The Politics of Preaching
To tell a congregation the truth, to condemn our world while admitting that we cannot see our way clear of it, is a political and prophetic act.
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez
By Matthew L. Potts
On November 13, 2016, the Sunday after the election of Donald Trump, I stepped into the pulpit of St. Barnabas Memorial Church in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to preach. I do this two or three times a month, but it’s fair to say I approached my homiletical responsibility differently that Sunday. The months since November 2016 have buffeted us with report after report of scandal, violence, injustice, and deceit, so it may be worth remembering just what those five days between Tuesday, November 8, and Sunday, November 13, looked and felt like in the United States. At DeWitt Junior High, in my home state of Michigan, white students formed a wall outside the school and barred entry to any student of color. The white students said they were making America great again. A toy doll with brown skin had string tied around its neck and was hanged inside an elevator at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. At Wellesley College in Massachusetts, students of color were spat upon while entering and exiting the multicultural student center. At San Diego State, a Muslim student was assaulted and her hijab torn from her head. There are many other examples.
These things saddened and frightened me, and as I climbed to the pulpit, I knew I must address them. The question, of course, was not if I should preach about politics, but how, and that question persists months later. Since early 2016 we have been told over and again by pundits and historians alike that our (continuing, unending) political moment is one of absolute singularity, one entirely without precedent. No one has ever campaigned like this, governed like this, spoken like this, lied like this, boasted like this, tweeted like this. So how should one preach in response to all this? What should political preaching look like in the age of Donald Trump? That is one question. But I want to ask a different, related, and perhaps more important one. In the age of Donald Trump, I do not want to ask how one should preach about politics. I want to ask: what will the politics of preaching itself be?
Preaching, in our present political moment, is not, or not just, about being on the right side of issues, about returning some moral authority to the pulpit. This is crucial, of course, but the responsibility for this did not commence or recommence on November 8, 2016. If we preachers lacked some moral or political urgency in past years, this indicates a record of our failings rather than the rise of some new obligation. And, indeed, in the months prior to the election, my own preaching had become decidedly more concerned with contemporary events. I told fewer folksy stories and referenced the news more. I didn’t become more partisan in my preaching, I don’t think (though a few of my parishioners might tell you otherwise). On the contrary, the issues I tended to focus on in my preaching in 2015 and 2016—the Syrian crisis and our stance toward international refugees; gun violence, especially mass shootings and the police killings of unarmed black men and boys; mass incarceration; immigration detention and policy—are ones I consider wholly bipartisan failures. There’s blame enough to go around, and too much partisanship in our preaching around these issues might obscure the depth and reach of all our sins.
How might we understand preaching to be a public practice that can critique the political strife we have found ourselves enduring these last long months?
So I did not tend to shy from the news in my sermons. In the conventional sense, my preaching had long been political, so my congregation no doubt expected me to say something about the election when I rose into the pulpit last November. But again, what I’m wondering about here is not strictly the question of whether and how preaching should take sides on contemporary issues. Preaching should. The question of its execution, however, seems to me largely a matter of craft, perspective, and practice, and as such, technical answers to these questions will vary greatly from preacher to preacher and from congregation to congregation. I’m less concerned here about the mechanics or strategies of any single sermon than I am with the politics of preaching itself. In other words, for me, for now, the question of how to convince or persuade people that they should share my preached opinions is less important than what this peculiar form of public speech stands for as a religious and political practice in our world today. What is this strange form of discourse, this singular sort of address, and how might we understand preaching itself to be a public practice that can critique the political strife we have found ourselves enduring these last long months?
When I came into the pulpit on November 13, 2016, I looked to my congregation and told them about DeWitt Junior High. I told them about Canisius College and Wellesley College and San Diego State. I also told them about my mom in Michigan who is not a U.S. citizen and my sister-in-law from Michigan who is South Asian, and how each feared walking around their midwestern neighborhoods back home. I told them I was sad and scared and ashamed. And then I told my congregation that I loved them, and believed that they loved me, and that people who love each other should be able to say hard things to one another. I told them I had some hard things I wanted to say. And then I preached.
If one shouldn’t speak about religion or politics in polite company, then political preaching starts with two strikes against it. Most preachers have a story they can tell you about the time someone walked out of their sermon, or accosted them about a sermon, or withdrew their pledge due to a sermon, or resigned from the congregation after a sermon. These stories will be true, and the anxiety they arouse among preachers is real. No one hopes their words will be poorly received, or worse, that their words will impair or even ruin a relationship. But to dwell upon these occasional examples is perhaps to overstate the case. In all honesty, political preaching is not so perilous or delicate a task as it is made out to be by us preachers, not in today’s religious landscape.
Our churches and denominations have sorted themselves in much the same way as the rest of American society. Our echo chambers still surround us Sunday mornings.
Of course, there are always some subtleties to consider when preaching about politics—congregational realities that will demand a discerning rhetorical response of the preacher. The truth can be told many ways, and one of the preacher’s tasks is to figure out how to tell the truth in a way that her congregation is willing and able to hear. In politics, this is called spin, and, as in politics, spin can wander into untruth or avoidance if not handled with faithfulness and care. But apart from that, the reality is that our churches and denominations have sorted themselves in much the same way as the rest of American society. Our echo chambers still surround us Sunday mornings. Though there are certainly exceptions at the congregational and individual level, Episcopalians like me (for example) are a fairly progressive bunch. There’s simply not much risk in preaching a largely progressive politics to a largely progressive congregation. There are more diverse denominations than us Episcopalians, of course, but I dare say that most pastors align with the politics of our congregations rather closely. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been invited into the pulpit in the first place, or they won’t remain there long.
Prophecy is one of the traditional tasks of preaching, but the reality of our political sorting against the chaos of our political moment has led me to wonder about the prophetic potential of sermonizing. When Michael Brown was murdered, I preached about his death and about structural sin and racism. My church, like most mainline Protestant churches, is largely white; my family is one of only a handful of families of color in the parish. And so, after my sermon landed hard upon my congregants, I waited for white blowback that never came. A bit surprised, a bit more emboldened, I preached repeatedly about issues of political concern in the following weeks, about race and immigration and bigotry, and I continued, generally, to receive positive responses. This has remained true up to and after the election of Donald Trump, as events each week have demanded a homiletical address. On that Sunday after the election, for example, the church burst into applause when I finished my sermon. That was a nice affirmation, but I must confess some ambivalence about the response. On many Sundays, I enter the pulpit with a prophet’s spirit, incensed at the injustice of the world, ready to be laid bare by the scripture we have been given, ready to speak truth to power, to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, ready to recognize the power of my prophecy in the way the congregation squirms at my rough word. But it never happens. They listen or nod or tear up a bit sometimes or even applaud, but these do not seem the proper emotional responses to a prophecy. A part of me would rather they rise up and shout me down, would rather they storm out and cause a scene. If they rejected me, I could feel my words were having some impact. Instead, my impassioned sermons float lightly down from the pulpit upon a people most agreeable, and then we shake hands in the narthex and agree to return a week later and do it all again.
To take an example: after three-year-old Syrian refugee Alain Kurdi washed ashore dead in Turkey, and that heartbreaking photo of him with his little well-fitted shoes and new haircut circulated in the media, I was horrified and angry and inspired. I preached with passion and disbelief at the injustice of our refugee policy. I told my congregation we had to do better, that the Syrian children washing ashore in the Mediterranean were our responsibility. After the service, a woman who had been deeply moved by the homily pulled me aside and told me as much. But then she also asked me a question to which I had no answer: So what do we do? How do we help? Standing in a pulpit and shouting about it isn’t enough, nor is simply listening to the person shouting. Prophecy has its limits.
I think we should admit that there is a helplessness to preaching, and I think it’s one we preachers should embrace.
So, what do we do? I think we should admit that there is a helplessness to preaching, and I think it’s one we preachers should embrace. The fact that we cannot bend the world to our articulated will does not mean we should be silent about its injustice and its tragedy. Preachers have this responsibility at least: to tell the truth; to describe the world as it is, even if it is not usually described in that way. This means accepting the limits of our words, recognizing that to describe injustice and to speak about it frankly does nothing directly to mitigate that injustice and may not much hasten its end. But perhaps this is a responsibility the preacher should assume as well: to accept what he cannot do. We should not mistake prophecy for advocacy, otherwise we might believe we have done enough while coming down from the pulpit after a particularly fiery speech.
Preaching cannot do everything, but I would like to suggest that may be part of its religious and political posture, its uniquely devotional and prophetic restraint. A toddler dies in Turkey; a teen is gunned down by police. What should we do? Apart from the unsatisfyingly obvious (donate to the International Rescue Committee; call your senator; go to a rally; support Black Lives Matter), we will not fix the world’s sins with a sermon and a song. Preaching has its limits. But perhaps testing those limits is part of preaching’s prophetic task. We tend, I think, to associate prophecy with prediction, with the articulation of a world restored, but to condemn the world, to declare that it should be other than it is, is already an act of prophecy, even if we have no words yet to describe how things might change. To declare, “it should not be thus,” is to imply “it should be otherwise,” and so already to embark upon a work of prophetic imagining.
It does no good to tell our congregations that the lamb will lie down with the lion if we’re not first willing to tell them about the toddlers lying dead on Turkish shores, or about the black teens lying dead in American streets, and about the lions roving all around who would feast on their holy, human remains. Indeed, to fancy some pacific realm without a frank and cold assessment of how cruel this real world is and how callous its Christians often are will itself be a dread failure of imagination, a hollow prophecy. Prophecy is judgment, and judgment is an act of the imagination because it speaks of that which it cannot yet see: the world made wholly just. Unless we are willing to see clearly our own world and to condemn it, we cannot rightly imagine what the world to come might be. By this I mean not only that we will not correctly envision the justice of a redeemed world, but also that we will not have earned the right to picture what that world or justice looks like.
It is difficult to lament, but necessary, honest, and sometimes prophetic.
This is part of what I mean about the politics of preaching, a politics which stands somewhat apart from the narrower question of how we might manage the political tone or content of our preaching. Show me the politician who is willing to stand up and say to his crowds: “Things look bad. I don’t have all the answers. White supremacy seems intractable. Automation has permanently altered our economy. Climate change will cause unimaginable destruction. There is no cure for cancer.” People sometimes believe in answers before they have even asked the appropriate questions or recognized the scale of their problem. The answers are alluring and win fast friends. It is difficult to lament, but necessary, honest, and sometimes prophetic. To stand before a congregation, to tell them the truth and despair of any simple solution, to have the courage to condemn our world while admitting that we cannot see our way clear of it, is itself a political act. It is also an act of prophecy, and of faith.
In my first year in the ministry at St. Barnabas, the rector and I buried thirty-one people. We had a funeral every ten days, two every three weeks. This is perhaps not an astonishing number to those who are part of large congregations, but for a church like mine which averages about two hundred souls in attendance each Sunday, it was a pastoral challenge, to say the least. It was also a surprise. When I had envisioned my future ministry as a seminarian, I had imagined myself performing weddings and doing baptisms, I had pictured myself preaching and celebrating Eucharist. As it turns out, funeral preparation and performance make up a large part of my ministry.
I’d like to say that in that first year I got to be good at preaching funeral sermons, but that’s not quite true. I did gain some familiarity and facility with the funeral sermon, so it became easier for me to prepare for and preach at funerals, but at times this worked against the goodness of my sermons. I remember once meeting with the bereaved husband of a women who had died of Huntington’s disease. They were not members of the parish, just mourners in search of a church, and we were honored to oblige them and provide funeral rites. Huntington’s is an incurable genetic disease of the nervous system that typically arises in adulthood and quickly leads to chorea, dementia, and nearly complete incapacitation. In the late stages of the disease, sufferers can neither move nor speak and most die by age fifty, after several years of full-time care. It is a cruel diagnosis, to say the least. I met the man and talked about the service and about his wife; a few days later, we held the funeral and I preached a sermon. I did not know the couple, of course, so I pulled out some of my most versatile chestnuts and spoke with the book of Lamentations about the faithfulness of God and with the Gospel of John about the love of God, and then I spoke of the family’s faithfulness and love for the deceased. And then I sat down.
What we can always say, as pastors, is the truth: that the world is as bad as it seems, and that we have met the limits of our powers.
Preachers can tell when their sermons fail, and I knew this one had, though I wasn’t quite sure why. At the end of the service, when the deceased’s husband came to shake my hand and thank me for the service, I noticed that the woman who had been sitting beside him during the funeral had now taken up his arm quite intimately. It dawned upon me, in that moment, a few hours too late, that I knew nothing whatsoever about this family and its grief these last long years. I realized that the loss this family had endured was unlike any other I had encountered, that their wife and mother had long since been taken from them, and that this funeral could not accommodate cliché. My reliable old chestnuts had profoundly misapprehended the manner of their mourning, and my pastoral and homiletical response to their bereavement was widely and wildly misplaced. The surviving husband thanked me for the service, shook my hand, and drove home with his partner. I haven’t seen them again.
Believing that you have the answer, that you know the right word, will be a hindrance to your ministry as often as it will be a help. Anyone who has had the good fortune to go through Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), or the bad fortune to suffer great loss, knows that the absolute worst thing to say to a human being in crisis is: Everything will be all right, God has his purposes, your loved one is in a better place. Because when your child is killed in a car accident, the world may never be right again. And God’s purposes have no purchase on your pain. And your child doesn’t belong in a better place, he belongs in your arms. Ministers are caretakers, and many of us want instinctively to help those who are suffering. We’re fixers, and the temptation for us in moments of great loss is to feel we ought to fix what has been broken, even if we know we can’t. The moment we succumb to the futile urge to say that one right thing, we imply the thing can be righted, and we have obscured the pain and scale of the wrong before us. The pastoral challenge in these moments, of course, is to allow the world to remain broken, to sit speechless with another in her loss and misery, to offer no solutions, to express only sorrow, using words only when necessary. It is only in the acceptance of our own finitude and failure that we will have reckoned with the real magnitude of the other’s loss.
This does not mean we cannot or should not ever speak. We can still tell the truth, if we are willing to do so and can do so with care. I remember my worst night of CPE. A teenager had been shot in the head and I was in the chapel with his family. I knew the child would die, but the doctor was responsible for relating this news, so I sat with the family and waited for the surgeon to arrive. When he came into the chapel he pulled a chair up to the boy’s mother and leaned forward and told her, with gentleness and genuine regret, that her son would not survive the night. She flailed and screamed: “Don’t tell me that! It’s not true! It’s not true!” Firmly, the doctor caught her hand as it thrashed around and he put his two hands around hers and then he found her eyes with his own and he said slowly and kindly: “I have to tell you that. It is true. I am so sorry. I’ve done all I can. I am so sorry.” Then she collapsed into his arms and he said nothing more for ten minutes. He just held her while she cried.
What we can always say, as pastors, is the truth: that the world is as bad as it seems, and that we have met the limits of our powers. To say anything else would be a lie. But to say only that much, to yearn for more to say, to hold a grieving woman in your arms and wish you had more words, is also to judge the world and our words for all their failures, and this is to declare in our silence that it should somehow be otherwise, that some word should remain, even if we cannot speak it, even if the language does not exist. To remain in that tragic place, having spoken a grim truth, is also to suggest in the aftermath of loss, however futile and fallible our language, that human connections—clumsy ones facilitated by limited language—do mean something. To name the way of things, to tell the truth, is at once to respect the limits of our language as well as to honor language’s quiet power to hold us together, each of us frailly clinging to another, even as things fall apart.
All of which is to suggest that what I have written above about the prophetic function of preaching is intimately related to its pastoral function, as well.
Readers familiar with a 1977 essay by Rowan Williams titled “Poetic and Religious Imagination” will recognize some of that essay in this one.1 There, Williams looks to the biblical book of Job to draw a line between the poetic and religious impulse toward imagination. “Job,” Williams writes, “with savage persistence has demanded justice . . . but he has not looked for it in the world, in the language of men [sic].” Job “refuses both resignation to the world as it is, and facile justification of the world as it is, because his instinctive and most basic conviction is that ‘the world is not enough.’ ” For Job, mere “resignation is a betrayal; structuring and explanation is a blasphemy. What is left, then, if the world is neither to be accepted nor to be rationalized? What remains is Job’s protest.”2 This protest is an exercise of the prophetic imagination, because it judges the world and, in so doing, implies that another world should be. It is an exercise of the pastoral imagination, too, because it recognizes that our words are not enough, that there are losses we cannot rightly speak to. But in speaking protest despite these limitations, Job also wagers something else: that his words do yet carry some meaning, however fallible and finite, however much in demand of critique and eventual correction. To speak—to speak within our limits, to speak with humility and restraint, to speak at all—is still to endeavor some significance to our speech, and significance itself “is a venture into the public sphere.”3 That our speech will carry human meaning and in so doing bid human response: this involves what Williams calls the poetic imagination. Because it is public, because it is protest, I would like to call it political as well.
Preaching’s politics should not be about affirming our opinions, but about broadening and challenging them.
This is what our congregations need, even our highly sorted, politically homogenous congregations. This is what can undermine even the deafening resonance of our echo chambers. Preaching’s politics should not be about affirming our opinions but about broadening and challenging them. We must tell the truth, judge the world, let our words fall and fail as they will, because to do anything other would be either a betrayal or a blasphemy or both. If we would be preachers; if we would answer the prophetic and pastoral demands of our call; if we would speak protest: then we must become not politicians but poets.
I write this the week after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which emboldened hate groups, led to the deaths of two police officers in a helicopter crash, and left several nonviolent protesters injured and one, Heather Heyer, dead. It may be the grossest understatement to declare here that President Trump’s comments in response to the brazen racist horrors of these events lack poetry. But they do. They lack any poetry at all. But when I write that the president’s words are unpoetic, I do not mean only that they are singularly inelegant or clumsy or stupid, though they are certainly all those things. What I mean is that they lack imagination, that in refusing to condemn the present, they also fail to envision a future, a new day in which something of equity and peace may be achieved. Instead, they marshal forth an oversimplified past and consecrate all its injustice with false memory. When I say the president lacks poetry, I mean that his words lack any sense of openness, restraint, or humility, that they refuse to admit of any limitation or invite any further discussion. In the wake of death and violence, before the real terror of our racism and real anguish of our history, the president’s words ignore the future for the sake of a false past. They reject uncertainty’s openness in order to remain confined by baseless confidence. They admit neither imagination nor mystery.
American political speech has perhaps never been more in need of some humility, never more lacked a bit of imagination.
For all his buffoonish bluster and stupid inelegance, however, President Trump is only the most highly placed offender against poetry and protest’s better habits. Failure of imagination seems to be the grammar of politics in our country these days; refusal of mystery is a familiar discursive habit in our debates. In these respects, most political speech in the United States today is profoundly unpoetic. American political speech has perhaps never been more in need of some humility, never more lacking in imagination. But I am willing to wager that the poetic and the homiletical imaginations have much they share in common, and that these mutual habits of mind and speech present a unique opportunity for the concerned Christian pastor and her parishioners. What preachers need, I believe, is not only a political preaching but also to recognize the politics of words preached from pulpit or podium or press conference. We need a public speech which honestly addresses the violence and injustice of the world, even if only to condemn it; a form of discourse which admits its own shortcomings, even if only to invite a relationship of response, a homiletics of judgment and humility, of imagination and mystery, of pastoral wisdom and prophetic protest. If the American preacher would find a way to speak of and to our distressing political moment, then let her rise into the pulpit with some poetry.
Matthew L. Potts is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature and of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School and is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. His book Cormac McCarthy and the Signs of Sacrament: Literature, Theology, and the Moral of Stories was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2015. His current book project examines the problems and possibilities of forgiveness.