The Sound of Silence in the American Pulpit
Author(s): Andrew M. Manis
Nobody seems to know who first made the observation or the exact moment when it went from new insight to old cliché, but two things we do know with some certainty: First, Martin Luther King Jr. often quoted it, and second, that it is still true: Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning remains the most racially segregated hour of the week.1
This persistent truism set me to wondering what white and black ministers are saying these days to their congregations about race matters, utterances that are never heard on the other side of the color line.
To try to find out, I contacted homiletics professors at forty-one U.S. Protestant seminaries, soliciting their and their students’ sermons on racial reconciliation. So far I’ve collected a whopping twenty-four sermons. Next I asked fifteen of the most prominent clergy around town to contribute a sermon for a new book project entitled, Eavesdropping on the Most Segregated Hour: A City’s Clergy Reflect on Racial Reconciliation. So far, after recruiting for some eight weeks, I’ve managed to drag seven ministers (five white, two African American) on board with me.
Three of the invitees declined – two whites, one black. One of the whites claimed he was not qualified, while the other needed to pray over the matter before he eventually said no. Suffice it to say that racial reconciliation appears not to be a favorite topic for sermons in the contemporary American pulpit.
Yet even as America nears this year’s fiftieth anniversary of the Birmingham demonstrations and the “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, African Americans still lag behind whites in every significant economic index. Yes, there has been progress. The combination of the civil rights movement and the activism of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations and a liberal Congress yielded the two most important civil rights advances in our history. Thus we finally rid our American souls of Jim Crow (with the 1964 Civil Rights Act), and Congress forced the South to protect black voting rights (with the 1965 Voting Rights Act). But not without a white backlash, both South and North, that deposited a residue of bitterness on both sides of the color line that remains even in the second term of our nation’s first African-American president.
So why have we not made more progress on race matters? Why does black life expectancy still average some six years less than that of white Americans? Why is black unemployment still double that of whites? Why does the average black college graduate earn only 78 percent of her white counterpart? Why is Jennifer still 50 percent more likely to be called for a job interview than LaKeisha? Why is it still so easy, despite all the evidence of modern science, for some to attribute these deficiencies to blackness? And why it is still so difficult to hear a clear “Thus saith the Lord!” on these matters from our pulpits?
In white pulpits, anyway. Generally, ministers in black churches deal with race issues of some kind virtually every Sunday. This is why very few African Americans were surprised by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s prophetic utterances that shocked so many whites back in 2008. The difficult realities that still exist among blacks naturally elicit some harsh words from their preachers. But I am certain that my black minister friend who declined to contribute a sermon to my book knows many fellow ministers who, like he, have developed so strong a case of “race fatigue” that they have stopped even addressing the matter with white people. They echo an exasperated Thurgood Marshall who once said, “Sometimes I get so tired of trying to save the white man’s soul.”2 Unlike Sisyphus, they’ve just stopped trying to push that particular boulder up that particular hill.
So our progress lags because many white Americans and their ministers are eager to convince themselves that we have already reached the Promised Land of a Post-Racial America. Seriously? Many of these otherwise caring, Christian citizens surely want it to be true. Others are, as the late scholar Ronald W. Walters suggested, frustrated by conditions they feel they’ve tried to fix but will not go away.3 Both groups perhaps think privately, “Oh, get over it. It’s time to move on to other concerns.” There are, of course, angrier versions of this response.
Why this recalcitrance and defeatism? Here’s my theory: Some ideological stars in the American constellation burn so brightly that they blind most of us from seeing clearly the situation on the ground right before us, hidden in plain sight. How many such bright stars are casting their blinding light over us? Who can tell? For starters I can name two.
A Blinding Star
The first is American individualism, which dominates both our political and our religious language. Invoked as something sacred, it makes us praise or blame individuals for their good or bad behavior. It understands that the individual choices we make and actions we take really do matter. But the light of individualism is too bright to allow us to see that the collective, social situations around us matter just as much.
A survey conducted in 2000 by the University of Akron showed that 73 percent of evangelical laypersons agreed with the statement: “If enough people are brought to Christ, social ills will take care of themselves.” Along the same lines, another white evangelical told researchers, “If everybody was a Christian, there wouldn’t be a race problem. We’d all be the same.”4
Individualism reads the New Testament and sees the missionary Paul converting individuals all along his journeys. It blinds us, however, to the Paul who tried to aid Jewish Christians by gathering money from every Gentile church he visited all the way to Rome and perhaps to Spain. He even put off some of his missionary activity until he had taken the offering back to Jerusalem. We see his evangelism, but we seem oblivious to his social vision at work in virtually every one of his letters, which contains material designed to break down the “middle wall of partition” between Gentiles and Jews.
Being healed of this blindness would help us grasp that just as human nature has both individual and collective dimensions, so does racism. We’d see that even a miracle that changed our individual racial attitudes overnight would still leave us a society with deep inequalities that require collective action commensurate with our changed attitudes toward individual persons of color.
The other blinding star in our sky is the tradition of voluntarism created by our freedom of religion. No government can force us to be religious or join a congregation. Our churches, as Sidney Mead told us long ago, must convince “prospects” to become voluntary members. This creates a marketplace of religion where religious organizations must compete. And judging from the typical customer service I see in the business marketplace today, our churches might be the last institutions in America where the old slogan still holds true: “The customer is always right.” They are right even if they are actively racist or passive bystanders who allow the inequality of the racial status quo to remain intact. Either way, they want to hear something spiritually uplifting from the pulpit. Risk too many homiletical references – never mind entire sermons – about race, and the preacher may soon be looking for a new gig elsewhere.
Thus it was for the ministers in early America who avoided criticizing and then eventually advocated slavery for the sake of the wealthy Christians who owned both slaves to build their plantations and hireling ministers to build their churches. Thus it was for the ministers during the civil rights movement who joined the Rev. Jerry Falwell in lionizing Billy Graham rather than Martin Luther King as the model minister.
Such hireling ministers may be, in the terminology of evangelicalism, fine “soul-winners” or “church-builders.” But are the churches they built mere monuments to expedience, where keeping one’s pulpit meant keeping the customers satisfied and keeping their churches growing? We have to wonder about the nature, message, and spiritual legitimacy of such churches if it also meant keeping silent about the untold millions of sons and daughters of Africa whose lives were ended or damaged for generations to come by slavery and segregation. As Frederick Douglass told a London audience in 1846: “… the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood; while the blood-stained gold goes to support the pulpit, the pulpit covers the infernal business with the garb of Christianity. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services for the churches.”6
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was one of the bravest ministers ever to set foot on this continent. He single-handedly carried the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Ala., on his shoulders, surviving three bombings of his church and home, along with several additional attempts on his life. After five years of cajoling, Martin Luther King Jr. joined forces with him for protest demonstrations that rocked America fifty years ago this spring. When white ministers told Shuttlesworth they would lose their pulpits if they spoke up in the movement’s behalf, he replied, “I would do it at least once and see if God didn’t find you another pulpit.” He always added this tagline: “When God says ’Jump!’ it’s my job to jump; it’s his job to fix me a place to land.”7
Simplistic as it sounds, when we ministers look at the world through a faith perspective like this, our eyes can be shaded from the brightness of individualism and religious consumerism and actually see the continuing devastation caused by racism and our cowardly silence about it.
“The lion has roared,” the prophet Amos once said, “Who can but prophesy?” Who indeed?
Andrew M. Manis is associate professor of history at Middle Georgia State College, formerly Macon State College. His books include A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (Alabama, 2011) and Macon Black and White: An Unutterable Separation in the American Century (Mercer, 2004). He is also an ordained Baptist minister with a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
1 The statement appears four times in James Melvin Washington’s collection of King’s most important writings, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King Jr. (Harper & Row, 1986) – King’s 1962 “Address to the National Press Club,” p. 101; “The Case Against Tokenism,” p. 108; “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” p. 270; and “Stride Toward Freedom: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” p. 479.
2 Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary (Random House, 1998), p. 199.
3 Ronald W. Walters, The Price of Racial Reconciliation (University of Michigan, 2008), p. 80.
4 Geoffrey Noel Schoonmaker, “Preaching About Race: A Homiletic for Racial Reconciliation” (Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 2012), p. 31; Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 117.
5 Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (Wipf & Stock; reprint edition, 2007).
6 Frederick Douglass, “Address in London” (1846), excerpt reprinted in James T. Baker, ed., Religion in America: Primary Sources in U.S. History (Wadsworth, 2006), p. 196.
7 Andrew M. Manis, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (University of Alabama, 1999), p. 186.