Homiletics and Politics: On the Ethics of Persuasion

Last night, I had a conversation over dinner with a couple of friends who are both waaaay smarter than me.

Part of what’s fun about our friendship is that all of us are interested in roughly the same topics, but from different angles: domestic vs. international, qualitative vs. quantitative, research vs. journalism.

Last night, we applied our various frames, methods, and trainings to politics and policy. And one of the big sticking points we quickly came to was the question of truth-telling in politics. When “flip-flopping” (i.e. changing your mind in response to the evidence — the rational thing to do) is anathema, and the moral-political imperative to tell the truth or change course might seem to contradict the retail-political imperative to reassure people that we’re just as exceptional, infallible, and indispensable as we ever were and ever will be, is an honest look at the state of the Union (or of the world) even possible?

After dinner, I went home and read a little bit from one of the great theologian and preacher Walter Brueggemann’s books. Lo and behold, I came to a sermon delivered on the 100th anniversary of the preacher’s own home church. And what does he tell this community that cared for him as a child and for his family even before he was born?

He uses the first couple of paragraphs to establish his own ties to the community, then spends the first two full sections of his sermon singing the glories of the first century of its existence (admitting, from time to time, that of course not all members were saintly all of the time).

Then, in the third and fourth sections, he does something remarkable: he says, “as we remember, we also look forward.” And he throws down the challenge, saying that the worth of those first hundred years will be determined by the work of the next hundred. On that anniversary, he insists that the work begins by asking “what will the [community] be now, what now will we do … in a community that has become ethically complex in a world that is deep in bewilderment and violence, when old ways are fading?”

I don’t think that message was put to a focus group before it was preached. Do you?

Our politicians might take a lesson. Instead of pandering to us, or offering endless platitudes and paeans to founders and heroes and the old ways that are (rightfully) fading, what if they asked us to celebrate what’s best in our past by building a better future? To engage with the ethical complexities and bewilderment and violence of a modernity the founders could not have imagined rather than shutting our eyes and clinging by our fingernails to the status quo?

That would tell us much about the state of the Union, wouldn’t it? To see if we could hear such an invitation, and rise to it?


Walter Brueggemann is even more fun to listen to than he is to read. To hear him in his own words, I recommend this episode of On Being.