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Why Style Matters When Preaching Against Racism

The style of proclamation is essential when preaching to confront racism, according to William Willimon, a U.S. theologian and bishop in the United Methodist Church.

“What is said by the preacher may not be as important as how it is said. Style, the manner of presentation, tone, the demeanor and intentions of the speaker are important affective aspects of a sermon whose speaker desires not only agreement but active engagement and congregational enlistment,” he asserts in his latest book, “Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism.”

I guess my background has always suggested that “style” in preaching is a secondary matter. Indeed, at its worst, it is a gloss, a self-promoting sheen, inauthentic and certainly a poor substitute for content or substance.

This is the case not least when it is very obvious that the approach taken or imposed on a speaking event is “stylized” – deliberately managed to try and create this or that particular effect regardless of whether it ‘fits’ authentically with the person, content or context.

Willimon, I am sure, would not support such “style.” Yet, he talks about the importance of “style” for preaching about racism. In interpreting this, I offer several opinions:

First, we need to acknowledge preaching is an activity that seeks “transformation.”

It wants to bring about change. It speaks to make a difference of some sort. As such, preaching has to try to be persuasive.

This is not an abusive thing, a violent thing, an illegitimate thing as long as this is clear and it does not seek to coerce. As such, preaching should allow, indeed invite, the critique, conversation, disagreement, discussion and discernment of the listeners.

Most everyday conversations involve “difference” to allow the conversation to proceed. In this sense, preaching is part of a congregation’s ongoing conversation.

Second, Willimon writes as a white preacher to mainly white preachers. Yet, his primary, though not only, model of preaching is African-American.

Such African-American preaching is often different in style from much mainline white Protestant and evangelical preaching. This style is authentic in content and context.

Different styles, therefore, are quite legitimate. Style is not necessarily an add-on but an authentic expression of personality, culture and context.

Third, Willimon does think that the content (“preaching against racism”) – precisely because of the embedded nature of racism – requires a style that goes beyond addressing “ideas” (a feature of much white preaching).

Rather, it involves addressing (we might say) the “heart” and the “will” and not simply the “mind.”

In relation to the above, Willimon is correct in this emphasis on “style” for preaching that confronts racism.

In terms of rhetoric, “logos” (content and argument) needs to be accompanied by “ethos” (the suitability of the speaker’s character and authority to deal with a topic) and “pathos” (emotional appeal).

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” sermon is a classic in bringing these elements together.

Furthermore, in terms of “theology,” preaching that confronts racism does not have the purpose of simply teaching different ideas (though such are important). Rather, preaching that confronts racism seeks to change convictions, those “thick beliefs” which make a person who they are (drawing on the work of James William McLendon Jr.) and thus behavior.

In theological terms, preaching that confronts racism aims at “conversion.”

It seems to be the case that people who have been converted to Jesus Christ still require bit by bit to be converted to “his way” in the world.

Willimon sees the sort of preaching that confronts racism to be theologically rooted in sin, repentance, conversion, sanctification and grace.

One of Willimon’s key theological arguments against racism is that the church practices “baptism” into a new humanity.

Baptism is a central Christian practice. It is also one that, as to its identity politics, rejects race as a valid category of distinction and discrimination.

Willimon highlights that in some historic baptismal “liturgies,” participants are asked if they “renounce the devil and all his works” or to paraphrase, “renounce evil.”

Given the identity politics of baptism, one such evil work to be renounced is clearly racism. So understood, it is inherently contrary to what baptism signifies.

Whether this ethical dimension of baptism into the new humanity called the church takes on a greater significance in a tradition such as “Baptist” that emphasizes believer’s baptism may be to miss the point.

Be this as it may, the ethical dimension of baptism as related to the meaning of baptism is surely something to which Baptists with their emphasis on believer’s baptism will wish to give attention.

To put this more simply, opposition to racism is a matter of “discipleship.”

Preaching on baptism, about baptism or at baptismal services may thus be one of the “natural” places to confront racism.

Fourth, Willimon is of the opinion that if white preachers want to confront racism in primarily white congregations, they need to adopt a style that does not set themselves above white complicity but places themselves in that story while bearing witness to alternative possibilities.

The specific style of preaching he advocates to do this can be classed generally as “narrative” preaching and specifically in places as “testimony” preaching. Such preaching is more than personal storytelling; it aims at speaking a word beyond ourselves to “exorcise” the demons of racism.

What does such preaching look like? He gives examples, with the primary example being the book itself.

This is Willimon’s testimony of implicit complicity, conversion and ongoing sanctification with respect to racism. He writes, “Hello, I am Will, I’m a (recovering) racist.”

Style over substance in preaching is not good. The above, however, indicates the ways in which preaching that confronts racism, style is for the sake of substance.

Stuart Blythe is associate professor of the John Gladstone Chair in Preaching and Worship at Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Politurgy, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @StuartMBlythe.

Editor’s note: An earlier two-part series from Blythe reflecting on the topic, “How Your Preaching Can Confront Racism,” is available here and here.