Preaching as Resistance (Phil Snider) -- A Review
PREACHING AS RESISTANCE: Voices of Hope, Justice, & Solidarity. Edited by Phil Snider. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2018. Viii + 167 pages.
Preaching in the Era of Trump (that's the title of a book that appeared shortly after the election of the current President is not easy. Of course, preaching is never “easy,” even if many of us find it fulfilling and even enjoyable. Nevertheless, these are especially difficult times for preachers, who seem to face one crisis after another, seemingly demanding a homiletical response. It is common to hear on Saturday afternoon a message from colleagues on Facebook telling us that if we're not addressing this action or that statement by the President or some other figure, we should be shunned by congregations and colleagues. Yes, even if your sermon is fully prepared and you’re as ready as you’ll be for Sunday, you need to toss it out and write a new sermon. As for me, I've resisted being bullied into turning into a reactive preacher. Nonetheless, I do try to address the issues of our day, even offering words of resistance, in my preaching. As Karl Barth suggests, I try to prepare by keeping the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other (even if I read it online).
Whereas Preaching in the Era of Trump (also from Chalice Press) was written as a primer for preachers facing an unsettling presidency, Preaching as Resistance is a collection of sermons edited by my Disciples of Christ colleague Phil Snider. The book contains thirty sermons that address the issues of the day, offering words of resistance to disturbing trends and events. Some of the sermons were preached after the Trump election, even speaking to the implications of the election. While most sermons were preached in the last two years, some date as far back as 2015. The contributors are diverse in gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, though most would be classified as theologically liberal. The preachers and teachers included in this collection cover a variety of Mainline Protestant communities, though there might be a plurality of Disciples sermons. As one might expect in a collection like this, drawing from the communities it does, the “politics” encountered here is left of center. In other words, you won’t find any essays attacking abortion or same-sex marriage.
Before diving deeper into the book, I need to introduce the editor. Phil Snider is the pastor of Brentwood Christian Church in Springfield, Missouri. He has authored several books on preaching and life in the church, as well as organizing at least one other sermon collection.
In his introduction Phil recognizes the challenge of being drawn into crisis preaching, or perhaps better reactive preaching. His recommendation is to let resistance be part of the regular flow of preaching, preparing the people we serve to live faithfully and justly in our world. Part of that process is always keeping in mind our own social location. Like me Phil is a white cisgender male. That gives him and me certain privileges not afforded to all. Recognizing that is important if we're to be attentive to the realities of our day.
So, what is resistance preaching? Phil offers three suggestions as to what it does. First, he writes, "it compares and contrasts the world as it is in comparison to how God wants it to be." Second, listeners are invited "into another space and time, wherein the transforming realm of God is experienced and celebrated." Finally, "it equips listeners to do the truth." This occurs as people of faith respond to the "call of justice and love harbored in the name of God" (p. 5).
Reading a book like this is both insightful and frustrating. It is insightful in that we get to consider what other colleagues have been sharing from their pulpits. It's frustrating in that we can't really get into the voice of the preacher. Sermons are oral events, even embodied events. Printed sermons can't catch the full embodiment of the sermon. I know this to be true of my own sermons, which I share on my blog to be read. They have a certain value, but they are missing something. That is true here. We miss the cadences and the tonality. We miss the sense of the room. Is the congregation embracing the word or resisting it? When it comes to preaching that is deemed prophetic, is the preacher speaking to the "choir" or to a community that remains uncertain, perhaps unconverted by the word the preacher believes to be important? Many of us preach to "purple congregations," that might be open to a prophetic word, but are leery about a steady diet, and are especially leery of what might be deemed political speech. I will confess that I have chosen to be subtler in my political speech than some of the preachers included in this list. Others might feel freer to be more overt. Context may matter here.
With these principles in mind, we encounter thirty sermons/preachers, organized into three parts. Part I is titled "Responding to the Call," with sermons laying the foundations for resistance. Part II is titled "Reflecting on the Issues," which include sermons addressing taking a knee (as NFL players did), Charlottesville, Ferguson, the Pulse Massacre, gun violence, and climate change to name a few. Finally, in Part III sermons address the theme "Moving Forward in Hope."
Phil has tried to include contributions by women, men, transgender persons. It is ethnically diverse. Where there might be less diversity is in theology. Most would deem themselves on the liberal/progressive side of the scale. I know some of the preachers, but most are either not known to me or are only on the edge of my knowledge. There are academics here and pastors. None are persons you would call famous. Jeff Chu has written a well-regarded book on life as a gay man who is Christian. The one famous name in the collection is that of Jesse Jackson, but this Jesse Jackson is a Disciples pastor and community organizer, not the famous civil rights leader and former presidential candidate. I have been present for one of the sermons, that preached by my friend José Morales. This sermon was delivered at the Disciples General Assembly in July 2017, and reminded assembly-goers that the unity we prize is difficult to attain, that is true unity. Thus, it is the one sermon in which I could experience fully, though it was shared in a convention hall and not a sanctuary. It was, however, a powerful sermon to experience in person, even if I had to watch the jumbo-tron.
With a book like this all I can do as a reviewer is suggest that one pick it up and read. Since there are thirty sermons, of varying length, one could use this as a month-long spiritual devotion, reading one sermon per day (that's not how I used it, but it could be used in that way). For preachers, one can get a sense of what resistance preaching might look like. As Snider notes, preaching isn't for the faint of heart in this age of Trump (or any age, really, but especially this age).
The book culminates in an afterword by another Disciples colleague, Richard Voelz. Rich is a homiletics professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, but he moved into that position from the parish only recently. Thus, he knows what it is like to preach in difficult circumstances. In this afterword, Rich does a nice job summing up the collection and offering his own words of wisdom to preachers wanting to engage in resistance preaching. He adds five of his own principles to the three laid out by Phil in the introduction. First, it "requires an engaging, voiced vision of the kingdom of God." In other words, it needs to be rooted in the vision of Jesus and the song of Mary. Second, it "requires a community of support and a deep spiritual well." If we're going this route, we need to know we're not alone. Third, it "requires historical consciousness;" that is, recognizing this isn't the first-time preachers have been asked to resist. Fourth, it "requires a revised sense of authority." Such preaching can't be done in an authoritarian manner. It must be rooted in conversation with congregation. Finally, he suggests that such preaching "does not only say 'no,' but rather simultaneously says 'no' and 'yes.'" (p. 165-166). As we preach, we're not only against something, we are more importantly for something. Thus, the message of hope.
While there are angry words here, this isn’t the only set of words. There are also words of hope, and these words need to be heard with regularity, so we can make our way through these difficult times, whether we’re in the pulpit or not. This has been true of preaching from the beginning—just read the prophets of old. While called to resist that which is unjust and hope-denying, this is not a call to be curmudgeon. It is, a call to be beacons of hope in a difficult age, after all we are called to preach the Gospel (good news).