“Preachers,” said Lewis Perkins, “are what’s wrong with the world.”
I confess I have very few close friends whose vocation is the same as mine. Growing up, I did not like many preachers. They seemed to me less than genuine. When I read the Bible, I found it to be much less about the afterlife and much more about the challenges and demands of living life on earth than many preachers portrayed it.
I know about the pressures placed on ministers. Every parishioner has his or her own definition of what a minister should be, and no one can live up to them all. Most preachers are nice people who are, according to William Willimon, “quivering masses of availability.”
But the gospel demands more–the proclamation of the Kingdom of God that runs counter to the world presented to us by the rich and powerful.
The church in the United States seems more concerned with success than faithfulness. Following Jesus can be harmful to business. It can split a church or separate families. So pastors often cower when faced with the possibility of costly discipleship.
Many pastors felt helpless when faced with the force of patriotism before the Iraq war. They knew that Jesus taught nonviolence, but fear and excitement caused by 9/11 made it very difficult to speak up for peace. Considering their own jobs and comfort zones rather than the call of the gospel or the consequences to others, many preachers remained silent, while others used our Lord’s name in calling people to arms.
The consequences of this failure of faith are huge. It has been reported that more than 1 million people have been killed in Iraq and at least 4 million have been made refugees. Seventy percent of Iraqi people do not have clean drinking water, and in Baghdad, a city the size of Chicago where temperatures reach 120-plus degrees, there is almost no electricity.
Nearly 4,000 American soldiers have died, with many more injured physically and psychologically. High divorce rates (75 percent of returning soldiers) and high suicide rates are evidence of the painful repercussions of the inactions of people of faith.
Jesus, the founder of our faith, does not call us to arms. He calls us to love for both neighbor and enemy, to radical forgiveness and to the turning of our cheek. The enormous damage done to America’s image in the world is an awful testament to the evil that is war. But the damage done to the church, which remained silent while “evil” was called “good,” is much greater.
When our youth go off to college they are challenged with questions such as, “How can you be part of a church that has been responsible for so much evil–the crusades, the burning of witches, racism, sexism and nationalism–that leaves the deeds of one’s nation unexamined while dehumanizing people of other nations so one feels justified in hurting or killing them?”
Even the most casual reader of the gospel would realize that all these actions are contrary to the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. Why do we so easily fall into behaviors that are abhorrent to Jesus while declaring our undying faith in his lordship?
Will Campbell said “all institutions, every last one of them–no matter the claim, no matter the purpose, no matter the stated goals–exist sooner or later for their own selves, are self-loving, self-concerned, self-regarding, self-preserving, and are lusting for the soul of all who come near them.”
The church’s institutionalization is seen in pastors saying: “I cannot speak against war, because I might offend some people who are soldiers. I might upset donors, and it would be wrong to hurt our fellowship. And don’t we love the closeness of our bonds to our nation, our denomination and our community?”
A church that offends nobody lives contrary to its Lord, who offended so many people that they crucified him. If Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, then the church’s failure to proclaim his teachings is robbing people of the ultimate truth.
Perhaps truthful preaching could have prevented the war in Iraq, and there would be money to take care of the uninsured and for education. If there were more truthful preaching, maybe tax breaks that favor the rich would have not passed and our society would be more equitable with adequate funding for Social Security and Medicare.
When Jesus walked the earth, preachers (Pharisees and Sadducees) were his enemies. Times have changed, but the truth is the same–the world can only be saved by love.
“Those who live by the sword die by the sword.”
I didn’t say that. Jesus did.
Larry Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Biscoe, N.C.