I just returned from a three day clergy conference with the theme of preaching across the divide. How can preachers proclaim the gospel with authenticity when the message is corrupted by divisiveness that defines the life of our nation? It’s divisiveness existing in every congregation, even if well hidden, including in the strongly held beliefs of preachers. I don’t think the presenters offered an answer, but they got me thinking about the vocabularies used to express strongly held views, and using them to speak about moving in good faith toward collaborative conversation with the other side(s). In other words, use conservative vocabulary to give value to liberal ideas, and liberal vocabulary to do the same for conservative ideas.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m deeply concerned about right wing extremism that’s infected our national and local communities in ways threatening the future of our democratic republic. Moreover, I think it’s corrosive of the gospel message that must be our supreme guide and law.
If preaching across the divide is supposed to show a way to bridge that which divides us, it has to have fluency in the language of those whom it wishes to reach. That we all speak English is irrelevant because each side of the divide uses its own English vocabulary with its own political meaning. Extremists have excelled in using mainline conservative vocabulary to extoll conservative values in the service of neofascist aims. More liberal minded people have exhausted themselves with fact checking and rebuttal arguments to no avail, and must change their tactics. They need to adapt the mainline conservative vocabulary to illustrate how progressive agendas will preserve and enhance cherished American values.
Societal divisions are not new, but in years past extremist views, and those who held them, were constrained by unwritten rules of civility tethered to an ideal of “truth, justice and the American way.” What that was, was never defined, yet was understood to involve people with different views working together solving problems to make life better for all. Government wasn’t the enemy, but a valued agent helping make good things happen, not perfect, but valued. It was the great conservative middle ground.
Those constraints have been lifted in our time, and in a different way from prior episodes, for it’s not the first time right wing extremism has infected the nation. Consider the Civil War as the prime example. Decades of Jim Crow is another. The America First movement supported Hitler’s Nazism. In the McCarthy era, commies were suspected of hiding under every bed. The John Birch Society fueled Barry Goldwater’s candidacy. In all of it, the President of the United States stood, a bit wobbly sometimes, in defense of the best of what truth, justice, and the American way meant. It gave hope to the good people of the land, encouraged them to suppress their own tendencies toward extremism, and endowed a few with courage to ‘stand tall’ in the face of oppression and injustice.
What about left wing extremism? We had years of anti war and race riots partially tied to left wing extremism. Always present, left wing provocateurs were never able to move very far beyond the fringe, even when featured on magazine covers. Americans were, and are, too mainline conservative for them. Business interests did their best to characterize union activists, social progressives, and New Dealers as left wing extremists, but it didn’t make them so. Others fighting for racial justice, confronting environmental degradation, exposing oppressive policies, etc., weren’t left wing, but resisting interests tried to make them appear that way. For the most part, they were pragmatists seeking realistic solutions to real social problems. Left wing extremism has never been a serious threat to the republic, no matter how loud others scream ‘Socialist.’
The various forces restraining right wing extremism began to unravel with the election of a popular black president in the depths of the “Great Recession.” It was a moment unleashing pent up racism morphing into tea party type movements, abetted by calculating corporate interests, that finally gathered enough momentum to see the election of Donald Trump. For the first time, we have a president who is an enthusiastic cheerleader for the worst of American right wing extremism. It’s given them the freedom and authority to flout the rules of civil discourse, and it’s invited everyone else to express their own long repressed prejudices without fear of consequence. They’ve done it by using the centrist vocabulary of truth, justice, and the American way to give veracity to extremist views.
It’s essential for progressives to adapt a centrist conservative vocabulary to give credence to progressive ideas on how to address pressing social and economic issues, but where to start?
It begins in the pulpit for progressive pastors. There are few parishioners who want to hear political preaching, and many who are adamant about keeping politics out of the church. But the gospel is political. It speaks with God’s authority about right ways in which people are to live together in community. High standards for justice, equity, political morality, and a bias for the poor and oppressed are at the core of Jesus’ teaching. Neither conservative nor liberal, in our modern political sense, the gospel message is God’s word, and it is not compatible with left or right wing extremism.
To preach across the divide is to recognize that the vocabulary of division is alive, well and working in the hearts and minds of each person sitting in the pews, and also in the heart and mind of the preacher. Preaching across the divide requires judicial use of the vocabulary of those one wants to reach to give credence to a gospel message that may conflict with their secular politics. You can’t use their vocabulary if you don’t know it. Knowing it means understanding the cherished values that define for them what truth, justice, and the American way means, and demonstrating for them that the gospel provides a better, more Godly and just way to strengthen those values for more people in more places.
That kind of progressive Christian preaching is unlikely to change hearts and minds very quickly, but it will create an open path to more genuine conversation. Moreover, it will help break down the bulwark of gospel flavored political self righteousness that can easily inhabit a preacher’s soul.
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Our Diocese of Spokane clergy conference featured leadership from the Episcopal Preaching Foundation. Look them up.