The Hermeneutics of Recognition: A Ricoeurian Interpretive Framework for Whites Preaching about Racism Open Access

Helsel, Carolyn Browning (2014)

Permanent URL:


This dissertation examines the lack of sermons about racism from white preachers in predominantly white congregations and suggests three possible sources of such reticence: an insufficient understanding of the manifestations of racism today, an inability to perceive the salience of white racial identity, and an inadequate theological framework for preaching about racism as sin. The commonality between all three insufficiencies is the role of interpretation in assessing the meaning of racism, white racial identity, and racism as sin. Thus, I argue that in order to preach about racism, white preachers need a revised interpretive framework that can encompass the cognitive apprehension of racism, the personal formation required to work towards an anti-racist white racial identity, and the theological sensitivity to the pervasiveness of racism. After describing theoretical resources to respond to these sources of reticence, I propose a Ricoeurian interpretive framework called the hermeneutics of recognition, drawing from the work of hermeneutic phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur, particularly in his last book, The Course of Recognition. The hermeneutics of recognition include a three-part analysis of recognition-identification, self-recognition, and mutual recognition, and this final phase of mutual recognition is rooted in an image of gift exchange. For whites preaching on racism, I argue that the hermeneutics of recognition involve recognizing the manifestations of racism, recognizing oneself as white, and then moving toward mutual recognition out of gratitude. This gratitude emerges from the white preacher's dual awareness of the intractable nature of racism as sin and the generosity of God's redeeming grace in Jesus Christ. The three basic movements of the hermeneutics of recognition for whites preaching about racism are recognition-identification, recognition-personalization, and mutual recognition-gratitude. This dissertation argues that in order to overcome a reluctance to preach about racism, white preachers can employ an alternative interpretive framework, known as the hermeneutics of recognition, which includes acknowledging the difficulty of identifying racism, moving towards personal formation by recognizing the salience of one's white racial identity, and in preaching about racism out of the recognition that the depth of human sinfulness can only be redeemed by the gift of God that calls us to gratitude.

Table of Contents


Introduction 1

Chapter 1. White Noise: Obstacles to White Preachers Preaching on Racism 15

A Conspicuous Absence of Sermons on Racism 15

Sources of White Preachers' Reticence 18

Attending to the Reticence: The Changing Meaning of Racism 20

The Continuing Significance of Race: The Role of Interpretation 23

The Centrality of "Interpretation" and Its Relationship to the Self 28

Interpreting White Racial Identity 32

Interpreting Racism Theologically 34

Converging Thinking, Feeling, and Acting: Ricoeur's Hermeneutic Philosophy 37

Literature Review 39

Thesis 43

Method and Summary of Chapters 45

Chapter 2. Changing the Subject: Conflicting Interpretations of the

Meaning of Racism 51

"Racism" in Sermons: Discourse Analysis of the Word-In-Use 53

Studying the Interpretive Framework of White Evangelicals 57

The Elusive Definition of Race and Racism 65

Contemporary Theories of Racism: "Racial Hegemony" and "Color-

Blind Racism" 69

Interpreting Racism: The Inheritance of a Racialized Society and Its

Justifications 79

Interpreting Preachers' Interpretive Frameworks for Understanding Racism 80

Chapter 3. Interpreting the (Im)Materialities of White Racial Identity 83

White Racial Identity Development: A Psychological Stage Model 89

White Subjects: An Ethnographic Approach to White Racial Identity 103

The Hermeneutic Horizons of White Racial Identity 117

Chapter 4. Naming Racism As Sin: The Sins of Sin-Talk and the Need for Grace 125

The "Sins of Sin-Talk": Stephen G. Ray and the Racism in Theological Discourse129

Naming Racism as Sin: The Metaphors of Idolatry, Estrangement, and Bondage 143

Conclusion 159

Chapter 5. Paul Ricoeur and the Course of Recognition 160

Introduction 160

Introducing Ricoeur's Course of Recognition 166

"Merely Semantics"?: Ricoeur Examines Lexicographical Definitions 169

Ricoeur Analyzes "Recognition" in Philosophy 175

Ricoeur on Recognition as Identification 177

Ricoeur on Recognition of the Self 185

Ricoeur on Mutual Recognition 201

Conclusions from Ricoeur on Mutual Recognition 226

Chapter 6. The Hermeneutics of Recognition 228

The Course of Recognition and the Hermeneutics of Recognizing Racism 230

Speech Acts and Semantics: Beginning the Process of Recognition-Identification 231

Self-Recognition as Personalization of What Has Been Recognized 238

Toward Mutual Recognition: Gratitude 243

Sermonic Application: Responding to the George Zimmerman Acquittal 248

Conclusion 252

Appendix 255

Methodology 256

Bibliography 259

About this Dissertation

Rights statement
  • Permission granted by the author to include this thesis or dissertation in this repository. All rights reserved by the author. Please contact the author for information regarding the reproduction and use of this thesis or dissertation.
  • English
Research Field
Committee Chair / Thesis Advisor
Committee Members
Last modified

Primary PDF

Supplemental Files