What should preachers preach when war is pending?
Written by Jane Redmont
January - February 2003
January 1, 2003
Create spaces for civil conversation. Name the fears. Learn and teach the resources of the tradition. Find the courage to speak, even if it gets us in trouble. And cultivate a spirituality for the long haul.
These themes emerged from "Preaching in a Time of Impending War," an ecumenical workshop held Dec. 6 at UCC-related Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. The event was sponsored by the Graduate Theological Union, the Bay Area consortium of nine seminaries and 10 institutes and centers of which PSR is a member.
Faculty speakers, seminarians, clergy and religious leaders were honest about their troubled mood and that of their congregations. "People come to church with a sense of terror and unrest in their hearts," said the Rev. Keith Russell, president of the American Baptist Seminary of the West and editor of The Living Pulpit.
Name the fears
It is the business of preachers, he said, to name "those inarticulate groanings of the heart." It is also their job to name the fears "that terrorize people in the night or wake them up in the morning" and to offer the vision of a world transformed. "This is what preaching has always been about: imagining the unimaginable."
"When we are Christians," Russell added, "we see another way of looking at the world. We are trying to promote an alternative view of the dominant culture, [one that] talks about peace and restoration and healing and forgiveness and mercy."
The Rev. James Noel, professor of American religion and African- American Christianity at San Francisco Theological Seminary, is also pastor of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Calif. Noel?s congregation is largely opposed to a war with Iraq.
For him, the question is the next step: "How can I move beyond a polemical response and help my congregation ground its intuitive response of opposition to the war" in thoughtful reflection and in the resources of the tradition?
Use traditional resources
In their definition of "the tradition," speakers included practices of prayer, knowledge of the Bible, awareness of ethical reasoning of both the just war and pacifist teachings about war, and history of Christian and other movements of resistance to social evils.
The Rev. William O?Neill, who has worked in Tanzania and other East African countries, reminded participants that one of our resources is the global church. "I?m constantly caught up in my provincialisms as an American," he said. O?Neill is a professor of ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.
Despite differences between justwar Christians and pacifists, said O?Neill, Christians "have something profoundly in common: a searching distrust of violence." "?Love your enemies,?" he added, "is the touchstone of discipleship."
These are unpopular views, Russell said. "How will we find the courage," he asked, "to speak about things we?re not going to get rewarded for, for which we?re going to get in hot water?"
Cost of discipleship
More than one speaker spoke of the cost of discipleship. "The Gospel," Russell stressed, "will bring offence. It will bring opprobrium." "The great temptation is quiescence," said O?Neill, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" on what King called "the appalling silence of the good."
Even as they focused on resistance to impending war with Iraq, all three panelists stressed the need to be grounded not in a cause but in the Word of God and in the broader Christian tradition.
The necessity of opening spaces in congregations simply to speak about the current situation was another recurring theme. "This march toward war has crowded out even the possibility of civic discussion," said O?Neill. In an era of terrorism and impending war, O?Neill said, churches need to offer forums where people of varying social and political perspectives "can speak of their grief and terror and ask what the Word of God is demanding of us."
To hear audio from this session, go to www.psr.edu and click on "enter," then on "audio library." You also can find audio from a September workshop on "Preaching and Pastoral Care in a Time of Terror" and an October press conference about a possible U.S. war with Iraq. Jane Redmont, author of "When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life," is a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and a frequent contributor to National Catholic Reporter.