What Really Is a Dangerous Sermon?

December 17th, 2018
This article is featured in the Preaching from the Margins (Nov/Dec/Jan 2018-19) issue of Circuit Rider

So the great contest in these declining years is not for human economic interests, or for human political preferences, or even for human minds—not at the bottom. The true battle is being fought in the human imagination. Imagination does rule the world. — Russell Kirk 

After the publication of How to Preach a Dangerous Sermon, people ask me the same question in different phrasing, but essentially it is this: “What really is a dangerous sermon?”[1] Plainly and simply, a dangerous sermon is a sermon based in the preacher’s moral imagination that upends and challenges the dominant moral hierarchy operating in the context of the preaching event. Many are surprised to learn that moral systems have embedded and often unexamined dominance hierarchies. Inevitably, some are at the top benefiting from the moral hierarchy and some are at the bottom, marginalized and oppressed within the system. A dangerous sermon challenges dominance hierarchies so that the position and benefits of those at the top are challenged and those at the bottom are lifted and helped.

Imagination Rules the World

The phrase moral imagination was coined by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke laments the revolutionaries’ disregard for moral imagination as indicative of the strong and sudden changes being brought to customs and institutions of civil society. Burke said:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All of the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our own naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.[2] (underline mine)

The simplest definition of moral imagination comes to us from conservative writer Russell Kirk: “the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.”[3] Kirk argued that “imagination rules the world” because imagination molds the clay of our sentiments and understandings. While it is often assumed that human beings understand the world through calculations, formulas, and logical syllogisms, the reality is that we understand the world through images, myths, and stories, and thereby comprehend our relationship to God, nature, others, and the self.[4] Kirk suggests that “not pure reason, but imagination—the high dream or the low dream—is the moving force in private and public life.”[5] Kirk explains:

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.[6]

"How to Preach a Dangerous Sermon" (Abingdon Press, 2018). Order here: http://bit.ly/DangerousSermon

According to Burke, when moral imagination is lacking, human beings are cast forth “from this world of reason, and order, and peace and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”[7] Kirk believed the ultimate battle for survival would take place in the imagination, and the most contested battleground was for the imagination of the rising generation.

Can We Imagine Others as Equal?

One of the chief questions arising from moral imagination is the ability to see others as equal. Particularly, can I envision someone outside my group as equal? Based upon the fact that our country is governed by a conservative dominance hierarchy, let’s look at the Strict Father Morality of conservatives. George Lakoff articulates the “Moral Order Metaphor,” which projects a dominance hierarchy onto the moral domain and creates a corresponding hierarchy of legitimate moral authority, assuming that the hierarchy is just and power should by right rest with the “most moral.” He establishes the following hierarchy that flows from the Strict Father Morality:

God over Human Beings; Human beings over Nature; Adults over Children; The Rich over The Poor (and hence, Employers over Employees); Western Culture over Non-Western Culture; Our Country over Other Countries; . . . Men over Women; Whites over Nonwhites; Straights over Gays; Christians over Non-Christians. . . . In each case, the hierarchy limits the freedom of those lower on the hierarchy by legitimating the power of those higher on the hierarchy. . . . A large portion of conservative political policies flow from the conservative moral order.[8]

While conservative policies are based in “Strict Father Morality,” as an African American person, why would I agree to this moral order that asserts my own subservience? Why would I support an order that delegitimizes my full and equal humanity? In my sermons, I often upend this moral and dominance hierarchy, and the sermons would be considered dangerous.

All of us have to wrestle with the question of equality. In my maleness, I have to search out as to whether or not women are really my equal. If I am a straight person, I have to discern if members of the LGBTQ community are really my equal. Are immigrants my equal? The answers to these questions reveal a moral and dominance hierarchy. And whenever the preacher upends the moral hierarchy, the sermon becomes dangerous.

Jesus Preached Dangerous Sermons

Finally, I believe that Jesus was killed because he upset the human dominance hierarchy of Rome and Jewish religion and was crucified for it. I believe the reign of God that Jesus preached and taught and died for made all people equal servants. In doing so, Jesus disrupted and upset the dominance hierarchy of the world. He was killed for it. Thank God that the dominance hierarchy of the world did not have the last word. The resurrection is testimony that God will have the last word, and moral orders of the world will become the moral order of our Christ.

[1] Frank A. Thomas, How to Preach a Dangerous Sermon, Nashville: Abingdon, 2018.

[2] Edmund Burke quoted in Russell Kirk, “The Moral Imagination,” The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, May 31, 2007, http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/detail/the-moral-imagination/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gleaves Whitney, “The Swords of the Imagination: Russell Kirk’s Battle with Modernity,” The Imaginative Conservative, December 14, 2015, http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2015/12/timeless-essay-the-swords-of-the-imagination-russell-kirks-battle-with-modernity.html.

[5] Jon M. Fennell, “What is the Moral Imagination?” The Imaginative Conservative, April 11, 2016, http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/04/what-is-the-moral-imagination.html.

[6] Moore, “The Swords of Imagination.”

[7] Kirk, “The Moral Imagination.”

[8] George Lakoff, How Liberals and Conservatives Think (3rd Edition) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 431. Liberals also have a moral hierarchy Lakoff calls “Nurturant Parent Morality.”

comments powered by Disqus