci’s new book Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home.