A couple of years ago, while serving on a board seeking to hire a fulltime social justice director, we were discerning the pros and cons of hiring a particular person we had just interviewed. He was a man with a fierce passion for justice. Sadly, however, that passion, whatever its full motives, lacked balance, making him one-sided and unable to really hear or see anything that did not fit his vision. One of my colleagues, however, pushed strongly for hiring him: “He has the passion for it -that’s what’s important!”
At the time, I agreed with him, ardent passion seemed enough. I no longer agree. Prophecy is more, considerably more, than fiery passion. Anyone can be angry. Anyone can be one-sided. Anyone can be in somebody else’s face. Prophecy requires more. It requires the capacity to listen, to respect, to have critical balance, to carry complexity, to walk in unresolved tension, and to empathize with those who do not agree with us. Unfortunately, that is not the current vision.
Today we pride ourselves on, precisely, being one-sided, on being so on fire about something that we refuse all balance. This is equally true for both the left and the right. Everyone, it seems, is a warrior for truth and few, it seems, remember that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s fanatic. The line between prophecy, as it is currently understood, and fundamentalism is thinly drawn.
Hence, if we move in conservative circles, we tend to identify prophecy with a one-sided passion for prolife causes, family values, sexual purity, and dogmatic orthodoxy. If we move in liberal circles, prophecy then becomes an equally one-sided passion for social justice, feminism, freedom of expression, and individual rights. Good as all of these are in themselves, they may never be taken one-sidedly, but are all part of a larger truth. Curiously, both circles have some glaring ideological inconsistencies. One would think that the left would be defending communal rights and the rights of government to govern and the right would be the champion of individual rights, but passion, all on its own, makes for strange anomalies.
Thus, when passion is everything and balance is nothing you get that curious situation wherein the religious right thinks that to be religious you have to be extremist and fundamentalistic – and the religious left agrees!
What is needed today is prophecy that is more than just one-sided passion. We need, curious as this may sound, prophets who can model balance and carry the tensions of the time. Hence we need persons who can be equally passionate about both individual rights and the laws that protect those rights; about both the value of institutions that foster community and about individual expression and charism; about both private morality and social justice; about both sexual purity and sexual passion; and about both feminism and family. We need persons who can speak for sexual responsibility even as they respect the rights of gays and lesbians.
Ernst Kasemann once said that the problem in the world is that the liberals aren’t pious and the pious aren’t liberal. That is both true and tragic. We tend to be one or the other and yet there are prophetic qualities in both. Just imagine, if you will, a world within which the pious would be socially committed and social activists would properly value private prayer and private morality. Imagine a world within which prolife and pro-family groups would value feminism and feminists would be prolife and pro-family. Imagine someone who could be critical of church authority and ecclesial institution even as he or she could deeply love and respect the tradition that grounds him or her. Imagine someone liberal and pious both at the same time, who can, in Jesus words, pull out of the sack the old as well as the new.
Impossible to do? A schizophrenic stance? Indicative of being wishy-washy and non-committed? This is someone who wants it both ways? No. This is prophecy. To be prophetic religiously is precisely to have this balance, this complexity, this capacity to carry unresolved tension, this ability to be both liberal and pious.
You see this in persons like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Jim Wallis, Richard Rohr, Gordon Crosby, Jean Vanier, and Mary Jo Leddy, just to mention a few. What you see in these people is passion, but not one-sided passion. Crassly put, in them, you see someone who can walk and chew gum at the same time – a prophetic quality no longer valued, it seems.
We have enough one-sided passion, ideology, and anger in the world and in the church. We need some prophets of balance.