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Archive for December, 2017

Signing the Jesus Manifesto

Participating in Prophetic Ministry – The Politics of Jesus

Fr. Larry Hart

 

Synopsis

Recently I read an opinion piece on the Religious News Service website by Richard Mouw – “Why I Decline to Sign ‘Prophetic’ Declarations.” Dr. Mouw is a prominent and influential evangelical — evangelical in the sense of a conservative but not fundamentalist Christian. He is a highly respected academic and was President of Fuller Theological Seminary for twenty years. After retiring as President he returned to teaching as Professor of Faith and Public Life at FTS. But this article is not about evangelicalism or liberalism. It is about Christian social responsibility, it is about what the Mennonite ethicist John Howard Yoder, and the African Methodist Episcopal pastor and scholar Obery M. Hendricks, and the evangelical editor, James Wallis at Sojourner’s Magazine, all refer to as The Politics of Jesus. It is about the ministry of Jesus, and our participation in it. It is about the practice of “prophetic” ministry, not of prophecy in the modern Pentecostal or charismatic sense, but in the Old Testament sense of an intense concern for justice and compassion. Amos, for example, condemns those who rig the scales in buying and selling wheat, take bribes, show contempt for the poor, and squeeze the poor to make themselves even richer. In his article, Dr. Mouw explains why it is that he doesn’t sign petitions and proclamations of social justice, or become involved in speaking “prophetically.” What follows here is not so much a response to Richard Mouw as it is an engagement with the question he raises.

 

I love the ancient Hebrew prophets. The word that best characterizes the spirituality of the prophets is “justice.” The just person for Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah and the others, was one who had identified completely with the concerns of God and humanity; and, who out of that sense of communion sought to do good to everyone. Justice, for the prophets, was not a matter of insuring that “the wicked” were punished for the wrongs they had done, but of championing the vulnerable.

Seek justice,

Undo oppression,

Defend the fatherless,

Plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:17

This declaration of Isaiah makes me think think of the modern Christian monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, who said that what he had found was that the deeper he went in contemplative prayer, the further out his feeling of concern and compassion for the plight of the whole world went.

Prophetic Justice as Spiritual Practice 

I love the prophets, I revel in their spirituality of compassion, but I am not a prophet. I love the theologians, seeking to know the deep mystery of God, but I am not a theologian. I love the Biblical scholars, the spirituality of study, but I am not a Biblical scholar. I am a quite ordinary priest and pastor, a very small fellow in a very large world, a world with enormous problems threatening to overwhelm church, state, and civilization — like giant waves crashing down on an already capsized boat. I find considerable enjoyment as well as helpful guidance in the Cadfael Chronicles, Edith Pargeter’s wonderful novels of a twelfth century Benedictine monk who solves murder mysteries – well really who solves human problems with spiritual wisdom. In the first novel of that series, Cadfael observes the brothers of the abbey of Shrewsbury filing into the chapter-house from the choir after the third mass of the day. They enter in due order with Abbot Heribert, old and gentle, leading the way. He is followed by the princely and arrogant Prior Robert, then large and unambitious Richard the Sub-Prior, Jerome the Prior’s Clerk, ever conniving and self-righteous, and finally all the other brothers in their hierarchies. At the end of the procession come “the commonality of the convent” – of which there is a “flourishing” number. When I write, then, I write as one from the commonality of Christian clergy.

And this brings me to the first real point in my reflection. Although nothing more than a simple priest and pastor, this does does not, and cannot, ever absolve or excuse me, or any other priest or pastor of “the commonality of clergy,” from participation in what has often been called “prophetic ministry.” Neither does it excuse the “some-whats” of the church, or “the commonality of the laity,” from the labor of peace and justice. When Ted Kennedy died I saw, and heard, on television someone who had been one of his close friends. “I once asked Ted,” said this person, “why all this concern with the poor?” And what Ted answered was, ‘Haven’t you ever read the New Testament?’” Christ is the indicative from which, for every believer, every imperative emerges.

The Jesus Manifesto

Saint Luke represents the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and what is thought of as the first sermon of Jesus, his “inaugural sermon,” like this:

14 And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all.

16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
19 To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:14-21

Jesus says, then, that he came to “preach good news to the poor,” indicating that he saw his ministry as involving struggle against circumstances, systems, and institutions that kept people impoverished. In this sermon he announces, in the words of Isaiah, the release of captives, the liberation of political prisoners, and “freedom for the oppressed.” “Oppressed” is from a Greek word meaning “to crush.” Jesus came proclaiming help and freedom for those crushed by all the injustices of empire – whether Roman or American.

In Matthew 23:14 Jesus makes this specific and damming application: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, even while for pretense you make long prayers; therefore, you will receive greater condemnation.” This verse brings me closer to Dr. Mouw’s opinion piece and why it has been bothering me.  I find it troubling in that the article is not only about why he does not sign social justice proclamations; but, why, in his words he “avoids engagement in ‘prophetic’ activity.” That seems a little strange for a Professor of Faith and Public life.

One cannot help but wonder what happened. As a graduate student Richard Mouw helped organized “ban the bomb” marches, and protested the Vietnam War. He was also a supporter and signer of “The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.” As Mouw himself notes, he was “clearly out of step with much of the evangelicalism of that time. Billy Graham, for example, opposed the Chicago Declaration. But he writes almost as if, and perhaps I am reading him wrong, his social justice concerns from an earlier period in his life, have earned him a “pass” in confronting the ubiquitous violence, cruelty, bigotry, falsehood and economic oppression here at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Mouw’s article even seems to caricature those engaging in “prophetic ministry” as presumptuous, deficient in patience, and lacking humility. It recognizes that there are moments of extreme crisis when there is no choice but to speak prophetic truth; for example, one may reflect on that decisive moment in which Martin Niemoller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth stood nearly alone in saying “no” to Adolph Hitler’s face. It’s interesting that he does not mention Emmett Till’s mother, Rosa Parks,or Martin Luther King, Jr. One can only wonder at what point the frog in the boiling kettle must say to his fellow boilees, “I think it time to take a decisive hop out of here.”

The fact that Fuller Theological Seminary takes a strong stance against such questions as same sex marriage, must also come into play here. The feeling one gets is that Mouw is not opposed to all social action – only those actions and statements that might be described as somewhat more progressive. He acknowledges that a “cynic,” I would say a realist, might think his convictions and values tempered by the need he had as Fuller’s president to raise vast sums of money from people who find more progressive views reprehensible. I even appreciate the efforts he made to “stay honest with himself about that possibility.” But as they say, “Motives like stowaways are discovered too late.” One must wonder whether the contingencies of fund raising were not behind his rather ambiguous and tepid response to George W. Bush’s unprovoked attack on Iraq.

Teaching Justice as Spiritual Practice

In the New Testament, argues Mouw, there is no clear call for leaders to function as prophets. In fact, he says, the New Testament suggests that the “offices” of prophet, priest, and king have all come together in Jesus.  “The role of teacher, he maintains, seems to have become more important.” But there is an unwarranted semantic leap made here. The Bible itself obviously, does not use our modern American English words and phrases like “prophetic ministry,” “social justice,” “peace and justice,” or “social activism” to refer to specific ecclesiastical “offices;” or, as descriptive of some particular aspect of “pastoral work” or “practical theology.” In fact, for hundreds of years there was no well defined theology of Pastoral Care. There was simply the profound sense that all, both clergy and laity, are called to continue Jesus’s work of love and compassion. What is determinative for the Christian is not to be found in semantic gymnastics, but in the person of Jesus.

So, in the light of Christ’s presence and word as given in Matthew 23:14, am I likely to sign a petition or declaration condemning the devouring of widows’ homes by a predatory Wall Street? Well, yes, I am. Most certainly! In light of the Book of Amos, or Saint James, or the Sermon on the Mount, am I likely to lend my voice to those speaking out against violence of every kind and wars of pure aggression — like Iraq? Am I likely to shout, no matter how faint or small my voice, “Not in my name!” Yes, I am. And am I likely, in light of John the Baptizer’s denunciation of Herod’s sordid relationship with his own brother’s wife (Mark 6:18), to keep saying, “Donald! It is not right,” in the words of The Gilgamesh Epic, “to grab a woman by her ‘feminine attractions,’ as if she were an inflatable sex toy with no heart, mind, or soul.” Yes. You can count on it.

Dr. Mouw’s article assumes, perhaps unintentionally, that “prophetic ministry” is the single purview of the clergy, but as I have indicated here all people of Christian faith, whether clergy or laity, are to be imitators of Christ, consecrated to the purpose of God, and passionate about the family business – God’s work. Pastoral theology with out a heart for peace and justice is neither pastoral nor theological. The church that does not champion the cause of the vulnerable, the poor, and the powerless is not the Church.

Although someone of his erudition surely knows better, Mouw compounded his error by categorizing the pastoral office as almost exclusively that of teacher. Even if that were entirely true, it would still leave the question of what it means to be a teacher. If all that pastors, priests, catechists, teachers, ministers and leaders have to convey are academic concepts, dogmas, factual information, hypothetical constructs, ideology, or ideas and notions about God, then they have nothing beyond theological curios to offer. Postmodern men and women are tired, and have given up, on a church too trivial to be of any consequence to a humanity drifting on a sea of suffering. Certainly teaching is central to the pastoral or priestly life; and, we do indeed need teachers, but the teachers we need so desperately are like those of which Martin Buber wrote. Buber saw the exemplary educator in the image of the Zaddik – the righteous or saintly leader of a Hassidic community who teaches in such a way that the pupil participates in the teacher’s life, and thus “discovers the secret of the doing.” A teacher with violence in his or her heart cannot teach ahimsa. A teacher without the warmth of Christ’s peace and the living flame of God’s justice in his or her heart, cannot teach the Way.

There may be one more important question to ask here. Paul Freire, who wrote Padagogy of the Oppressed (1968), discovered in working with impoverished people in Brazil, that the educational system controlled by the rich and powerful, serves to internalize the values and perspectives of the oppressor in the oppressed. Freire developed a new educational approach to assist the liberation of both oppressed and oppressor. Shouldn’t the church, be at the forefront in developing such transformative teaching practices 

Conclusion 

Well, that’s about all I have to say about that, other than this: “Prophetic ministry” should be entirely natural to every man and woman of faith. There should be nothing forced or mechanical about it. The Christ manifesto, the Jesus proclamation of Luke 4:14-21, is not a bit of ideology to be argued and fought over, it is a way of life. It is a way of life that sometimes requires extraordinary generosity and courage. Always it requires a spirit of kindness. Those who are anxious and angry simply cannot practice Christian ministry. They have no “amen” – no hold on Christian faith. The great British theologian of the nineteenth century, Frederick Denison Maurice, adopted a German saying as one of his favorite mottos, Werde was du bist. “Become what you are.” Maurice meant, of course, become what you are in Christ. In Christ you are love and mercy. Become love and mercy. Practice the spirituality of prophetic compassion.

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