Telling the Truth: Preaching about Sexual and Domestic Violence

John S. McClure and Nancy J. Ramsay, eds.
Cleveland. United Church Press.1998. 162 pp. Pb. $15.95
ISBN 0-8298-1282-2

Reviewed by Gail A. Ricciuti


This challenging book, a collection of essays emerging from a 1997 Presbyterian Consultation on Preaching and Sexual and Domestic Violence, may be the most helpful resource available on preaching with integrity in the face of the violence that, often invisibly, permeates our congregations.

Editors John McClure and Nancy Ramsay, faculty members at Louisville Seminary, have drawn together a rich trove of theological and biblical perspectives, pastoral guidance for “telling the truth” to perpetrators and “bystanders” as well as survivors, and reflections on homiletic practice — with six sermons modeling ways the pulpit can be a locus of faithful and compassionate resistance.

This is a volume of theology and practice, inclusive of a variety of contexts (with chapters, for instance, addressing the experience of African American churches). In her insightful consideration of “Evil, Violence and the Practice of Theodicy,” Wendy Farley addresses incarnation, understandings of God’s power, and the excruciating transformation that violence wreaks on its victims; and she explores the “compassionate work of wrath” as a vocation.

Marie Fortune offers a primer on forgiveness that cautions us to reframe it within a required context of justice and accountability. Rarely have preachers had access to the kind of resource Jim Poling offers for preaching the Bible to perpetrators of violence, with his provocative mandate to reevaluate certain scriptural doctrines.

Editor McClure’s chapter alone would justify placing this book on every preacher’s shelf. In nine intriguing sections, he offers guidelines for a preaching plan, theological checks and balances, and relevant perspectives on logic, language and delivery. Included here is a well-chosen listing of exegetical texts written by scholars sensitized to issues of sexual and domestic violence.

While the volume is often repetitive, many of these themes bear repetition as a teaching tool (for example, that forgiveness should be the last step in healing of the victim, not the first — or that preachers must speak direct, unmistakable words of moral clarity if healing is to happen). It is a resulting strength of the book that having read it through, the reader has attained a much more thoroughgoing understanding of the psychology of survivors and perpetrators, and a clear mandate for the work of nonviolence in which the church must engage.

The book is frustrating in only one respect — its failure to identify most of its 12 contributors. While a few are well known to many of us for their work in fields related to theology, preaching and sexual and domestic violence, it would have provided further insight to readers to have the authors of such probing and challenging work placed in their contexts. But as Barbara Patterson reminds us, important learning can also come to us from sources incognito: “We can learn that violated women are teachers of homiletics. Abusers also can be teachers, showing us how strongly and clearly we need to preach against denial, premature forgiveness, and injustice.” (p. 108)

The sermons that round out the book are painfully good — the kind of truth, to use Fortune’s words, “that makes us flinch before it sets us free”: the kind of truth that makes a seasoned preacher wish it had been published years ago, while rejoicing that such a resource is available at last.

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