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Column: Sermon botched

I arrived at Duke Chapel Sunday morning expecting to hear Dean Will Willimon preach. It was soon announced, however, that the sermon would be delivered by junior Dave Allen, the winner of a contest to select a student guest preacher.

Even though Allen was introduced as the organizer of "Peaceville," I awaited his message. I guess I assumed that he would use the opportunity to deliver a sermon to an ecumenical congregation at what the Chapel's website calls "an interdenominational church, representing a wide variety of traditions" to further a general message about Christianity instead of controversial left-wing doctrine. Was I ever wrong.

In his sermon, entitled "Societal Leprosies, Personal Solutions," Allen used the Biblical and historical discrimination of lepers to illustrate an action that he dubbed "othering." He defined it as the powerful calling themselves moral and those different from them "unclean and sinful." He called it the "story of all of history" and explained that it was tied to America's founding since Europeans "brushed aside" "brown skinned people" during colonization.

He then called "othering," "today's societal leprosy" and proceeded to offer an asinine and offensive supposed example of it. "Othering," said Allen, "is being acted out this month in your childrens' social studies classes when they take time out of their normal course of studies to examine Black History Month as if it were okay to ignore black history the other eleven months of the year, as if it were even possible to divorce black history from the rest of American history." I wonder if Allen thinks that the individuals who began celebrating Easter were implying that it was acceptable to ignore the resurrection of Jesus for 364 days a year. I also wonder if he realizes how uncomfortable he made several hundred people feel on Sunday by disguising a radical political viewpoint as a Biblical lesson.

Allen also discussed wealth, which he stated dictates "where we live and who we know." He called urban housing projects "barriers" to civic life and claimed that "we are unable to relate to people outside of our own class." For good measure, he offered a supply-side economic critique when he explained sadly that "if our weak economy is threatening our comfort, we slash taxes and attack our shopping malls armed with our checkbooks and our credit cards. It's the American thing to do."

It of course came as no surprise that Allen brought up the conflict with Iraq, describing it as the arena where "othering is being acted out most clearly today." He called it a struggle between "the wealthiest nation in the world and a country twice the size of Idaho." I wanted to ask him how many weapons of mass destruction he thought could fit within Idaho's borders.

Allen told of how an Iraq war would unfold. "Frightened American soldiers," he said, will fight "frightened Iraqi soldiers and unarmed civilians, all believing they should hate each other, but none knowing why."

Allen predictably tied this unsupported argument to race, pointing out that "people who enlist in the military seem to be those for whom college is not an option and they tend to be poor people and people of color." "The all-American boys," as Allen derogatorily calls many of you, "go on to college and enter politics where they will decide whether to send the others to war."

My problem is not that a political issue was discussed in church. There's absolutely nothing wrong with pondering what Jesus would think of a modern day situation. The fact is that Allen's sermon had a primarily religious message and was not just a political rant. And that, interestingly, was the biggest problem with it. He did not use scripture to argue his political opinions, he used the opinions as support for his scriptural argument.

On Sunday, Dave Allen abused an opportunity he was fortunate to be afforded. Equipped with the air of holiness and finality that anyone preaching at the magnificent Chapel enjoys, he offered controversial political opinions in the most biased and condescending way possible. His actions lacked integrity, especially since they occurred at a church that welcomes those of numerous faiths and strives to not alienate members.

If those at the Chapel want their congregation to ponder political issues, then they should bring in a qualified religious expert without an obvious axe to grind. Those who want to hear unsupported and divisive liberal venom can hear it somewhere else. Like Peaceville.

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