“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” – Walter Brueggemann
During the summer months, my Church studied the minor prophets in order to be reoriented to what it means to restore our community (and world) with God’s vision of the good life. The role of the prophet is simple, yet profound: to offer the world a different way of living, a way of life ordained by the Father, not man. By reading the minor prophets, we were attuned to an alternative consciousness and perception of the world vastly different from the one perceived by the vocal majority in our country, our world, and even our faith.
Currently, we see a world grasping for straws of hope and healing during a time fraught with a destruction plastered on our phones and TVs. We see people calling for human institutions to bend to our ideological whims, because we believe this tweak and that adjustment to local and global structures will turn the tide of sinful, power-hungry hearts toward the shores of a common and mutual love for all people and things.
But, as we attempt to institute these changes to our governments, schools, etc., I meet an Iraqi man in a German refugee camp who, when he learns I am an American, greets me with a “Fuck George Bush” and a kindly wave of two erect middle fingers, because his life and our world have never been the same since 2001.
Yes, the situation in Iraq is/was more complex than a simple vulgarity can encapsulate. This anecdote isn’t placed here to agree or disagree with our role of overthrowing Sadaam Hussein or America’s subsequent attempt to instill democracy in the Middle East. Instead, if we can get past Isa’s use of the “F word” and our own political allegiances, what we realize – especially as Christians – is that the hope we place in a man-made structure to transform the hearts of men falls incredibly short of doing so. Just as man cannot obtain his own eternal salvation apart from the work of Christ, democracy, western ideals, etc. can’t save man from its tendency to seek his own benefit even at the cost of other peoples lives.
What becomes very clear, then, is our dominant culture – our dominant institutions which often pins the name of Christ, unknowingly, to its backside – fails to accomplish actual, positive change. Our progressive legislature or traditional political mores, held so tightly and pushed so aggressively on those who think differently, falls short and creates vacuums for broken humanity to fill as it seeks control and power. What we once saw as the Agent of righteous living (a misguided hope, maybe?) has been revealed for what it always was – an insufficient model of God’s kingdom. Yet, in the process of turning a human good into a divine structure, the sweet aroma of Jesus has been masked and sullied.
We tend to believe, as Parker Palmer says,
that meaningful change comes not from the human heart but from factors external to ourselves, from budgets, methodologies, curricula, and institutional restructuring…We are obsessed with manipulating externals because we believe that they will give us some power over reality and win us some freedom from its constraints…[and] we dismiss the inward world. We turn every question we face into an objective problem to be solved.
We forsake the heart, the very thing Jesus heals and changes through the work of the Spirit and the Church, and stake our hope on a polity coopted by man. Therefore, Christ is found flapping in the wind, reeking, instead of being the wind that brings renewal and hope. Our allegiance to these external structures supersede our allegiance to Christ and his Church. We have seen this take place in many ways, but I’m really only interested in this article in one of the areas.
Our very people, Christians, are clamoring to contain the “disease” of the human race to their own lands, shockingly, in the name of one who was a refugee Himself. The subliminal message of our Christian brothers and sisters is simple, yet antithetical to the Gospel (see 1 John 4:7-21 and the life of Jesus). They are saying – oftentimes without realizing they are doing so – “Let them die in their own lands, so we can save our own skin, way of life, and finances.” In other words, they are saying, “We matter. They don’t.”
The very language we use to describe these people points to the gulf we subconsciously perceive between us and them; language I am guilty of, as well. We call them “refugees” or “immigrants.” They are “Muslims” or “Arabs.” By categorizing them as such, we create distance between ourselves and them. Since language and rhetoric mean very little to us, we don’t catch its subversive power on our own souls, so the language signifying a reality different from the words of Jesus unknowingly takes root deep in our heart. The seeds unknowingly planted and sprouted is Westerners are humans; Middle Easterners are barbarians. Westerners are loved by God, worthy of Jesus’s sacrifice. Muslims are too far out of Jesus’s reach, and because of this, they must writhe and wallow in the bed they made – across the pond, of course; not here.
We forget the very scriptures we refer to as the inerrant word of God. We forget the thief on the cross; we forget the Sermon on the Mount; we forget Paul was once Saul; we forget Christ’s suffering and death in love as an example for us; we forget Jesus’s subsequent forgiveness on the cross of those who took his very life.
We forget. I forget.
Without realizing it, these people become sub-human, another data point in a category we are not a part of, never will be a part of, never want to be a part of – God-willing.
So, where does this leave us? If we can’t offer the world a man-made polity that actually enacts the will of the Father in the world (and in reality, when we try through wordly means, we construct a world vastly different than the one we, as Christians, are called to), what is the prophetic vision we need to show the world?
The vision the 21st century prophet has to offer the world is one revealed and set in motion 2000 years ago. It is the Kingdom of God instituted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As Bishop Tom Wright argues, the message of Jesus was political, but it was not conservative or liberal; it was not capitalistic or socialistic; it was not democratic or republican. It was a different kingdom entirely.
He denounced rulers, real and self-appointed. He spoke of good news for the poor. He led large groups of people off into the wilderness, a sure sign of revolutionary intent. He announced the imminent destruction of the Jerusalem temple. At the start of a festival celebrating Israel’s liberation, he organized around himself what could only have looked like a royal procession. And he deliberately and dramatically acted out a parable of the temple’s destruction, thus drawing on to himself the anger of the authorities in a way which he could never have done by healing lepers and forgiving prostitutes…For the first-century Jew, the temple was the equivalent, for twentieth-century Britain, of the Houses of Parliament, the City, the Butcher’s Guild, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, all rolled into one…How could he not have been ‘political’?
As a prophet Jesus was offering a new way of attending to the world. He was offering a new politics. When he hands the keys to Peter to start the Church and sends his Spirit to humanity after his resurrection, he is calling the Church to be for the people what he was for the Israelites (and the world) during his short stay on earth – “I gave you Saul and David for a time, but now you have my Spirit. Build my kingdom. It looks vastly different from what you are used to, but my kingdom is one that transforms lives, hearts, and communities. The rulers and ways of this world can keep order for a time, but my politics bring Life. It is a revolution of heart(s).”
The kingdom that all Christians are citizens of, first and foremost, then, does not seek to protect its money or its life or its political persuasion. As I have quoted often from the prophet Isaiah by way of Luke’s gospel, the kingdom of God Jesus ushers in, the kingdom the Church participates in, “Proclaim[s] good news to the poor…proclaim[s] freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind…set[s] the oppressed free…proclaim[s] the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Very simply, then – the Kingdom of God, the Church, is predicated, consumed, and directed by the love the Holy Spirit gives which empowers us to fulfill the prophetic vision set out by Jesus in the synagogue in Luke 4. This love empowers the Church of God to transform hearts, which in turn, transforms societies.
Iris Murdoch defines this type of love, the love in which the prophet carries, and the love in which the Church is called to, as “the imaginative recognition of, that is respect for,…otherness.”
Doesn’t the Incarnation reflect this reality of love? We have God, completely other than man, using his imaginative and creative abilities to become man, and he does this in order to extend his love to those who have spurned him over and over again, those who have become other than himself because of sin’s influence. And what does his love ultimately look like? Death and sacrifice. It is a tragedy which frees the sinful, the other…
Therefore, the Church is called to do the same; it is called to use its prophetic imagination to reshape hateful and destructive discourse to a rhetoric, and even more importantly, a life, of love.
Furthermore, Murdoch says love “is the apprehension of something else, something particular, as existing outside of us.”
In this apprehension of the other outside of ourselves, our customs, our language, our culture, our religion, which undoubtedly is a foundational definition of self-sacrificing love, the Church is fighting against “the enemies…of love…: social convention and neurosis.”
For the Church is not bound to the social conventions of the day, for it is a divine convention instituted by Christ himself (Wright), and our neurotic fears are bound up by the love of Christ which fills us and frees us (I John).
Love, then, frees us to provide the world with a new way of living and attending to the world and those who make their home in it. It frees us to love our brothers and sisters from overseas who we find to be in our very neighborhoods, but we must do so at the expense of any other allegiance.
Because our allegiance, first and foremost, is to Christ and his Church. For that is where hearts and minds are transformed.