Thursday, March 6, 2008

When sermons hurt

from the La Cañada Valley Sun: La Cañada Flintridge, California

Around Town:
When sermons hurt people
By Anita Susan Brenner

These are difficult times for military families. When a loved one is deployed, some family members attend church or synagogue. They pray for strength. They seek counsel.

Public opinion has shifted since 9/11. We are in an election year. So it is no surprise that many people, including some in the clergy, feel “called” to speak out.

There is a long tradition of activist clergy. From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King; from Moshe Rabbeinu to Abraham Joshua Heschel; priests, rabbis and ministers have a history of speaking out, of speaking truth to power. The First Amendment to our great Constitution guarantees this right.

But what happens when the “truth” is uncertain? When a country is divided? When only a small percent of our citizens actively serve in the military?

Political sermons can be painful for military families. Yesterday, someone I love was deployed to the war. Her deployment reopens many memories and I plan to get through the next seven months with a whole lot of prayer.

Memories. It has taken me four years to write this column, to distance myself from the pain caused by a particular incident. The incident concerned an angry sermon and our dying son.

Four years may be a long time, but the wounds seem fresh. In the months that followed, I spoke with other parents — parents with kids in the military academies, parents with sons and daughters on active duty and parents whose kids were deployed. I asked them how they felt about political statements against the war during religious services.

Here are some of their responses:

“I go to church to recharge my batteries, not to hear a political sermon,” said one bereaved father.

“Devastating,” said another parent.

A lady from Pennsylvania wrote, “Sermons, as like from a church? I have never heard a sermon against the war!”

A common theme was the obligation of clergy to minister to the needs of the military family, especially during deployment.

One mom had a unique perspective: “Our son is an ensign in the Navy. My husband is a minister and I am the daughter of a minister. I believe if sermons are presented correctly, ministers may feel called to protest the war through that format. Obviously, they need to ‘minister’ to all in the congregation — especially those that have sons/daughters in the military. We would hope they would be sensitive to all families.”

The minister’s wife suggested that acts of loving kindness, such as pastoral counseling, care packages or condolence notes, are a form of currency that the clergy member can “spend” on the occasional political statement.

Sermons, it seems, are less important than “chicken soup.” Or, as Rolf Gompertz, a writer, once told me, “If you have to choose between ideology and humanity, always choose your humanity.”


ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a lawyer and a principal with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Her fee for this week’s column will be donated to cancer research in memory of her son, 2nd Lt Andrew J. Torres, USMC. To support this research and to read about Andrew, see

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