It was two years ago, that I wondered aloud what it meant to be prophetic. I’ve heard that phrase a lot in many of the progressive circles I’ve been in, but I’ve always wondered if what is called prophetic is nothing more than espousing your ideology and wrapping it up in God-language.
What does it mean to be prophetic? The reason I ask is that I think a lot of folks have an idea what it means to be prophetic that I think is a bit wrong. I will see a pastor who will get up and talk about some of the major issues facing our world and it is billed as “prophetic.” But more often than not, what I hear is more of a political agenda than it is calling the church to present the Kingdom of God. Since I move around mainline/progressive Christian circles, I tend to hear what sounds like a churchified version of the Democratic party platform, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of what might pass as prophetic in evangelical circles just mirrors the GOP agenda.
So, what does it mean to be prophetic? What does a prophetic church look like? I have to think that it’s more than a party platform sprinkled with lots of Jesus. I’d like to know, because what I see passing as prophetic kind of falls short.
Methodist pastor Drew McIntyre is asking the same question. He comes up with an answer that is shocking (at least to me,) but true. Quoting Henri Nouwen, he remarks that there is very little theological reflection in the church today:
In his wonderful little book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen names temptations common to leadership and offers particular disciplines as solutions. He concludes this brief treatise by discussing the temptation “to be powerful.” In different ways, both the right-wing and left-wing perversions of the prophetic are temptations to power. Fundamentalists manipulate Scripture to show forth their own insight and giftedness, unlocking “secrets” of the end times heretofore unknown. In so doing they often amass large followings (and bank accounts). Progressives too quickly make use of the prophetic role to mask their own ideological agendas with a veneer of Biblical authority, and claim God’s voice for whatever the cause happens to be that week.
For Nouwen, the solution is “theological reflection.” He concludes,
“Few ministers and priests think theologically. most of them have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms. Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of ministry. Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, psuedo-social workers.” (65-66)
Theological reflection is critical because without it, we will too quickly mistake our words for God’s, and so make fools of ourselves when speaking on His behalf (as a pastor, I’ve done this more than once). This discipline is sorely lacking in every corner of the church, Mainline or Evangelical, Catholic or Charismatic. Such a poverty of theological insight is all the more problematic because we (all of us, including the author) are quick to forget that we are not brilliant by virtue of living in the 21st century or having masses of education. The great missionary and ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin points out that we may come to different conclusions than Paul, but that doesn’t make us Paul’s moral superiors; we are apt to be as blind to some things in our day as Paul may have been to certain obvious evils in his.
McIntyre briefly talks about the Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina. The movement happens to be led by a Disciples of Christ pastor. Mother Jones magazine has a pretty good profile of Barber, but in reading you have to wonder: is this about following God or following a party platform (and protesting the other party)? Would there be Moral Mondays if instead of a conservative legislature and governor passing conservative legislation, there were liberals in power. The answer of course is no and that’s the problem. If you are willing to protest Republicans who you are against and not Democrats that you agree with, then what you are doing isn’t prophetic and you need to quit fooling yourselves.
I tend to think that a true prophet is not going to be liked by either liberals or conservatives. Another Methodist pastor, Alan Bevere had this to say in 2012 about prophets:
I have spent some time this week in the Old Testament prophetic books. I do not find it surprising that most prophets are not accepted in their own time. Their cutting words of truth at best fall on stopped ears. Then, in order to reinforce their words, they resort to symbolic acts which, if committed in the 21st century West, would be more than sufficient cause for them to be put away in special places reserved for people who walk naked in public (Isaiah) and who eat paper (Ezekiel), and walk around with an oxen yoke on their neck (Jeremiah). The people of God today have no more clue on how to recognize a prophet than the ancient folk. Every time I hear someone referred to as prophetic, it’s only because they are speaking words that the hearers who so designate them agree with. But that’s precisely the problem.
When God used Amos or Micah, it wasn’t because God wanted to raise the minimum wage or ban gay marriage. God had a covenant with the Israelites and from time to time, God would tell the people when they were off track or when their worship wasn’t matching with their lives. The closest parallel to this is God talking to the church today. The prophets were speaking for God, calling the people back to righteous living. The prophets were not setting policy. They weren’t talking about voting rights, or same sex marriage or abortion, or the minimum wage. It’s okay for Christians to work on these issues, but don’t use the prophetic writings for your own agenda.
This brings me back to Nouwen. I think he’s correct that the church is sorely lacking in thinking theologically. In a lot of cases evangelicals and progressives have basically adopted the ideologies of the main political parties and sprinkled God talk around them. I’m starting to think that thinking theologically would mean spending time discerning issues and reflecting on what scripture and tradition have to say about an issue. That isn’t attractive to a smashmouth church culture, but slowing down to find out how to listen to God and to each other might present a real third way to how the church responds to the outside world.
None of this means that churches should withdraw from the world. But we need to be able to standback from an issue and see what God is saying. Maybe in that time of listening we will learn what truly is prophetic.
* I know there have to be a few folks wondering why I didn’t take conservatives to task for doing the same thing. I didn’t do that because that observation has been used ad nauseum for years. We all know that the Religious Right jumped into bed with the GOP. There’s no sense in repeating what we already know. What a lot of people don’t know is how liberal Christians have basically done the same thing. I condemn both, but the latter is a story that is not always told.