This post is different from usual in two ways. First, while this blog is devoted to Christian thought (usually the Bible, but sometimes theology or history), the focus here is on improving race relations. Second, I’m writing about two books that I’ve read recently, both by Dr. Carolyn Helsel, a preaching professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
I recently published a review of Preaching About Racism for the online magazine The Living Pulpit, which you can read here. My wife Anne (the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church) and I are also writing a joint review of Anxious to Talk About It, which will be published in a Baptist print journal next year.
Helsel wrote these books specifically to help White Christians address racism openly and honestly. (If you’re not White or Christian, there’s still a lot here that you might find helpful.) She approaches racial issues from several different angles: she writes about US history, modern psychology and sociology, and the experiences of herself and people she’s worked with. Above and beyond these, she diligently strives to stay faithful to God’s Word.
One of Helsel’s big ideas is that the Greatest Commandment, “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matt 22:34-40), requires us to seek authentic relationships. For most White people (including me), it’s hard to get a sense of what it is like to be Black in modern American society. But we cannot claim to be obeying God’s “love” mandate unless we put in the effort necessary to develop relationships in which we can be “real” with each other. This means that we have a duty to develop true friendships, in which we listen with genuine empathy and without giving criticism or judgment. Since we all want to be heard and understood, we need to be hearing and understanding.
A second theme in both books is her idea that we should approach conversations about racism from a place of gratitude. Christians should be grateful to God for the love that God shows us, and for the gifts that we receive from God. Among these gifts, of course, is the realization that we have work to do on racism (obviously, many Whites have not yet been privileged with that point of understanding.) Helsel is careful to stress that gratitude is something that we express, not something that we should expect to receive. Helsel harshly criticizes the idea that we live in a “meritocracy,” i.e., that success is necessarily tied to hard work or good moral behavior. For Helsel, everything we have has been given to us by God as a gift, and we show gratitude to God by using our gifts to benefit others.
One of the great things about these books is that while Helsel writes directly about racism, she is careful not to be judgmental or condescending. If you’re looking for something to make you feel guilty, then read something else! Helsel recognizes that dealing with racism in 2020 can be complex, the landscape is constantly changing, and that our erroneous ideas and actions with respect to race are almost always innocent ones. Addressing racism is hard, and we will make mistakes, so instead of beating ourselves up for being less than perfect, we need to strive instead for improvement, both personal and communal. Therefore, Helsel repeatedly encourages us to be gentle with ourselves and others, even as we deal with grievous sin.
Helsel does a terrific job of making some difficult concepts easy to understand. Both books are short and breezy, yet have considerable depth. As a bonus, each chapter in Anxious has discussion questions at the end to facilitate use by small groups and Sunday School classes, and Preaching has five sermons that pastors can freely borrow.
If you’re White and you’re ready to engage some thoughtful material about fighting racism, you need to take a look at these books!