Thursday, July 12, 2012

Engaging Society: What Is the Church's Prophetic Calling?


Amos, an eighth century (B.C.E.) prophet, claims that he was not a prophet, nor the disciple of a prophet, but a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees (7:14–16). What he is saying, I think, is that he had absolutely no aspirations of being a prophet. Prophets lived rough lives. They were on the run much of the time. Amos is saying, “I was out tending the sheep, taking care of my trees, minding my own business, when the Word of God seized me. I couldn’t get away. I am compelled to speak the Word of the Lord.” Amos prophesied judgment on the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Amaziah, the priest who advised King Jeroboam of the Northern Kingdom, told Amos to hit the road—to go prophesy to the Southern Kingdom (7:10–13). Religious leaders like Amaziah, who have a cozy relationship with the powers in charge, are not interested in hearing a word from the Lord that would challenge the status quo.

Amos’ vision of a plumb line is a vision of what is true, right, just, and good (7:7–9). While we all come up short, Amos uses the plumb line of God’s righteousness to proclaim and expose Israel’s hypocrisy and injustice. Israel’s leaders think everything is okay because they continue to attend worship services, recite their prayers, and observe the holy days and rituals. But they are taking advantage of the vulnerable and oppressing the poor. Greed reigns in the halls of power and is expressed in their oppression of the poor.

Amos names their sins: They levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. They oppress the innocent and take bribes, and deprive the poor of justice in the courts (5:11–12). He calls them to repentance: to seek good, not evil (5:14–15). He tells them that God hates all their religious festivals, prayers, sacrifices, and songs. He proclaims: “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (5:21–24).

When we read prophetic texts like Amos we are compelled to ask: What is the prophetic task of the church today and how do we go about it? How do we speak truth to power and engage society in our contemporary context? What should be the relationship between church and state?

One thing should be very clear. Whenever the church tries to accommodate the agenda of the state, the church abandons its prophetic task and loses its prophetic voice. Whenever the church becomes too cozy with political and national institutions and pursues power and influence in the world, the church ceases to be the church. When the church and state become too close, the church always loses. The church, just like the priest Amaziah, becomes nothing more than an instrument to enforce the will of the powers and give the powers the false assurance of the blessing of God.

What the church must never do is conform and acquiesce to the will and power of the state. Paul admonished, in his letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world,” that is, do not be shaped into the mold of the domination system, do not conform to the values and will of the worldly powers” (Rom. 12:1)

On the other hand, it is just as bad, or worse, for the church to attempt to use the state to implement a particular Christian vision and agenda. When the church becomes entangled in a national identity and seeks to extend its influence through the state, the church ceases to be the church.

The church has no right to demand that the state adopt and enact a particular Christian vision. We live in a pluralist society and we have no right to demand that our vision of faith or society be enforced by the state. The pluralistic nature of our country is becoming more and more apparent. Certainly the majority of Americans who have religious faith are Christian, but proportionately the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation and those of a non-Christian religious tradition is increasing, while the number of Americans who identify as Christian is decreasing.

Some Christians see this as a threat and attempt to exert political power and influence to reclaim and restore the place Christian faith once had in American life.

When I was in high school we had a prayer group that met before school in the Library for Bible reading, a short devotion, and prayer. Several of us who were participants and leaders in the prayer group took turns offering the morning prayer over the school intercom. After the homeroom bell sounded, a student would read the announcements, the principle would say a few words, and then I, or some other leader from the prayer group, would say a prayer. That’s how we started each school day.

Back then, in our little high school, we had two kinds of people when it came to religious faith: practicing Christians and non-practicing Christians. Today, even in small public school systems, one is most likely to find some students who claim a different religious tradition. To compel them to participate in Christian prayer would be a violation of their rights. Faith cannot be coercively imposed. Most Christians who want to see public prayer reinstated in the school system or at public events would be very upset if a Muslim or Hindu or someone of a different faith tradition prayed.

I understand why some Christians feel threatened and afraid, and long for those days again. Rascal Flatts sings, “I miss Mayberry . . . where everything was black and white.” The fact is that even in Mayberry, everything wasn’t black and white. In towns like Mayberry there is a lot of grey, which is too often ignored, denied, or suppressed.

Insisting that the governing powers enforce the agenda and will of the church not only makes for bad politics, it makes for bad religion. Jesus resisted the temptation to accomplish God’s will by the means and methods of the world, and the living Christ expects his disciples today to follow his example. The will of God cannot be extended through force, control, manipulation, or coercion. Jesus rebuked his disciples for seeking positions of power and prominence.

But don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that the church should not engage the political process. I think we should and must engage society at all points, on economics, on politics, on education, on all fronts.

Separation of church and state does not mean a separation of our faith from the political process. If the fallacy of some Christians, on one end of the spectrum, is to form an unholy alliance with the state, the fallacy of other Christians, on the other end of the spectrum, is to completely retreat and withdraw from all political engagement. The church has a moral and prophetic obligation to engage society for the common good—to work for policies of nuclear disarmament, to question declarations of war, to declare national budgets immoral, if they are indeed immoral—for the church to fail to do so is a relinquishment of her prophetic voice and task.

It’s important for the church to be honest and realistic in her engagement with society. We should not assume that our suggestions and recommendations will be heeded and implemented, nor should we even expect that they will be taken seriously. We hope they will, but we should not expect it.

Jesus offers us a vision of a new society. It’s in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s in his parables. It’s expressed in his words and deeds. It’s embodied in the way he lived and died. The way of Jesus is the way of peace and nonviolence, forgiveness and reconciliation, distributive and restorative justice. To love our neighbor as ourselves involves working for a just and equitable society in which every person is valued, respected, and treated with dignity. Jesus lived, taught, and embodied a way of life that makes for human flourishing. For Christians, the way of Jesus must determine our way of life and the vision of Jesus must shape our vision of human flourishing, of what the common good looks like.

To follow Jesus is to engage the powers from the margins, from the fringe. Prophets do not take up residence in the halls of power. Our calling is not to pull and push, to control and coerce, to insist and demand that the powers bend to our vision, because that is not the way of Jesus—the way of love. There may be times when the powers are abusive and we will have to resist. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights marchers used nonviolent civil disobedience to resist and to expose injustice, often at great personal cost. There may be times when we, too, will have to resist in nonviolent ways at great personal cost.

Our prophetic task is to imagine, proclaim, invite, and persuade with the compassion, patience, tolerance, honesty, humility, and love of Christ. We can do this in a number of creative ways: We can protest, we can write letters, we can organize, we can promote a vision of the common good in our conversations, in our public discourse and discussions as we try to persuade friends, family members, and coworkers toward a just vision of human flourishing. We can serve compassionately, give generously, volunteer, and certainly we can vote for public officials who we believe will serve the common good, not just their own interests, or those of their political party and constituency.

There are all sorts of creative, compassionate, nonviolent ways to engage society. It is part of our prophetic calling. It is not easy work, and it can be very risky work. The biblical tradition teaches us that. But it is part of who we are and what we do as the body of Christ in the world. We must never stop dreaming, never stop proclaiming, and never stop creatively doing all we can do to promote a vision of human flourishing that respects the freedom and dignity of every person, and that excels in the common good.

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