Will Willimon on Easter Preaching

by Richard on March 30, 2010

Christian preaching can never rest on my human experience, or even the experience of the oppressed, as some forms of Liberation Theology attempt to do, because human experience tends to be limited by the world’s deadly, deathly means of interpretation. The world keeps telling Christians to “get real,” to “face facts,” but we have – after the cross and resurrection – a very particular opinion of what is real. I don’t preach Jesus’ story in the light of my experience, as some sort of helpful symbol or myth which is helpfully illumined by my own story of struggle and triumph. Rather, I am invited by Easter to interpret my story in the light of God’s triumph in the resurrection. I really don’t have a story, I don’t know the significance of my little life, until I read my story and view my life through the lens of cross and resurrection.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }


Joel 04.01.10 at 12:07 am

I left a comment there, which I wouldn’t call contradictory to what Willimon writes (only a few, and of them maybe most just returning from the pub, take Willimon on directly and survive intact; it has the feel of a C+ theology student questioning the tenured theology professor’s understanding of the incarnationl) but maybe in tension with, as I find something a little askew with what Willimon writes, though I am unable to “name it.”

I commented:

I guess, but for years I listened to preachers share the news of the “empty tomb”, the “marvel” of new creation, of everything old passed away and of Christ’s reconciling love and the words sounded more and more shallow – at least until I eventually heard sermons condemning our involvement in Vietnam, weighing in against the ban on blacks buying homes in white neighborhoods, lifting up just a glimpse of what it might mean to live in Christ. I was at least 18 before I really found any appeal in the “risen” Christ. I preferred the world’s “deathly means” of interpretation to the sterility of endless, unattached words of “God.” I wanted to believe that “where two or three of us are gathered in his name, daring to talk about him, he is talking about us,” but the more we talked about him, the sillier he seemed to me, the more irrelevant to my life, and the more disconnected from anything that appeared real, beautiful, sacrificial or serving. When did God seem something to me other than mostly a quaint notion? One time was when I heard or read these words of Robert F. Kennedy, “But suppose God is black? What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?” No preacher had ever asked me that question. Liberation theology as a whipping post, without elaboration, is rather easy for an affuent nation, but the severity with which the Roman Catholic Church targeted the movement tells me that it represents a serious threat not just to the political status quo but to Church leadership that widely equates power with authority. 3/30/2010


Kim 04.01.10 at 9:40 am

I think, Joel, that what Willimon is apprehensive about - rightly in my opinion - is the tail of experience, including the experience of oppression, wagging the dog of revelation. I mean, he can’t be against experience as such, can he? After all, he is a Methodist!

J. Cameron Carter, Assistant Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke (!), has recently addressed this issue. While Carter commends Latin American liberation theology “because of its refusal of any theology that it regards as unable to engage the material conditions and problems that call forth liberation concerns in the first place,” nevertheless, he expresses concern about how liberation theology is liable to make experience “reducible to and intelligible within the confines of socio-cultural and material processes.” In short, “what is wrong with Latin American liberation theology’s approach to the problem of oppression … is this: the social order can be imagined and performed differently, even at the so-called fundamental or structural level. Latin American liberation theology takes this possibility off the table, and to the extent that it does it remains captive to what I would call the tyranny of the present order of things” [my italics].

Or in Willimon’s terms, the experience of oppression itself must be reframed through the “lens of cross and resurrection” in order to get to the roots of oppression. Carter concludes that what is required - and what Latin American liberation theology lacks - is an ecclesiology, specifically “an ecclesiology in which the Church is understood eschatologically.” And I suspect that Willimon would agree.


Joel 04.01.10 at 7:30 pm


I don’t really disagree substantially with either you or Willimon. However I maintain that there is a tension present because reframing through the “lens of the cross and resurrection” requires us to understand we are under the clutches of death. Sometimes I recognize the light only after I’ve seen the dark. Or I figure out that something divine is present when I feel nothing true or good is near. A summary of my distress on the topic can be seen in the number of people I’ve heard say or whose opinion I’ve read share that if everyone professed Christ all war would end, all injustice disappear. Yes, I guess it could approach that if we would allow ourselves to be spiritually stripped naked.

The central point Willimon makes, as I understand it, I agree with. We can’t base our faith first in the experience of the world, including ourselves because we can’t base our faith in corruption and filth. On the other hand, failure to understand even at the margins how wretchedly sinful are we and the fallen world we live in seems to lead to a “touchy feely” or “loosey goosey” understanding of our individual relationship to God and often no understanding of a corporate relationship at all. I might add that I’m not making a negative reference to John Wesley’s “strangely warmed heart.”

Recently I’ve been getting from various Oklahoma Conference leaders invitations to attend the “Great Oklahomans Leadership Event”: Oklahomans are known for having a pioneering spirit. You will hear fascinating stories by featured Oklahomans who have blazed a trail to horizons of success hard to imagine.

On the one hand, I understand that politics has but a thin overlap with faith and theology in the greater context and that church folks are entitled to attend without regard to political views . But I’m being encouraged to be “trained” by a group of people who have greatly devoted their lives to preserving the status quo for the working class and largely preventing workers coming to own at least in part, what they have created with their own hands (a rough reference to the theoretical views of John Locke). Just as I have contributed to my favored candidates (always flawed, as are theirs) but I don’t see the point in being trained to lead by a group of folks who have mainly opposed anti-poverty initiatives, who have endorsed one futile war after another, and claim that unfettered free enterprise will bring opportunity for all. Now, I don’t doubt that the business and personal ethics of these folks are higher than average. I don’t dispute that the leadership speakers have built successful companies and made significant charitable contributions in support of bettering lives. These people would, likely down to most of the smaller details, agree with what Willimon writes on Easter preaching. But when I look out at the long history of exploited workers, particularly in anti-union territory like Oklahoma, who make $8-10 an hour and aren’t afforded or can’t afford health insurance, and when I see that almost all the speakers, excepting United Methodist clergy, have made heavy-duty contributions to candidates who have promised to try to de-rail universal health care, oppose increasing the minimum wage, support loosening of environmental protection laws, worked to keep gays from adopting children under any circumstances and that one of the speakers is the president of United Methodist affiliated Oklahoma City University, a school whose undergraduate tuition is $798/credit hour and provides an education little different from private or public non-religious institutions, then I just wonder what we are trying to identify United Methodism with. Don’t get me wrong: Oklahoma City University is regarded as an outstanding school that offers an exemplary education. It produces graduates every year who go on to achieve fame or acclaim in their careers. Probably most become engaged in charitable endeavors at some level. For highly gifted and/or leadership heavy prospective students, there can be substantial grants and scholarships, so students can come from widely divergent walks of life. But wouldn’t it be nice if we are going to bother to have church-affiliated colleges that we might expect those who attend there to devote their lives to servant leadership that empowers others? It sounds so wonderful when an Oklahoma corporation announces that it is giving $1 million, $5 million, $10 million for programs to benefit those in need. But then I think, “Wait a minute; what is even $10 million measured against underpayment of labor compensation well exceeding in the hundreds of millions?”

One of the speakers is paid $83,000/year not for their executive/company leadership work, but as compensation for part-time director of a large corporation.

If I were to attend a Jewish-affiliated college, I would expect that my faith would be respected. But I would also hope I wouldn’t be offended by being required to at least be exposed to Jewish history, philosophy, theology and culture. I’m reminded that Bill Hybels of Willow Creek admitted they had discovered that amidst their rapid numerical growth the spiritual and discipleship lives of members could not be seen as deeper or more committed by either standard or innovative method of assessing church effectiveness. After climbing for some time, my emergent church identity has been on the decline with a corresponding rise in Wesleyan and reformed evangelical viewpoint. I’d like to think that a church affiliated university would encourage not just “civic duty” but dynamic ways of thinking leading to far greater profit-sharing/empowerment for company employees, for the creation of an atmosphere that deplores racism and homophobia, and seeks acceptance and celebration of diverse cultures. Instead, we laud our “business friendly” atmosphere while turning the other way and coughing as to why so very many Oklahoma residents live below the poverty level, consigned to worn-down mobile homes or dilapidated permanent structures . We look away as most Oklahoma residents pay an 8.5% to 10% sales tax on all groceries and non-prescription drugs. Maybe if I attend the seminar I will become a more dynamic and effective church leader. But I wonder to what end?

I’d have been happier, so to speak, if Willimon had approached this issue with the corruptness from the right; the prosperity gospel is far more widespread in the U.S. Church than simply confined to those who openly proclaim it. I think because Willimon is so more concerned with oppression in the church generally that unless he unpacks carefully, his words can just become sound bites for the “American Flag Christian Church.” In other words, he assumes that most who hear or read his words understand his deep commitment to social justice; I’m not sure that is he case. Willimon once dismissed George McGovern in a way that could encourage people to believe they inhabited opposite spheres when in fact Willimon was opposed only to McGovernistic “quotas” for women and minorities serving on church boards, agencies and such. I’m a big Willimon fan, even if he irks me with his playing up of his reformed theology (though not of that species of reformed theology wending its way through the Southern Baptist Convention) at the expense of traditional Wesleyan qualified Arminianism. Or with his insistence that no really good novelist can emerge out of the growing up experience of a large American city; only the rural or small town writers can achieve greatness, that is. Soap box is getting a little slippery from all the flakes and suds, so I’ll stop.


Kim 04.01.10 at 10:57 pm

Yeah, Willimon is a Barthian Methodist (which is why I like him so much)! But keep the suds coming. I always come away from your posts and comments both more informed and more enlightened (the Arminianism excepted!). A happy Easter to you and yours - from an expat e-friend.


Will Willimon 04.06.10 at 3:42 am

I’ve enjoyed the conversation. I’m in a mood just now that has me appreciating the peculiarity of the Christian faith, thus my questioning the theology of experience.
Of course, I’m from South Carolina and I say thank God my faith has overcome my experience. South Carolina is sort of like Wales — we both know what it’s like to be occupied by a foreign power!

He is Risen!


Richard 04.06.10 at 9:17 am

Welcome, Will!

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