Monday, February 3, 2014
On Clout and Cashing It In or "He said the "R" word."
The scene was the Mid South Men's Rally held annually at First Presbyterian Church of Jackson. This is always a highlight on my calendar. To be honest, the messages are often not the best part of the experience. But, this year was different. The preacher was Sandy Willson, pastor of the very large, very influential and very Southern Second Presbyterian Church (EPC) of Memphis.
And he said the "R" word. Race. In a room of white men in the middle of Jackson MS. And, even in our day and age, that is a bold and radical thing. Trust me, it is a very uncomfortable thing. But, he did not just mention it in passing. No, he fleshed it out in painstaking detail. He talked about what men of privilege ought to be doing to help --not in a paternalistic way, but in an ennobling way. He talked about public education. He talked about doctors and lawyers and businessmen viewing their vocations in an intentional way, as a sacred trust, and not simply a way to make more money. In Jackson, this is a huge issue. He talked about the economic value of simply having white skin. In other words, he talked about privilege. This is uncomfortable. We think we've got the race problem solved, you see. We don't hold anyone's "blackness" against them. We are embarrassed by the ugly racism of the past. We are glad we can go to restaurants with African American friends. It doesn't bother us to see an African American in the restroom or at the water fountain. We've made progress --we really have, I mean that sincerely.
But, that doesn't mean we've seen the whole picture. And, it is the preacher's burden and the preacher's joy to help people see the whole picture. But, on this, and on a whole host of other issues, we don't want to see the whole picture. And, since shutting God up eludes our capability, we will find ways to try to shut his messengers up.
Which is where clout comes in. God affords certain men a particular stewardship. He gives them a wider sphere of influence than their own pulpits. He exalts them, and gives people the ear to listen to them. Let's call this gift "clout." It's the old E. F. Hutton commercial --when he talked (about investments, if you're too young to remember), people listened! He was what Malcolm Gladwell would call an influencer --a person whose word carries weight.
If God gives clout as a divine trust, it would therefore follow that such clout ought to be cashed in, in the service of advancing the kingdom over and against the general inertia that seems to work against it. In other words, being willing to surrender some clout to advance an unpopular cause. There are reasons those who have clout don't want to do this. Risk aversion, I think, is the result of rationalizing to one's self that it is more important to retain clout than to expend it. After all, if I give up my clout, it is like using up all my call challenges too early --what if I need it later?
But, to me, this cheapens the call of Christ to us to come and die. Martyrs not only gave up clout, but their very lives, in the service of kingdom advance. FDR is famous for saying he would rather be right than president. I am not sure if he was sincere or not, but the sentiment itself is noble. Some causes are worth dying for.
I think it's far too easy for a pastor to rationalize that "just preaching the gospel" will effect social change. But the truth is, the Scriptures contain far more than just gospel --although the gospel is central to it, and to all Christian proclamation. Too often "just preaching the gospel" is merely a convenient way of sidestepping a costly and unpopular issue, like wealth, or race, or abortion, or whatever one's people really don't want to hear about. The truth is, no preacher "just preaches the gospel." He preaches on marriage, on stewardship, on parenting, on prayer. He does that because the Bible talks about all these things. So, "just preaching the gospel" doesn't exist. It's not God's plan for preaching --God's plan is for preaching the whole counsel of God. Don't let it be an excuse for you, preacher, not being willing to cash in your popularity in the service of an unpopular cause. You are called upon to afflict the comfortable. Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.
I am growing a bit weary of the celebrity and conference culture, and I've had to analyze a bit why. Some of it is my own sin --who doesn't want to have more clout? It does often seem true that connections and networks get you farther than ability or hard work --just like every other profession. But, part of it is I, though a "doctrinalist," am a bit doctrine-weary. Orthodoxy must combine with orthopraxy. We can keep people comfortable with doctrine, and make them proud. We can give them a certain measure of psychological release from shame by making them aware they are worms and dust and ashes and full of sin, and that Jesus loves them anyway (which is true). But, the chains never move if we don't get them to look down the field and be willing to risk it all run through the defensive line. Latently, though we would decry this, we are teaching them that the universe really does revolve around them, that what matters, and all that matters, is the mighty "I" and his individual relationship to God --not being willing to die for the advance of justice and righteousness in the world."
Here endeth the sermon.