Kenyatta R. Gilbert, founding director of The Preaching Project, is professor of homiletics at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C. He is author of A Pursued Justice: Black Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights and Exodus Preaching: Crafting Sermons About Justice and Hope.
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Distress the Comfortable
CERTAIN WORDS cause problems. When I ask first-year seminarians to take seriously the importance of using inclusive language for God and humanity, who would have thought my urging would generate such panic and skepticism? To my suggestion that “Father God” is grammatically (and theologically) on par with “Heavenly Parent” or “Mother God,” I can see in their blank stares and grimaces that they feel, yet again, that the God known to them is being tampered with.
Perhaps the term “inclusion” is difficult for some because it means that all things done in word and deed that do no intentional harm to others are at worst permissible, because God’s love is boundless. Equally fraught is the term “expansion.” Notions of colonialism, manifest destiny, and Christian triumphalism come to mind.
How did the words “inclusive” and “expansion” become problematic, polarizing terms? One might place blame squarely on the shoulders of postmodernity, with its demand that Christians shed their husks of credulity and theological defensiveness. Others argue that for Christians to be taken seriously today, they must join the postmodern conversation with a revelation that can hold up in a world of scientific advancement and Twitter.
How God Intervenes
KENYATTA GILBERT: What does “being prophetic” mean to you today?
WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: I think it means to identify with some clarity and boldness the kinds of political and economic practices that contradict the purposes of God. And if they contradict the purposes of God, they will come to no good end. If you think about economic injustice or ecological abuse of the environment, it is the path of disaster. In the Old Testament they traced the path of disaster, and it seems to me that our work now is to trace the path of disaster in which we are engaged.
The amazing thing about the prophets is that they were able to pivot, after they had done that, to talk with confidence that God is working out an alternative world of well-being, of justice, of peace, of security—in spite of the contradictions.
How do we establish a sense of clarity about who we think God is in this world of radical pluralism? As long as we try to talk in terms of labels or creeds or mantras, we will never get on the same page. But if we talk about human possibility and human hurt and human suffering, then it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking with Muslims or Christians or liberals or conservatives; the irreducible reality of human hurt is undeniable.
WHEN I WAS A YOUNG, green, pre-tenured professor, I joined Anna Carter Florence, the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, and the eminent Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann on an academic panel about preaching. I had accepted the invitation to participate only a month before; two other panelists had canceled, and I’d been tapped to stand in as a substitute.
Walking into the standing-room-only conference hall, I was elated and anxious. Respected biblical scholars and experts in the art of preaching lined the walls; over-eager doctoral students had secured front-row seats. In this sea of spectators, I knew not to flatter myself: Most had come to hear Professor Brueggemann. Though I had never had any prior formal acquaintance with this sage of biblical scholarship, I had spent nearly five years in my doctoral program in conversation with his work on the prophets, including his popular and widely influential The Prophetic Imagination, published in 1978—only four years after my birth.
I listened to my co-panelists’ presentations. Then, not long before I had the floor, my purpose became clear: I had not come to pay obeisance to veteran scholars. I was there to realize my own voice and declare my own contribution to the conversation. And though I had been deeply shaped by Brueggemann’s work, his scholarship on the prophetic voice had sparked new questions I needed to answer.