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

Carolyn Helsel’s upcoming book from Chalice Press aims to help white people talk about racism. In this guest blog, she reflects on the August 11-12 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Brad Lyons)

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, killed 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/

Is Your Pastor Sexist? Is the New York Times Sexist? Are You Sexist?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched our Presbyterian colleagues protesting Princeton Theological School’s plan to honor Tim Keller, who in his long ministry has argued women should be subservient to their husbands, a point of view that is also interpreted to state women should not be ministers.

Before I go any further, let me be clear: CBP/Chalice Press strongly disagrees with that stance, or with any stance that espouses inequality in any form whatsoever. There are many, many, many1 women doing incredible ministry that should inspire us all to step up our game. We’re lucky to work with them.

Back to the story. Traci Smith, author of the recently released Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home and a Princeton alumna, blogged about this and caught the attention of both Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News (she declined their interview request) and the New York Times, which didn’t reach out to her but quoted her blog instead.

Is Your Pastor Sexist?, by Times contributor Julia Baird, referred to “Rev. Tim Keller” and “Dr. Keller.” It then referred to Traci as “Traci Smith, a former Princeton seminarian who is now a minister,” and noted Christian author Carol Howard Merritt as “a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” No Rev. before their names.

Surely this was a mistake, right? Copyediting gone awry? 2

Traci and Carol both mused about that on social media, and their connections jumped on the bandwagon. I’m not one to fire off Letters to the Editor, but this was clearly an instance where we could offer our opinion as a publisher regarding one of our writers, as well as share a view on the world of ministry with some folks who might not necessarily understand how things work in the professional field. So this morning, I sent off this missive:

    Dear editor,

    Julia Baird’s opinion piece, Is Your Pastor Sexist?, contains several unintentional but extremely ironic sexist errors. The male subject of the article is referred to as both Rev. Keller and Dr. Keller, indicating the Times uses honorific titles. Two female pastors, Traci Smith and Carol Howard Merritt, do not have Rev. attached to their references, indicating the Times does not use honorific titles. Which is it? Surely this decision isn’t driven by gender?

    It’s likely bad copyediting is the culprit here, but this oversight epitomizes the everyday challenge female pastors face in their vocation — sexism undermines the equally challenging work they do in a workplace that is all too often hostile to them simply because of their chromosomal combinations.

    I see one correction already in the online version. If a story about sexism is inherently sexist, that probably merits at least a correction as well, does it not?

    Sincerely,
    Brad Lyons

A few hours later, an email rolled in from Matt Seaton, Staff Editor in the Op-Ed Department:

    Thank you for your letter regarding Julia Baird’s Op-Ed essay “Is Your Pastor Sexist?” I am responding because your letter was forwarded to me as the editor of this article.

    Times style usually allows for use of the title “Rev.” (for Reverend) only on first mention, and this was applied to the Rev. Tim Keller in this case. (Thereafter, he appeared as Dr. Keller, given his doctorate of ministry.) But honorifics are applied as context allows, not as a rigid rule.

    Our chief copy-editor explained to me that the “Rev.” title was not applied to the other two ministers in the piece, Traci Smith and Carol Howard Merritt, because they were introduced in ways that would have made the addition of “the Rev.” awkward and clumsy, and because, in each case, they were both clearly identified as minister or pastor.

    On second use of each of those ministers’ names, “Ms.” was the correct honorific, since neither of them, to the best of our knowledge, has a doctorate of divinity or ministry.

    Thank you for your attention to this matter and taking the trouble to communicate your view to us.

    Best, Matt

So the honorifics were cut because it would make the writing clunky. That’s weak. Very, very weak. Just rewrite the sentence! You’re not going to wear out your computer or need Tommy John surgery to fix that.

But it’s more than weak — it’s offensive.

I understand we’re talking about a few letters, but those few letters make a world of difference. Though their choice was intentional, their choice also subliminally subjugates female pastors in their vocation and in our culture.

CBP/Chalice Press is a ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has for decades ordained women, and our first female General Minister and President, Sharon Watkins, is about to be followed by our second female General Minister and President, Teresa Hord Owens. We’re darn proud of that. Beyond that, we work with women and men, ordained and non-ordained, from many denominations, because we believe everybody has gifts from God regardless of whether they’ve gone through school or the proper training.

What I hear from my female colleagues in ministry is that it’s getting better but that the gender gap we see across society still exists in ministry – in the lack of respect shown to female clergy, in disparate compensation packages, and in the opportunities to lead at vibrant congregations. It’s going to take a lot of work to fix this, but we must fix it, and all the other prejudices in our culture, if we are to live in the Beloved Community.

It falls to all of us in the ways we talk about each other, the ways we hold each other accountable for our biases, the way we work on ourselves to erase those biases. But the New York Times, bless its heart – I sure hope it comes to its senses soon.

Footnotes

1. Many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many… well, you get the gist.
2. Baird reached out to Traci and said she hadn’t used titles, that they were added later.

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

Odd ducks

ON THE WAY HOME FROM SANTA FE – I’ve spent the past few days at PubWest, an annual meeting of the publishing industry based in the western part of the U.S. and Canada. Western is interpreted loosely as “west of the Hudson River.” Name a genre, and you could probably find at least one publisher. Chalice was one of only two Christian publishers at the event; the other was Ave Maria Press out of Notre Dame, Indiana. (Indiana is, after all, west of the Hudson.)

As a PubWest first-timer, I enjoyed the diverse nature of this group. Introductions typically contained statements like, “we publish literary and children’s fiction” or “we publish outdoor guides” or “we publish books about national parks,” and it was easy to see their mission. Then I would explain Chalice Press’ mission, but then, because we’re a faith-related publisher, I was asked to go a step further and explain our ministry, because clearly among this crowd, faith-based publishers are odd ducks.

“We’re 105 years old, based in St. Louis, we’re affiliated with a Protestant denomination blah blah blah,” I’d say quickly before seguing to, “but we know faith is changing, so Chalice Press plans to be the go-to publisher for Progressive Christians.”

The phrase Progressive Christians generally elicited one of two different looks:

  • confusion, because they could guess what that meant but weren’t entirely sure they were correct, or
  • a blank stare, meaning they couldn’t even begin to process what I’d just said.

At least nobody just turned and walked away. And better yet, nobody slugged me.

Then I would unpack the meaning of Progressive Christians: We’re inclusive and welcoming of anybody who wants to have a personal relationship with God through the teachings of Jesus Christ, and we know there are as many ways to relate to God as there are snowflakes in an avalanche. We support the LGBT community. We’re broadening our offerings on social justice in areas such as gender equality, the environment, education, criminal justice reform, a living wage, and voting rights. In everything we do, we want to empower our readers to change their world in ways that make it a better, more caring place. Once I finished that definition, I got a lot of smiles and “cool!” and “that’s really great!”

What stuck with me, though, is that time after time, I had to defend Christianity while at the same time critiquing it. It’s a fine line we Progressive Christians walk, isn’t it? You know the conversation: The divisive, nasty, incendiary garbage cloaked as faith drives people to be blasé about religion in general but, even more so, hostile specifically to Christianity. And I don’t blame them.

Try this exercise to view the world like a publisher: When you look at bookstore shelves, you see what readers are most likely to buy. Most of the time, the books you see represent the market pretty well. Now, in that bookstore you’re envisioning, walk over to the Religion and Spirituality section. The books you’re likely to notice first are from conservative pastors, often proclaiming social-morality agendas, or megachurch pastors powered by multi-million-dollar marketing budgets. When publishers see which books represent Christianity, no wonder they think Christians are all so ridiculously conservative!

The great thing about publishers and editors and marketers and designers and others who work in the publishing industry is that they are all, at heart, curious. They gave me the opportunity to explain Chalice Press’s work and mission, and then they asked thoughtful, challenging, but respectful questions. And in the end, I didn’t meet a single person who criticized what we do. My favorite response was “I knew there were some good Christians out there!”

I cannot report any baptisms or conversions or speaking in tongues at PubWest, but I can report that a good number of people may go home from Santa Fe remembering that there is at least one Christian publisher doing things differently, working to tell the world that our diversity can unify instead of divide. I return to St. Louis with new friends, new counterparts, and new insights, but also knowing that what we are doing — and by we, I mean not just our crew at Chalice Press and our authors, but also our readers, so that includes you — is holy work, and it is making a difference in the world. Progressive Christianity in 2016 is a challenge, no question about it, but know that there are people you will never meet who are thankful for the work we all do.

Grateful to be your partner in ministry,

Brad-signature

(Here’s Publishers Weekly’s article on PubWest.)

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.