Think Globally, Push Back Locally
February 18, 2016
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Back in the late 1990s shortly after I published a little book called Remember Creation, I was invited to give five morning lectures on creation stewardship at a Christian Bible camp north of Seattle. As I prepared for that event, it occurred to me that since the people running that camp had been so kind as to invite me, I owed it to them and to the folks who would attend my lectures to make my talks very practical. In order to tailor my thoughts to that setting, I did some research on things like deforestation in the Pacific Northwest and salmon population in Washington State and British Columbia. The logging and fishing industries were big up there so that would give hands-on context to my celebrating of God’s creation and calling for its preservation. Caring for God’s physical creation is an act of Christian discipleship, I wanted to say, and so here are some local ideas of how that might go.
Dumbest thing I ever decided.
Well, maybe not “dumb” per se but it definitely made my life more difficult that week. Had I stuck to talking about Brazilian rain forests or the decimation of African elephants through illegal traders in ivory, things would have gone much better. But the moment I mentioned logging, clear-cutting, over-fishing and other close-to-home issues . . . well, everyone had an opinion and very few thought it was a good idea that I as an outsider even dare to make suggestions on sustainability and preservation on these issues. People in the logging industry could cut as many trees as they needed and fishermen could catch as many salmon as they needed. These folks had to make a living, put food on the table for hungry children. Government regulations just threatened livelihoods, and surely even God could not be against honest working people doing what they had to do in order to get by.
I was reminded of that last week when I attended a book discussion for a fine new book by Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson titled The Justice Calling. At one point in the conversation with the authors, they mentioned their own struggles in writing the book to include justice-related issues that were not just far away (like human trafficking in Asia or Africa) but more domestic situations, too. Those of us in on this discussion noted, though, that the dynamic changes immediately when the conversation shifts from the global to the local. Few would disagree that the spectacle of 9-year-old sex slaves in Thailand represents an atrocity we cannot let stand. But start to talk about how your own city’s police force may treat African Americans and . . . everybody has an opinion and mostly those opinions tend to sweep the issue aside.
As I read this new book, I was also reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, and toggling back and forth between the two volumes was a curious experience. Brueggemann says that prophetic preaching calls people away from the dominant social order that exists all around us–dominated by government, politics, militarism, consumerism–and invites them to imagine a new world, which is actually the truest world, in which God in Christ is Lord and King. Turning away from the nation state in order to embrace the Kingdom of God will, of course, involve recognizing what is wrong with the current order of things and this, in turn, will mean being capable of critiquing injustice and a lack of love among us and our neighbors. But, Brueggemann notes, that’s just where it gets tricky for preachers. Just ask the average preacher for his or her list of topics people won’t abide hearing about in sermons and you may find it matches pretty closely the list of the most pressing local issues of justice and fairness.
Probably this reflects our reflexive–albeit nevertheless still sinful–predilection to never want to see ourselves as a party to unfairness even as it taps our deep down desire not to have to change our ways. The global speck of dust in our brother’s eye 6,000 miles away is still far more discernible for most of us than the local lodge pole pine protruding from our own faces. We know changes need to be made in this world of ours but let them come somewhere else. My own turf is here for the protecting.
Yet in this Season of Lent, that just cannot remain my bottom line or any of our bottom lines. We do not follow Jesus to the Place of the Skull these Lenten days and nights to watch him solve someone else’s problem with sin and evil and injustice. The problem is mine, yours, ours. It is not someone else’s racism, environmental wastefulness, selfishness, or over-indulgence Jesus needs to address and heal but our own.
Until and unless we can let our preachers talk about the stuff on the “Don’t Talk About It” list, the Spirit cannot speak to us what we need to hear.
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Absolutely true, Scott. Excellent thoughts. Our culture has been shifted to a real "experiential" focus, which I think is great in a lot of ways, but it has also led us in part to the idea that anyone who has not actually experienced something directly should not comment--sometimes true, sometimes not, IMHO. Additionally, we have a strong tendency to be unteachable--we think that our own opinions are just as valid as anyone else's. When we get together, and someone is speaking on a topic (whether it be a pastor or someone else) we often feel free to take what we already agree with, and dismiss what we don't agree with, assuming that the person speaking has no particular authority, and that therefore we don't need to pause and deeply, humbly consider. It's unfortunate. My wife and I often say that we are better together, but we wouldn't be, if we didn't listen to one another, and take one another's views into serious, humble consideration. To me, this should be our posture towards all people. Let's learn to humbly, conscientiously listen and consider what others bring to the table!
Thanks for this reflection, Scott! I think you really nailed it. It took me going to Mali with World Renew and working with the Fulani, an Indigenous group there, to open my hard, self-involved heart to the injustices that Indigenous people in my own country face. Why? Because I am involved in those injustices. I benefit from them. It's harder to see them because I and those around me have all kinds of pre-fabricated stereotypes and reasons that the status quo is okay and not our fault. And yet where can we have the deepest impact? Why does World Renew work with local partners? Because we can often have the strongest impact when we speak where it "costs" us the most and where we already know the complex dynamics of the situation--at home. (This is not an argument against working overseas, but an argument for paying attention to the injustices in our own backyards, as you said, even and perhaps especially when it hurts.)
I so appreciate this piece. Thanks for the challenge.
The other possibility is that a pastor or seminary professor has nothing of substance to add to a discussion beyond what a layman already knows. It would be one thing to preach texts dealing with creation stewardship. It is quite another thing to make particular policy prescriptions related to fishing or logging regulations. It simply isn't within the sphere of competency given to the institutional church. Unfortunately, the tendency among academics is to assume expertise in their respective field somehow translates to other areas and that they are uniquely free from political or cultural biases.
It makes me wonder if Professor Hoezee would admonish pastors to boldly preach on CRC views related to sexual ethics in certain other congregations or classes in the CRC?
Either way, clergy are better sticking to the text and proclaiming the Gospel, not in making specific public policy prescriptions even if sometimes challenging a congregation in their thinking. The sooner more of our Seminary faculty and clergy accept this, the sooner we'll see real revival in the CRCNA.
To Mr. Ellis: The reference in this post to fishing and logging was to a speech I once gave and not specifically to a sermon. However, even in that speech I was not advocating specific public or political policies. I just suggested that these were key areas in which to try to apply biblically informed thinking. Similarly in sermons: I tell students in preaching classes--and reiterated this in a class on the Old Testament Prophets just this past week--that the wise preacher does not take sides on public policy and recognizes that Christians of good conscience and who are equally serious about things like stewardship and justice may well disagree outside of church on what is the best way to address such things in politics, personal behavior, etc. That's fine and preachers ought not be so directive as to deny this reality so that they can make room for robust conversations among fellow Christians. However, it is often true that even NAMING an issue as something to wrestle with is enough for some to accuse the preacher of being "all political." You don't have to take sides or pretend you're an expert on Issue X--just mentioning it counts as wrong in some people's books.
We teach our students to look for what the issues are in the biblical text and to help the congregation wonder where such issues exist yet today and how the Word of God addresses them. Given how many texts in both Testaments raise concerns about the treatment of the poor, justice, the value of God's physical creation, etc. it is very difficult to let the Bible speak to our world today if the preacher cannot even name the subject areas. That, as much as anything, was my point in this post.
And for what it's worth since there is a clear swipe here at the Seminary and its teaching as standing in the way of revival in the CRCNA: we teach our students that every single Sunday they always preach two texts: the one printed in the bulletin (Psalm 23) which is the small-t text for the week AND above all the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is always the capital-T Text for every sermon. We preach grace, hope, and joy every week--that's why we are there as preachers. Along the way we need to countenance the troubles in the Bible and their counterpart troubles today but that, too, is en route to and in service of the Gospel. This is the joy of preaching and its highest calling: to preach Christ and him crucified and raised from the dead!
I was not taking a broad swipe at the Seminary, but your essay came across, at least to me, as a bit condescending toward the local group. As a whole, I believe CTS is one of more positive institutions of the CRCNA.
If your lectures were as you characterize them here, I am a bit puzzled as to why there would be any "push back"? I read your essay as basically stating that a. the locals felt you were taking a political stand that impacted their livelihood and b. on reflection reaching the presumptuous conclusion that you should have doubled down harder.
I may be reading your essay through a certain filter, one that is increasingly skeptical of ministers who are too quick to advocate political causes whether "left", "right" or "other". I regret if I have misinterpreted your intent.
And similarly if I misread your tone toward the Seminary I also apologize.
I know it can be hard for people to believe this but lots of ministers know that you don't have to advocate for some political position to get in trouble. Just suggesting that a given issue does need to be looked at in the light of the Gospel--and that therefore some new thinking on the issue is always possible--is enough to set many people off.
Every preacher knows that people often thank you for things you never said in a sermon even as they at other times assail you for things you likewise never said nor intended. The preacher is grateful for the former, chalking it up to the Spirit's endlessly clever ability to apply the sermon to people's often hurting hearts in ways that go beyond the preacher's comprehension. But the flip-side leaves preachers confused and at times hurt.
Of course, we all make mistakes and sometimes people criticize something in a sermon that really should not have been said and upon consideration, I have apologized for such times in my own preaching. But honestly, I've had far more times when people heard something I did not say or read way more into something I did say than I ever intended.
Thanks for taking the time for the conversation, Mr. Ellis!
Thanks for this Scott: A comment on revival: If we want to see revival in the CRC, make our church communities places where we can work out a living faith in the world; Places where it is safe to name, discuss, agree, and disagree on critical issues that God and we deeply care about. There are few practical issues of applying a living faith to our lives that do not involve our moral and political choices. If we cannot deal with that within a supportive community of faith, where can we?
Peter: I'm a bit surprised at your response here. You say we need "Places where it is safe to name, discuss, agree, and disagree on critical issues that God and we deeply care about." You are the director of OSJ, which involves itself in just these sorts of subjects, and yet all of OSJ's "online publications," like DoJustice, are intentionally one-way, that is, you disable the comment functions. The discussion and disagreement you here say is so important is missing when OSJ communicates.
Yes, you and I have had this discussion (about OSJ's one-way communications) by email before and you've concluded we just disagree, which was true, but now you seem to be saying discussion, including about disagreement, is needed after all.
Understand I'm on your side on this comment, but it appears to me you aren't on your own side when it comes to presenting your/OSJ's perspective on these kinds of issues -- then/there you reject discussion. Help me out here in understanding what I perceive to be a disconnect.
I would clarify that some of the questionable actions of the CRC's Office of Social Justice i.e. sanctioning President Obama's Agricultural bill over the Republican alternative as well as the actions of conservative groups like the Christian Coalition (I once sat in a church that had a bulletin insert comparing candidates based on their support for an anti-flag burning amendment to the U.S. Constitution!) are what I had in mind reading Scott Hoezee's article. I have a hard time seeing that the biggest problem for the CRC or the broader church in North America today is a reluctance of clergy to speak on political matters.
I do qualify this by saying there are, obviously texts and issues that demand attention. I have no problem with a pastor lamenting the destruction of human life by abortion, for example. I strongly disagree with churches that engaged in a campaign called "Justice Sunday" some years back to rally support for then President GW Bush's judicial nominees.
I have no problem breaking bread with professing believers who disagree on public policy. I also concur pastors must sometimes address difficult topics. I only hasten to add it needs to be done with humility and reasonable restraint if we are going to move forward as a denomination. That is well there may very well be instances where pastors are too reluctant to take on topics, there are other times when, imo, there has been a lack of maturity and discernment which results in "push back".
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