But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (Acts 3:6 NRSV)
Humanity has become estranged from one another. Technology has advanced our means for greater connectivity across time and geography, has created cyber linkages that enable inexhaustible inquisitiveness, and fuels a never-ending news cycle and inextricable global economy. Yet people are estranged from one another. Our history and practices have evolved, and yet we return to inhumanness and injustice. This critique is not directed specifically at titans of industry, our democratic ideals and institutions, or global citizenship. It is rather an inclusive reference that speaks to all humanity.
The implied “them” in the term humanity actually means “us.” The intellectual projection onto heartless and faceless examples of systems and culture is useful in creating distance—distance between “here,” our respective social locations, and “there,” where all that is not right or righteous exists. To say humanity is estranged simply means that each of us has turned away in feeling or affection. We have been unfriendly or hostile; we have alienated ourselves from one another.
These exercises of indifference are not just what “they” do, but what we—Christians—do as well. Unjust acts elsewhere are unjust everywhere, near and here in the church. Visible and proverbial walls, borders, gerrymandered and red lines, inner-city beltways, false social constructs of racial-ethnic-sexual-gender identity, interpretative and doctrinal positions: these markings of marginalization are signs of divide and indifference.
The biblical narrative in Acts 3 highlights an encounter at the Gates of Beautiful where the gospel message addresses matters of the margins. A man crippled from birth was carried and placed outside the entrance of the church, a common practice that easily identified people needing help. Prominently placed at a boundary close by, yet distant enough so not to impede church-goers. Currently, the scarred, poor, busied, lonely, and those who need care are not as easily distinguishable. The uninsured reside both in center-city slums and suburban condos. The drug epidemic is problematic for rural and rich alike. More than ever, more people exist along some margin.
Therefore, it is important that the good news of Jesus Christ always searches and speaks to the shared realities and responsibilities of all of us on the margins. Despite the challenges of identifying with marginalized peoples and helping others, we remain answerable for the ways our power fosters injustice. Practitioners who proclaim the gospel ought to operate in this spirit of answering.
Whether you already preach or strive toward preaching solidarity with identified oppressed and vulnerable people, there are questions embedded in every other homiletical and theological action: What does it mean to preach from margins? What theological messages are more pertinent than others? How do we connect the powerful and powerless through our preaching? Inherent in these questions of challenge, in the mechanics and aesthetics of preaching, is a deeper, underlying question: how do we help people be more human to the satisfaction of the divine expectation?
A paradigm shift is required. There must be a transition from seeing “others” as objects. Instead, we must respect others as subjects in God’s grace-filled story of collective liberation. This begins with demystifying preaching focused on marginal subjects.
Preaching concentrated on marginal subjects should not further relational toxicity, engender piety or reliance, nor lead to the gentrifying of others’ experiences and spaces. Preaching at its core is a message of liberation and promise of shalom. A central focus of preachment is God’s present action in human life purposed toward change in the hearers. Immersion in the lives and situations of those we are privileged to preach to and do life with is paramount.
Like Peter and John, everyone has a tradition that informs them. Everyone carries examples and experiences that frame their worldview or give lyrics to their song. The black church was my tradition of formation. Black church is more diverse now than at any other period. Diversity within African American and diaspora communities present unique queries regarding preaching in an ever-changing setting. This conundrum not only challenges historically marginalized experiences; it is phenomena transcending race, politics, denomination, and geography.
Redress of marginal subjects requires all practitioners to attend to expectations similar to the Gates of Beautiful encounter. Our preaching must meet and speak to people on the outside looking in while modeling for people inside peeping out. In other words, how do we meet people in their condition with unconditional love? By practicing a mode of preaching focused on marginal subjects that encourages reflection on our own privilege, pronouncements, and power. Likewise, invitations need to be extended for others in our congregations and communities to note their respective social locations. We must encourage them to take inventory of the advantages, assurances, autonomy, and inalienable rightness accessible to them.
Peter and John offered nothing less than they possessed. They offered no more than they were willing to personally sacrifice. It is incumbent that practitioners remain answerable to the critiques, commentary, and strategies they raise. Prophetic pronouncements can be evaluated by this rubric: Are our efforts deployed toward ends of help and hope or hurt and harm? Are these assets and actions liberating or further debilitating? Is our involvement fueled by means of grace and gratitude or grievance and greed? Is this an exercise inviting collective activation and employing our faith?
Lastly, practitioners concentrating on the margins must respect that their posits, interpretations, and models are not absolute. Rather, we operate as those graced to invite people into the purpose and promises of God. The encouragement and strategies given are divinely inspired and sanctioned. We dare invite others to cross over, go beyond, imagine, confess, forgive, and love. It is by divine permission that we empower others into an uplifting, into becoming and receiving what is on the other side.