I lost my father a year-and-a-half ago at the ripe old age of 84. Although, as an aside, there’s no age that’s “ripe” enough when it’s your own father, is there?
For a good portion of his life, Dad was an active minister in the United Church of Christ. Eventually he grew weary of church politics, went back to school for his doctorate and became a sociology professor (where he then, of course, had to put up with academic politics, but that’s a different story). During the last 40 plus years of his life, while he remained an ordained minister and would on occasion fill in on a Sunday, he was never again a church pastor.
So I was a bit surprised when, during his final illness, it became obvious to me that while he was certainly proud of his years spent teaching, at the end of the day he considered himself first and foremost a minister of the United Church of Christ.
It was part of his essence.
And I’m pretty sure I know what Dad’s response would have been, were he still here, to the words of Jeremiah Wright and, per the latest dustup, Father Michael Pfleger: he would have dismissed the whole issue as stupid and insisted that what they say at the pulpit is between them and their congregations and denominations.
Simply put: it’s nobody else’s damn business.
And, no, Dad, though liberal, never said anything nearly as controversial as the now famous words of Rev. Wright or the increasingly famous words of Father Pfleger: his was a subtler approach.
He did, however, occasionally say things capable of causing a stir. One time, in the middle 1960s, for example, he offered a very mild comment on the Vietnam War during a sermon, causing our next door neighbor to storm out of the church in protest (they remained on friendly terms afterwards).
But most of the arguably controversial things — and there weren’t that many of them — Dad said from the pulpit were Scriptural in origin. The Christian faith, after all, has some fairly revolutionary beliefs — things right wing Bible-thumpers often try to ignore (although some are now doing better). Things, for example, having to do with the duty the materially comfortable owe to the poor.
There is very little in our current “greed is good” culture, after all, that can easily be squared with the teachings of Jesus Christ, whatever Rolex wearing televangelists may from time to time claim.
So speaking as a PK (preacher’s kid), let me let you in on a little secret. Getting under people’s skin — sometimes even saying “outrageous” things — is part of a minister’s job. Sermons are supposed to get people thinking, shake them up a little. They can be freewheeling, filled with spontaneous expression. On occasion they can even be over the top and offensive. The idea, of course, is to shake us out of our complacency.
Political correctness and preaching have very little in common.
Father Pfleger’s words about Hillary Clinton, to my ear at least, were, in fact, unfortunate and even offensive. But they were made during a religious service as part of a pastor’s attempt to make a point, whether we agree with it or not, about white attitudes of entitlement. It was not a stump speech made as part of a political campaign.
Pfleger himself is politically active, at least in the sense of being a community activist (where he has done many good things), but at the time he made the statements at issue he was preaching as a clergyman. If he went over the line in the small portion of his sermon that’s currently swimming across the Internet, that’s an issue between him and the congregation.
It’s a somewhat different story, of course, when a preacher, such as Rev. John Hagee, intentionally injects his faith into the political process by arguing that his religious visions or traditions should become the template for American political life. Where that’s true, those visions and traditions become fair game. But even then I wonder if we haven’t gone too far in the direction of flyspecking old sermons looking for something to use against a candidate associated with the pastor in question.
This is a road that will lead nowhere but to grief for both religion and public discourse in this nation. It needs to stop now.
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