One preacher’s signpost to a better way of life


Campaign politics in America today is about bellowing and pathological competition for edge and attention. It demands stacking the deck and obscene campaign war chests. It invites dismemberment of the other guys at the earliest provocation.

The good ones say they have to fight that way in self-defense. They’re probably right. The bad ones don’t bother explaining.

But sometimes you welcome R&R and a merciful cleansing from the tumult.

This week I listened to a quieter voice. It was unadorned by agendas and fury, and revealed no symptoms of a higher and anointed intelligence. Yet it came from a kind of ground zero in the struggle to make the world less homicidal and more humane.

The senior pastor of the urban Minneapolis church where I worship, Ron Johnson, gave his valedictory as a fulltime minister. It concluded more than four decades of ministerial service, beginning with missionary work in Africa and expanding into a lifelong commitment as an advocate for the voiceless and as a preacher of mainstream Lutheran theology, which at times can be a lonely life in today’s escalating sideshows of a new and noisier Christianity. For the preacher it signaled the end of thousands of pastoral visits, nurturing of the frail, marrying the nervous, burying the dead, listening to the lonely, counseling the inconsolable. On Sunday mornings it meant trying to make sense out of scriptural stories thousands of years old, read today in the midst of a world threatening to go berserk.

For his congregation it was an a hour to express its gratitude and its loss, which it did with considerable love and damp eyes, because this was a man who above all of his feats of longevity and his insights genuinely practiced what he preached. He did it modestly and with a librarian’s urge for research and scholarship. But he also brought to each Sunday morning, and the days between, an uncompromising zeal to invoke the teaching and life of the man he calls Jesus the Christ as the one sure road to confront injustice and to lift the lives of millions who have been forgotten and beaten down.

He made no pretense that his last wisdom from the pulpit was going to be engraved in granite, but he did give us a frank picture of the dilemmas of a preacher trying to get a grip on truth when it matters in today’s world. He talked about the hazards of preachers delivering what he called “hard words,” risking disapproval to expose a reality, searching for truth when defining it might empty the pews.

There was no such peril in his own church. They had joined him on too many visits to mud-soaked villages in South America and Africa to have many doubts about the message that his words and his life carried into the church. They had signed on for his fund-raisers for the orphans of AIDS, and listened to the testimony of platoons of global social workers and to friends of oppressed tribal women. There wasn’t much disagreement in this aging, heavy-wooded fortress of a church about the vision of the church. For Johnson, sifting out truth through the years wasn’t usually about solving scriptural mysteries or navigating a route through the eye of a needle. It was about seeing comfortable people standing still and mute in the face of starvation 8,000 miles away. It was about the corruption of a government to enrich the rich while millions struggle to earn a living wage. It was about obsession with power and the manipulation of a gullible public. Sunday he offered a wry confession: People who presume to speak from a pulpit, he said,“have no direct conduit to truth. Trust me on this…Yet on the basis of this they must speak and at the same time acknowledge they do not have the whole truth.” And still, “if we wait to speak until we understand everything, we shall never speak.”

“Our witness needs to allow for conversation—for dialogue. Think of how different the world might well be if, in the Middle Ages, Christians would have opened up a dialogue with the people of Islam rather than initiating the Crusades. Think of how different might have been this hemisphere if emperors, explorers, bishops and people of the church would have opened on them a dialogue with native peoples rather than imposing on them a new theology, a new way of life and then in a variety of ways destroying their culture and many of their people. There is a lesson here not yet learned. Empires are not good at discerning this kind of truth and churches too often follow the lead of empires.”

He didn’t have to identify the empires. Despite its weekly scriptural preachments of sharing and peace on earth, the historic temptation for organized religion, or parts of it, to join or create a partnership with militant governments is alive today and stronger than ever.

Most mainstream or traditional churches in America today get jittery about making unequivocal declarations from the pulpit on testy social or political issues. When you consider the numbers game– what some church watchers call the Sunday morning market share–it’s easier and a lot more prudent to pray for peace rather than going off and indicting the government for lying to the people about the purposes of a war. This is even assuming the indictment is delivered with all of the required civility of the cloth. Ron Johnson would rather not fulminate. It’s not part his genetic framework. He is one of those Midwestern Lutheran preachers who signed on for life and who has quietly insisted for more than 40 years in the pulpit in Chicago and at Holy Trinity in south Minneapolis that the words attributed to Jesus the Christ actually mean what they say; and a preacher’s vow to pursue truth and to witness his or her world as the core of Christian ministry is not a wish on ordination day but a commitment.

With his daughter Stacy by his side–the associate pastor who will now move to another church–Ron Johnson offered a final benediction to his friends and fellow pilgrims: “As the earth keeps turning, hurtling through space, and night falls and day breaks from land to land, let us remember that in waking, sleeping, being born and dying, we are part of one world, one humanity. Let us go from here in peace and serve the Lord.”

It was both an appeal and perhaps an unintended warning.

Given our abuse of the earth, as well as the war-making frenzy, time may be running out.