Op-Ed

Reasons your congregation must discuss Charlottesville

A photo of Heather Heyer, who was killed during a white nationalist rally, sits on the ground at a memorial Wednesday, the day her life was celebrated at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Va.
A photo of Heather Heyer, who was killed during a white nationalist rally, sits on the ground at a memorial Wednesday, the day her life was celebrated at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Va. Associated Press

The KKK/Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., resulted in numerous injuries and one death by vehicular homicide. This past Sunday, some houses of worship acknowledged what had happened in some way — either in the sermon, the prayers or a moment of silence. But in some churches, there was complete silence about what happened.

As a pastor who served a congregation for 16 years, I understand how difficult — and sometimes impossible — it is to change or tweak one’s sermon at the last minute. But this weekend, clergy have no excuse for not addressing Charlottesville and the realities of racism in America. If you attend a house of worship, your congregation has a moral and ethical obligation to speak a word of justice, hope and healing.

You need to talk about Charlottesville, white privilege, racism and justice because:

▪ You are a role model. Your community is looking to you to model for them how to respond. The Sunday after Kristallnacht in Germany, do you know what Pastor Julius von Jan said in his sermon denouncing the Nazis? “The truth has been spoken aloud before God and in God’s name. Now the world may do to us whatever it wishes. We stand in God’s hand. God is faithful. But you, O Land, Land, Land, hear the word of the Lord.”

▪ You are brave. Your faith empowers you. Let it guide your words and actions. If you need inspiration and courage, get Dan Stroud’s book “Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow” and read it with a group in your congregation.

▪ The faith community has not done enough. When we look back at this moment in history, we will ask: “What should the faith community have done?”

▪ Religious teachings instruct you to speak out against injustice. You are obligated to speak truth to power.

▪ You have decided to be concerned about more than self-interest. Scholar Victoria Barnett explains that the church’s failure in Nazi Germany was due in part to a fear of self-sacrifice, and too much emphasis on protecting itself. Many pastors are worried about being chastised by their parishioners for being “too political,” chasing away the moneyed people from the pews, or even losing their jobs. Those are valid concerns. But there are ways to preach prophetically and still maintain your pastoral relationships.

▪ People of color, Jews, LGBTQ folks, the disabled, people of other religions and countries are counting on you. In his excellent book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” James Cone asks, “How could powerless blacks endure and resist the brutality of white supremacy in nearly every aspect of their lives and still keep their sanity?” He concluded that “an immanent presence of a transcendent revelation confirming for blacks that they were more than what whites said about them, gave them an inner spiritual strength to cope with anything that came their way.” Your faith calls you to proclaim that immanent presence of a transcendent revelation and confirm that blacks and all historically marginalized peoples are more than what white nationalists say about them.

▪ People want to talk about this more than you realize. People are longing to talk about racism, homophobia, sexism and all the other “isms” that they know exist, but don’t know how to discuss. Yes, there will be strong feelings — guilt, shame, frustration, even anger. But as Cone observed in his own confrontation of these issues, “anger soon gave way to a profound feeling of liberation.” The people in your congregation deserve this same chance at liberation.

▪ You can make a difference. Never underestimate the power of your words to plant seeds, water seeds already planted and even inspire people to take action for justice, healing and reconciliation.

Leah D. Schade is the assistant professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary, and is an ordained Lutheran pastor. She blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/ and can be reached at lschade@lextheo.edu.

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