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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Does Preaching Matter?

This also appears in the CMC Newsletter this week, but this is longer with more reflection.

Preaching for Social Transformation was a required course in my Doctor of Ministry program.  The title of this course is audacious in that it assumes preaching can make a difference in society.  As Mennonites, we sometimes say that actions matter, words don’t.  But words have a profound impact on actions.  What we say and hear in the public arena matters.  As a reminder of this fact I look for inspiration to a speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Riverside Church, New York City, on April 4, 1967, one year before he was assassinated.  The speech, Beyond Vietnam—A time to break silence, weaves together concerns about civil rights, social inequality, and militarism, in a way that was new to many people.  King’s rhetoric is not particularly soaring in this speech, but its content is profound and its impact lasting.  King asked his friend, Dr. Vincent Harding, to draft the speech for him, which Harding did, and King gave the speech with few changes.  Harding, a former Mennonite pastor and service worker, with his wife Rosemarie, will be our preacher on Sunday.  Certainly this is a special occasion for its historical significance, and one not to be missed.  But I also look forward to a word that will change us, that will make us different on Sunday afternoon than we are today, that will further awaken us to God’s reality.

"Beyond Vietnam" is called the Riverside Speech rather than the Riverside Sermon, in that it did not take place as part of a worship service, and was not drawn from a particular biblical text.  In this regard it is accurate to call it a speech and not a sermon.  But it is a sermon in the sense that its task is to awaken us to God's reality.  (The primary task of a sermon in my mind is not to explain the meaning of a text, but to point to the reality of God.  The biblical text is not an end in itself, but a witness to God's reality.)

The Riverside Speech confronted head on the violence of American society, and the links among different kinds of violence, and the ways they feed on each other.  It also looked forward to different vision, God's vision, firmly rooted, for King in the Christian revolution.  "...I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the 'brotherhood of man.'  This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ.  To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war.  Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men--for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative?  Have they forgotten that my ministry is  in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?  What can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One?  Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?"

For me, the high point in the speech is this riff near the end, where King articulates the revolutionary vision of the gospel, using the imagery of the the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a starting point.  The rhetoric here suggests that the gospel is a revolution under pressure from counterrevolutionary pressures, but sees the gospel through those pressures, "beyond Vietnam" to the reality of God.

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

"A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

"America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

"This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops."

To be sure, some of this language is dated.  But by and large this speech is standing up well in the face of time, and remains relevant to us today.  For a figure as public as King to name the realities of violence so forcefully, yet insist on a nonviolent Christian response, introduced the gospel into American society in new ways which could not be ignored.  This is my reason for calling it the most influential sermon of the 20th century in the United States.

You can find the text of the speech here.


Tim said...

I regret that I can't visit CMC this Sunday. I will be praying for Dr. Harding and for CMC - that it will be a tranformational Sunday.
Thanks for your post. I would not be Anabaptist or Mennonite had I not first read Dr. King (when I was 13 yrs. old), especially his collection of sermons entitled "Strength to Love", then the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and the Riverside speech you refer too.