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Month: December 2016

Prophetic Witness in Our Time: (1) Dealing with important issues

Prophetic Witness in Our Time: (1) Dealing with important issues

My last blog provided eight characteristics of prophetic witness that emerged out of my reading of Jeremiah. Over the next weeks, I would like to suggest four dimensions of prophetic witness for our own time.

I begin with a personal story. I flew in 2010 from Toronto to Baptist World Aid meetings near Washington D.C. My seat mate was an economist and a member of a Greek Orthodox Church. He was to appear before a congressional committee examining a proposed new tax policy. We discussed the Greek economic crisis and 2008 recession. He had strong convictions about the privileged position of Greek parliamentarians and the criminal activity of Wall Street executives who were later, ironically, awarded with bonuses. At one point he asked me what my church had said about the ethical issues of unrestrained capitalism that lay behind the recession. I could only respond, “Nothing. But we took up collections for food banks.” We were all aware, at that time as currently, that anyone who questions the excesses of the free market system is viewed as an idiot, an eccentric, or a threat. We remained silent.

 

I think most of us will admit that economics is challenging. However, that leaves no excuse for ignoring issues of racism, gender violence, environment, relationships with indigenous people, consumer debt, welfare rates, mental health, addictions, and subsidized public transportation. A young couple recently shared with us that they started a study group as an alternative to congregational participation on Sundays. It is a place where they can discuss social and personal issues and reflect on the Christian faith. It is an tragic irony that there is seldom space to discuss important issues in the life of the church. Jeremiah certainly spoke for God about economic injustice, the treatment of aliens, the vulnerability of widows, orphans and the poor, political and religious illusions, idolatry, and even the impact of evil on the environment. He called people to faithful living.

 

One of the troubling issues of our time is the growing economic disparity within western democracies and the larger world. A 2015 Oxfam Report stated that the richest one percent of people in the world owned 48% of global wealth. In contrast, the poorest 20% shared 5.5% of global wealth. The report, based on Credit Suisse statistics, warned that by the end of 2016 the top 1% would own more wealth than the other 99%. We may quibble with the exact percentages and the methodology of the research. But we know that the reality portrayed is correct and the reality is immoral. Can we find vocabulary and themes that enable us to talk about prophetically about the well-being of communities without first getting mired in political rhetoric? We might start in 2 Corinthians 8 where Paul speaks about congregational generosity creating a fair balance between the affluent and the needy.

 

Let me conclude this point. I am not saying that God is not concerned about our personal wounds and wellbeing. Jesus had an amazing way of dealing with broken individuals like the leper and with broader social issues like ethnocentrism and wealth (read my book Seed Falling on Good Soil). I believe that our seminaries are failing to train leaders to understand the larger moral issues of our times. Professors are competent in teaching about personal sin, counseling, and forgiveness. However, they and the theological curriculum largely neglect social injustices and entrenched systemic evils. Pastors, like their congregants, leave these issues to the government. It often seems that there is no word from the Lord. As congregants, we may need to encourage our local pastors, our denominations, and our seminaries to examine and speak into issues like consumerism, poverty, gender violence, addictions, homelessness, creation care, and racism. One of the consequences of our silence is the abandonment of the church by 20 and 30 year olds.

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Prophetic Ministries

Prophetic Ministries

The global community faces daunting issues in 2017. Where does one go to hear God’s message to the people of his creation. Over the past weeks I have been reflecting on prophetic ministries that dare to speak for God about issues like hunger, disparity, racism, consumerism, violence, and the mass migration of people. You could add other themes to my short list of urgent humanitarian problems.

 

My times of reflection and prayer have included daily readings from the book of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. I invite my readers to think about a few characteristics of the prophetic vocation of Jeremiah during a period in which his country was defeated and leading citizens taken into exile. I made the following eight observations based on my reading.

 

Observation 1: Prophets rely on a strong sense of God’s call.

As a young man, Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet to the nations. There was a deep spirituality that sustained his vocation. He understood, at least in retrospect, that he would need to speak into the national life of Judah and surrounding empires and kingdoms. His vocation is portrayed with the verbs to destroy, to overthrow, to build up, and to plant. I take that to mean that he was to address the destructive tendencies of his culture and to offer an alternative vision of God’s rule. His call gave him the strength to speak and act.

 

Observation 2: Prophets speak about important issues in the name of God.

Jeremiah spoke about deep issues. National defence. Idolatry. The economic system. The social position of the most vulnerable – aliens, widows, orphans, and slaves. False security. Violence. Civil religion. Fraudulent prophets. The environment. That last theme may surprise you. But Jeremiah had a strong conviction, albeit pre-scientific, that human evil impacted on creation. Prophets do more than share opinions. They dare to speak in the name of God. They believe that words have power.

 

Observation 3: Prophets Make Use of Symbolic Actions

 

On one occasion Jeremiah purchases a pot or jug made of clay. He calls together some of the religious and civil leaders of Jerusalem. He smashes the jug in front of them and states: Thus says the Lord, I will break this people and this city. You may remember how he wore a yoke publicly and purchased land at the height of the crisis. Small but meaningful symbolic actions.

 

Observation 4: Prophets Speak to Diverse Audiences in Diverse Places

 

Jeremiah addressed people in general, religious leaders, prominent citizens, and even the king. He spoke in the temple courts, in the streets, and in the royal court. The message was not massaged to be more palatable to the powerful. I feel compelled to read a few verses so that we get the flavor of Jeremiah.

 

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbours work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms’,
and who cuts out windows for it,
panelling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord. (22.13-16)

Observation 5: Prophets Tear Down Fraudulent Ideologies

Jeremiah had to deal with syncretism and the moral perversion of his own faith. He was particularly concerned to attack the religious ideology of national security associated with the temple. His words were tough.

Observation 6: Prophets Speak for the Poor and Marginalized

Jeremiah speaks on behalf of the vulnerable sectors of the population – the aliens, the widows and orphans, the victims of violence and injustice. He knew that God delighted in steadfast love, justice, and righteousness while the royal court boasted about intelligence, power, and wealth.

Observation 7: Prophets Hold Out the Vision of a Better Future

We celebrate Jeremiah’s promise of the new covenant each time we participate in the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. He had a vision for the renewal of his people. He built up and planted as well as tearing down. “I will restore health to you, your wounds I will heal.”

Observation 8: The Prophetic Vocation Produces Opposition and Despair

Jeremiah faced insults and threats. The confrontation with colleagues – other prophets – was intense and bitter. Jeremiah paid a personal price. He was accused of being disloyal to his country and his traditions.

I wonder if these observations would be useful for leaders and congregations that wish to bear a prophetic witness in our wounded world.

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