Chapter 5. The Quixotic Strategy
"I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19
Effective pastoral leadership for change in the hearts and deeds of parishioners has in these latter days concentrated on one age-old and worthy strategy: prophetic utterance. Sometimes this direct, frontal attack has been accompanied by dramatic displays. From Isaiah's public nakedness for the sake of God's Word there runs a straight line to freedom marches and lettuce boycotts.1 Jesus surely pulled no punches when sparring with the Pharisees. Matthew 23 equals any righteous indignation voiced by William Stringfellow2 at the ecclesiastical establishment. Luther's charges against the medieval Catholic Church were untroubled with subtlety in their scatological bluntness. Chrysostom3 employed his golden tongue to chastise the bejeweled aristocrats who flocked to the cathedral at Antioch. The priest declared the wrath of God upon their fondness for fine silks and precious metals; and those at whom he aimed heaven's thunderbolts loved and respected him for it. He did not fare so well, however, when he was promoted to Constantinople and continued his prophetic diatribes. Dean Sayre of the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C., to choose a more recent example, has from time to time achieved headlines with prophetic directness, always with an appealing literateness.
This venerable tradition of "telling it like it is" for God's sake can be immensely effective if the would-be prophet also possesses a giant share of charm. But in the mouths of most journeyman preachers it is one of the best methods known for closing churches.4 "One man on God's side," we may repeat to ourselves to bolster flagging zeal, "is a majority." For one person does not constitute a congregation, according to Jesus in Matthew 18:20. Armed with righteousness - that is, the right conviction - preacher pastors have felt obliged to sally forth on Sunday mornings with the sword of the Word to slay that fire-breathing dragon, the Middle American. Then, with the incredulousness of Little Orphan Annie, they have wondered why the dragon continues to burn us with his anger, instead of turning into the dutiful sheep. I know whereof I write, and can show you hairless scars earned in the cause of racial justice and open housing. But rarely have I changed any minds our hearts with my prophecy.
With a little thought this failure is understandable. To begin with, the lay person perceives the pulpit and its inhabitant with respect, but no dutiful obedience.5 If the preacher's brand of truth diverges drastically from his, he will take it under advisement. In this respect he is following the rule of John Calvin, that the sermon hearer should measure the Word from the pulpit against his own understanding of the Word. (Calvin, ironically, stumbled in Geneva on this very principle, unable as he was to convince the elders of the rightness of his convictions). When the preacher imitates Johnny One Note and plays the same tune over and over again - as was the temptation during the war in Vietnam - the average worshiper will do what he does whenever the TV presents the same advertisement for the sixth time: walk out or switch channels/churches.
The Golden Rule, if not politeness, would seem to dictate another strategy, other than repeated frontal attacks. I mean, anyone who meets me head on on a controversial issue will never in the heat of argument hear me admit the error of my ways or the illogic of my argument. Repetition only serves to entrench my contrariness; never does it persuade me. This quirk of my temperament, I discover, is shared by a majority of the population, and nearly every member of the congregation. Therefore, doing to others what you want them to do to you would seem to require of the preacher-pastor a strategy more subtle than confrontation. Besides, it rarely works; and, in fact, achieves the opposite of its intention, winning enemies instead of recruits.6
There is a more excellent way of converting recalcitrant disciples to a vision of true brotherhood, justice, and generosity. Any pastor desiring to be effective will work on perfecting it in his ministry of souls. The most famous practitioner of this better strategy, a man who so refined it it now bears his name, is Don Quixote, Cervantes' knight chivalrous in an age of cynicism.7 By the purity of his own vision he turns a swayback nag into a mighty stallion, a spineless companion into a hero, knaves into Galahads, and a bawdy harlot into a Madonna. He refuses to see things as they are, beholding them instead as they could be and as they should be by God; and by the force of his expectation the hard facts of human sin and evil change, from ugliness to beauty, from lies to truth, from hate to kindness, from greed to generosity. It is self-fulfilling prophecy of the most wonderful kind. Karl Barth is reputed to have advised pastors to take people more seriously than they take themselves. In the quixotic mold the shepherd of souls would believe better of them than they do of themselves... and hold them to that vision.
Jesus did not tilt at windmills, but he did celebrate the loving deed of a sinful woman (Luke 8:36-50), who washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair; and he boldly told her she was saved (i.e., cleansed, freed from former patterns of evil). Jesus did recruit a rag-tag band of fishermen, tax collectors and revolutionaries, and by the shaping influence of his expectations for them made them the light of the world and "fishers of men." The reality of the cross, to say nothing of its necessity, completely escaped the Twelve before Easter and Pentecost. What appealed to them about the young Galilean rabbi was his promise of something far more and better, of kingdoms and crowns, of peace and love; that, in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, "this jack, joke, poor potsherd is immortal diamond."
The Apostle Paul, in his counsel to the churches, employs the same quixotic strategy. In the sixth and seventh chapter of the Letter to the Romans, he moves from a description of the believer's mystical transformation by Christ's own death and resurrection to the righteous consequences in their lives: arguing in so many words, "That's the way you are (i. e., dead to sin, alive to God, free to live and love), now behave as if it were so." This logic informs the Apostle's outrage with the Christians at Corinth who sought to redress grievances against one another by recourse to the civil courts. In an image worthy of the man of La Mancha, Paul depicts the quarrelers as jurors in heaven! Like a chivalrous knight of the Spirit, the man from Tarsus casts the frail mortal flesh of Christians into heroic molds: conquerors (Romans 8:37); heirs, not slaves (Galatians 4:7); children of light (Ephesians 5:8). The vision of what we are by the Gospel's light is the sacred expectation that enables us to become what we patently are not. I detect the shadow of Don Quixote in the New Testament.
Would that he might detour from his quest to ride our way. Then perhaps we might perceive the angel in the dragon, the bleeding heart in Archie Bunker, and the loving spendthrift in the penny-pincher. Consider, for a practical application of the quixotic strategy in the life of a local congregation, the vexing problem of bigotry. It can be faced directly, with studies, black-white church exchanges, group discussion, and plain speech in the pulpit. But far more effective in my experience has been a deliberate and low-keyed campaign to exaggerate the small achievements for brotherhood: celebrating the advantages of an ethnically mixed congregation, the variety of customs, cuisine, and piety that honor Christ; complimenting a white congregation for its generosity to Black Colleges, congratulating worshippers for looking like the family of God when their number includes Orientals and Occidentals, Native Americans and the rest of us, immigrants, Insulars and Continentals (to borrow a distinction I've heard used by Puerto Ricans), and, of course, black and white together. In other words, like La Mancha's visionary the effective pastor can create a climate of expectation congenial to brotherhood and antipathetic toward bigotry. With a little encouragement, Christians will become Christians.8
Or for another perennial issue in the church which can benefit from the quixotic strategy, consider stewardship, the euphemism really for parting believers from their cash. I have read and written my share of nagging appeals to increase giving for the church's program. But a sense of guilt does not make me or anyone else generous for very long: mostly, it makes me want to go somewhere else. If, however, you picture me as a benefactor, say, to Italian orphans needing soccer shoes, or a fledgling Black doctor needing tuition, or a financially strapped family needing camp scholarships for growing children; if, then, you will approach me as a hungerer and thirster for righteousness for all people, including grape-pickers; if you will place me in the heavenly company of prophets and apostles, assuring me that the church's business is high business indeed; and if you will gratefully accept my initial pittance: I will open my wallet frequently and generously, and the IRS agents will gasp in disbelief at my contributions.
In one significant respect the effective pastor will part company with Cervantes' knight errant: what the Don did spontaneously,9 the pastor will do with calculation. Some may read the specter of manipulation in this qualification; but in its defense can be marshaled my favorite non-canonical red letter beatitude, gleaned from a footnote in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics, attributed to Jesus in a variant reading, "Blessed are you if you know what you are doing." Anyway, the benevolence of the strategy is more apt to be applauded than resented by those who know precisely what the minister is doing to them when he dons his coat of armor, mounts his swayback steed, and bids the noble laity before him to ride off in pursuit of a beautiful, if seemingly impossible, dream, the kingdom of God.
I received one of those letters of gratitude from a former parishioner that are among the ministry's most cherished "perks." The young man, now a modestly prosperous insurance executive, has made his real vocation the nurture of young souls, especially the ones as troubled as he was at sixteen. For in his adolescence he was fatherless, insecure, and prone to behavior which would have made him a frequent visitor to the local precinct station. In the course of my pastoral duties we became good friends. We argued incessantly, we chased fungoes in the twilight of summer evenings, and more than once I made a midnight ride in his defense. I served, I see in retrospect, as a father figure. Through I never doubted his young life was and would be somebody good and useful. The grateful letter picked upon on this theme: "You believed in me and wanted for me more than I ever dreamed; and now that I have made it, I can see how import your friendship was." Better still, the insurance executive himself regularly takes up his own suit of shining armor and goes forth to invade the despair of other young lives with a transforming hope.10
Second Thoughts after Twenty-five Years
1. Talk about dated text! Several references in this chapter, including this one to the late Cesar Chavez, the organizer of Californian Chicano migrant workers, reveal the moment in which it was composed. But the thought, if not the particular incarnations, transcends that moment: the telling of the God's honest truth is always incumbent upon those who love God and neighbor.
2. Of all my references in this chapter, this one is probably the most arcane. Thirty years ago William Stringfellow, a lawyer and theologically astute Episcopalian layperson, traveled the Atlantic Seaboard circuit lecturing with his jeremiads against entrenched stupidity and greed, especially in the church. He was the more impressive for his physical handicap, speaking from a wheelchair.
3. Chrysostom was a bishop of the early church. His nickname, according to Roland Bainton in The Church of Our Fathers, was "the golden-mouthed."
4. The example which always leaps to my mind when I think about prophetic preaching is the pastor of a church in downtown Brooklyn in the 1960's. He regularly made the headlines in the local section of metropolitan newspapers. Preaching against censorship he handed out on a Sunday morning free copies of Fanny Hill, then a novel of very prurient reputation, which would now be considered very tame soft porn. He invited to his pulpit the Indian Minister of Defense, a fellow who regularly took to task the American leadership during the Cold War, from a distinctly leftist viewpoint. Yes, headlines were made, but a church was lost. It closed in the 1970's. If you want me to name names, Email me.
5. American Protestants cherish a strong tradition of viewing the pulpit with love while maintaining the right to disagree, sometimes loudly and stubbornly. I note in this moment of turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church that some of the Protestant tradition in this land is rubbing off on those who look to the Pope for spiritual guidance. Faith, in its Gospel dimension, is never blind obedience. It is, as my friend, Dr. Robert A Spivey, insisted in his Masters' dissertation, trust, informed, knowing, and generous, if often in spite of misgivings. Real Christians have little use for lockstep and goosestep when following Jesus.
6. Many times on my journey through time I have heard Jews laughingly confess to a religio-cultural characteristic, "good Jewish guilt." My Roman Catholic colleagues, maybe not to be outdone, speak frequently of "Catholic guilt." Didn't Billy Joel write a song about it? I find this interfaith competition on the issue of feeling guilty curious, because I always thought it was Methodist's priority, borrowed from John Wesley who had so many rules a fellow couldn't help but violate several of them every day. But acknowledging that feelings of guilt may stretch across the denominational divides doesn't make it any more attractive or, to the point, effective for changing hearts and minds... if only because the aftertaste is so sour. Like I am arguing here, there has got to be a better way, and I think there is.
7. The universal appeal of Don Quixote should be apparent to anyone following Broadway openings. This season will see the third production of the musical, "The Man of La Mancha," since this chapter was composed.
8. Why, it may even be possible for pastors to become Christians!
9. It would be only fair to point out that parishioners often behave like Don Quixote in relation to their pastors. That is, they innocently bestow upon the shepherd of the flock all kinds of credibility and expectation which have the effect, if not the intent, of making him far better than he really is. "Enpedestalization" I have named it somewhere. Pastors may chafe at the limitations such regard can inflict. But those who live in glass houses also receive, like it or not, more than their share of emulation... for good and ill, in small matters and large. I think of my necessity at forty-seven, when the eyes were aging. I decided on half-lenses. Before a year had passed a dozen other souls in the congregation had bought their own pair. It's a wise shopkeeper indeed who takes good care of the clergy: the returns in the form of his parishioners is a geometric proportion.
10. This "young man" is now old enough to retire. We have, more or less, kept in touch. He still has that refreshing and fresh Brooklyn directness about him. His family has grown, has grandchildren on the way (he hopes), and can still reminisce with me for hours about his days and mine among the Norwegians.