Do Political Preachers Have Ugly Feet?

The reference to feet in the title comes from the ancient prophet Isaiah: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation" (52:7).

Since campaigning for the White House has been underway for several months, I'm starting to look at feet.

Stay with me for a sec while I explain: No one I've talked to likes this long political season even one little bit. But no one seems to be able to do anything about it. The irony is huge: Never in the history of humankind has instant communication been possible as today -- social media, television, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Facetime, Skype, YouTube, WhatsApp, WeChat, texting, email, and so on. Yet, we need 18 months of political campaigning to select the next president?

What's worse! It's not enough that we have politicians telling us for a year and a half what's wrong with America; We'll soon have political preachers weighing in on the issues and candidates. These folks may be Baptists, or UCCers or something in between. And here we go again! (I say this as a preacher myself.)

They'll be making news in this election just as they do in every election. In 2008, for example, Obama had to distance himself from his one-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright, because the good reverend's rhetoric became, in the view of some, too controversial. McCain, likewise, had to repudiate the support of an Ohio preacher and a Texas preacher, both with huge television audiences.

Political preachers are a tradition in the United States, and political preaching has always been controversial. Even the apostle Paul had to deal with preachers-gone-wild. In Philippians, he writes, "Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill ... The others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely ... What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice" (1:15-18).

As we move into this masochistic political season in which we flagellate ourselves again and again concerning our nation's sinful ways (a sort of political Lent that lasts 18 months), many preachers will be on hand to pass out the whips. Frankly, I don't see in all of this flapdoodle how "Christ is proclaimed in every way."

Some will say these ecclesiastical gadflies have a "prophetic ministry." Well, perhaps. But here's the deal: There's never been a prophet who's been much of a pastor.

Make no mistake: We need prophets -- people who speak truth to power. But when the prophet is speaking truth, not to power, but to a congregation who is worried about marriage, cancer, teen depression and job security -- well, the political preacher has lost his or her audience.

We need prophets and pastors. But their roles are different.

  • The prophet believes that the rule of God may come through a political process. The pastor believes that the rule of God comes through word and sacrament.

  • The prophet says, "You are a sinner." The pastor says, "You are forgiven."
  • The prophet is a gardener pulling weeds. The pastor is a farmer sowing seed.
  • The prophet preaches judgment. The pastor preaches salvation.
  • A prophet wants to affect the process. A pastor wants to affect the person.
  • The prophet is in the town square hollering. The pastor is at a bedside consoling.
  • The prophet knows only one thing. The pastor must know many things.
  • The prophet will give you a slap upside of the head. The pastor will give you a hug.
  • The prophet afflicts. The pastor comforts.
  • The prophet is a voice in the wilderness. The pastor is a voice in green pasture.
  • The prophet speaks truth to power. The pastor speaks truth to the powerless.
  • The prophet's task is eschatological. The pastor's task is incarnational, being Christ to the congregation.
  • The prophet's task is theological. The pastor's task is Christological.
  • The prophet's communication is unilateral and univocal, a verbal one way street. A monologue. The pastor's communication is multi-lateral, multi-vocal, a four lane, two-way street, a conversation, a dialogue.
  • A prophet opens wounds and lets them fester. A pastor closes them and helps them heal.
  • We need both prophets and pastors. But prophets don't make good pastors, and pastors just don't have the stomach to be prophetic.

    The late Robert McAfee Brown, Stanford scholar, theologian and strong advocate for peace and justice, a vocal critic of the Vietnam and Gulf wars, once offered this advice to preachers: "My own penchant in this regard has been to tilt toward social-justice issues. ... By looking into people's faces I discovered that I'm not faithful to the gospel if I preach only judgment and social concern week after week. ... Most of them [the congregation] are hurting and need support and comfort, not an unwavering diet of chastisement. ... A rousing denunciation of the gulf war isn't necessarily what a couple needs when they've just learned that their daughter has cancer. Every week some worshipers are hurting and some are exultant; some have just lost their jobs and some are aflame with the need for justice in the workplace."

    This is a call for preachers, whether prophetic preachers or pastoral ones, to look at their feet. We've got too many "ugly feet" preachers these days. Saint Paul, quoting the Hebrew Bible, says that those who preach the good news have beautiful feet (Romans 10:15).

    Until our feet get beautiful, it's best just to keep them out of public.

    'Cause they really stink.