Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Who could be against justice, right? I mean, come on, if there’s one thing that the law and prophets — not to mention Jesus — would seem to agree on, it’s justice. (Just look at this week’s parable, for instance.) So who could be against it? As it turns out, from time to time, I am.

Actually, it’s not justice I’m against, it’s too quickly labeling one side of an argument a “matter of justice” in our preaching. And it’s not just any argument; it’s those arguments being held between Christians of good faith. It might be the debate over homosexuality that so vexes many of our traditions right now. Or it might be the argument over particular action regarding taxation or the environment, or it might be a host of other issues over which Christians of equally good faith and conscience fight.

And, I should say, it’s not that I don’t think some issues are a matter of justice. I actually hold pretty strong convictions about homosexuality, taxation, the environment, and a host of other issues that I could easily define and defend as matters of justice.

The problem is, however, that as soon as I do that, at least from the pulpit, I label all those who disagree with me unjust. That is, I’ve defined the argument so that those who hold one opinion (the one I share, obviously) are right, faithful, and just, and those who hold the other opinion are wrong, unfaithful, and unjust. And defining matters this way doesn’t seem to, well, do justice to the character and faith of some very good people that I know, respect, and care about who happen to disagree with me on some important issues.

Does that mean that I never take a public stand when Christians disagree? No. And I’ve been pondering what tips the balance one way or another. At this point, I think it’s mostly a matter of how settled or unsettled the issue is. That is, I would not keep silent about defending the church’s decision to ordain women or welcome persons who have been divorced because the church — at least the tradition I’m a part of — has had time to come to some relative consensus. There seems little excuse to me, that is, for arguing against the ordination of women while still remaining part of an institution that’s been doing this for forty years. With other issues that are far more unsettled, however, I can understand why someone would hold an opinion that differs from mine, even though I might disagree with it strongly.

(The weakness of this position, I realize, is that it may all be a complicated mask for personal cowardice. And I worry about that regularly. Do I defer such calls of justice simply because I want not to offend others, or because I want to be liked? I hope not, though the thought haunts me. I think I am trying to strike a balance between the freedom of the Christian, on the one hand, and the respect for a weaker conscience, on the other [see I Cor. 8], but you never know.)

So what is it I want? I think I want, if not a moratorium, as least greater caution in labeling our positions as matters of justice from the pulpit. (And, for the record, I’d also caution against too quickly labeling one side of an argument a matter of “principle” or “morality” for the same reasons.) Because whenever we use those labels we rule one group of Christians and the views they hold immediately out of bounds, shut down conversation, and divide the Body of Christ.

Make sense? It does to me…most of the time…except, well, except when I read a parable like the one Jesus tells in this week’s gospel reading from Luke about the widow and the unjust judge. My experience with this parable is that we usually move analogically to assume that the unjust judge is God (as in, “we are to pray to God as the widow beseeched the unjust judge”), and then we get so preoccupied with the unattractive comparison of God with an unjust judge that we don’t get much further.

This time, however, I was struck by this courageous, indefatigable widow. No question who holds the power in this relationship. A widow in the ancient world — particularly one who has to plead her case by herself (implying she has no family to aid her) — doesn’t count for much. Nevertheless, she keeps haranguing this judge, apparently making a public spectacle of herself…and him. In fact, a more vivid and accurate translation of judge’s complaint in 18:5 is that she is “giving me a black eye.” She’s embarrassing him, calling into question his reputation by persisting with her case.  She is, to borrow the popular parlance, speaking truth to power.

And this reminds me that as much as I may want to respect the bound conscience of those who hold contrary opinions to my own on contentious issues — which is another way, I think, of naming what I’m trying to articulate — there are some circumstances that demand we speak out for others whatever the consequence. More than that, there are times that even when I would defer naming my position a matter of justice, I need to respect the desire of others to do so, as I may never know when it is another widow making a just claim against an unjust judge (or preacher).

I realize this doesn’t offer clean, clear cut counsel of how to address controversial issues from the pulpit. To be perfectly frank, that may be because I’m actually not all that sanguine on that front. Don’t get me wrong: I think we can exercise capable pastoral leadership from the pulpit. But I don’t think we can settle arguments (and probably shouldn’t try), and I am dubious that we will often persuade people to change their minds on the basis of one sermon. (A changed mind, in my experience, follows a changed heart, and that usually results from a personal experience or relationship rather than cognitive argumentation.)

At the same time, I do think we can a) put controversial topics into perspective and thereby take some of the unnecessary heat out of our discussions, b) offer a theological framework to help people think things through, c) invite people into conversation and educational forums where they might learn and grow, and d) model a more respectful “way of being” in the way we preach and regard others who disagree with us. In all these ways, that is, we can lead without labeling.

So although I still hesitate to move too quickly to define matters in terms of “justice” (or “principle” or “morality”) for concern of treating others with the disdain that this judge shows the widow, I nevertheless realize there are times to do just that, and because I may at times be too slow or cautious to do that as quickly as Jesus would want, I am grateful for those colleagues — and this widow — who remind me that sometimes it is worse to defer justice than risk contention.

This is hard stuff, Working Preacher, and I appreciate your able leadership and faithful discernment…even when we may disagree. What you do matters, and I am so grateful for your ministry and fidelity in challenging times.

Yours in Christ,

PS: Two other articles to note: 1) something I wrote on preaching during times of controversy,
if you’re interested in thinking about some of this more, and 2) Deanna Thompson’s reflections on the passage this week from 2nd Timothy in light of her experience as a cancer survivor.