Chaplains for the common good: An essay on the social significance of preaching

Posted Nov 03, 2014 | Academy of Preaching and Celebration


By Frank A. Thomas

Frank A. ThomasIn his book, Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land, the Reverend Doctor Joseph E. Lowery published a sermon entitled, “Chaplains for the Common Good,” from which I take the title of this article. In 1998, after his retirement from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Lowery joined with other activists and formed the Coalition for the People’s Agenda (CPA)—a coalition of advocacy groups on civil rights, peace, labor, women’s issues, justice, youth, human rights, etc.

At the end of each CPA meeting, they quoted together this line: “We are chaplains of the common good.” While many see the role of chaplain as reading scriptures and praying prayers at community, social, and even church events before eating or discussing business, they saw the chaplain role much deeper than that. A chaplain is the conscience of an organization, nation, or church, Lowery explained, urging all to do what is right and what is pleasing to God.

According to Lowery, chaplains nudge everyone toward the common good:

Through Scriptures, prayers, and sometimes a clap of thunder, they jar us to righteous reality. Sometimes it is a flash of lightning making plain the landscape of societal ills; sometimes it is a whisper into our still conscience; sometimes it is an alarm clock saying it is time to rise; sometimes it’s a bugle call to engagement; sometimes it is a cool breeze of thankfulness following the glory of triumph or the agony of defeat; but it is always on the side of the Creator, always calling out the best in us for the common good. (84)

I love the phrase “chaplains for the common good” because in this hour of American and global life we so desperately need preaching to have social significance; we need chaplains for the common good.

We have lost the sense of the common good in this nation.

In one of my most recent books, American Dream 2.0: A Christian Way Out of the Great Recession, I asked these questions:

• What is the centrality that holds this nation together?
• What is the common vision that unifies us?
• What is the common mission of America that we all share to the extent that we all would be willing to sacrifice personal interest to see the vision become a reality?
• What is the dream of America?

There is no divine category of being called “American.” American is a socially constructed concept and identity based upon the adoption and agreement on certain values and principles. What values and principles do we share such that we might call our agreement the common good? What would we be willing to sacrifice for the common good? We are chaplains of this common good!

What we have become is a nation of special interests and each special interest is more concerned about their special interest than the interest of the whole or the common good. We have become a nation of “Do not touch my….”

• Do not touch my guns.
• Do not touch my Medicare and Social Security.
• Do not touch my defense spending.
• Do not touch the military and prison industrial complex.
• Do not touch my corporate welfare.
• Do not touch my mortgage interest deduction.
• Do not touch my grants.
• Do not touch my farm subsidy.
• Do not touch my tax breaks.
• Do not touch my Section 8.
• Do not touch my entitlements.

As a result, we do not touch the concept of the common good.

We have even lost the concept of sacrifice in and for the nation. We can sacrifice if there is a common good, but because there is no common vision that we adhere to, there is no common sacrifice. America is about our rights and what we can get, and as result “do not touch my stuff” has become a way of life. We live in the America of our benefit, and as long as we exclusively focus on our benefit or the benefit of our group alone, we cannot see the common good. We have lost the American Dream.

We need chaplains for the common good. We need preaching of social significance to restore the dream of America.

If we would preach for the common good, our preaching must not be partisan. Our preaching does not necessarily support one political party or persuasion or the other. Our preaching must consciously seek to unify and establish common ground. Recently, I wrote a sermon discussing the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, entitled “Can We Be Friends?” The sermon takes a position on violence against and criminalization of black youth, and the attempt is made to include everyone. You can view this sermon on YouTube.

If we would preach for the common good, our preaching must go deeper than issues to the values that are underneath the various issues. I prepared a sermon supporting the Affordable Care Act because I could not fathom that we could be the richest nation in the world and 50 million people do not have health care. This fact of the uninsured in our nation said something about our values and the kind of nation that we were. Please see my sermon on my website.

Ultimately, we are the guardians of the souls of people and also of the soul of this nation. Our preaching must be positive, humble, and healing—not judgmental, arrogant, and condemnatory. Our preaching must speak for the least, the last, and the lost. We gospel preachers are the conscience of the nation and must call the nation back to the common good. We are always on the side of the Creator, calling out the best in us for the common good. In so doing, our preaching takes on social significance, and we serve authentically as chaplains of the common good.

Frank A. Thomas is the director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration and the Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary.

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