Does the church have a prophetic message?

by John Stoner john stoner

Does the church have a message which speaks to the essence and center, not just the margins, of how to order the economic and governance affairs of human society?   This is a question we must ask as we in the United States emerge from another long election campaign during which the church has been largely silent.

One thing we can learn from history, if we will, is that certain behaviors on the part of empires and peoples are not sustainable.  Some policies and practices will end because they violate the will of God.  For example, we have seen significant failures of militarism, slavery and patriarchy in our own time.   And there is a parallel in the physical realm.  A hand cannot be held too close or too long on a hot surface without burning.  An atmosphere cannot be polluted beyond certain tolerances without catastrophic consequences. A person or a nation cannot spend money they do not have without eventually hitting a wall. In the moral realm there are economic and governance practices which are so contrary to the will of God that they will ultimately fail—a thought perhaps worth some reflection.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, and actually much more generally in human cultures, the people who have had the best grasp of and spoken publicly about the will of God were called prophets.  Historically, prophets have played a role akin to that today of economists, political advisors, think tanks and a free press.  This claim is a bit unusual, even controversial, but certainly not unwarranted.

In the perspective of the total project of human governance and economics, the best prophets of Israel warned against putting trust in kings and human leaders who relied on homicidal and dominating violence as the means of ordering human affairs.  Samuel warned that Israel’s desire for a king showed that Israel was rejecting God’s leadership (I Samuel 8).  I would contend, and I invite disproof of this, that it is not possible to understand Jesus’ central message, his proclamation of the kingdom/kingship of God, without first understanding in a deep and revealing way the discussion of kingship in I Samuel 8.

Samuel’s critique of kingship, his rejection of fear-based and war-based government, is confirmed in the messages of Jeremiah, Isaiah (e.g. ch. 50) and other prophets, all of whom say that the future of Israel depends on its acceptance of God’s way of overcoming evil with good, which is by accepting suffering in order to overcome evil, a way of nonviolence, or put differently, by paying a price (which is different from inflicting a price on others) in order to move toward reconciliation and shalom in human relationships.

It is critical to notice here that the message of the prophets addressed the question of how the whole society was to be ordered, not the way individuals in society should seek their own personal salvation.

Moving forward in time, we discover that this message of Israel’s prophets is the very heart of the message of Jesus, which is the proclamation of the kingdom of God. Jesus announced that he was leading a movement to once again (returning to Samuel) identify the will of God as the gold standard in the business of running the world, that is, in ordering human affairs, with all of their conflict which so easily turns homicidal. The prayer which he taught his disciples to pray summarizes his teaching in two phrases:   “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

And so Jesus addressed the question, on this earth, of how to deal with enemies, that is, how to address severe human conflict.    He said it is not to be done as kings do it with armies, but with a stark, dramatic, and effective process for which there are no shortcuts or substitutes:  “love your enemies.”  This message and practice of Jesus reveals the method by which God is saving the world.  That is to say, in the words of John’s gospel, “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved”  (Jn 3:17).

So God’s project is to save the world, to do it through Jesus, and the whole message (gospel) of Jesus was that those who followed him would be following him in God’s project and method of saving the world from its own mistaken and suicidal ideas of power.

What has the church done with this message?  It has basically shrunk this message of another way to run the world into a plan for how to get a small number of souls to heaven sometime in the future.  And in doing this, it has marginalized, criticized and excluded the prophets who proclaim the full gospel message which is rooted in the prophets of Israel.

To this point I have suggested that a good, let us  say workable and sustainable, perception of the will of God is not an easy thing to come by, but it is a necessary thing in order to have a sustainable human community, including whatever kind of leadership, government or cooperation that requires.  And I’ve said that this will of God – difficult as it is to determine – is to provide the means for the world to be saved.  And further that, at least in the Hebrew/Christian tradition, people called prophets play a critical role in understanding how this comes to pass.   Where is this taking us?

We have probably all had some exposure to prophets and their messages, at least through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  And we know something of the historical record of resistance to prophets and their messages in the Biblical record.  Prophets are not easily accepted in general, and in particular when they speak unwelcome and unfamiliar truth.  Furthermore, the written record of Israel’s history tells of true and false prophets, and the pages of Israel’s holy scripture contain writings of prophets whose views differ as well as agree.  The reader is thus inevitably and inescapably drawn into a process of discerning which voices in the writings are giving a more credible account of the will of God.

Today within the Christian community, the resistance to prophets is so real that few churches recognize the role or function of the prophet.  The church has effectively removed prophecy from Paul’s list of gifts of the Spirit in Ephesians 4, and Jesus himself has been overwhelmingly ignored in saying that all of his followers should expect to be persecuted as the prophets in the past were persecuted (Matthew 5).  But Paul actually affirms Jesus’ view, when he says that “you can all prophesy one by one” (I Cor. 14:31).  The clear implication of this is that every follower of Jesus, and certainly every pastor and teacher, was expected to share the prophetic role.   So Scripture names prophesy as both a unique and general gift of the Spirit, and the church should be asking when or whether it arrived at the place that it can fulfill its mission without the ministry of prophets.

Given the resistance to the prophetic role within the church, perhaps the pathway most open toward the recovery of the gospel vision would be a call repentance (Greek “metanoia”–change your thinking).  In particular, is it time for a straightforward and uncompromising call for people to repent of thinking as kings and presidents think, that is, thinking that the power of ordering the world lies in homicidal power and the practice of it.

To summarize for an American audience, as we emerge from another superficial presidential election campaign, the time has come (is it already too late?) to say that survival for any and all of us depends on doing things which neither party nor their candidate gives evidence of knowing that they need to be done, to say nothing of commitment to doing them.  In broad outline, the survival of all of us depends on affirming a policy of compassionate resistance, which means saying “no” to war, on affirming a policy of economic sharing, which means saying “no” to the U.S. domination of all global resources, and on affirming a policy of creation care, which means saying “no” to an oil- based economy and the multitude of other suicidal attitudes toward the earth which currently prevail.  Out of the clarity and certainty of these affirmations and negations could come a future informed by hopeful prophetic truth.

In the United States of America it must be said that neither Romney and the Republican nor Obama and the Democrats have been anywhere close to espousing policies which offer the planet a livable future.  The time for the church to say that may well be now or never.  This I believe is our prophetic challenge.


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