Niebuhr on Preaching

I hope my preaching will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Reinhold Niebuhr

This was one of the meditations today in the worship service. It is catchy, memorable, and a nice play on words.

I don’t like it for several reasons. I don’t think Niebuhr or my preacher were really talking about affliction. You can be afflicted by severe weather. They are talking about oppression, someone doing something nasty to you with intent. The other problem I have is that people rarely change for the better when afflicted or attacked.

Comforting the oppressed helps improve the situation, but easily slides into making them comfortable in their oppression, robbing them of agency, disempowering them. This is often coupled with some kind of prosperity theology. By emphasizing the person (the afflicted or oppressed) instead of the condition (oppression) it is too easy to miss when comfortable and the oppressed are contained in the same person.

Oppression needs to be confronted, gently and firmly. As most abusers were abused as children, oppressors, especially those with little real power or authority, feel oppressed. Rather than push back of oppression, a difficult and challenging task that requires a sense of power, they simply switch sides.

A step in the right direction is “Challenge oppression and empower the oppressed.” Both of these actions challenge the oppressive status quo and encourage positive change. I’m unclear that the statement can be improved without mangling English usage.

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