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Preaching about Racism in America: What Comes Next?

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By Eric D. Barreto

This article originally appeared on Church Anew and is republished with permission.

In Luke, Jesus carries the kingdom in his wake. Wherever he walks, wherever he speaks, wherever the hurt are touched, lives are transformed. An unnamed woman in Luke 7:36-50 is no longer a “sinner”; she belongs at the table. Similarly in 8:26-39, a man invaded by a legion of demons, living among the dead, chained by his neighbors, is delivered from demonic possession so that he is found “clothed and in his right mind” (v. 35). Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus in 19:1-10 transforms his identity from a supposedly corrupt tax collector to “a son of Abraham.”

All three of these people have their lives transformed by their encounter by Jesus, not just because they have been changed by Jesus but also because the perception of their neighbors have been changed too.

Sinner to sister. Demoniac to neighbor. Traitor to kin.

But don’t you wonder what happened when Jesus left? Did the communities once transformed go back to old assumptions? Sister to sinner. Neighbor to demoniac. Kin to traitor.

What happens when Jesus leaves town? When Jesus moves on to the next community full of people yearning for deliverance, healing, and justice, what happens to those whom he has changed after he leaves?

Many pastors took an important step these last few Sundays. Already dispersed into online spaces and some confronting with new urgency the ways that white supremacy afflicts black communities, congregations gathered these last two Sundays. And in some of these congregations, preachers preached perhaps for the first time about the pervasive entanglements of racism, not just in policing and policy but in the church, too. Many preachers confronted the reality that racist systems were not dusty, old realities but present still in tangible, destructive ways.

Let’s be clear.

Many communities have been preaching and praying and working in concrete ways against these death-dealing realities for a long, long time. Many churches have been living with the effects of racism and advocating against it well before the last few weeks of protest.

But some churches and some preachers are treading new ground. Preachers are naming truths. Preachers are confessing sin. And thank God for that. The Spirit moves ahead of us so often, and it takes some of us a long time to catch up. There is room for repentance and repair when we have not heard the cries of our neighbors or heeded their affliction.

And many preachers who have proclaimed boldly have started getting the emails and letters. The concerned complaints. The exhortations to stick to the gospel. The desire that the church be a place that sets aside politics and focus on Jesus. The (not so) subtle threats. Some have faced something else. That eery silence that indicates not acceptance but simmering anger.

What comes next? What happens when the conviction and transformation Jesus brings in his wake seem to fade?

I wonder if Luke never narrates for us the longterm aftermath of Jesus’ transformation of these communities as a theological and literary challenge to us. Luke draws us to wonder what comes after Jesus’ transformative presence. When Jesus shows up in our midst, messing up categories and structures which we have learned to love even as they tear us apart, will we continue in the paths he has set before us? Will we persist in the transformation Jesus has wrought with his hands or return to the silence that comforted the comforted while afflicting the afflicted?

We must persist, friends. And we will. Not because we will try really, really hard to be a really, really good Christian, but because of God’s transformative and generous grace. There are no quick fixes when it comes to the racism that haunts our churches and our communities. There is a promise, a promise that God’s embrace is mightier than our deepest fears and a community’s most virulent sin.

After all, what is our aim as preachers? Why are we doing this? Why did some preach for the first time a gospel that named the truths about white supremacy and anti-black violence that have always been evident before us?

Our aim as preachers is not just to be right. Our goal is not just getting the right answer or just getting accolades from folks who agree with us.

Our hope is love, not the sappy love of movies and greeting cards but the kind of love that digs deep into the ground, the kind of love that marches and demands justice, the kind of love that costs us something, the kind of love Jesus embodies in healing the sick and drawing the marginalized to his side and exposing the frailty of the empire’s cross.

That kind of love is a beacon of belonging. That kind of love makes us whole.

So keep preaching, preachers. And keep marching. And keep protesting. And keep working toward a world that more closely reflects the kingdom of God.

Your neighbors and your church are yearning for a prophetic word. And with God’s grace, our frail words can bear witness to what God has done and is doing in our midst. With God’s grace, our words will echo what our hands do, where our feet walk.

What comes next?

The Jesus who makes us whole, who sits with us in the mire of injustice, who was lifted from the grave teaches us that the kingdom is here and just around the corner, too.

About the Author
Eric D. Barreto is the Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. His passion is to pursue scholarship for the sake of the church, and he regularly writes for and teaches in faith communities around the country.

Photo by freestocks.org

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