Preachin’ to the Choir

Recently I was talking about racism with some people in a corporate setting, and was pleased by a spirited discussion and many comments which affirmed that my contribution had been helpful. In the midst of the verbal evaluation and many accolades, there was one man who claimed that all that I said was good, acceptable, even “great,” but that I was “talking to the Choir!” Since we were already over the time allotted for our session, my response was limited to a few words, and then I called for an end to the session.

It was not the first time I had heard such comments, and I suppose we have all been in groups where the same sentiment has been expressed. Translated, the phrase has always meant to me, “you’re talking to the already converted … we understand things just as you do, so why tell us … there are other people who need to hear your message more than we do.” This time, though, I found myself wanting to reflect on the meaning of this comment. My reflections took several directions.

Immediately it is clear that the comment that we are “preachin’ to the choir” is an affirmation of the group shout about whom the statement is made. There is an implicit assumption that the “choir” is made up of those who are the most committed to the goals of the subject under discussion. So it is a way of telling everyone that they are “okay,” and, of course, reminding everyone that the person saying that is on the “right” side! Since there was no time left for me to check to find if others felt the same way, I cannot tell if there was any consensus that I was speaking to the “wrong” audience. Yet it was clear that this one person thought that. My hunch is that had I opened his comment for response from others, there would have been a number who would not have agreed with him. If that were the case, it is still clear that the man was at least affirming his own “purity,” his own conviction that he at least, did not need to hear the good things I had said. That is the obvious effect of what was said. Mark that as the first point of reflection.

Incidentally, and before I move on, if all the “choirs” I have spoken to about anti-racism were full of committed activists in the struggle, I’d feel a lot more confident about the end of racism than I do.

A less obvious effect of the comment about the “choir” is that it may be a way, intentionally or not, of deflecting responsibility for acting on what has been said. “Take this word somewhere else, there is some other audience that needs to hear it, and let them take it to heart. We here are doing all right; direct yourself to some other group, because that is where we need to see more responsible action.” “We are the choir.” “We’ve heard it all.” “We’re good people.” … “We don’t need to hear this any more.” “Take the good message somewhere else; we are the ‘good guys’.” The effect of the remark is to deflect what has been said, turn it aside, aim it in some other direction …

There may be truth in the claim that “somebody” else needs to hear this and do more about it, but it always concerns me a bit. The analogy to the “good guys” being the choir, calls to mind my experience on a denominational staff for nine years. In that capacity I moved among some five hundred churches regularly. I recall stories of choir masters who had run off with someone else’s spouse, of choir members who had cheated at business, of at least one church secretary and choir member who ran a “call girl” operation from the church office … and you could add your own similar stories, applicable not only to “choirs” but to those who “perform” in other settings as well.

The point is quickly made … the people who have heard the message a thousand times may still not act in accord with it. Who would claim that he/she has not stumbled more than once? Let’s not turn the responsibility for action to someone else, to some other group. Let’s be wary of anyone who talks too quickly about the problem residing somewhere else.

Comes a more disquieting possibility of the effect of the comment that I should have been addressing some other group than the “choir.” The comment may have the effect of diminishing what has been said, even while it comes from one who affirms the message. It may be an effective way of discounting the ideas expressed, assuring those assembled that they don’t have to take them very seriously. If the comment had come from someone who claimed my remarks were stupid, I could easily accept it as an honest disagreement, but coming as it did from an affirming listener, I am puzzled, and must assess at least the possibility of this “diminishing” effect. For now I don’t want to dwell any longer on this phase of my reflections, but will dismiss this argument as brusquely as it may have dismissed mine.

More seriously my reflections reminded me of my own need to he constantly supported by those whose experience and views are similar. I do need to be often with the “choir,” to talk with, though not to “preach to” people who are of similar mind. I need to be with them in part to sharpen my thought, to be challenged by others who share my objectives. “Reshape,” “refuel” are words which describe that need. The “choir” can help me prepare for times when those with whom I speak are not of similar mind, have never been near the “choir.” I need to use those times I am with the “choir” so that we can prepare each other to go out to the places where there is no “choir” and to speak more persuasively, to act more strategically.

So, bring on the “choirs,” and let’s determine together to “talk” and listen carefully to each other, and try to find what we can apply to ourselves, to our situations, to our group, to our heads, hearts and habits.