How to really preach truth to power

It takes theological courage to live in this world. A beloved thinker teaches us how to do that.

My clergy colleagues — whether Jewish or Christian, and probably Muslim as well – all tell me that they have a problem..

They want to speak the truth, as they see it, about the current political situation in this country.

And yet, they are afraid of offending their congregants, many of whom might not agree with their political views.

They also know that speaking your truth to people who already agree with you lacks a certain amount of courage. Conversely, losing your job (partly, at least) because people don’t like your message can be professionally, financially, and psychologically disastrous.

I agree with, and I echo and resonate with, all of their concerns. It is difficult to maintain civility in our conversations with those whose views we do not share. I recommend David Brooks’s recent article on this.

For advice, I turn to one of the greatest theologians, commentators, and public intellectuals in American history — Reinhold Niebuhr.

Niebuhr was one of America’s’ greatest religious voices — a voice that went far beyond the boundaries of his own denomination. His thinking would influence the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, President Barack Obama, as well as neoconservatives, who came to understand his sense of “Christian realism.”

One of his closest friends was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Their friendship emerged from their shared sense of anguish about American society and the faith that sustains it. It did not hurt that their offices were within blocks of each other — at Union Theological Seminary and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Shalom Spiegel once quipped that at JTS the slogan was “love thy Niebuhr as thyself.”

This is ironic, because Niebuhr had once believed that Christians had to convert Jews. By 1926 he had rejected this idea. Both he and his brother, H. Richard, came to believe that attempts to Christianize Jews “negated every gesture of our common biblical inheritance.” As Shalom Goldman recently wrote, Niebuhr was an early (though not uncritical) supporter of Zionism.

I particularly admire Niebuhr because of his self-critical humility. The “good” side — our side — must be aware that there is enough guilt tucked into our innocence, enough vice in inner war with our virtue, enough insecurity undercutting our security, enough ignorance to go with our knowledge, that when we undertake action, “ironically,” some of it will go wrong.

How do preachers and religious teachers maintain their own sense of humility and balance in troubled times?

For some tentative answers, and inspiration, I turn to the journal that Niebuhr kept during his early years in ministry in Detroit — Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.

From 1926:

Preachers who are in danger of degenerating into common scolds might learn a great deal from H_____’s preaching style. If he wants to convict Detroit of her sins he preaches a sermon on “the city of God,” and lets all the limitations of this get-rich-quick metropolis emerge by implication…People do not achieve great moral heights out of a sense of duty. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language.

Comment: A fascinating window into the preacher’s art. Hold up the ideal vision. Let people come to understand not only how we fall short, but how we might get there.

Here is a preacher whom I have suspected of cowardice for years because he never deviated by a hair’s breadth from the economic prejudices of his wealthy congregation. But I was mistaken. He recently included in his sermon a tirade against women who smoke cigarettes and lost almost a hundred of his fashionable parishioners. He is evidently not lacking courage in matters upon which he has deep convictions…The church honestly regards it of greater moment to prevent women from smoking cigarettes than to establish more Christian standards in industrial enterprise.

Comment: The preacher in question did two things wrong. First, he failed to confront his congregation’s economic prejudices. (Today, we would call that “privilege.”) Second, when he decided to let loose, he picked on something rather trivial, and totally gender-segregated, i.e., women smoking cigarettes (!).

I resonate with these words. For decades, rabbis have decried ostentation at bar/bat mitzvah celebrations. That is the modern equivalent of women smoking cigarettes. People get angry. In fact, the issue is too small.

Our people might get less angry, and simultaneously feel more challenged, if we asked them to think about the deeper implications of economic inequality.

C____ has lost his pastorate. I am not surprised. He is courageous but tactless. Undoubtedly he will regard himself as one of the Lord’s martyrs. Perhaps he is. Perhaps loyalty to principle will always appear as tactlessness from the perspective of those who don’t agree with you. You can’t rush into a congregation which has been fed from its very infancy on the individualistic ethic of Protestantism and which is immersed in a civilization where ethical individualism runs riot, and expect to develop a social conscience among the people in two weeks. Nor have you a right to insinuate that they are all hypocrites just because they don’t see what you see.

Comment: We rabbis like to assume/presume that we wear the mantle of the ancient prophets. But, the prophets had some benefits that we lack. They never had to cultivate a relationship with their people. The only relationship that mattered was God.

Context and history matter. In the midrash, Moses defends his people when they worship the Golden Calf.

“Where did You choose to put this people? In Egypt. What do they worship in Egypt? Animals. Did you think that it would only take a few days to convert them all to strict monotheism?!?”

American religion confronts a tsunami of values that threaten to engulf it: rampant individualism, materialism, consumerism, cultural amnesia, among others. Those values challenge all liberal and main line denominations. These are so momentous that no one clergy person, house of worship, even denomination can do it on their own.

But, yes: we make modest and forceful beginnings. I am grateful to the ghost of Reinhold Niebuhr for reminding us how to do so– with charm, subtlety, and courage.