On Tuesday, Sept. 24, William Willimon, a Methodist Bishop, spoke at Trinity University in Parker Chapel about racism and Christianity. About half of the hour was dedicated to laying out his thesis: that Christians should confess their sins vis-à-vis racism, while the rest was for audience Q&A.
Willimon first laid out the groundwork for his argument: citing common Christian themes of repentance and flawed human nature. “As sinners, we’re in need of rescue,” he said.. “[It’s] an inclination that’s embedded within us.” As such, Christ came to redeem people and save them from their sins, and that principle defines Christianity.
Quoting a fellow theologian, Jim Wallis, Willimon argued that “America’s original sin is racism,” using that as a segue to discuss racism and Christianity. Willimon recalled a story when he went to North Carolina for a Methodist conference at 16, where he roomed with a fellow 16-year-old black teenager named Charles. One night during the conference, Willimon and Charles had a long conversation, in which Charles asked Willimon if he ever thought about the injustice of segregation in schools, buses, and other areas of public life. That is when Willimon realized that segregation was wrong, speaking of it as “they keep me in my place, and they keep them in [their] place.” After the conference was over, Willimon was on the path to becoming a racial justice advocate and confronting racism as a preacher.
Race, Willimon acknowledged, is weird for Christians to talk about since it’s not anywhere in the Bible. He argued that race was a product of the Enlightenment, a social construct conveniently concocted at a time when European powers were expanding their colonial empires and slave trades. Thus, racism was a natural product of the justification of the subjugation of people of color, marrying itself with power and bias to structure society in a racial hierarchy, according to Willimon.
The question remains: how do we respond to this? Willimon turns to Christian teachings, arguing that Christians need to “confess our sins” and speak up when they see a racist incident unfolding in front of them. He also implied that whites were explicitly the target audience of his talk, arguing “My white supremacy is deep within me.”
He did express pessimism at whites owning up to their racism, quoting Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American race activist, about “white America never getting truthed.” Willimon framed racism as a “theological test” for Christians that must be defined as a personal problem while also acknowledging that racism is built into the education system, the legal system, and the economy.
Willimon concluded by advocating for slavery reparations and hypervigilance against racial dog-whistling. “If an issue is about race, it is about race,” he said, referring to the fear over migrant caravans from Central America. In a personal message to people of color, he advised them to “be good at forgiveness” and “stay human in an inhuman situation.”
Photo by Zachary Neeley.
Pictured: author (L), Rev. Dr. William Willimon (R)