Preachers: Say something

By The Rev. Dr. Marvin A. McMickle

The first challenge for being witnesses for Jesus is to see something; the second is the willingness to say something about what we have seen. These two aspects of the work of a witness go hand in hand. Preachers cannot speak prophetically about what is happening in the world if they have not been paying attention. Once we have seen what is going on and can discern those events through the lens of the gospel, preachers are obligated to say something that is scripturally based and theologically informed about what we have seen and to do so no matter how unpopular or unpleasant our message might be. I think almost immediately of Peter and John in Acts 4:20 being told not to preach about Jesus as a condition for being released from jail in Jerusalem. Their response should be that of every preacher today: “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

So much of what is wrong in our society is not because people have not seen things going on around them that they believe to be wrong. The problem is that those people are not willing to speak up and say something about what they have seen. We could list countless examples of things that people around the world and across this country certainly have seen but concerning which they chose to say nothing. Here is only a short list of such instances.

  • Indian Removal Act of 1830: In 1830 the United States Congress instituted the Indian Removal Act. This act authorized the U.S. president (then Andrew Jackson) to forcibly remove Native American tribes from the southern United States to resettle them in federal lands west of the Mississippi River. In exchange the government would gain immediate access to the ancestral lands being abandoned. In 1838 the Cherokee Nation was forced to move from their lands in Georgia to the Oklahoma Territory. That mass relocation became known as the Trail of Tears because more than nineteen thousand Cherokee died during that journey. John Quincy Adams was personally opposed to any forced removal of Native Americans, but he said nothing about it while he was serving as the nation’s sixth president from 1825 to 1829, nor for many years after he left that office and served in the House of Representatives. According to Gary Scott Smith’s “Religion in the Oval Office” (Oxford University Press, 2015), “Adams’ principles did not trump political expediency. He feared that a frank declaration of his views would prevent him from being elected president. Adams chose silence until he was elected to Congress in 1831, which allowed him to play the role of the prophet rather than the statesman.” Adams saw something, but he failed to say something about it.
  • The Holocaust: Mauthausen was the center of a cluster of smaller slave labor camps where Jews, Communists, homosexuals, Romas (“gypsies”), trade unionists, and any other group despised by the Nazis were confined. One of the smaller camps around Mauthausen where workers were occasionally sent was in the Austrian town of Melk. The prisoners were marched four miles into that camp in their striped uniforms with color coded diamond-shaped badges—pink for homosexual, red for Communist, green for trade union membership, and blue for Jewish. Melk’s labor camp was equipped with cremation facilities to dispose of the bodies of those who were either worked to death or killed for not working hard enough. Unlike the much larger concentration camps, which were set up in remote and somewhat concealed locations, the camp in Melk was well within view of the local population. Residents saw the camp. They saw the prisoners. They saw the chimney. They saw the smoke and ash. However, during the war none of them said anything, and after the war when questioned by the Allies, none acknowledged having seen anything. On a hill overlooking that camp is a Roman Catholic monastery. As I stood on the grounds of that peaceful monastic retreat, I had a clear view not only of the camp itself, but more importantly of the chimney that remains to this day. During the time when that camp was in use, those monks had a clear view of the camp and that chimney with its constant flow of smoke and ash and the smell of burning human flesh. The religious community gathered on that hill saw what was happening. Yet, when I visited this concentration camp in 1995, along with Andrew Sternberg, who was a survivor of imprisonment in Melk, the tour guides reported that, like the residents in the village, the monks never said a word during the war, and when the war was over they testified that they had never seen anything that might suggest the horror that occurred in Mauthausen or Melk.

The sin surrounding human suffering is too often made worse by good people who see the evils going on around them but decide that silence is the safer course. That is true when the sin in question rises to the level of the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade, or the wholesale extermination or forced removal of Native Americans. It is also true when it comes to acts of cruelty and injustice occurring throughout this country every day.

Sadly, we who preach the gospel are not free of this problem. We have seen things or heard things that made our hearts break and made our anger rise, but then something caused us not to respond in any way. The absence of righteous indignation flowing from the pulpits of churches across this country is astounding. The silence in the face of all the things taking place both in this country and around the world is deafening. Yet we have no reason for despair. We are not the first generation of preachers to face these challenges. We can learn how to preach the gospel in an unfriendly world by observing the disciples of Jesus who went forth to preach in a world where their message was both unpopular and unwelcome. But we will not know how or when or why to face these challenges if we have not been paying attention to the spiritual environment in which we and those to whom we preach are living every day.

The Rev. Dr. Marvin A. McMickle is president of Colgate Rochester (N.Y.) Crozer Divinity School. This piece was adapted from his book Be My Witness: The Great Commission for Preachers(Judson Press, 2016).

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