Circus-goers munching on pink cotton candy watch their favorite performing animals. At center ring, elephants saunter in, doing some heavy prancing as each links its trunk to a mate’s tail ahead, lumbering in a circle. With music blaring, a trainer tosses them treats for standing on their hind legs. Sometimes, these gargantuan animals of the Midway are decked out with lacey pink sashes around their necks. How harmless and lovable they appear.
In the wild where elephants may become savage, a safari guide sternly warns tourists not to get near them. A charging bull elephant on the rampage is a killer beast.
Preachers recognize an elephant has invaded sanctuaries as it monopolizes every sector in national life. The elephant is the war in Iraq.
Preachers who desire longevity in their pulpits intentionally avoid mentioning the elephant. They fear pointing their gospel guns at the war, lest parishioners get upset and leave. Worse, disgruntled worshippers possess power to give a minister who preaches the “whole counsel of God” a pink slip.
Recently, I attended a Christian Writers’ Conference headlined by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Marilynne Robinson. She teaches at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. Presbyterian Robinson knows preachers better than we know ourselves. She describes us in her novel Gilead with wisdom that brings smiles. “The word ‘preacher’ comes from an Old French word, predicateur, which means prophet,” she reminds us in the book. “And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble?” Like Iraq.
Gilead’s seasoned pastor John Ames writes his young son a memoir of sorts, a legacy he desires his offspring to follow. “I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country,” 70-ish something Ames concludes. “I will pray you find a way to be useful.”
In a give-and-take conversation with seminarians, I asked Robinson about her essay in the current issue of The American Scholar. She contends that conservative Christianity has it wrong, getting roiled up about same-sex marriages and abortion, making these fiery issues the center of their concern. Robinson contends that feeding the hungry, sharing our wealth with the impoverished, and making square deals for those burdened by raw deals are the central thrusts of Jesus’ ministry. She urges Christians to get out of diapers, pull up their pants and tackle tough, controversial issues at the Gospel’s heart.
I inquired, “You are the darling of Christians of every stripe because of Gilead. How do conservative Christians react when you toss a bomb rather than a balm — as the vintage hymn suggests — into their Gilead?”
Robinson squarely stares at the elephant.
“I write from the source of my Christian convictions,” she answered. “I don’t worry what others think of me. A writer must stay true to her instincts.” She reminds us of the warning Ben Franklin spun, “If you make yourself a sheep, the wolves will eat you.” Preachers who duck the war in Iraq from the pulpit will still feel the hot breath of other enraged elephants. Elephants don’t stay in parish closets forever. Silence about Iraq is not always a safe strategy for job protection.
How Robinson’s response differed from that of a parish preacher with whom I spoke! He shared some misgivings about avoiding controversial preaching themes. What bothered him was the expectation, especially from powerful military veterans within his church family, of not wanting to hear word about the war from the pulpit. They came to church to get away from political controversies. They wanted their church to be a safe haven, a sanctuary into which the bull elephant never charged.
The pastor prayed about our soldiers, using glittering gospel generalities. He said stuff like “O Lord, dislodge evil from this world so that peace can find a home.” And left it at that, intentionally vague.
This fearful preacher, grieved by his pulpit omissions, admitted cowardice. He had kids to put through school, bills to pay, money to save for retirement. He couldn’t afford to lose his pulpit.
His dereliction of gospel duty reminded me of Barbara Brown Taylor’s candor. She left Episcopalian parish ministry for teaching at a college and seminary in Georgia. Taylor sells books of sermons to aspiring and veteran preachers. She observed at a conference for writers I attended two years ago, “A preacher soon learns what parts of the Gospel can’t be mentioned or preached in the church.” (See also page 21.)
Aren’t volcanic subjects like the war in Iraq better left unsaid from the pulpit? Some preachers know the wisdom of letting sleeping dogs lie. Or, acting as if the war elephant isn’t roaming in their sanctuaries. Silence is golden because it insures job security.
Still, the warring elephant is hard to dismiss, even when we act as if it isn’t nearby. Our fears eventually find us out. A preacher will self-destruct if she uses evasive charm to convince the congregation that the elephant isn’t around. The Bible teaches how love’s opposite is not hate. It is fear. “Perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18). Fear rules, so preachers can’t, won’t, and don’t talk about the elephant.
Avoiding what’s makes us jumpy is not a new dynamic. Abraham Lincoln ranks as America’s foremost Christian theologian in the 19th century, even though he was never ordained to Gospel ministry. During the Civil War, Lincoln eyed the elephant. He emancipated those chained in slavery. Never condemning slavery, many preachers in their fine pulpits spoke fine sermons to fine congregations who led fine lives.
In his seventh debate against Stephen Douglas prior to the war, Lincoln described how churches avoided the slavery elephant. “You must not say anything about it in the pulpit, because that is religion and has nothing to do with it.” The elephant did not go away. Lincoln took dead aim at it. Emancipation cost him his life but not his soul.
Jack Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit Creative Growth Ministries, which focuses on enhancing Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens is the author of the book, How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes.