Preaching to Confront Racism
By Will Willimon
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
Will Willimon is the winsome professor, popular preacher, prolific author, and influential bishop in the United Methodist Church, now retired. It would take a ream of paper to print the complete bibliography of his books, articles, sermons, and reviews. The Methodist world is indeed blessed to have such an articulate, educated, and spiritual man among them.
This book is inspired by the lynching of Willie Earle in 1947, in Pickens, South Carolina, a short drive west of Greenville. Willimon was born in Greenville just months before the event; so he does not personally recall the episode. But his research into the lynching and also into the sermon preached the Sunday after (March 2) by local Methodist preacher Hawley Lynn produced this book. It is a creative approach to developing his theme, Preaching to Confront Racism.
Reverend Lynn was also from South Carolina, educated at the University of South Carolina (Phi Beta Kappa) and Yale Divinity School. He was the young pastor of Grace Methodist Church in Pickens when a young black man (Willie Earle) jailed for assaulting a taxi driver (or so the sheriff contended) was taken from the jail (without resistance from the unarmed jailer) and beaten, mutilated, shot, and hung by an angry cohort of other taxi drivers. Months later, the latter were arrested, charged, and tried; and declared not guilty.
But that was later, and the sermon at the heart of this book was preached days after the lynching. Willimon describes the background I have summarized here, then narrates the spiritual and homiletical journey taken by pastor Lynn from the moment he heard about the lynching to the moment he stepped into the pulpit. He relied upon a lengthy interview of Rev. Lynn by another native of Greenville, Will Gravely (to whom the book is dedicated). Lynn died in 1989.
The sermon is entitled “Who Lynched Willie Earle? Most of it is included in the book, verbatim, and with running commentary. It takes inspiration from the words of Simon Peter at the house of Cornelius, as recorded in The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 10: “Of a truth, I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.” A secondary text (and one also read in the worship service) was taken from the Hebrew prophet Malachi, chapter two: “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother by profaning the covenant of our fathers?”
“The most remarkable aspect of Hawley’s sermon ‘Who Lynched Willie Earle?’ is that it was preached. Unlike most South Carolina pastors, Hawley was not silent” (37). Indeed, it was not in any other way remarkable; but that was enough, then and now. If you see something, we now say about all kinds of things, say something. It is the first rule of gospel preaching. Say something. Speak up.
Willimon’s assessment of the sermon (chapter 4) reflects his professional and ecclesial interest on the interpretation of a text and the invocation of the name, teaching, and power of Jesus the Risen Lord, a theme that punctuates the text throughout the remainder of the book. His summary of this sermon: “Preacher and congregation are onlookers, basically good enlightened people who summon the courage to condemn less-good white people acting badly” (47).
Two chapters deal with how Christians in America understand race (chapter 5) and preach about race (chapter 6, which contains excerpts from recent sermons by various Methodist ministers). These two are full of the wit and wisdom, the inspiration and the irritation of Dr. Willimon; because of that, they are worth three times the price of the whole book and because of the endless supply of stories (how does he record or remember all of these stories?) and the profusion of bibliographic references (for the serious reader who wants to go further, deeper, wider).
Of the first: “At one of our protests against Alabama’s draconian immigration laws, I heard a black Methodist woman shout to a Spanish-speaking congregation marching by, ‘Don’t y’all give up! They didn’t want us here either!’” (63).
Of the second: Karl Barth, Jim Wallis, Harper Lee, James Cone, Samuel Well, Cleo LaRue, Wendell Berry, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barack Obama, Willie James Jennings, and of course, John Wesley. There are 249 authors listed in the index, for a 129-page book on preaching!!
Willimon forcefully and with sustained disdain repudiates church as a “kind of secular, humanistic fellowship full of denial, resistance, and worse” (118) and calls for Christian community and preaching that is about “cultivating and enjoying the presence of the risen Christ, allowing Christ to roam among his people to command them what he will” (114). In this environment, he can appropriately conclude the book with this simple testimony: “My own conversion continues” (132). Mine, also.