White America in a Black Church

The preacher gives it all he’s got, but the congregation looks half-empty and half-asleep.

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Book Review: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Book in a Nutshell: Writing according to the form of a worship service in lieu of the traditional chapter approach, Dyson compels his congregation to consider the volatile issue of race in America. Dyson pulls no punches as he addresses both the long history of racism in our country as well as modern-day manifestations including police brutality, appropriation, the N-word, and the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump.

Reaction: [Note: Since Dyson wrote this as a preacher and the book comes to the reader as a worship service, I respond here as a pastor in the same way I reflect and assess sermons and worship services in the church.]

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Rev. Michael E. Dyson

As a preacher, Dyson cannot be chided for lacking clarity and conviction; by the end of the book, he leaves no room for questions on where he stands or how he expects the reader to respond.

Dyson’s main exposition, which includes three sections directed toward white America and three sections depicting the black experience in America, stands out from the rest of the book. Here, the preacher calls out sin, reveals some of the buried heart-level issues, and shares hard-to-hear truths. The explanation of the stages of white guilt which includes a most helpful look at appropriation and his defense of hot-button topics like affirmative action show Dyson at his best even when church members might disagree.

But like any good preacher, Dyson does not just inform. He expertly uses haunting illustrations from his personal life and closes his address with concrete applications for his white congregation. This section of action steps one can take to begin to bridge the racial gap might have been the most helpful aspect of the entire worship service.

When thinking about a worship service, many since the time of the Reformation operate under this principle: Nothing should distract from the sermon.  The sermon is the part of the sermon where the people of God hear the word of God. Everything else should augment this experience. This is where Tears We Cannot Stop gets in its own way: not in the sermon but in the extras.

In his Call to Worship, Dyson reveals, “It will make you squirm in your seat with discomfort, before, hopefully pointing a way to relief.” He achieves this if nothing else. Before the choir is done singing, many in his congregation will be tempted to squirm their way home as the Hymns of Praise depict police brutality through the lyrics of contemporary R&B songs and hip-hop tracks. In the midst of the corporate singing, Dyson dissects an etymology of the F-word that adds little to his message. Before Scripture is even read and the opening prayer is said, the preacher runs the risk of losing half his audience.

The closing of the worship service hinders the impact of the sermon as well. As any preacher will tell you, there’s not much worse than putting everything you have into a sermon and watching the person giving the Benediction undo your entire sermon. Having already addressed the issue with precision and power, Dyson revisits the election of Donald Trump in The Prelude to Service which precedes only the closing prayer. As shown in the prior quote, the preacher’s stated goal was to end on a high note. The sermon and benediction succeeds in doing just that and the passing of the offering plate only solidifies this higher tone, but the president-elect characteristically drags the service into the sewers.

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Instead of a high note, the service fails to avoid the presidential black hole of race relations.

As both issues of police brutality and the presidency are covered in detail during the sermon, Dyson’s order of service would have supplemented his main address more faithfully if he had opened and closed his service in a different fashion.

Dyson’s sermon needs to be preached, but it also needs to be heard. While commending the ministry of Martin Luther King for being able to communicate to a white audience in a way they could receive, Dyson faces an uphill battle to do the same. His own recognition that white congregants have no problem getting up and walking out of a service might come back to haunt the preacher as the gut-punching, guilt-producing work of Dyson comes packaged blunt, explicit, and often combative.

The preacher gives it everything he’s got. The message needs to be proclaimed. But by the end of the service, the people still need to be in the room and they need to be awake. The question this book leaves unanswered, is will they?

Quote: There is a paradox that many of you refuse to see: to get to a point where race won’t make a difference, we have to wrestle, first, with the difference that race makes.

Ranking: 3 out of 5 stars

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