Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Power of Preaching

Does the Word from the pulpit have this much power?

The Protestant and Catholic churches of Western Europe did not exactly make war on the Jews during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. But they did keep up a steady barrage of contempt, combined with support for politicians running on anti-Semitic platforms, and with silence concerning the sadistic pogroms-cum-gang-rapes which provided weekend amusement for the devoutly religious peasants of Central and Eastern Europe. After the Holocaust, these churches fell all over themselves expounding the difference between their own religiously based anti-Semitism and the Nazis’ racially based anti-Semitism. But the Jews have had difficulty appreciating this distinction. They think, correctly in my opinion, that if the Christian clergy had, in the century or so before Hitler, simply ceased to mention the Jews in their sermons, the Holocaust could not have happened. 
- Richard Rorty

Daniel Kirk said something rather strange in a recent post:

"I would like to be a pacifist, but I have an African American friend who won’t let me–because without that brutal war, nothing would have changed for the slaved."

For someone reading through Church Dogmatics and convinced of the cruciform character of Jesus and his disciples to say this is really quite surprising (though he certainly tempers that statement in his further considerations). Could the Word of God have made no difference to the situation in 19th century America? Were there no possibilities other than brutal warfare? Could the strange, new world of the Bible not have been faithfully preached, with men and women cut to the heart by the movement of the spirit?

This may or may not have worked, but the way I see it is that the only way it has been given to Christians to make a difference in society is the way of Jesus, whose social engagement began with "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." The follow up to that was not, "If you don't repent, then we will have no choice but to bear arms against you." There was another way, another possibility. The kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world, which achieve desired ends through any means necessary. It is a small, slow, and subtle reality, easily missed and easily dismissed. But it is an alternative way of life that is in harmony with God's way of life.

That alternative is the stuff of preaching, and as secular humanist Richard Rorty implies, preaching the Word of God is a powerful act, more powerful even than wielding a two-edged sword or firing a Springfield Model 1861 rifle. In fact, it is a different mode of power altogether.

Just because slavery did in fact end through warfare, that doesn't mean warfare was the only way history could have been made. That kind of talk belongs to the limited imagination of the world, not the infinite imagination of the church.


  1. I like this. The slave trade was ended in the UK without a war. I believe slavery could have ended in the USA without a war. What made civil war inevitable in the USA was not slavery but self-righteous pride (on both sides). The south made war on the north to gain independence to do their own thing (i.e., keep slavery and states' rights). The north made war on the south in response, not so much to abolish slavery as to preserve the union.

  2. Thanks, Arden. I read a blog post recently about a Presbyterian minister from South Carolina who, in the 1950's, preached part 1 of a two-part sermon on what he called the "southern sickness" of racism: he was forced to leave the church before he preached the second part. This threat of expulsion is perhaps another reason for preachers taming the Word. Anyway, you can read more about that here: