Did you preach about Charlottesville and racial hatred this past Sunday? No? Then this Sunday is your chance. The KKK/Nazi rally with white people carrying torches and threatening clergy and counter-protesters resulted in numerous injuries and one death by vehicular homicide. Now is the time for clergy to speak about the justice issues surrounding the white nationalist events in Charlottesville and across our nation. Here are 8 ways to preach about Charlottesville by crafting a sermon that confronts the realities of white supremacy and bigotry, and proclaims God’s unequivocal word of justice and righteousness.
[Note: This post has been revised on August 17 from its previous version published on August 15.]
[If you’re hesitating to preach about these issues, start by reading this post: 9 Reasons Why You Need to Preach about Charlottesville. And if you need a boost of courage for preaching prophetically during this difficult time, read: How to Preach When You Are Afraid.]
If you are a lectionary preacher, the texts for Sunday offer multiple opportunities for addressing Charlottesville, white privilege, and racism. And even if you’re not a lectionary preacher, this Sunday would be a good time to draw on these readings:
1. Isaiah 56:1, 6-8.
This reading begins with: “Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.” This is not a suggestion. It is an exhortation. Christians must vociferously denounce white supremacy and stand up against the ideology of the KKK and Nazis because it is just and right. God’s salvation is coming and deliverance is being revealed – and our churches need to be a part of that.
2. Genesis 45:1-15 (alternate first reading).
This story is about Joseph reconciling with his brothers who had sold him into slavery. We have descendants of slaves in this country who are more than willing to reconcile with us. God does not intend for whites to maintain a position of superiority over the ones who have suffered for over 400 years. Now is the time for us to come to our brothers and sisters of color with humility and a commitment to work toward reconciliation.
3. Psalm 67.
This Psalm contains the verse: “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth,” (v. 4). Equity means that those who have been pushed down are lifted up. God does not desire for people of color, LGBTQ folks, women, the poor, the elderly, the sick, or the disabled to be excluded, pushed away, deprived of their rights, stripped of their dignity, or suffer systemic oppression. If Christians truly believe that God is guiding our nation, then we need to publicly proclaim this in our sermons, our prayers, our liturgies, our Bible studies, and our actions.
4. Psalm 133 (alternate psalm).
This Psalm contains the beautiful line: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (verse 1). This is exactly the opposite message that those in the KKK/Nazi rally in Charlottesville and in other rallies and on websites across this nation are spewing. Their goal is to divide this nation and weaken it so that the forces of evil can take over – just as they did in Nazi Germany. A prayer litany for peace could be designed with Psalm 133:1 as the congregational response.
5. Romans 11:1 – 2a, 29 – 32 is tricky.
Because it could be interpreted as a reason to mistreat Jews because they have been “disobedient.” Nazis use verses 29 – 32 to justify anti-Semitism and rationalize “punishment” of the Jews for their “disobedience.” This interpretation must be unequivocally rejected. The more important verses to focus on is verses 1 and 2 where Paul insists that God has not rejected the Jews.
The Gospel reading is even trickier.
6. Matthew 15: 10-20 is the optional first part of the gospel reading.
These verses contain key words of Jesus that can be used to confront racist language and bigoted hate speech. “It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,” Jesus says in verse 11. Certainly words used by the US President over the course of the campaign, his alt-right advisors, the white supremacist websites, and any number of racist literature published by the KKK and Nazis are defiling all of us. If we refuse to publicly denounce them, we give them free reign to lead many people “into the pit” (verse 14).
7. Matthew 15:21 – 28 is problematic, but important.
The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman seems to undermine what Jesus had just said. In his exchange with the Canaanite woman begging for healing for her daughter, Jesus says words that make us cringe: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” (v. 26). Ouch. This falls into the category of “Things I Wish Jesus Had Never Said.”
After having consulted with key scholars on this text, I have to say that there’s no way around the conclusion that what Jesus says is problematic, at best. Jesus is calling both the woman and her people “dogs.” This would have been considered a cross-cultural insult during Jesus’ time, and it is certainly an insult today. Why would Jesus say such a thing? And what do we make of this woman who replies with a clever, yet humble response, that shifts the dynamic and results in healing for her daughter?
Avoid inadvertent anti-Semitism in your sermon
It may be tempting to interpret this as a story highlighting the contrast between Jesus, as a Jew, extending healing to the woman, a Gentile (as I had done in the original version of this post). Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, points out that such a reading is not only inaccurate, but inadvertently reinscribes an anti-Semitic reading of the text. Instead, both she and my colleague Jerry Sumney, Professor of Biblical Studies at Lexington Theological Seminary, agree that the point of this text is to show what Jesus’ healing looks like in a way that upends our expectations. The original readers of the gospel would have recognized the familiar trope of a person in a subordinate position cleverly getting the better of a superior. The story both emphasizes the great faith of the woman (“She persisted!”) and shows us that Jesus is the model teacher.
But, you may ask, how is Jesus modeling good teaching by calling this woman a dog? It comes in verse 28 when he changes his mind. In response to Jesus’ insult, the woman answered: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” And Jesus immediately heals her daughter, proclaiming: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Jesus listens and learns
Remember, for Christians, Jesus is human as well as divine. And as a human, he was a product of his time. When the woman points out the fallacy of his thinking, he learns from it and changes his attitude. “A model teacher is one who can learn,” Levine reminded me in a conversation about this text. “If Jesus has nothing to learn, and if he is not going to listen to others, then he is not a teacher, he is not in relationship, and he is not human.”
Levine further explained what Jesus came to realize by the woman’s response to his insult. “Jesus realizes that he can yield his own position of authority, his own job description, for the sake of someone who has no authority of her own, and this yielding shows he cares about the people, and more — he listens to them. She, on the other hand, demonstrates the model of the Sermon on the Mount: she persists, cleverly, without elevating the violence. Everyone wins. The readers both elite and peasant learn something about behavior, and you don’t need an anti-Jewish context to make your case.”
[For further reading, see The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd Edition, by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler.]
8. “Read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.”
Karl Barth’s famous words are in full effect with this passage from Matthew. A reader-response interpretation of Matthew 15:21 – 28 dictates that in light of the kind of rhetoric we hear and read from President Trump, the alt-right, KKK, Nazi, and white-supremacist websites, we must be very clear that what Jesus said in First Century Palestine is not acceptable to say to another human being. Especially in light of the Daily Stormer’s deplorable and horrific words about the homicide victim Heather Heyer, preachers must be very clear that such language must never be used about women, Jews, non-Jews, foreigners, people of color, people of different sexual orientations, people of other religions, etc. The Canaanite woman was not a dog. Her people were not dogs. We must never, ever animalize or otherwise denigrate another human being or group of people deemed as “other.”
Here’s where we can explain that the Bible is often DESCRIPTIVE but not PRESCRIPTIVE. Just because Jesus uttered these words does not mean we should follow his example, just as it is no longer acceptable to repeat the kind of racist language, jokes, innuendoes, or hate speech uttered by our parents and grandparents. The good news here is that, like Jesus, we can learn. We can change our attitude. We can make different choices. In his final response to the Canaanite women, Jesus modeled what it looks like to change our minds and initiate healing. At the very least, we can change our minds and initiate healing as well.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).
For more on preaching about Charlottesville, white supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism, and white privilege: