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August 15, 2010: “The Danger of the Prophetic Pulpit; Why Politics and Religion Must Mix”

A search committee received this letter:

‘Dear Folks,

        Understanding your pulpit is vacant, I should like to apply for the position. I have many qualifications. I've been a preacher with much success and also have had some successes as a writer. Some say I'm a good organizer. I've been a leader most places I've been. I'm over 50 years of age and have never preached in one place for more than three years. In some places, I have left town after my preaching caused riots and disturbances. I must admit I have been in jail three or four times, but not because of any real wrongdoing. My health is not too good, though I still accomplish a great deal. The churches I have preached in have been small, though located in several large cities.

         I've not gotten along well with religious leaders in the towns where I have preached. In fact, some have threatened me, and even attacked me physically. I am not too good at keeping records. I have been known to forget whom I have baptized.

         However, if you can use me, I promise to do my best for you."

         The board member turned to the committee and said, "Well, what do you think? Shall we call him?''

         The good church folks were appalled! Consider a sickly, trouble making, absent-minded ex-jailbird? Was the board member crazy? Who signed the application? Who had such colossal nerve? The board member eyed them all keenly before he replied, "It's signed, The Apostle Paul."

        The prophetic pulpit is dangerous. Just ask Jesus. I've heard there are some churches that consider him a little liberal on some issues; indeed, I've even heard him called a socialist and worse. The great Jewish prophets of old of whom I believe Jesus was one heard a divine voice calling them to speak out for social justice, moral living, and a return to deep religious living. They mixed religion and politics because they knew more than two thousand years ago that a just and loving life and society must be religious. Now I will argue for a universal religiousness that can be extrapolated from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage of God that stands for Love and the Goo, but that there is need for a particularity in our interpretation of that and so the specific religions will be with us forever.

        I want to begin with a text from the Hebrew Bible from the section called the Prophets, from the prophet Amos and one of my favorite texts. Let me put is in a little perspective for you so that might feel its heat and power and yes, it's danger. This was preached during the peaceful and oh so prosperous time of King Jereboam sometime during 786 to 746 BCE. Think about how long ago that was, but also about how completely relevant I will want to argue it still is today, and why it is so commonly used in social justice sermons, why Martin Luther King, Jr., used it all the time. The Israelites had expanded their territory and were exceedingly prosperous! They were actually at their zenith. This was, of course, seen by most, including the official priests, as a sign of God's favor! But Amos felt the call from God to preach a prophetic message against what commentary describes as 'military might, grave injustice in social dealings, abhorrent immorality and shallow, meaningless piety'. His prophetic preaching was dangerous! It was dangerous to the status quo- both religiously and economically. It was dangerous to his own well being, too! It landed him in trouble with the religious authorities, and he was expelled from the royal sanctuary at Bethel and told never to prophecy from there again. It is thought he retreated to Judah and wrote his sermons. What good did he do? We're not really sure, of course, exactly what he accomplished in his lifetime, except the fact that his writings were considered so important that they were canonized into scripture by both the Jews and Christians, and that almost 2300 years later, we are using his words still today to call religious people to justice out of their rich churches into the streets!  But, it's also still dangerous to preach from a prophetic pulpit, because we know what happens to prophets!

        This is the text of the prophet Amos who says that this is what God is saying to the people of Israel who consider themselves so good because of their religious celebrations and worship services:

        (NRSV) Chapter 5: 21 'I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream'

        Can't you just hear the fiery cadence of Martin Luther King. Jr. during the 'I Have a Dream Speech' or in his Ebenezer Baptist Church chanting those words and a chorus of 'Amens' and 'Hallelujahs' rising in return? And who could disagree that Martin was a prophet or how dangerous that was? Yet politics and religion have and must always mix. Gandhi said that anyone who says they shouldn't doesn't really understand either religion or politics!

        And it has often been from the pulpit that social justice has been preached and social change from abolition of slavery, women's right-to-vote, to have equal rights, etc., economic reforms, peace, and especially more recently the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s were church related from a progressive religious movement started back in the 19th century often by Unitarians and Universalists but other liberal protestant churches like the Congregationalists, who became the United Church of Christ. The recent gay rights and right to marry movement has also been in the liberal churches while also, of course, being hotly contested by the conservative ones!

        One of the books I read on vacation, which I highly recommend, published by our own Beacon Press, is called, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the 21st Century, by John Buehrens, former UUA President, and current minister of Needham, MA UU Church, and Rebecca Parker, President Starr King UU Seminary and a minister of both Methodist and UU credentials.  They give a great history of the progressive religious history of 19th century Protestantism, though Catholicism was also at the forefront of working with the poor, etc.        

The person most responsible for the Social Gospel movement was a progressive Baptist minister, Walter Rauschenbusch. He thought a focus on personal salvation by taking Christ as our savior was as Rebecca Parker puts it, ”selfish to be so narrowly concerned with one’s own fate when life is social…’ He interpreted the kingdom of God as ‘the commonwealth of God…a vision for life as God intended it to be… He inspired several generations of Christians to work toward make God’s commonwealth of justice, abundance, and peace a reality in this world” MLK was profoundly influenced by him and his movement toward civil rights and later the antiwar movement in his speeches ‘I have a Dream,’ ‘The Mountain Top,’ ‘The Promised Land,’ ‘Beloved Community,’ made his Christian faith into what Rebecca Parker calls ‘a this-worldly struggle for justice and love, fueled by trust that God’s divine purposes are at work in history to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth.’

        She reminds us of Louis Untermyeyer's poem which became a hymn, and one of my favorites, 'Prayer for this House' when she says 'Let the walls of our theological house symbolize the shelter of community' as in his hymn-'May they be strong enough to keep hate out and hold love in.'

        Rebecca talks about being raised in a Methodist church that was liberal and that taught the Social Gospel; it reminded me of growing up in the NH Congregational Church, especially around the time of the civil rights and peace movement, both of which I was involved in, and which I strongly believed that Jesus would have been as well! I remember getting the Pamphlet 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail,' from the church library and being incredibly moved, and youth group discussions, though no actions. I'm sure our church helped groups financially, but I don't remember us doing any protests or projects; it WAS a fairly middle to upper class church next to the Episcopal, I would guess. The prophetic didn't come much from the pulpit there, more from the youth group.

        The Social Gospel influenced the main line seminaries for most of the 20th century, but the horrors of W.W.II had a devastating affect on the belief that humanity was basically good and would progress forever. First W.W.I, the Depression, then W.W.II was very difficult for many liberals and eventually a swing towards more conservative returned. Indeed the very liberalness of the Social Gospel influenced the rise of fundamentalism as a response.

        Rev. William Sloane Coffin was one of the contemporary protestant social justice prophets who died in 2006. A United Church of Christ minister, the former minister of New York's famous progressive Riverside Church, chaplain of Yale University, Fellow Yale graduate Garry Trudeau has immortalized Coffin (combined with Coffin's prot'g' Rev. Scotty McLennan. who IS a UU, by the way) as "the Rev. Scot Sloan" in the Doonesbury comic strip.

        Coffin had gone to Yale and knew George W. Bush, served in W.W.II and for a while in the CIA! He became disillusioned with the government and resigned in the 1950s Cold War.  President of SANE/Freeze (now Peace Action), the nation's largest peace and justice group, and prominently opposed United States military intervention from the Vietnam War to the Iraq War. He was also an ardent supporter of gay rights. I had the good fortune to hear him speak and preach on a number of occasions and was always deeply inspired; he was a brilliant preacher!

        This was from an article written shortly before Coffin died: 'Bill Moyers conducted a poignant and revealing interview with the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, considered by some to be one of America's great moral and religious leaders.

        'People in high places make me really angry - the way of corporations now are behaving, the way the United States government is behaving," Coffin says. "What makes me angry is that they are so callous, really callous....When you see uncaring people in high places, everybody should be mad as hell.'

        Today, even though doctors say he has only a short time to live, Coffin is continuing to listen and speak out on God and religion, on tolerance and faith, and on world events and politics. Renowned for his role in the civil rights movement and as a vocal opponent against nuclear weapons proliferation, it is a belief in faith as a force for resisting evil that continues to drive his commitment to global peace and social justice.

        'My understanding of Christianity is that it underlies all progressive moves to implement more justice, get a higher degree of peace in the world,' he tells Bill Moyers. 'The impulse to love God and neighbor, that impulse is at the heart of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. No question about it - we have much more in common than we have in conflict.'

        So why is there the old joke that the only two things a new preacher shouldn't preach about in his first sermons are religion and politics?  Because part of the danger comes, not from the society which needs to hear the message of justice 'rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,' but from the congregation!  Let me give you a personal example. On one of my evaluations, someone complained that my preaching was too liberal on social justice issues.  Another time, when the chair of the Cleveland Peace organization was here for Millennium Salon, I introduced myself to her husband, who said, 'Oh, YOU'RE the minister who's afraid to upset the congregation by preaching about peace!' I wonder where he had heard that?

        William Ellery Channing was called as pastor of the Federal Street Church in Boston, in 1803 where he remained for the rest of his life. He lived through an increasingly tense time between religious liberals and conservatives especially abolitionists, and took a moderate position, perhaps because there were many rich cotton merchants among his members. He is remembered, after all as the father of American Unitarianism for his famous sermons and writings, but it is not so well known that after some 40 years of faithful service he was fired for conducting a funeral for an abolitionist that his board refused and I think it was William Lloyd Garrison. Though slow to come around, Channing finally decided that he had to take a stand against slavery by holding this funeral, and though he had devoted his entire life to the ministry of this church, it was dangerous, and he was fired!

        Rebecca Parker writes in A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the 21st Century in the chapter aptly titled 'A Sanctuary for the Spirit': 'Some people today seem to want worship to be only one dimensional; 'uplifting.' They compartmentalize the spirit to a vertical realm to avoid mixing their spirituality with horizontal matters, with the ethical outrages that show up everyday in the world. For them, these belong to other compartments- politics, economics, or entertainment. They want worship leaders who may be tough on the latter two realms- preferably with lightness and humor- but never on the more serious issues of human relations that are economic or political. And in a consumer culture, where religion itself is a commodity, such preachers are wildly popular. 'There is nothing quite so salable in religion,' said James Luther Adams, 'than egoism wrapped in idealism.''

        My wife has put a sign in front of our house, trouble maker that SHE is, that says simply, 'no selfishness.' I'm sure people go by our yard wondering what it means. It comes from a street in San Antonio where my daughter, Elizabeth, lives where there is a good mix of liberals perhaps because it's an older neighborhood being rehabbed. The sign is a response to the signs conservatives were posting about Obama's economic plans to help the economy, and especially the health care plan which said ''No Socialism!'  So then the sign, which sounds suspiciously religious, doesn't it?- 'no selfishness.'

Politics from the pulpit-Item in the newspaper-Friday August 13. ‘Nation and World’ Compiled from Washington Post and AP Cost put at 36 Billion dollars tax cuts for rich

‘A Republican plan to extend tax cuts for the rich would add more than 36 billion dollars to the federal deficit next year- and transfer the bulk of that cash into the pockets of the nations millionaires according to a congressional analysis released Wednesday. New data from the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation show that households earning more than $1 million a year would reap nearly 31 billion dollars in tax breaks under the GOP plan in 2011, for an average tax cut per household of $100,000. Most of the tax cuts, enacted during the Bush administration, are scheduled to expire at the end of this year. Republicans want to extend all the cuts.’

        Now the danger here is that I'm pointing out a Republican plan and the Democrats have come up with some doozies as well, but this one caught my eye because of what I thought was the obvious unfairness of it.

Further on in the paper it talked about the difficulty of some townships to pay for essential services and that some are now turning off every third streetlight, laying off teachers, firefighters, police, and even tearing up asphalt roads that aren’t used much, so they don’t have to pay for their maintenance. Obviously other benefits to the poor will be cut.

        What I want to criticize is the plan, not the party. Can I do that from the pulpit? It's dangerous. I am not advocating socialism, I am advocating something I have called before compassionate capitalism. A happy medium perhaps.

        Former Chief Justice Earl Warren said: 'Many people consider the things which government does for them to be social progress, but they consider the things government does for others as socialism.'

        I believe that we're all in this together and that means we have to share. No not redistribute the wealth, not communism, not extremes, not black or white, but, justice. Don't we know that when we see that? 

Well, no, evidently not. Evidently, even two thousand years later we still need the Old Testament prophets, but we must be careful not to become partisan. But I am called as your minister and by my calling as a UU minister and all that is holy to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

        John Buehrens writes: 'Prophets are more likely to proclaim warning than comfort. But they live in hope. 'Hope criticizes,' said William Sloane Coffin, 'hopelessness rationalizes. Hope resists, hopelessness adapts.' Today, says Walter Brueggeman, (an Old Testament scholar who is also a social justice activist) the task of progressive religionists is to be 'practitioners of hope in a culture of despair. Faithful to the unseen, trans-human 'source and Agent of newness, who is, in inscrutable ways, generative' within communities of faith and action, 'because' no one can fully hope alone.' Such communities are where people learn again 'to be what you want to see' as Gandhi put it.

        This is the promise of progressive religion in America I feel called to help keep. Taking refuge not from reality but within a house, a community of hope.'

        We stand on the side of love and we believe in the power of love, whether we name that love, God, or are satisfied to just say love, knowing that all religion is about deep devotion of the heart, mind and hands to something greater or deeper than or within ourselves. And I say unto you that to truly love, we must love all, and to love all, we must be part of the process of life that brings peace, justice, and environmental harmony to all.  May we work together to make it so.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity with me greets the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ‘Vaya con Dios’ is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ So I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con Su Dios,’ ‘Go with your idea or interpretation of God.’

Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios