Preaching with a Hammer: Pursuing Justice in a Time of Fear

August 8th, 2016
This article is featured in the Does Preaching Matter? (Aug/Sep/Oct 2016) issue of Circuit Rider

Philosophy should be done with a hammer, Friedrich Nietzsche once said. So, too, preaching.

Nietzsche penned these words in the context of his (in)famous attack on those foundational doctrines and concepts that structured the beliefs and practices of his day. Such notions have the look of divinity; but when we listen closely we can hear that they are hollow: mere idols. Nietzsche was on to something, something of great significance for teaching elders in particular.

Nietzsche’s hammer metaphor vacillates. At points, his hammer is a tuning fork, gently tapping this or that idea to ascertain its degree of solidity. Elsewhere, Nietzsche displays his penchant for rockhounding, wielding a tiny trim hammer to coax stone into new and beautiful forms. The last form his metaphor takes—and the one with which Nietzsche is most commonly associated—is that of a sledge. We can see him, arms stretched high, knuckles white, mustache quivering, as he drives cold philosophical steel into ideological bedrock.

I would argue that in our contemporary climate of political strife, economic uncertainty, and xenophobia, preachers require all three hammers in their homiletical tool belts. Homiletical hammers expose us to God’s deconstruction, God’s righteousness. In the preaching event we are drawn along with our congregants into the world of holy scripture, which places a big fat question mark over the world of our contemporary assumptions. Such preaching challenges our ideologies, which are first cousins to idols; they share the same root (eidos), after all. There are (at least) three ways that preachers may brandish hammers of deconstruction in their preaching ministries.

First, homiletical deconstruction strikes against our understanding of otherness, helping us to tune our lives to the pitch of hospitality resounding throughout scripture.

Amid talk of forty-foot walls and deportation of US citizens who do not share our beliefs and customs, the church needs preachers who will tune their voices to the pitch of divine hospitality. Such hospitality has two essential aspects.

The first aspect of such hospitality is a hallowed-out space that emerges when and where we make room for the other. In preaching hospitality, the preacher sounds a note dissonant with the privileging of selfhood and sameness that has preoccupied Western culture since Descartes.

Hospitality, in the terminology of phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion, is also a “saturated” space when and inasmuch as the other arrives.[i] In other words, hospitality inaugurates a space of genuine encounter that overwhelms my capacity to judge the other according to my preconceived categories. The person of the other appears as if fully present to me, as if within my grasp; and yet, the saturated otherness of the other remains other, exceeding my gaze, safeguarding the other’s singularity and inimitability.

Preaching toward hospitality need not be complicated. Calling for gender-neutral bathrooms can lead toward hospitality by questioning gendered ideologies. Likewise, a sermon calling to transform your church’s back field into a space where local refugees could grow crops alongside church members may challenge simplistic notions of ethnic difference and national identity. Such preaching rises above the cacophony of the political din, allowing us to embody God’s unconditional welcome.

Second, homiletical deconstruction chips away at false conceptions of selfhood, molding and shaping us to conform to God’s likeness in Jesus Christ.

Contemporary preachers battle against a barrage of discourses never before faced by our homiletical forbearers. The near instantaneous proliferation of voices through the Internet, and social media in particular, produces a clamor over which the preacher struggles to be heard. Madison Avenue spends billions of dollars a year to define us as consumers. Lobbyists and pundits work tirelessly to ground our identities in this or that party or political perspective.

Preaching with a hammer can bring epistemological and spiritual healing by calling contemporary notions of selfhood into question by God’s word.

As a concrete example, consider the ways in which US society privileges whiteness—a most pernicious ideology. As theologian James Cone puts it, “The poison of white supremacy is so widespread and deeply internalized by its victims that many are unaware of their illness, and others who are often do not have the cultural and intellectual resources to heal their wounded spirits.”[ii] To be sure, race—along with other identity markers (gender, sexuality, class, etc.)—shape both our consciousness and experiences. Homiletical deconstruction is not aimed at eradicating or ignoring difference; rather, it aims to mold self-understanding in light of God’s celebration of particularity. Such deconstruction resists binary constructions that divide us from each other and from ourselves. The designation “white” is powerful only to the extent that it is set in dominant opposition to “black.”

Preaching that affirms that #blacklivesmatter and challenges racist monikers like “thug” or “welfare queen” is not unlike the rockhound’s trim hammer. Through such preaching, the preacher proclaims the good news that we are all children of God and worthy of love and respect.

Third, homiletical deconstruction smashes ideologies of race, ethnicity, and class, exposing us to God’s righteousness beyond prejudicial construals of justice.

Preaching with a hammer boldly challenges systems and structures that pervert justice. Such preaching works to dismantle national apathy toward the prison industrial complex, which disproportionately condemns men and women of color, those with mental illness, and the poor.

Accordingly, such preaching decries the persistence of capital punishment, which continues to favor the rich-and-guilty over the poor-and-innocent. In his eye-opening book, Just Mercy, lawyer-activist Bryan Stevenson drives a prophetic sledge to the foundation of America’s claims to justice when he writes, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. . . . The real question of capital punishment in this country is not do they deserve to die, but do we deserve to kill?”[iii]

Preaching with a hammer breaks up the substratum bolstering economic and racial discrimination, reverberating with an ancient call for justice.

Our world needs more hammer-wielding preachers, those who are unafraid to challenge systems that perpetuate marginalization and oppression. Such preaching sounds a clarion call that does not confuse Christianity for capitalism or church for nationalism. Such preaching strikes political turmoil with faith, uncertainty about the future with hope, and fear of the stranger with love—the church’s abiding tools.

[i] See Jean-Luc Marion, In Excess: Studies in the Saturated Phenomenon, trans. Robyn Horner and Vincent Berrand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002).

[ii] James H. Cone, “Theology’s Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Supremacy,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 55 (2001): 3.

[iii] Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014), 313.

comments powered by Disqus