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.