A few weeks ago I was sitting in a preaching workshop listening to a series of sermons on the same text. Most of the sermons were a lot alike, but one of them was a little different. It was about a certain social issue. Exactly what the issue was isn’t really relevant, but suffice to say it was one that is rehashed during every presidential election and new Supreme Court session. As we critiqued the sermon afterwards, someone asked whether or not it was an appropriate subject to bring up in a sermon. The preacher put his hands up and said, “It’s an injustice. We have to talk about it.”
I was trying to come up with some logical fallacies and poor exegesis he must have used, but as soon as he said that my attention snapped back into the room. I had heard his sermon as needlessly provocative bordering on offensive, but he had seen himself as being prophetic. Though we disagreed on the issue, I could easily see myself preaching a sermon on a controversial issue because “we have to talk about it.”
That seems to be the problem. What one person sees as speaking truth to power, another sees as offensive and reckless preaching. We often say that we want our preaching to speak to injustices in the world, but not at the expense of being pastorally insensitive to worshippers. But can the only thing that distinguishes the two be our own views on the controversial issue? Is there a way we can talk about preaching on divisive issues without appealing to our own beliefs on the matter?
I don’t have an easy answer to this question, but these are three ideas that might help us evaluate the quality of our preaching on divisive issues without making appeals to our own moral beliefs.
The privilege of the pulpit: There is a great deal of power embedded in the pulpit. It has a privileged position both in the liturgy and history of the church. Embedded between sacred texts and rituals, our preaching can often be elevated to a sacred status, even if it is hastily thrown together on a Saturday night. Though we might be tempted to think of good preaching as prophetic, we should remember that the preacher is the person who is in the position of power. This privilege creates an environment in which responsive engagement with preaching is difficult for congregants. Though we may try to start a conversation about a controversial issue, we will be unable to listen so long as we remain in the pulpit. That the pulpit is invested with a great deal of power is not bad, but it can be harmful if used incorrectly. Perhaps before speaking, we should use our privilege to invite others to dialogue.
Knowing your audience: It can be tempting to think that we can know our audience by their statement of faith or denominational background. We might think that we can preach on issue x, for example, because Episcopalians think y about it. While this easy to do (I find myself slipping into this kind of thinking all the time), it’s usually not correct. Because our religious affiliations have fractured into so many sects and denominations, it can be tempting to think that everyone listening must agree or else they would have left by now. But experience tells us this isn’t the case. It is rare that all members of a group actually agree with all of a denomination’s confessional documents or social statements. The beliefs and experiences of the listener are not defined by social statements and confessional documents, but her life experience. Even if a denomination has taken a position on an issue, it’s likely that someone has a raw personal experience with that issue. When we step onto the pulpit, we are not only preaching on a text, but also on listeners’ lives. No matter how much research or exegesis we have done, we can never fully know what people have been through.
Building common ground: Perhaps the greatest difficulty when preaching on divisive issues is our tendency to get ahead of ourselves and confront the issue before we’ve laid our groundwork. If we only have ten or fifteen minutes, we tend to cut out everything that’s not at the core of the issue. Perhaps we should slow down and start by clarifying what values and instincts we are appealing to. In The Righteous Mind, political psychologist Jonathan Haidt identifies six basic “tastes” that arguments appeal to: compassion, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. It’s a helpful framework for thinking about how we engage with others. Talking across divides is futile unless we can first appeal to another person’s values. If we start with the issue, we’re likely to be shut down. But if we can agree on some basic values and commitments, we have a chance not only to understand the other person’s view, but to recognize our commonality as well. We can’t have common ground unless we take the time to build it.
Should our faith communities take on controversial issues? Absolutely. But we shouldn’t expect our preaching to bear the entire load. Our preaching can only take us as far as we’ve come as a community. When we do take tough issues onto the pulpit (and I believe that we should), we should do so with humility and a sense of openness. Preaching can help shape our communities, but only as much as we are humble enough to let our communities shape us.