Not Even a Hint – Racism in the Pulpit

The last couple of weeks have seen two high profile footballers accused of making racist remarks to opponents.  The world is rightly disgusted by this, even in the context of highly competitive and even combative sporting battle.  How much more should we in the church avoid all hints of racism?

If you are an overtly racist preacher, this post will not get to the heart of the issue.  I am writing more for those who don’t try to support a race discrimination position by twisting Scripture and becoming defensive.  I am writing for preachers who may accidentally give a hint of racism without intending to do so.

Here are three ways I have seen preachers fall into hints of racism that might prove helpful.

1. Cut out references to a “black heart” – Maybe in the context of a mimed drama it might be ok, but probably not.  Because of the way “black” and “white” are used as race markers, we have to be careful in using them as references to sinfulness and righteousness.  The Bible does speak of white robes, but a black heart?  Though your sins be as scarlet, sure, but not a black heart.  I heard one preacher make reference to “your disgusting black heart.”  He did so seemingly oblivious to who was sitting in front of him.  And to make things worse, he himself was from a place associated with racism in the past.  Probably best to just avoid the use of “black” as a reference to sin.  Not even a hint.

2. Generally don’t mimic accents from the pulpit – Again, I haven’t heard this done in a mocking way.  But it can feel mocking nonetheless.  I have experienced this with US folks faking a British accent, and with British folks faking a US accent (neither are very successful, which can lead to the feeling of implicit mockery).  When preaching Bible stories we are preaching about people in the Middle East, or Africa, or Mediterranean Europe.  Don’t fake an accent if it could be taken as mockery. Not even a hint.

3. Watch out for easy targets – In the English context there is much talk about racism and wanting to kick it out of sports, TV, etc.  Yet there seems to be open season on anti-American comments, or anti-French jokes.  I’m fully English and patriotically so, but I find myself reacting inside to anti-US comments from preachers.  In the context of the body of Christ united across Jew/Gentile lines, it just doesn’t seem appropriate.  Let’s go for a “not even a hint” approach, why not?

Are there other ways preachers inadvertently give a hint of racism in their preaching?

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9 thoughts on “Not Even a Hint – Racism in the Pulpit

  1. Thanks Peter for pointing out how we can inadvertently offend some of our listeners and thereby cause an obstacle to the message.

    I suggest that equally distracting and perhaps more overt is ‘spiritual or religious racism’. On more than one occasion I have heard preachers make disparaging asides about a person’s catholicism. As someone with a catholic background I am very critical about some of Rome’s doctrine and how it can be delivered and I believe that there are many who are deceived by its religiosity and ritual. But I also know that there are many true and great Christians within the Catholic Church. Therefore to suggest or imply that simply because someone is a Catholic that they are in some way a lesser christian is likely to offend some listeners in the same way that inadvertent racist hints may, and thereby obstruct the message.

    I am sure the same applies to other denominations and religious preferences; e.g critical comments by evangelicals about charismatics and vice versa. Even for those religions that we are confident are apostate, it may be valid and relevant to attack the doctrines but we should be wary of being critical of individuals.

  2. Thanks Peter, very helpful. As a Welshman I’ve sometimes felt the boundaries between good-humoured banter and racism getting dangerously blurred, often from the pulpit/platform. I’ve seen this go both ways – I’ve seen fellow Welsh people (and our Celtic cousins!) say some outrageous things about their English brothers and sisters. I’ve also seen and heard some pretty offensive coming in the other direction, too.

    No-one minds good natured banter, but far too often it seems to slide into outright racism, even in what we call the ‘United Kingdom’!

  3. I agree about 99% — which means I should explain the 1%.

    If someone wrote Titus 1:12-14 today, he would probably be accused of racism against both Cretians and Jews.

    It isn’t racism to warn against and rebuke the besetting sins of a society. We should never assume that every member of a society is guilty of those besetting sins (that would indeed be racism), but when a particular problem becomes pervasive, we should warn all in the society against it. I believe that’s the point of those verses in Titus.

    Huw’s point is very well taken, but I’ll just add this. Most of the intra-UK problems that I’ve seen have been intended as good-natured banter which accidentally crossed the line into something negative. On the other hand, I have seen actual malice towards Pakistanis and Eastern Europeans (not from the pulpit, but certainly I’ve heard Christians say things that make me shudder).

    • Thanks Jon. I agree with you. I suppose it is worth noting that Paul is quoting what one of their own prophets said of his own culture. Paul seems to be careful not to attack them personally even back then.

      I come across the hesitance to critique culture in a couple of spheres.

      1) the cross-cultural missions training where we are trying to stop people becoming critics in the midst of culture shock. It is right to prepare people for this, but I do strongly disagree with the common misconception that everything comes under the “not wrong, just different” catchphrase. There are things that are wrong in every culture and we need to be careful not to miss that.

      2) in the pendulum swing away from anti-cultural separationist Christianity, some seem so passionately committed to Christianity in culture that they refuse to critique anything in our culture except institutional church. Again, it is right to redress the balance away from a total separation approach, but wrong to swing so far that all aspects of a fallen culture are condoned.

      The thing is, as an English preacher I can make comment on English culture. That doesn’t seem racist. When I preach in the US, or Italy, or other countries, then I have to be very careful how I comment on the issues in the culture.

      You are right about the intra-UK comments being typically intended as good-natured banter. I’m sure comments about other races are intended in the same way in many cases. What I’m suggesting is that we need to be very careful that we don’t leave a taste of racism in the mouths of any present. Chances are they won’t come and talk it through with us afterwards to get our motivations. They are more likely to take away the lingering feeling and we will never know.

      • Thanks, Peter. I agree.

        As an American ministering in Scotland, I hear your comments about being careful about how you comment on the culture when away from England. When I address things like this, I’ll often talk about “in our Western societies”. If it’s a problem in Scotland, it’s probably also a problem in England or France or America as well, even if the degree varies.

        Of course, after 16 years, I’ve gained some credibility that I’m not just trying to Americanise the Scots. It also helps that I’ve learned spell that with an “-ise” instead of an “ize”. 🙂

        Enough diversion from your main point, which is excellent.

  4. My pastor was delivering a message on Romans 11 yesterday, and while enumerating the Gentile nations that were “grafted in” he included exclusively European nationalities (“Germans, Italians, the French, English, Irish…”). He did this twice while I squirmed in my seat. The second time he prompted the congregation to help him out with nationalities he might be missing. While I silently thought “about 200”, someone did pipe in with “Africans.”

    Forehead slap.

    I guess this one is easy for me to pick on, since I wasn’t delivering the message! I don’t think for a moment that my pastor is a racist, but ethnocentrism is easily portrayed if we aren’t intentional any time we are referencing anything relating race or ethnicity. I try never to speak “off-the-cuff” in public in reference to these.

  5. You’ve hit the nail on the head with this one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard complaints about how foreign preachers make negative comments on the local culture. Locals might even agree and/or make the same kinds of comments themselves, but it has a completely different effect when someone does it cross-culturally.

  6. While it’s not a *race* issues, I am often put off by gender issues I expereince from the preacher. I notice the mother’s day message is about the praise of mothers – and the father’s day message is about how Father’s need to be more fatherly. Just one example.

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