Preaching Vulnerability – Naming and Neglecting Reality
Preaching Vulnerability - Naming and Neglecting Reality
A Global Perspective
The theme for the 11th international conference of Societas Homiletica is “Preaching Vulnerability: Naming and Neglecting Reality.” Dr. Alfred Stephen, the president and host for our meeting in Madurai, India, selected this theme in consultation with the international board. Dr. Stephen’s comments (see below, 'An Indian Perspective') help us to understand what this theme suggests in the context of India. For those of us joining the conference from other nations and continents, “Preaching Vulnerability: Naming and Neglecting Reality” invites us to consider how our particular social locations, nations, churches, and local cultures offer different challenges in the preaching moment. Each country, congregation, and preacher is vulnerable in different ways and for different reasons. Whether our home is South America or northern Europe, Africa or Asia, North America or the Near East, we need to name the realities and challenges that have often been neglected by preachers; that is, the problems to be found in our particular socio-political contexts that have often been neglected or unnamed among us.
“Preaching Vulnerability” is a two-sided phrase. On the one hand, preachers are called to speak on behalf of those who are vulnerable in our churches, societies, and world. We are called to preach about difficult and challenging aspects of life and faith related to gender roles and expectations, ethnic rivalries, economic exploitation, domestic violence, political oppression, class differences, and environmental abuse. It is never easy to address such difficult and complicated subjects, especially when we find ourselves implicated in the offenses we decry. The Christ who humbled himself to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:5-13) is the one who calls us to recognize and speak for all who are vulnerable and in need of our attention.
On the other hand, we may understand preachers themselves as vulnerable. We are often subject to others who hold us accountable to norms and practices with which we do not agree – and/or to governing authorities who have the power to reprimand, ridicule, punish, persecute or censor us for questioning and critiquing their actions. Preaching is risky when we realize that our studying, praying, exploring, and speaking is never exhaustive or complete – we are always at risk of misunderstanding something about God, ourselves, our people, and our contexts. We are also vulnerable when we choose to reveal something of our own struggles, limitations, and uncertainties while addressing a particular sermon theme or context. Finally, some of us risk not only our reputations, but our financial security, as well as familial and social relationships when we follow God’s call to preach. Preaching is often a costly act.
In either case, it is the preacher’s responsibility to name that of God among us as well as that which we have neglected. Whether we are worried about our own vulnerability or have ignored the vulnerability of others, we must name what has become “unspeakable” and recognize what we have neglected in our preaching so that we may be free to speak the Spirit’s free, redeeming words for the church and world.
- Prof. Dr. Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Boardmember International Board Societas Homiletica
An Indian Perspective
Vulnerability is a reality of one group of people who are called Dalits, in India. They are succumbed to violence, abuses of all kinds, discrimination, lose of dignity, bonded labourer system, subjective educational system, denial of access to public places etc. Vulnerability does not elude atrocities on women who are doubly vulnerable. Being a Dalit in India means that they are considered to be untouchable and forced to live segregated colonies and prevented from dining together with others and inter-marrying. They are not allowed to exercise their power if by chance raised to a powerful position in a public sector. They cannot expect equal treatment at the public and social services, cannot enter the temples for worship. Constantly undergo humiliation, insult, and intimidation. Physical violence and harassment and atrocities especially the sexual harassment on woman is a common phenomenon in their lives. They are forced into scavenging, keeping watch at the death and grave digging, disposing of dead animals and bonded labour for life. This summarises one of the major problems of the Dalits i.e. lose of their identity as human being and their original group identity. This also explains the cruelty of the caste system which has caused this. Caste system not only lead to discrimination of the Dalits and making them loose their group and human identity, but also resulted in making them powerless in all walks of life.
In the milieu of implementing power, vulnerability of the Dalits, especially of the Dalit women is predominantly to be noted. Powerless as they are they succumb to the malicious acts of the upper caste people. The Dalit women are called Dalit of the Dalits, downtrodden among the downtrodden, thrice alienated on the basis of her caste, class and gender. They are put at the very bottom of the hierarchy. They experience discrimination because of their caste, class and gender. Leitmotif of their existential reality is nothing but exploitation and discrimination. Although there are various ways caste and gender are related, dialectics of the leitmotif is preferred to explicate Dalit cultural reality in full. Entangled in the web of poverty, dependence, debt, cheap labour, they are vulnerable to and victims of sexual assault by the powerful. In this context of reality, what are the factors which are named and what are neglected in preaching, what is the role of and response of preaching to this context is the question posed to the preachers and teachers of preaching in India.
Preaching in Indian churches in general and the Tamil churches in particular leads one to discern if preaching has predominantly been influenced by the momentum of the theology of the affluent, the theological paradigm which has been dominated by interpretation and correlation of Christian message in terms of affluent philosophical and cultural heritage and framework. Indian Christian theology has been engaged for more than a couple of centuries in interpreting the biblical message in the light of Hindu religious tradition. However, for more than four decades contextual paradigm of theology is trying to swim against the tsunami of affluent theological paradigm. In reality the congregations are more represented by the Dalits than the affluent minority. Dalits who form a major part of the society are rejected of their place and right in various functions both in the church and society. Their cultural heritage has been rejected by the ‘so called’ high caste people.
While doing theology in Indian context has generally been conceived of in terms of reinterpreting the Christian message in the light of the rich and the affluent cultural legacy and tradition, one could suspect that the major part of the Christian community i.e. the Dalits, and their cultural heritage and existential reality have not been taken into account in the process of doing theology. The implication of such one-sided ‘doing theology’ seems to manifest in the churches as preaching also reflect on and relate to the cultural and social reality of only one segment of the Christian community i.e. the affluent minority, and alarmingly rejected the existential situation and cultural heritage a major chuck, the Dalits. They apparently seem to have been kept outside the Indian Christian theological paradigm and also preaching which fail to take into consideration their socio-cultural reality. On the other hand the context of Christian Dalits subsumes issues of both social as well as religious. Their situation is not something different from that of the Dalits in general. They share somewhat similar experiences, carry same stigma and undergo all the possible sufferings. The Christian Dalits undergo more sufferings and discriminations, both from within the church and outside and thus they suffer multi-faceted alienation. Their stigma continues and discriminations intensified and doubled. The irony is that their socio-cultural reality does not seem to be a matter of concern both in doing theology and in preaching. The main contention is that preaching comfortably has eluded taking the socio-cultural reality of the Dalits into consideration in the hermeneutical process, thus making preaching of the gospel difficult and the message irrelevant to the Dalits as it has failed to reflect their social and cultural reality.
What are we naming in this context and what are we neglecting in our preaching? Let us expose the truth and challenge the preachers and teachers of preaching to preach vulnerability all around the world, wherever traces of it is found and name the oppressive forces and not to neglect the segregated and oppressed community.
- Prof. Dr. Alfred Stephen, President of Societas Homiletica