Ethics in the Pulpit?

Martha Ellen Stortz
September 11, 2003
published in dialog, Winter 2004.

I write on September 11th, 2003, two years after attacks on the World Trade Centers, after fierce skirmishes in Afghanistan and Iraq, as the United States wages an ill-defined “war on terrorism” around the world. Has any of this registered in pulpits across the country? And if so, how?

According to a journalist for the San Jose Mercury News, these current events have registered unevenly. After war was declared in Iraq in the spring of 2003, this journalist spent several Sundays visiting parishes and congregations throughout Silicon Valley. “In Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant congregations, people were talking about the war,” she said, “but in mainstream Protestant congregations, there was silence.” Her words reminded me of reports from my own students, who stumbled through their classes on September 11th. In the large ecumenical consortium in which I teach, some classes went on as if nothing had happened on the streets of New York City. When pressed, the professors protested, “In the midst of such chaos, I thought it best to offer some stability. I stuck with my lesson plan.”

Why the silence? Was it due to a failure of imagination? Or a stiff-lipped politeness, that leaves politics in the narthex along with the wet umbrellas? Were pastors paralyzed by the fear that whatever they said would split the congregation? Or was there a more general wariness of the bold, in-your-face political activism of the Religious Right and the liberal left? Does Two-Kingdoms thinking make such a rigid divide between church and state that never the twain shall meet? How does the preacher address politics faithfully and prophetically without caving to fundamentalisms of left or right?

The issue before us is ethics in the pulpit, potentially a more scandalous moral issue than clergy sexual misconduct and certainly one that holds potential for abuse. What is said from the pulpit—and what is not said—can browbeat parishioners or lull them into a false security, both equally an abuse of power. The “bully pulpit” sometimes bullies people. Those who preach would do well to confess that the preached word has potential to kill and to bring alive. Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde remembered a dire prediction from some nameless source: “…if the Protestant Church even dies the dagger that will be found in its back will be the sermon.” (1) Let preachers beware of the first parry. How to preach about politics and other ethical issues both faithfully and prophetically?

In general, ethics is the discipline that describes what people should do, what they should seek, and what kind of people they should be. Philosophical ethics divides the moral terrain into kingdoms of rules, which direct action and tell people what to do; kingdoms of ends, which describe the appropriate objects of human flourishing and tells people what they should seek; or kingdoms of character, which delineate the virtues and vices which shape certain kinds of people. Call it Three-Kingdoms thinking, if you will. Traditionally, these moral domains have been designated deontological (rules governing action), teleological (goals encapsulating human longing), and aretaic (virtues and vices depicting the good person or community). Most balanced moral systems are mixed, drawing insight from rules, goals, and character. Moral philosophers declare their primary residence in one of these moral domains—with vacation homes in other kingdoms. For example, Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant locates himself firmly in a kingdom of rules with a categorical imperative that enjoins rational people to “Act so that the maxim of your action should become a universal law.” The injunction reads like a rule, but Kant draws on the virtue of reverence to fuel his deontology and lures people into goodness with intimations of immortality. Kant can boast of primary residence in the realm of deontology with vacation homes on the shores of character and teleology. Maybe you can have it all….! Without ever having read Kant, my mother gave her daughters similar multi-faceted moral formation in an encompassing disciplinary style, appealing at times to rules—“Why?! Because I said so!” to goals—“If you continue in this manner, you’ll grow up to be a rotten adult!” and to the kind of people her young daughters were turning into—“My girls aren’t like that.”

With more subtlety, preachers gird themselves with the bible in one hand and the newspapers in the other and wonder whether they should be telling people what to do, what to seek, or who to be. They search the assigned texts for any insight into the world’s turning. They wind up speaking from the bible and commentaries they hold in their right hands, delivering brain-dulling travelogues of the text with no immediate bearing on the present. Or they speak from the newspapers they clutch in their left hands, offering fiery social justice tirades drawn almost exclusively from the op-ed pages. If my friend from the Mercury reads her pulpits aright, in the toughest situations, mainstream Protestant preachers steer toward the text in an effort to avoid controversy. Neither approach is helpful, nor is either approach “ethical.” With bible in one hand and newspapers in the other, can preachers bring the deepest wisdom of the text to bear on the most intractable issues in the present? We must learn to be ambidextrous.

The Bible in one Hand: Praying the Text

As teaching theologian and ethicist in a mainstream Protestant church, I get lots of questions: “What does scripture say about war and peace?” “What does scripture say about the new genetic technologies?” “What does scripture say about homosexuality?” With all due respect to the gravity of these questions, I have come to call this phenomenon the hermeneutics of narcissism. It creates the expectation that the Bible is always really talking about ME ME ME. In part, that is true, but scripture is not only talking about us. Scripture focuses on God, the One God in whom we live and move and have our being. As it tells us what God does, what God seeks, and who God is, scripture presents the “ethics of God.” If preachers can just get their fingers on that pulse, they might be able to offer insight into how we ought to respond and how we ought to conduct our own lives in accordance with God’s ethics—and not simply our own poor designs, whether they be oriented to rules or goals or virtues of whatever flavor.

Escaping the clutches of a hermeneutics of narcissism involves lots of listening. I have always been struck by Martin Luther’s formulation for this important practice of Christians. Luther felt that Christians would be recognized by their possession of “the holy Word of God.” (2) More accurately, we not only possess the Word; we are possessed by the Word. We are possessed by the Word when it is rightly preached, believed, professed, and lived. Elsewhere Luther spoke of this core practice as “the preaching and hearing of the Word.” He regarded it as one of the marks of the church, an orienting practice of the “Christian holy people.” The preaching and hearing of the Word was sufficient both to locate the “people of God” in the world and to identity these same people to the rest of the world.

Luther was not simply trying to be inclusive in designating this practice “the preaching and hearing” of the Word. In speaking of this central practice, he did not intend to divide the Christian holy people into two camps, those who preach and those who listen, as if one could merge the two camps and come up with a unified company of Christians who “preach and hear the Word.” This is not Luther’s meaning. The preaching and hearing of the Word were two sides of the same practice, not two practices tailored for different audiences. Both preachers and laypersons must first hear the Word in order to be able to preach.

What does it take to hear the Word? Hearing the Word demands prayer, and prayer inscribes two habits on the preacher’s heart. Ironically, the first of those is silence. You are not going to hear the Word of God unless you listen. And you cannot listen if there is a lot of background noise. Luther himself said that on his busiest days, “I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.” (3) This could stand as one more outrageous remark from the Reformer, but perhaps in this instant, Luther intended not to provoke but simply to state the truth. The more he had on his mind, the longer it took to clear the decks and be able to listen to God. And, of course, the more he had on his mind, the more guidance he needed to sort it all out. For him and for us, prayer provides a space for listening to God. Good preachers need to pray their texts for the next Sunday, allowing the silence of prayer to drain the worries of the day in order that the Word may seep through.

The second habit of the preacherly heart follows from the first. Attention companions silence, as the preacher waits on the Word. A preacher who has logged a lot of hours in prayer captured the habit of attention: “More and more, I find myself listening for God, not simply listening to God. Lots of times, God just isn’t talking.” He spoke of the temptation to race off to commentaries and preaching helps for ideas and inspiration, thinking that his preaching well had run dry. But he found that if he could wait out the dry season, God’s Word would not return empty: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth…, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty….” (Isaiah 55:11, NRSV). Informed exegesis ranks as one of the most important instruments in the preacher’s toolkit, but it should not displace the attention of prayer.

Silence and attention prepare the preacher to hear the word of God, and listening ranks as an important preparation for preaching. Instead of clearing their throats before stepping into the pulpit, preachers would do well to unstop their ears. Luther himself describes the kind of listening preaching requires. He wishes that he could attend to the holy word of God the way his dog sat under the dinner table waiting for a bone. Every muscle strains for a scrap of food—that’s the way to listen to the Word of God. The Old Testament captures this quality of attention in the word “hearken.” There is a mutual hearkening between God and God’s people, as one party calls upon the other to “hearken to me” and “Hear my prayer.” Significantly, God gets to play too, demanding that the people pay attention: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deut. 6:4). The language is elegant, but the substance is blunt: “Listen up!” “Why aren’t you paying attention to me?!” Every preacher begins the sermon by “listening up,” attending to the holy word of God in an effort to probe what God may be doing, what God may be seeking, where God may be in the present moment. It’s the ethics of God in action. Preachers can’t move forward faithfully and prophetically without it.

The record of the ethics of God in scripture is a living thing. Too often the ethics of God turns into an archaeology of God: what God did, what God sought, and who God was, and the stories become reduced to a history of God’s interaction with a certain people and a specific time. That history is important, but only if it opens out into the story of God’s ongoing love affair with the whole of creation. The preacher’s task is to give God’s people clues as to where they can find God’s fingerprints and trace the work of God’s hands.

Hearing the Word of a living God invites response. Luther thought the church should be a Mundhaus, literally a “mouth house,” with people engaged in rapt conversation with God whose lively Word they had heard with attention. God wants mouthy Christians, but only after they have first listened. Preachers help facilitate that conversation.

And parishioners who participate in this lively conversation cannot help but continue it elsewhere, in the works of their callings, in lives with friends and family, in work and in leisure. Informed by the holy Word of God, parishioners become themselves preachers. Luther described the ripple effects of good preaching:

If you are a manual laborer, you find that the Bible has been put into your workshop, into your hand, into your heart. It teaches and preaches how you should treat your neighbor. Just look at your tools—at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure—and you will read this statement inscribed on them. Everywhere you look, it stares at you. Nothing that you handle every day is so tiny that it does not continually tell you this, if you will only listen. Indeed there is no shortage or preaching. You have as many preachers as you have transactions, goods, tools, and other equipment in your house and home. All this is continually crying out to you: “Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.” (4)

Good preachers begin a sermon that their parishioners continue, as they preach through the works of their calling. In this sense, the best sermons are unfinished ones, inviting parishioners to continue the preaching in their daily lives.

The Newspapers in the Other Hand: Praying the World

Is there a place for politics in the pulpit? I answer with a firm, but qualified “yes.” One danger is that politics tends not simply to enter the pulpit, but take it over. Preachers held hostage by the culture wars need to listen again to the psalmist’s injunction: “Be still and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:11) Let God be God—not Rush Limbaugh, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, or any of the myriad other pundits who would compete for the honor. In addressing politics from the pulpit, the preacher aspires to a God’s-eye view, not a rant from right or left. At issue, after all, is what God is doing in the world today—not Congress or the White House. Hopefully, the preparation of praying and listening for the Word of God enables the preacher to discern whether the spirit behind her words comes from God, Capitol Hill, or the Brookings Institute. Discerning the spirits is not simply a luxury of good preachers; it is their obligation.

The other danger confronting preachers is disdaining any talk of politics altogether, and in so doing they create the impression that religion resides above the rough-and-tumble of the political realm—or worse, is simply irrelevant to it. Too many preachers collaborate in their own silencing, interpreting the separation of church and state to mean they can say nothing about political life. This could not be more dangerous to the health of the body politic or the health of God’s body, the world.

The issue is not whether preachers should address political issues, but where they engage political issues—and how they speak once they get there. In fact, pastors and church leaders enjoy a wide range of “bully pulpits” beyond the pulpit. A church newsletter, an adult forum, an inter-generational bible study, a special congregational meeting: all serve as arenas for public debate, and church leaders need to be skilled in using these various venues. They need to be clear about the differences between them. A newsletter can be a great vehicle for delineating the salient points of an important issue. For example, as the U.S. declared war on Iraq, many pastors rehearsed the criteria for “just war” in their bulletins and newsletters, enriching public literacy on the subject. Others announced marches in support of and against the war; they disseminated addresses of Congressional representatives. Still others kept members informed as to which young men and women in the congregation had been called up for active duty. Information that would be inappropriate to announce from the pulpit found a home within the pages of the bulletin or weekly newsletter. An adult forum offers an opportunity for debate of more partisan positions, particularly if the discussion is civil, the participants open, and the event begins and ends with prayer. Inter-generational bible study brings together the wisdom of old and young alike around a common text and a common issue. Congregational strategies for addressing politics outside the pulpit abound, and each venue offers preachers a different voice.

What happens in each of these arenas informs what happens in the pulpit. As they pray the texts, preachers strain to hear the living Word of God. The Word is always spoken to a concrete community in a distinct moment of time. It is always God’s Word—for us. And no one knows better than preachers the community to which that “for us” refers. They marry, bury, and baptize the members of this community. They worship together, weep and rejoice together. They send off to war the children of the same congregation—and wait together for word of their return. They watch the same headlines march across the same newspapers. What is God’s Word for us here, in this place?

The incarnation of God’s Word in Christ Jesus demonstrates God’s longing to be with us wherever we are. For this reason, as they prepare their sermons, preachers pray the world, lifting it up in all its brokenness to the One who made it. We would be fools indeed to pretend we could hide any facet of that world from the all-knowing Creator. We would be faithless to imagine God does not care about politics. And we would be feckless to pretend deafness when God speaks a word of blessing or judgment.

Again, discernment is key. I would be happy to see pastors discussing current events alongside the weekly texts in their study and pericope groups. The exercise would help differently-minded people talk together, identify the issues, inform themselves, and work through differences like those that would emerge in their respective congregations. The synergy of discussing text and context would generate new insights.

Finally, talking about politics in the pulpit is not an option, but a mandate. In saying nothing about the world, we speak volumes. If we ignore the toughest issues of the day, our silence makes a huge political statement. We confirm the suspicion that God simply doesn’t care about them, and we confine faith to a Sunday-morning affair. This strikes me as an ethical violation of the highest order.

The preacher has the opportunity and the obligation to bring the Word of God to bear on the problems of the world. This is both a high calling and a spiritual practice. Prayer, study, and deliberation prepare pastors for the practice of preaching. The arms that clutch a Bible in one hand and the newspapers in the other belong to a single human being. The preacher stands between the Word and the world. He or she needs to sit with both long enough to hear their resonance within the life of a concrete community. Praying the world, the preacher comes to know despair, fear, and anger. Praying the Word, the preacher discovers hope, faith, and forgiveness. The sermon unites the two in a gracious harmony, speaking hope to despair, faith to fear, and forgiveness to anger.

(1) Gerhard O. Forde, “The Word That Kills and Makes Alive,” in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds.), Marks of the Body of Christ (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), p. 1. [back]

(2) Martin Luther, “On the Councils and the Church,” in Timothy F. Lull (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 540-548. [back]

(3) Quoted in Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988), p. 34. [back]

(4) Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Mount,” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 21, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), p. 237. [back]