Stop Speaking Smooth Things

“It’s poor religion that can’t provide a sufficient curse when needed.” Wendell Berry said that.

Another poet and prophet said this: “They are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, ‘Do not see’; and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel’” (Isa 30:9-11 NRSV).

Did you hear that? “Speak to us smooth things.” Isn’t that what we want, if not demand, as an “audience” to church?

What exactly are these “smooth things” that we prefer?

  • Smooth talk, soothing and affirming, leaving us comfortable and sated in our cozy perspectives and opinions and practices.
  • Interpretations and sermons that ignore the inherently political implications of the prophetic tradition, a tradition that finds its fulfillment in Jesus.
  • Fake news that props up our biases, that nurtures lazy thinking and asks nothing of us.
  • Words that are careful to never make us shift uncomfortably in our seats.
  • Words that feed our bias and comport with our theological or political or moral platform. 
  • Language for how we can continue to judge others as sinners, as ignorant, as immoral, while never having to acknowledge our own sin and complicity in the things that do harm. 

Speak to us smooth things; tell us what we want to hear. 

"Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent" (Abingdon Press, 2018). Order here:

But God’s prophets will not oblige. Strange and provocative, aggravating and inconvenient, painful and convicting, life-changing and mind-blowing—the words of God’s prophets are often pretty rough. And they are the words that we not only need to hear but need to be willing to speak and to live in this world so weary and wounded and in need of God. 

Too often people of faith have been unwilling to admit we even see the hard thing, much less to name it in a truthful way or risk anything in response. Specifically calling out preachers, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III has said:

Can preaching recover a blues sensibility and dare speak with authority in the midst of tragedy? America is living stormy Monday, but the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday. The world is experiencing the blues, and pulpiteers are dispensing excessive doses of non-prescribed prosaic sermons with severe ecclesiastical and theological side effects. The church is becoming a place where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag. . . . Why have we emphasized a personal ethic congruent with current structures and not a public theology steeped in struggle and weeping informed by the blues? (“The Blue Note Gospel: Preaching the Prophetic Blues in a Post-Soul World,” 2014 Lyman Beecher Lectureship, Yale Divinity School, 2014)

Rev. Moss’s words make me think of another colleague’s comment about folks who find their way into our congregations after a life of either no religion or a long lapse from faith and practice. My colleague said, “They come just looking for fraud.” That is to say, people these days don’t expect churches to actually have anything life-giving or honest about them. Folks don’t expect churches to tell the truth about racism, or about our dependence on the military industrial complex, or about the indignity of being unemployed or under-employed, or about the AIDS epidemic still wreaking havoc in the poor, black communities in the South, or about climate change, crushing loneliness, the booming sex trade in our country, mental illness, the opioid addiction crisis, and on it goes. People these days expect to find in our congregations little acknowledgement of the struggle and confusion and complexity and pain that marks much of our human experience. At best, visitors to our churches expect lip service to God’s care and love, to peace with justice, to compassion and reconciliation, to resurrection and hope, even to “social justice”—without any verifiable evidence that the words are backed up with action. Across the years, the most common critique leveled at church people is what? Hypocrisy. 

I tend to think some folks use the hypocrisy excuse as a way to keep God at arm’s length. But, honestly, I understand why people want an excuse to stay away from a faith community. Our track record is dicey. And it’s been that way since the beginning. Back in the eighth century BCE, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, calling out the fraud of the people’s empty worship and ritual, saying, “I can’t stand wickedness with celebration! . . .  Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood. Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow” (Isa 1:13, 15-17 CEB).

Embedded in this critique is part of the vision that sets hypocrisy in sharp relief: do good, help the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Not only do prophets provide a critique of the way things are, but they do so in light of God’s vision for how things should and can be. We have been given a vision for how to live together in mutuality, trust, reverence for life, dignity, respect, and love. We have been called to be caretakers of one another and of the creation. The prophetic vision provides guidance for how to walk in God’s wisdom and way.

For Christians, Jesus shows us what it looks like to fully enflesh God’s wisdom and way. It is this beautiful and life-giving vision of Christ that is our goal—as people and as the human family. When that vision is trampled, ignored, mocked, and denied, it’s time to stop speaking “smooth things.” When the poor and the immigrant are not cared for, when our siblings of other faiths and of other gender identities and orientations are condemned or bullied, when our forests and rivers and vulnerable habitats are destroyed, when the sick are told to make the hard decision to give up their iPhone so that they can pay for healthcare, it’s time to stop speaking smooth things. When violence and war are constant and cause no public lament or debate but are simply accepted as the natural course of things, it’s time to stop speaking smooth things.

A prophet names what is happening, calls out the oppression and deceit of the culture, identifies the people’s rejection of God’s vision, and writes it down as a witness.

But none of this matters if, in response, all we do is feel guilt or allow ourselves to become overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. Prophets call us to respond, to turn and to return to God’s wisdom and way. Our faith promises that each of us can do something in service to God’s beautiful vision for this world. Our faith also promises that God will give us grace, insight, passion, skill, perseverance, love, compassion, and generosity; these and many more graces equip you and me, in all our particularity, to participate in God’s work in the world. Perhaps most of us will not find ourselves on a prominent public platform to speak truth to power; but all of us can seek to tell the truth where we live. We can seek to live with integrity, to be willing to at least try to see and to hear the complex realities around us, the cries for justice, the needs for healing. We can do our best to do more than pay lip service to the commandments to love God and neighbor. We can work diligently to nurture trust and relationship in our faith communities and at least try to offer the world an alternative vision to the prevailing culture of polarization and demonization. 

What a gift it would be to that person who risks crossing the church’s threshold to find not fraud but a community being honest about their differences, grappling with the real conflict difference brings, continuing to love each other, and working to “preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together” (Eph 4:3 CEB). What a gift it would be for folks to find faith community naming the pain of suffering, injustice, brokenness, and death and engaging in lament. There is something powerful about having our truth spoken in sacred space. There is something healing about seeing honest lament begin to energize loving engagement.

The world is living through a stormy Monday and longs for shelter from the storm. Hallmark cards, bunnies and flowers, nice words and sentiments, tiptoeing around issues, failing to name the pain of exclusion, never asking the real questions, playing church when the poor and oppressed are dying in the streets ain’t gonna cut it. Stop speaking smooth things. Truth telling and solidarity and devotion to God’s wisdom and way may lead to the cross, but we know the story; and—if we’re not hypocrites—we’ll have the courage to speak and act with assurance that new life is on the other side.

This article is adapted from Ginger Gaines-Cirelli’s new book Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent, available from Abingdon Press.

comments powered by Disqus