Our world stands in need of prophecy. No one doubts this. It would seem too that there is no shortage of voices which claim to be prophetic. From every kind of religious and ideological camp there issue forth numerous voices, each one claiming to bring the particular challenge needed. But what does our generation most need to hear in terms of prophetic challenge? Which voices resonate with the great prophets of Israel? Which voices are most consistent with the challenge left us by Jesus?
The first thing that distinguishes the prophetic voice, long before any criticism issues from it, is love. A prophet does not make a vow of alienation, but of love. The role of a prophet is not first of all to be angrily in your face, but to reveal God’s challenge, but only as this first finds itself inside of God’s blessing, love, and forgiveness. More would need to be said about this because all of us know the negative impact of criticism when it is divorced from love. Given that background, and with the hope that what follows radiates more love than anger, this column will try to name those issues on which our generation most stands in need of prophetic challenge. Where are we as a generation particularly blind, morally and spiritually? We need, I believe, to be prophetically confronted on three counts:
- On how we treats our widows, orphans, and strangers.
Beginning already hundreds of years before Christ, the Jewish prophets laid down a singular principle: The quality of our faith depends upon the quality of justice in the land and the quality of justice in the land depends upon how we treat three special groups of people – widows, orphans, and foreigners (those with the least status in the society). Christ not only endorsed this, he deepened it and made it a condition for entry into the kingdom. In Christ’s vision of things, the last are first, the poor are central, there is no place of privilege, and the person who is the most marginalized and least powerful in any group is the cornerstone that binds that community together.
Our culture, despite a growing rhetoric to the contrary, does not do very well either in understanding this or in living it out. Simply put, widows, orphans, and foreigners still do not fare very well, anywhere in our culture. Hence we must try to make ourselves see how our present cult of affluence, celebrity, glamour, sexual attractiveness, achievement, physical health, and eternal youth blinds us to the poor. And indeed we are blind to them. Our culture offers nothing more than scraps to anyone who is not somehow economically, physically, or intellectually endowed. Widows, orphans, and foreigners (those who cannot work the system to their advantage and privilege) are still everywhere the crucified ones.
- On our lack of courage to look at personal sin.
Beyond our culture’s insensitivity to its poor, we also suffer from a concomitant callousness within personal conscience. More and more, we have less and less courage to look at personal sin; and indeed to even mention the word itself. Crassly stated, when we feel the need to write long, angst-laden, treatises on why it is therapeutically dysfunctional for us to sing the timeless words of AMAZING GRACE (“that saved a wretch like me”) it is time for some biblical prophet to step up and call us not just to conversion but simply back to sanity. Each of us needs to be challenged to appropriate the words of Paul: “I cannot understand my own behaviour. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate.” Anyone who feels that these words do not apply to him or her is rationalizing. Moreover, when private conscience is calloused, so too will be our social action; when private conscience makes moral exemptions, so too will we discriminate in the way we act socially; and when private conscience rationalizes, we cannot hope to have real integrity at a wider level.
- On our tendency to see things only against a temporal horizon.
To live in faith is to see things always against an infinite horizon. We do not do well on this particular score. The weighty realities of death and eternal life are rarely factored into any of our equations, let alone our personal, life decisions. Even within church circles, death and eternal life are rarely talked about. It has become both easy and fashionable (so long as we feel healthy, strong, and not greatly threatened) to slide into a comfortable nihilism – within which distraction becomes a functional substitute for religion and we live as practical atheists in regards to having any real sense that this life is not all that there is. Our narrow horizon needs to be challenged.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, where are you?