Preaching That Slices Like a Sword
James Campbell, an editor of The Times Literary Supplement of London, in a review (New York Times Book Review, Sept. 12, 2010) of The Cross of Redemption: The Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin criticizes the later essays of Baldwin by claiming, “The habit of sermonizing, once established, was hard to break.”
Yes, in common usage “sermonizing” means language that is long on umbrage but short on finesse. It is blunt prose that is moralistic in the extreme and boringly opinionated. It is the kind of thing that elicits the sarcastic riposte, “You don’t feel strongly about that do you?”
With the exponential increase in the ways to publicize one’s views has come a lively but tangled discussion of the need to keep conviction and civility together. What has devolved out of this is a nasty fight about fighting fair. It is so easy to regress into our childhoods where it felt so delicious to give the other a tongue-lashing but so bad when it comes time for pay-back.
We still need honest and good sermonizing. But can these bones live? Can we be filled with genuine and salutary indignation that is original and not derivative? Can we have preaching that slices cleanly like the sword of truth and does not bludgeon—that can show and not simply keep telling the same old half-truths?
What would the signs of clean slicing be? Perhaps it would be honest searches for the truth about our shared humanity in the midst of complexity. Uncivil discourse is marked by the dehumanizing of the opponent. “They do not care for children, beauty, peace, God, justice or the environment. They are only concerned for themselves? They cannot possibly simply be in error or responding differently because the issues are so tangled so their ways must be wanton?”
So, it would seem we are hungering for preaching and civil discourse that is marked by respect for all others, points to shared blame and calls for shared responsibility. It is discourse that does not ratchet, but calms down the emotion. It does not insist on simple or easy answers, but on hard work one day- and one piece of the puzzle at a time.
If civil discourse and good political preaching is truly fueled by an informed conviction—if it shows well—if it convincingly tells our shared story, it should not fall back into being blustery or boring mere sermonizing. If it slices like the sword of truth it will be a welcome relief—something that produces more hopeful light than fear-ridden smoke.
And for civil discourse and good preaching to be passionate AND fair AND Christian, it must take up the cause of the oppressed. One cannot read far in the Old or New Testaments without learning that God’s cause is the cause of the exile, the alien, the widow and the orphan. The Powerful One is concerned with the powerless. So this too must be a test of genuine prophetic or Christ-centered civic speech. I cannot claim the role of a Christian voice today if I am only concerned for my own comfort or prerogatives. If I have the leisure to think and write, and I must concern myself more with losing weight than with hunger pangs—with fixing and storing my stuff rather than how to get out of jail—then I have no Christian duty other than to ask why in this world of plenty, there are so many who starve. I have no other duty than to listen to their take on things and to stand with them as they strive. That is what should convict me and cause me to cry out.
Surely what keeps our society from doing righteous things is complex and confusing and there is a great deal of room for polite disagreement. But let’s get straight on what it means to be civil and convicted Christians.