Preaching and the Polis—Some Thoughts from the Pew

[1] As someone who has known John Stumme since his student days at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in the late 1960s, when I was a young professor there, I am not surprised at the stellar career he has had in the succeeding decades. For already at that time he was a visible and persuasive leader, not only among students but in the seminary community as a whole, in alerting us to our social and political responsibilities in that turbulent period. I join in thanking John for his many years of ministry in this field, which one hopes will bear much further fruit in the years to come.

[2] One of the hallmarks of the work of the Division for Church and Society during this period has been the promotion of the idea of the church as “a community of moral deliberation,” an idea that I think has genuinely taken hold. The study processes at the national level have embodied it admirably, and I have seen its effects also at the local level. In the congregation of which I am a member, the Sunday morning adult forum, known as the Center for Faith and Life, regularly takes up questions of social and political significance, from the problems of homelessness in the local community to the conundrums of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Activists and academics with expertise on the topic are brought in as speakers, with an emphasis always on allowing plenty of time for discussion. One can get quite an education on issues that Christians need to be concerned about today just by following these forums.

[3] Yet in the worship services in this same congregation, and particularly in the preaching, one seldom if ever experiences this breadth of outreach. Even an urgent concern that may have preoccupied the public mind during the preceding week, be it something as historic as 9/11 or as shocking as Abu Ghraib, will typically find expression at Sunday worship, if at all, only in the intercessory prayers. And even there, it will usually only be mentioned in a brief phrase, like an item on a shopping list, rather than set forth in vivid language and agonized over, in the manner of the prophets and psalmists. In the sermon, there typically will be no mention of these events at all, even though this is the pastor’s preeminent opportunity to help the congregation to reflect on, express grief over, take responsibility and repent for, and more deeply understand such events. The same is true if we think not of specific traumatic events but of ongoing trends and issues.

[4] Our clergy make a diligent effort not only to explain the Biblical text historically, but also to contextualize it in our own lives today. This can result in a quite gripping message regarding personal discipleship – but too often, the ripples stop right there. The innermost circles of interpersonal and familial relationships are analyzed with considerable sensitivity, but the broader circles of corporate and civic life are ignored. At most, a reference might be made also to one’s “ministry in daily life,” although again on an individualistic basis: the picture is that of the individual Christian doing his or her best to express faith-active-in-love in the workplace or other such context. One would never guess from what one hears from the pulpit that the Christian faith has implications also for the corporate structures themselves. We have set forth the latter at great length and with great cogency in our social statements, but there is a disconnect between these and the chief way in which the meaning of the faith is communicated to the laity.

[5] But if one calls for greater attention to making this connection, does this not raise the specter of “political preaching”? It all depends on what one means by “political.” To avoid its obviously unsuitable implications – using the pulpit to endorse particular parties, platforms, or candidates – I prefer to use the root term polis. This I take to mean not simply “city” as known in the ancient Greek context, but more broadly, the organized human community. This can be understood geographically, as either local, national, or global, and also in terms of its various structures and dimensions: social, cultural, economic, governmental, environmental. (In this sense it may be an equivalent for the concept of “orders of creation.”) The question is: what should be the relation between preaching and the polis?

[6] One of the questions that would need to be dealt with in such an inquiry is how we can encourage and empower our clergy to preach on the whole Word of God, including the Old as well as the New Testament. It is in the Hebrew Scriptures, after all, that we have the record of God’s dealings with the people of Israel precisely as a people, i.e., an organized human community. It is the record of a millennium or more of this people’s experience, under divine grace and judgment, of grappling with the problematics of the polis. And the range of issues that they faced is in many cases startlingly similar to our own – questions of wealth and poverty, power and powerlessness, hospitality toward the stranger, the impulse towards revenge or reconciliation with one’s ideological adversaries.

[7] How can we deny ourselves these resources for interpreting what God’s love and judgment might mean for our world today? Yet I venture to say that the number of times the First Reading is taken as the preaching text in our Lutheran services is very small indeed. This tendency is abetted by the way in which the lectionary deploys Old Testament texts as foils for or foreshadowings of the New Testament, rather than as Word of God in their own right. The Calvinist tradition has done much better than the Lutheran in treating the whole Bible as Holy Scripture, and the African-American tradition also knows well how to deploy Old Testament texts and stories as the basis for preaching today.

[8] So I propose that we give closer attention to this matter of “preaching and the polis,” looking at how our clergy can learn how to address the trans-personal dimensions of the human condition – and to do with sufficient concreteness to give their comments some moral traction – while learning also how to discern that line, the passing of which would transgress into what we commonly call “partisan politics.” As part of such an inquiry, a case study could very profitably made of Reinhold Niebuhr, a figure who I know was very influential on John Stumme, as on me. Niebuhr cut his teeth on the issues of social justice in industrial Detroit, and went on to become a master interpreter of the life of nations and empires, seen in light of the ironies of divine providence. At the broadest level, he wrote The Nature and Destiny of Man and similar works of almost universal scope. But he also knew how to deal with what he called “the nicely calculated more and less” of empirical politics. As co-founder with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., of Americans for Democratic Action, he was perhaps the leading architect of the “non-Communist left,” as it was called, in the immediate post-World War II period. In his biweekly journal Christianity and Crisis, he regularly commented on specific issues before the body politic, and did not hesitate to skewer particular politicians. In between these two levels – the most general in his basic theological works, and the most specific in his political journalism – lay his sermons, which were a marvel to hear, and many of which were published. The question to be investigated is: Where did Niebuhr as preacher draw the line to which we have referred above, somewhere between general observations about the state of the polis and comments that could be viewed as partisan-political? (The same kind of study could be made of Luther, who did not hesitate to make biting comments, in his sermons, about the social as well as the ecclesiastical situation of his day.)

[9] In deep appreciation of the contributions of John Stumme to the awakening and informing of the church’s social conscience during these past decades, this is a suggestion of a point of engagement between Word and world, namely, in Sunday preaching, that deserves further attention.