In his book Don’t Shoot, criminologist David Kennedy identifies a disconnect between a criminal justice system built on the notion of personal responsibility and the fact that gang bangers think and behave as members of a group. You can’t reduce gun violence by ratcheting up the penalties for individuals, Kennedy believes, you have to deal with entire neighborhoods at once.
Kennedy’s insight came to mind last week when I read Brent Younger’s post about “Preaching peace in a timid church”. A few years ago, Younger moved from Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth to teach preaching at the McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta.
At the 2012 William Self Preaching Lectures at the McAfee School of Theology, “Preaching Peace in a Crumbling Empire,” Brian McLaren argued that the Bible is a call to speak God’s word of peace to an empire built on power.
“We preach the peace of one who was crucified, so we cannot preach power that crucifies,” McLaren said. “We preach a way of love and service, so we cannot preach conquest and domination.”
McLaren’s words in the chapel were challenging and inspiring. The words in the hall — not so much. Popular opinion seems to be that peace belongs in lectures, but not in sermons:
“That peace stuff wouldn’t fly at my church.”
“Now we know why McLaren isn’t a pastor anymore.”
“His last church must have been in Switzerland.”
“If I preach on peace, war will break out in the next deacons’ meeting.”
“I’ll preach against the war when McLaren agrees to pay my kid’s college tuition.”
In Jesus’ day prophets were run out of town, thrown off a cliff or stoned in the middle of the village. Now we dismiss prophets in the conversations between lectures.
The fear of social consequences largely determines what is said and remains unsaid in the pulpits of Christendom. It isn’t just street punks who engage in group-think, it’s everybody.
It wasn’t as if the preachers who shrugged of Brian McLaren’s call to preach non-violence disagreed with the message. The message couldn’t be considered on its own merits. In my experience, most preachers are so fearful of congregational disapproval that they subconsciously filter out potentially subversive thoughts. The idea that we refuse to pass on the teaching of Jesus because it might negatively affect the arc of your precious career is too embarrassing for conscious reflection. We can only handle so much cognitive dissonance.
If the deacons might not like an idea, we can’t allow ourselves to hear it. And this is particularly true if the idea comes from the lips of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. No one wants to say no to the Son of God.
Yet we say no to Jesus on a daily basis. At least we would if we allowed the sheer radicality of his teaching to reach our ears.
Which bring me back to David Kennedy’s response to street gangs and gun violence. You can’t solve the problem one punk at a time; you’ve got to work with entire neighborhoods. Or, applied to church culture, you can’t solve the problem by ensuring that seminary students take courses in ethics; we’ve got to work with whole congregations.
The preachers who dismissed Brian McLaren’s prophetic exhortation with snide comments about job security weren’t tilting at windmills. Preachers live in the line of fire. Too much Jesus stuff can be bad for your career. Seminary student are sometimes exposed to honest to God Jesus stuff before being called to conventional congregations. The newly-minted preacher preaches the Sermon on the Mount as if Jesus was really serious. Fearing that the preacher is on the verge of sparking a culture war in the congregation, the deacons grow restive. The preacher survives eighteen months of escalating conflict over apparently trivial matters, then resigns in confusion. Some leave the ministry; some adapt. The folks Brett Younger encountered after McLaren’s lecture had adapted.
If this is a church culture problem, we can’t just demand that preachers grow a pair. Every healthy congregation is blessed with a contingent of potential prophets who would seek first the kingdom if they knew how to get started, but bland sermons and abstract Sunday school lessons give them little to work with.
Bland sermons are a strategic response to the realities of church culture. Bland sermons may be entertaining, humorous and practical, but they don’t invite us to look at the world through the eyes of the poor and ask why. Bland sermons don’t say “Blessed are the poor”; they explain why, all appearances to the contrary, Jesus wasn’t really talking about actual poverty.
If we are serious about finding Jesus in the eyes of the poor, we must confront our fears together. The conversation must transcend the painfully familiar, right vs. left, culture war script. This isn’t about politics, it’s about the Lordship of Christ and the Kingdom of God.
Friends of Justice, the faith-based non-profit I direct, is building a Common Peace Community around the pivotal aspiration of the Christian life: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Common Peace Community events gather people of faith around Scripture and fellowship, to empower them as agents of change. We change gradually and by degrees. We change together. If you would like to learn more, I’d be happy to visit with you.