"That boy sho' can preach!" It's an accolade that establishes a preacher within the African-American community as someone who can be counted on to inspire, motivate, encourage and even entertain a congregation to summon the strength to face life's challenges and difficulties with hope, confidence and enthusiasm. When one observes Sen. Obama's Pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright in action, it doesn't take long to grasp that he is someone who can indeed fire up his congregation and leave them with a sense of being understood, represented and heard in their daily struggles. It is also clear that Rev. Wright is very oratorically gifted and that he has considerable powers of persuasion that grab a listener's attention and that cause the faithful members of his flock to eagerly hinge on his every word. This ability is a prized one for most public communicators. For the Gospel preacher, however, this effect is always accompanied by the unshakable responsibility that one's information be Biblical, accurate and ultimately lead to healing, redemption and transformed living on the part of the listeners.
Rev. Wright's commitment to identify with his listeners is unquestionable, as is his desire to inspire them. The issues in question revolve around what role truth plays in the pursuit of pastoral inspiration, and how much poetic license can a pastor be allowed in seeking to creatively communicate to a congregation and anyone else who might happen to hear the message? These issues are of particular importance when addressing the issue of race.
One of the huge challenges in communicating effectively about race in any context is making a particular set of difficult life experiences understandable to a broad audience in a non-threatening way. This challenge is complicated by the fact that on Sunday mornings, the styles in which any subject is communicated to a Christian audience differ greatly between people groups, denominations, and even economic backgrounds. With these stylistic differences come various expectations, allowances and demands that make what is highly palatable in one cultural context, seem totally tasteless in another. For this reason, some common ground of expectation must be established that allows for truth and beauty to shine through, no mater what the stylistic method of delivery might be.
Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of being associated with a local Rotary club. One of the distinctive attributes of Rotary is a "Four Way Test" that is applied to all undertakings involving rotary members. The test is simple and is made up of the following questions:
Is it the truth?
Is it fair to all concerned?
Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
These are great questions to apply to the demand that healing and redemption must emerge from Gospel preaching, whatever the stylistic or cultural context from which the message is delivered.
Is the preaching the truth? One of the problems that emerges from Rev. wright's preaching is the blurring of fact with anecdotal fiction. Though hyperbole can be useful in humorously driving a point home, such as Jesus' telling his listeners to remove the logs from their own eyes before attempting to deal with the "toothpicks" in their neighbors, it is counterproductive when attempting to build a factual case that illustrates an important truth. Why was it necessary for Rev. Wright to cite what amount to urban legends regarding problems of race in the US when there are plenty of historical and statistical facts that would better illustrate the point without ruining his credibility? Why use misinformation and fabrications to support an argument that by its very sensitive nature demands the use of the most verifiable facts possible? Why risk one's reputation and trustworthiness beyond one's own circle of influence by making outrageous statements that just have no basis at all in the truth?
Is the preaching fair? One of the elements of Scripture I find so reassuring is the fairness in judgement that is evident throughout its pages. As the prophets thunder judgement upon the nations, they never fail to mention any redeeming qualities even the most wicked societies might have possessed. When God informs Abraham of His plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham makes the following appeal,
Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
The answer is, of course, yes He will do right and the Lord shows His willingness to stay His judgement for even a handful of people. When addressing the problems of race in America, it is imperative to acknowledge the tremendous progress that has been made even as stubborn residual problems persist. This duality of the race issue in the United States was well-expressed by Carl B. Stokes, the first Black mayor of a major US city, Cleveland, who said, "We ain't where we need to be, but thank God, we ain't where we used to be!" While there are issues of race that are heartbreaking, emotionally taxing, and still beg to be confronted, Rev. Wright's credibility to those outside of his congregation and community would have been strengthened by acknowledging the progress that has been made and the opportunities that have arisen from over three centuries of struggle by justice-loving people of all backgrounds and origins on this continent.
I will address both the third and fourth questions of the four-way test jointly. Does the preaching build goodwill and better friendships and is the message beneficial for all concerned? It seems that Rev. Wright's explosive rhetoric betrays a lack of concern that he is most likely demolishing bridges of understanding in attempting to build a road to success. Rev. Wright's use of untruths, half-truths, distortions, faulty theology and shaky spirituality in the communication of his message obliterates good will and abandons the Good News of Jesus Christ which is at its heart, a message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5 reminds Christians that we are obligated to shun "the world's" tactics built on anger, hatred and retribution and duty-bound to cling to the conciliatory message of Jesus Christ.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
The passage leaves no room for wiggling. We are Christ's ambassador's called to behave as though God Himself were making an appeal for reconciliation through us. A little further along in 2 Corinthians, Paul dismisses any attempt to justify "preaching with an attitude" or "arrogance-based sermonizing". He states that,
We demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.
This means that no philosophy based on ethnic superiority can be allowed to shape our preaching. Neither can we allow skewed and distorted theological systems formed by ungodly presuppositions to influence how we communicate the message of Jesus. We must oppose any manifestation of prejudice, ethnic superiority or cultural arrogance. We are Ambassadors of Jesus Christ, called to present the truth in love, rising above the miry clay of stereotyping and race baiting while fulfilling our ministries with an aim to be reconciled to our God and our neighbors, building bridges of understanding and forming friendships of goodwill whenever and wherever we can in the Name of Jesus. This is what we are to practice. This is what we are to preach. Until next time...