“What a great sermon! Now, if we can just do that!”
I remember that Sunday as we drove away from church. My father, a young (and remarkably self-absorbed) preacher in his thirties had just delivered what he had intended to be a scorcher. His brand of preaching was, unquestionably, motivated more by frustration than love: frustration that after graduating summa cum laude from Bible college he had not “made a difference” right out of the gate; frustration that no matter how hard he tried, no one seemed to be listening; and I think frustration that (as much as he tried to understand it) his own faith never really could provide truly satisfying answers to the real wrongs of the world he so desired
to right—he never felt like he thought he should feel like.
Being a narcissist didn’t help him either.
But the thing about my father, as a preacher, that I actually do still identify with is the sense in which he never could abide people pretending you said something different from what you said. My father was never a very profound theologian, but when he stumbled on a point that he thought was important, he was pretty sure he wanted you to understand it. And every preacher knows the Ecclesiastes-style-vanity of the moment when, after repeating your main idea a dozen times just like they taught you in basic preaching class, the people shaking your hand on the way out the door thank you for saying something completely different than you actually
Such was the case that Sunday when, after preaching a message of desperation to get his little non-instrumental church to actually commit to something other than semi-regular Sunday attendance in the pews, a message in which he had said, “All you need to do is make a decision to give more to the church and we can make a difference in this neighborhood!”
“Thank you, Ray. Now if we can just do that.”
I heard her say it and watched him rest his head on the steering wheel on the way home.
I get it. I get pouring your heart into a point that the people who are “hearing” you just can’t hear. As someone who came to believe that following Jesus means *gasp* being unwilling to kill someone, my own preaching experience was even harder. I have found that belief in Christian non-violence is such a contradiction to most American Christians that, unless one says it in the clearest of terms, the listeners will almost invariably assume you didn’t mean what you said.
I’m sure there’s a high falutin psychological term for the phenomenon, one which I should probably know off the top of my head. But I’ve found that most people’s basic assumptions about what is real, true, right, and good are so deeply ingrained that the message of a peaceful Gospel just bounces right off. You can say, “Put down the sword Peter,” a thousand times and everyone in the audience will nod and say “amen” about Peter and his sword and then go home and practice shooting human-shaped silhouettes in the event of a home-invasion without the slightest sense of
As a result, when I was preaching and sometimes when I’m teaching when I make a point that I fear will be missed, I’ll say, “Now, I just said ‘x,’ but it’s possible you’re thinking, ‘surely he didn’t mean x, surely he meant y.’ Just so you know, I actually meant ‘x.’”
Even then…it can bounce off.
I’ve discovered, however, that there is a tool we have at our disposal that is very effective at breaking through that cognitive dissonance (I think that’s the term I’m looking for). The tool is to be willing to offend people’s sensibilities—sometimes even to hurt their feelings. What do I mean?
One of the ways we actually make it easier for people to hear something different than what we mean is that we try to be as nice as possible when we say it. We don’t want people to think we don’t like them or that we’re trying to insult them. So, we broach subjects tenderly and softly, handling everyone with a sort of codependent “kid gloves” approach that is sure to “let them down easy.” However, as any girl who’s tried to break up with a boyfriend who doesn’t get the hint knows, “letting someone down easy” can easily become a euphemism for not making it clear the relationship is over. And it can cause problems.
Personally, I refer to the prophets a lot and I think that people who know me best probably think it means I’ve got delusions of grandeur. But I think those guys and gals knew this very carefully. They were masters of making themselves understood with as little ambiguity as possible. It takes a lot of…courage…to stand up in front of a group of Ninevites and say, “y’all got 90 days before God levels this city.” It takes some…hubris…to say, “God’s name for you isn’t Pashur, but ‘Terror on Every Side.’” as Jeremiah did. It takes…forgive me…balls…to be baptizing people in one moment and then see the Pharisees making their way to the water in another and say, “Who
warned you to flee the coming judgment, you bunch of snakes?”
John the Baptist knew it. Mincing words wasn’t going to get the job done. Sparing feelings wasn’t going to communicate the truth in a way that made it unmistakable. Peacefulness doesn’t mean we’re always “being nice,” in fact, sometimes it means being downright brutally honest. As Stan Hauerwas has said, “Any peacefulness that [doesn’t make the truth clear] is accursed.” Further, he’s also referred to “southern civility” (a reference to a style of passive-aggressiveness that all of us who live in the south can identify quickly but which is by no means only practiced in that region) as “the most calculated form of cruelty ever devised.”
Hauerwas’ complaint, I think, is that avoiding saying something truthful that may cause the person listening pain for fear of offending them is a way of valuing sentimentality over truth, and allowing what isn’t true to rule. And it does nothing but continue to foster violence.
Christian non-violence will require us to speak honestly, truthfully, and clearly in such a way as to avoid misunderstanding. This means that we may (as anyone who knows an autistic person can attest) end up looking a little anti-social. But so much of what counts for sociability in our culture is a way of telling one another (and ourselves) little lies to save face. This is something autists, to their credit, simply cannot understand, and I envy that of them.
I’ve discovered that saying something so clearly that it offends people has a way of breaking through the BS layer and getting to the heart of things. It keeps people from being able to simply ignore what you say. They may reject it. But we’re told most people will. Might as well get it out of the way, right?
And it doesn’t mean you’re being a…jerk…although people will think so. You can love someone and say, “I love you, but that’s stupid, bro.”
I recently wrote a poem about carrying weapons in public. I tell you, I’m tired of pretending like carrying a gun to Waffle House isn’t rooted in fear and childishness. I shared it and offended my cousin, among others. I’m ok with that. I wanted it to offend. I’m tired of people pretending that being a pacifist means being “passive.”