"Who Lynched Willie Earle" by Will Willimon. A Review
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Given the present environment of racial tensions in the U.S.A. there are a rising number of volumes from diverse authors rolling out of publishing houses across the country. Will Willimon, retired Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church and Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke University Divinity School, has recently added his voice with his tiny 137 page paperback “Who Lynched Willie Earle: Preaching to Confront Racism”. Though the manuscript is popularly written and small in size, it is deep in thought and significant in intention.
The first four chapters of the book deals with the story of the lynching Willie Earle on February 17, 1947, and the critical analysis of the only local sermon preached by a white pastor the following Sunday (Hawley Lynn). The remainder of the material covers the place and problem of racism as well as preaching and pastoral avenues that can be pursued to remediate it. But one warning that is worth hearing in this highly uncivil era is that as “Christians we must find a way to talk about difference, including racial difference, without granting our difference sovereignty” (74). This irenic point, “without granting our difference sovereignty,” seems to course through the arteries of this work as the author touches several sensitive subjects
Willimon maps out numerous theological and practical paths for preachers to walk their congregations down to help them see not only that racism exists, exists in our churches and denominations, but also some approaches that should be tracked to help to begin to turn things around. The ground for such acknowledgments and advances has to do with the Gospel and God’s world rescue operation. “The baptized swear allegiance to a kingdom that is not characterized by white supremacy, progressive self-improvement, and national borders or gained by gradual softening of white privilege; citizenship in this realm is constituted by the vocation and election of God in Christ” (65). Even while describing “white privilege” the author exhibits how the Gospel guides the advantaged: “People who have benefited from power are now commissioned to own our power, sometimes to relinquish our power, at other times to use our power for good” (79). This principle follows well Paul’s on admonition to the favored of his day when he told Timothy, not that the wealthy are to get rid of their wealth, but rather, as “for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6.17-18).
When discussing the importance of preaching to confront racism, the author’s decades of homiletical experience shows forth in his sagacious advice. Willimon’s wisdom is a generous reminder to those who are, and those who should be, addressing systemic prejudice in their sermons: “Our preaching about race will tend…to be more indicative than imperative, more descriptive than prescriptive, more graciously inviting than guilt-building” (112). But the way to speak to racism is through and because of and by announcing the Gospel. As the author notes, preaching “is not primarily about racism or any other human sin. Preaching is about the God who, through Jesus Christ, justifies, seeks and saves, loves, forgives, sanctifies, and transforms sinners” (58).
At the end of the day, “Who Lynched Willie Earle” is a tactful corrective and charitable tutorial on the “why and how” of approaching this subject in our congregations. Though there were a few minute points I found disappointing, overall I would say that every Christian preacher should obtain a copy of this smallish portfolio, pour over it, pray through it, and then allow this ecclesiastical elder to encourage you with some fatherly directions. I highly recommend this book!
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