In some ways the jobs of opinion columnists and preachers are quite similar: Both must try to find what is -- or at least seems -- true and share it with readers, listeners or viewers.
Columnists, however, are rarely obligated to test what they find to be true and worth sharing against sacred scripture. Preachers, however, fail themselves, their religious tradition and those who listen to them if they don't do that.
But preachers who simply recite scripture without using it as a light to expose what is going wrong in the world are simply wasting everyone's time. Which means preachers in all traditions must be in some sense political. Not partisan, but political.
In Christianity, the history of being political in proclamations goes back to Jesus and to the very first creed of the infant church: "Jesus is Lord." What that said to the Roman rulers of the Holy Land at the time was that Caesar was not lord. There could be nothing more political at the time than concluding that and announcing exactly that.
Today Christian preachers also must find ways to expose idolatries using both the Bible and their own God-given eyes and brains.
But as this excellent piece about preaching by a preacher who teaches homiletics shows, that's no easy task.
"Some evils and injustices," writes Casey Barton, "are so embedded into our stories of our society, our relationships or our churches that we rarely even think to hold them up to critical examination. Tragedy and trauma, however, have a way of rooting these out and forcing us to face them. The pulpit is one place for the church to face them. . .Preaching occurs at the intersection of Scripture and this moment of God’s story. The act (of preaching) itself takes courage and discernment."
One of the task of preachers from any tradition is to use what are called their prophetic voices. This doesn't mean prophecy in the sense of predicting the future. Rather, it means taking a role similar to that of the old Hebrew prophets who told the world what God wanted and who pointed out when people were failing to live up to that.
As Barton writes, "To speak prophetically is to tell hard truths to those God has placed in our care. This calling is easy to forget because confrontation is hard."
As an old joke has it, people in the pews are all in favor of preachers who denounce the sins of others, but when it comes to denouncing our own sins, the response tends to be: "Now you're just meddling."
Barton correctly declares this: "Political power is not, has never been and will never be the means to achieving the kingdom of God (Mark 10:41-44). No political party or politician will save us — we place our faith only in God (Exodus 20:2-3). The use of, or incitement to, violence in the service of achieving any aim is sin (Proverbs 10:6-7, 11).
"Especially in this moment in history, our congregations need to hear that white nationalism, Christian nationalism and the preservation of oppressive racist systems is sin, anti-gospel, anti-Christ and oppressive and hurtful to our brothers and sisters of color (I’m speaking centrally to my white brothers and sisters who speak in predominantly white churches, for whom it may be most important to say this)."
The major world religions teach that every human being is of ultimate, infinite value, no matter color, sex, nationality or any other category. If preachers don't point out examples of thoughts and actions that violate that basic teaching, they fail -- as some of them failed when they said scripture justifies slavery or that scripture requires LGBTQ+ community members always and everywhere to be thought of as sinners and kept as second-class citizens.
Preachers who equate voting for this or that particular party with God's desires are violating their trust. But Christian preachers who understand that preaching inevitably is political now must figure out how to preach in that way without degenerating into partisanship.
Barton's piece should be a good guide for them -- and us.
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DO TERRORISTS REALLY BELIEVE SUCH NONSENSE?
In this year of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorism attacks, the world continues to struggle with the religious roots of terrorism and with ideas about how to prevent such extremism. This Patheos.com column, for instance, raises questions about whether terrorists really, truly, deeply believe that they will go to paradise if they die in the radical cause they've chosen. The author suggests they may not. And yet, in the moment, they may need such a conviction to allow them to go through with suicide and the murder of others. Ideas, it turns out, have consequences. As for how to unplug extremism, the last chapter in my new book offers several suggestions, and I commend it to you. The book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, just published in mid-January.