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The Church Needs a Prophetic Voice

2010 October 1

We have all heard the old saying that Satan’s greatest ploy is to get people to stop believing in him. For when people aren’t looking to fight his evil then that evil has more room to flourish. I fear something similar is occurring in our country in our rejection of social justice. Instead of gathering the people of God together to work against injustice like Jesus commanded us to do; those with interests in allowing injustices (especially economic injustice) to continue are attempting to convince the church to shun the very idea of justice itself. The easiest way for the evil of injustice to flourish in this world is for the church to believe we should be doing nothing about it. And as crazy as it seems, that tactic is succeeding. The public is being encouraged to flee churches that teach about justice, to equate social justice with the atrocities of Nazi Germany, and to believe that supporting social justice will result in the elimination of all religious liberties. Basically, to embrace the exact opposite of the justice-seeking way of life that Jesus demands of his followers.

Glenn Beck’s recent tirade against those that care about justice illustrates this revisionist view of justice. He states that people who support justice for the oppressed are promoting a state sponsored church similar to the Nazi controlled churches in Germany. Playing on people’s fears, Beck convinces them that unless they stay silent on justice issues then the government will take over their churches. According to Beck, “when you combine church and state, and you take… a big government and you combine it with the church, to get people to do the things that the state wants you to do, it always ends in mass death.” His solution is to silence the voices for justice and let faith simply be about individual private commitments. What Beck fails to realize is that silencing the voices for justice within the church is simply a passive way of giving control of the church to the powers of this world. Empires (the State in both political and economic realms) can either directly control the church (as Hitler did) or it can control the church by rendering it impotent.

Beck’s example of Hitler’s Nazi controlled church, reminds me of the Barman Declaration (1934). An ecumenical group of Confessing Christians in Germany did stand up to the State controlled church, sending the message that they had no Fuhrer but Jesus. It was a bold move, but in demanding their autonomy they also gave up the right to speak truth to power. In creating for themselves the space to worship as they choose without interference, they inadvertently gave the state control of their voices, leaving the Confessing Churches little room to speak up on justice issues (like the extermination of the Jews). For this reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer disagreed with Karl Barth over the drafting of this declaration – it sacrificed justice for the sake of supposed autonomy. While there is much to be admired in the Barman Declaration, I have to wonder how Jesus can truly be the leader of the church if that church has allowed itself to be silenced in regard to justice issues.

Beck is correct in pointing out that throughout history the church has been controlled by the state to disastrous ends. But this is never because the state cared too much about justice. On the contrary, it was when the state controlled “church” ceased speaking out on behalf of justice for the oppressed that power was corrupted, liberty was denied, and mass deaths did occur. One thinks of Persian-controlled Ezra casting the foreign wives and children of the Jews into the wilderness to die as his religious zeal cleansed the land. Or of Charlemagne forcing the conquered Saxons to be baptized at the point of a sword. Or the silence of the church in places like Liberia, Kenya, Bosnia or Rwanda when their “Christian” rulers oppressed the people. The state controlled church can commit atrocities, but a church controlled through silence on justice issues is just as complicit in those atrocities.

The church must retain a prophetic voice. It cannot be a puppet of the state, but it also cannot be manipulated into silence. The church is never just a collection of individuals desiring their own private worship experience; it is the Body of Christ called to do his will. Standing up to Empire (political or economic) on behalf of the oppressed is simply part of what it means for the church to be collectively faithful. That prophetic voice has to call for an end to injustice, and since Empire is often the cause of much of the injustice in the world, it is going to have to be Empire that takes the steps to undo that injustice. If Christians abandon the right to push the State to repent of (undo) the wrongs it has committed (even if that undoing makes our lives uncomfortable), then we have just granted the state the freedom to control us all.

I look to the people of faith in recent years who have done the hard work of helping the church find its voice as it not only speaks truth to power, but does so in ways that seek justice through reconciliation. When Fr. Andre Sibomana was named administrator of the Rwandan diocese of Kabgayi in August 1994, he knew the church had to find a way to repent of its silence and complacency during the genocide. So he suspended all baptisms, first communions, confirmations, and weddings until Christmas and called the church into a period of confession and penance. He knew that the church could not move forward into new life until its political sins had been dealt with. Similarly Desmond Tutu was the Christian voice calling for justice for years in South Africa. Once Apartheid ended, it was only through the church working directly with the state through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that healing was able to begin. The church as prophetic voice had to call the state (and its own members) to justice and at the same time grant healing through the transformative power of Jesus Christ. Or as Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongale suggests, the church can never be just another NGO; it has to be a body that witnesses to a “different world right now.”

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. October 1, 2010

    The thing that frustrates me most about Beck is that he automatically assumes social justice means total government takeover, and that’s just not true. I’m still learning about social justice, but the stuff I’ve read didn’t say much about the role of government. I should send Beck a copy of John Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus.” He probably won’t read it, though.

  2. Robin Wallace permalink
    October 1, 2010

    Excellent column, Julie! Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention is quoted in the latest issue of Newsweek as saying that people were drawn to Beck’s rally in Washington because “there are millions and millions of Americans who think their country has taken a wrong turn … It began to emphasize rights and privileges instead of obligations and responsibilities.” And yet Beck states his solutions only in terms of individual rights and personal salvation. He knows there’s a problem, but he’s unwilling to follow his own logic through to the obvious conclusion: that we need to start thinking and acting more collectively and less as isolated individuals.

  3. October 1, 2010

    Julie,

    I have been reading your blog for some time now and I must say that I think you provide a very refreshing insight into many of the problems effecting the modern church as well as the emergent movement.

    I think you hit the nail on the head here, in regards to Glenn Beck. I do notice that you, correctly, mention people in areas outside the U.S. who have lived out this “prophetic voice” you talk about, but where do you think it is coming from in the U.S.? Is there a place it is coming from, or is your charge that we (meaning U.S. citizens) need to find it?

  4. Arthur permalink
    October 1, 2010

    Julie, a very well written blog. This is one point of Glen Beck’s movement that is quite worrisome. My question for you is in the definition of “prophetic voice.” I fully agree with your stance and the way you use the term, stating not an individual worship experience, “That prophetic voice has to call for an end to injustice,” and to “grant healing through the transformative power of Jesus Christ.” However, the popular cultural definition of a prophetic voice is hardly one steadfastly speaking the truth; it is much more sensational, one speaking of the future, supernatural revelation, an oracle.

    This is an odd battle, the conservative American culture that purports to be the bastion of righteousness refuses to see how buying a cheap imported shirt is a tainted modern equivalent of being a slave owner. Your book is excellent in showing people how broadly social injustice affects our society. Maybe the needed prophetic voice is a William Wilberforce who who can rally our modern/post modern culture towards a specific focused agenda step. Not eradicating injustice, but finding one ugly aspect of injustice that we can join together with Beck and thousands of others towards defeating.

    Keep writing – keep speaking – you are being heard, even by those you think are opposing you.

    Arthur

  5. October 3, 2010

    Robin: the reason Beck doesn’t consider collective solutions is because he thinks that’s “socialism”! How sad that he can’t see beyond political ideologies.

  6. October 6, 2010

    I work for a non-profit which has recently begun to train up prophets, releasing them to recognize and join in the work of the Lord among the poor and oppressed.

    … and I always wonder what goes through people’s minds when they hear that.

    Do they think this is some spooky, bonk-em-on-the-head, charismatic thing?

    Do they think prophecy is akin to reading your horoscope or dealing out the Tarot cards each morning? WOO HOO!! Look at all the 21’s!! It’s going to be a really good day!!

    Do they picture fire-and-brimstone preachers roaming the streets hard-selling salvation to the thoroughly annoyed who have no interest in buying?

    Or do they see normal, ordinary people becoming better at listening to Jesus and speaking what is on His heart into the life and heart of another?

    Do they see the branches becoming clear, clean, conduits for the healing, empowering, consoling, loving, sweet sap of Jesus flowing into the fruits of His vine? Do they really want to look that closely? For what if normal, ordinary Christians can be taught to heal, to drive out demons, to speak words of knowledge — of His love and understanding and bring His redeeming light into someone’s darkness? What if Christians could be taught, not to be LIKE Christ, but to actually BE the proof — the Shekinah of Christ in the world. Holy Smoke!! That would be scary … as it always has been. We have been cowering in fear of that smoke ever since the first day it showed up in the desert God-box.

    … but it’s that kind of scary that make getting up each day eternally meaningful and filled with joy.

  7. October 6, 2010

    Friendly neighborhood Hauerwasian checking in. :)

    I’m concerned with the binary you seem to be setting up here, namely that the only choices are throwing in with this or that faction within the power structures or withdrawing entirely from involvement. (If I’m mischaracterizing, please let me know.) For instance, I’d consider the Barmen declaration extraordinarily prophetic because it sets up Christian Church in opposition to National Socialist Party and makes clear what Sibomana (not to mention Argentine priests) made clear in their own contexts, namely that there’s no sense in which the Church was going to play “religion” in such a context and stand at the beck and call of their agendas.

    If I could propose a Biblical parallel, I’d suggest Amos, who was neither a prophet nor a son of a prophet but who nonetheless spoke divine oracles against the nations surrounding Israel and against the Samaria establishment. That I know of he never organized a popular uprising against the palace in Samaria, but his words nonetheless stand as our canon.

  8. October 6, 2010

    Dan – I think there are prophetic voices in the US. There are numerous people calling for justice, working to help their neighbor, and pushing the government to care for people. Some of these are churches, some groups like Sojourners or Soul Force or JubileeUSA. These groups can be liberal and they can be conservative – but they are the people guys like Beck label as socialist or compare to Nazis. The voices for justice have been cast as the villian for a lot of Americans which is causing them to sadly be silenced.

    Nate – I wasn’t setting up such a dichotomy. I don’t see it as a problem for the church to work with the government to achieve acts of justice. That doesn’t mean aligning with one faction or another, but yes, it does mean not withdrawing completely. Telling the government not to bother you and continuing to call the government to work on the side of justice are two very different things. American like to believe that they can render to Caesar that which is Caesar and then wash their hands of the matter. We tend to forget that Jesus was executed by Empire as an insurgent. As I see it, we must stand up for justice no matter where that takes us. It may lead to partnership or it may lead to crucifixion. To reject either would be to step away from the call that has been given to us.

  9. October 6, 2010

    Julie –

    This is a tough one. Clearly, this is an extreme example, but people never want their taxes to go up. They think “government” is wasting money, and should “live within its means.” An insurance fee like this probably means this is how they had to cut the town budget to “cut the fat.” How is the town supposed to pay for the insurance to cover fighting every fire in town?

    And what about the neighbor thing? Did the rest of the community stand around watching the firefighters watching the house?

    It’s not a simple issue.

    Sue

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