On Being an Imperfect Messenger
By Derek Penwell
When I get up on Sunday morning to deliver a sermon, everyone (I hope) understands that I’m an imperfect messenger. Preachers understand that somehow we have to preach better than we are. In that sense, then, the pulpit acts as a promontory from which a flawed emissary stands and points toward a destination on the horizon.
The tension in preaching comes from the realization that the preacher has rarely ever arrived at the destination toward which she points, but that she must continue to point nevertheless. The vocation of preaching, therefore, is a constant battle between conviction and humility. I’m pretty sure I know where we need to go, but there’s always the possibility that I may be wrong. To the extent that preachers fail to maintain that healthy tension, problems arise. If you’re too confident, you’ll never be open to course correction. If you’re too humble, you’ll never point in any particular direction consistently enough to give people a sense of where to go.
This tension is especially important when it comes to preaching privilege from the pulpit. I struggle with whether I can ever be an effective advocate for justice, all the while knowing that somehow I’m not doing what I’ve been called to do if I don’t try.
Here’s the problem I face each time I have to deal with issues of justice: I’m a straight, cis-gender, middle class white guy. From an American cultural perspective, I won the genetic lottery . . . just by being born. I am uncomfortably aware of my deficiencies when it comes to the prospect of preaching about the inequities of our social systems with authenticity. That is to say, preaching about the need to feed the hungry, protect the widow and the orphan, welcome the foreigner, embrace the differences of race and ethnicity is always something I do from the comfortable perch of my privilege, knowing that if everything continues to go the way it almost always has, I will invariably enjoy a certain amount of insulation from the the very situations on behalf of which I’m called upon to advocate.
So, why should anyone listen to anything I have to say on the issue of injustice—since, by and large, people very much like me are the ones who helped create and who continue to help sustain the systems that produced that injustice? To put it more simply, regardless of the message, I must continually come to terms with the fact that I am an imperfect messenger on issues of justice.
On the other hand, I’m also aware that if people like me don’t speak up about privilege, don’t question the power arrangements that often have injustice—as, if not a central organizing principle, then an uncanny amount of correlation—it will be almost impossible to undo those power arrangements.
Then again, even saying that I think I’m a part of the solution of deconstructing these systems of power risks being patronizing: “Y’all can’t do this without me.” The lack of humility about which I spoke a moment ago.
But if I never dare to speak the truth about my privilege and about the unjust systems that oppress others (but which implicitly benefit me) because doing so seems hypocritical, I become a silent accomplice. I become an enabler of such a system. See above: The lack of confidence.
Here’s where a really smart preacher might draw things together in a way that successfully navigates the inherent pitfalls of speaking from the pulpit about privilege. But I’m not that smart. I don’t have an algorithm that helps me to weigh all the factors, sustain the tension, and unfailingly make the right choices. I have only my good intentions, which probably aren’t enough. But most of the time, they’re all I’ve got.
And so I wrestle. I try to do the right thing, knowing that I may never know if I’m doing it correctly. My real hope lies in the belief that my intense desire to negotiate the problems of privilege from the pulpit is itself a faltering step in the right direction. But there’s always the possibility that I may be wrong.