“Where are all the prophets who love God?”
– Ramone, spoken word poet
Suey Park, (who was mentioned last on this blog regarding the furor over #CancelColbert) recently posted about her experiences in the church, and before you continue please give it a read (LINKED HERE and also HERE).
Our trajectories out of Christian ministry and to a place with one foot in conservative faith communities and another in activist communities are eerily similar.
We both had become ardent members of evangelical circles involved in parachurch ministries. We both endorsed the “narratives of ascent” and “before and after” stories of faith exalted in these spaces. We both got stuck in weird stances on LGBT issues where we tried to maintain the traditional condemnation of queer identities as sinful but at the same time attempted to avoid marginalizing queer people. We both began questioning the culture of faith we knew. We both began connecting with other communities in order to learn and connect, not to proselytize. We both began to recognize the damage common Christian theology and practice does to marginalized and traumatized people. We both looked upon the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the Christian nationalism it evoked around us with criticism. We both were accused/questioned of being lesbian/gay when we began standing in solidarity with the queer community. We both began to see how Christianity often supported or was complicit in a variety of injustices.
Ultimately both of us failed to keep quiet, we rocked the boat too much, and have since begun sorting out how to pursue justice beyond the traditional boundaries of the Church.
To this end Park has recently co-founded with a number of others Killjoys and Prophets, “a consciousness-raising faith collective centering on women of color, feminism and activism.” Their hashtag is #killjoyprophets and their Twitter is @KilljoyProphets. Please take the time to check them out if this is something that sounds like your kind of deal.
Currently Park states that she is pondering two huge questions that I think are the right kind of questions to be asking of Christianity:
1) Will Christians embrace justice if it means letting go of the privileges they often find comfort and safety in?
2) Is the church willing to look within at its creation and perpetuation of systemic inequity rather than simply pointing fingers to the “secular” world?
The Death of the Prophetic
I wish all those involved with Killjoys and Prophets the best of luck. Their second piece, on racial reconciliation within the Church, especially in regards to AAPI communities, dropped a few days ago and it seems they are not pulling any punches with their critique and their desire is for real substantive change.
However, Park is not the first Christian that I’ve come across who has found themselves alienated from their faith community because of their faith inspired pursuit of justice and criticisms of the Church. I have met many people with very similar stories over the years.
While no community enjoys receiving criticism, the Christian church seems especially averse to any sort of exposure of its own problems. It has become incredibly adept at utilizing sophisticated deflections to avoid critique from anyone, Christian or not.
I believe this situation is in a large part due to the death of the prophetic tradition within Christianity. While the prophetic tradition exists in our Bible, and Ephesians 4:11 makes it clear this tradition was supposed to continue, Christianity rather quickly adopted structures and systems of power that mirrored secular institutions around them. The prophetic tradition had no place in this new order and any understanding or practice of the prophetic tradition was rather thoroughly eradicated from Christianity, to Christianity’s own detriment.
The Work of the Prophets
Before I say anymore I should make it clear what my understanding is of the prophetic tradition, and what its function was and is supposed to be.
Contrary to how I have heard the term commonly used, acting as a prophet does not mean standing up for vaguely defined Christian values as they become unpopular or condemning the sins of the secular world and speculating about the coming judgment of God. Reading the prophetic works of the scripture it is clear the prophets often explained the judgments of God and this was at least part of their role, but it was rarely focused on the sins of outsiders and foreigners. They would explain the punishments that would befall (or had already befallen) the people of God and what sins or problems in the community had prompted these judgments.
Sometimes this problem was cultic (how the people of God were worshipping God). Sometimes this problem was idolatry (who the people of God were worshipping). More often than not the problem was in regards to justice (what the people of God were doing or failing to do).
In regards to that last point it should be noted that while that some of the moral codes in the Bible have changed or been modified over the centuries, providing justice for the vulnerable has been a consistent exhortation throughout scriptures. The people of God were and are judged as righteous or unrighteous according to how they are treating the poorest and weakest among them. Are they providing justice to the foreigner, the widower, the orphan and the poor or are they exploiting the most vulnerable among them?
The prophets or prophetesses were calling the people of God back to their senses and inviting them to return to the ways of the God of Israel, the ways of justice. In his book The Challenge of Jesus N.T. Wright labels this important function of the prophets as “critique from within.” While criticism from the outside might be merited and important to pay attention to, it is indispensable to have people within our own communities calling us to live aligned with our own ideals, people from within calling us to be true to ourselves.
The Dire Need for Prophetic Voices
Over the centuries, the loss of the prophetic tradition has been problematic for Christianity as a whole. Time and time again both within scripture and in the history of Christianity, the followers of the God of Israel have drifted far from that God’s teaching and will. Time and time again Christianity has needed prophets and prophetesses to provide a critique from within and call us back to ourselves. Yet Christianity continued in its injustices and drifted farther away because it had silenced the very voices it needed.
This has been especially problematic for Christianity in the United States. During the Second Great Awakening Christianity in the United States took a dramatic turn for the worse. The legacy of the manufactured revivals and camp meetings was that Christianity became easily enthralled by spectacle and theatrics, Charisma became the most sought after trait among its leaders, and the faith of many was founded upon an extremely narrow understanding of the Gospel. (I will deal with this in greater detail in my next post.)
Since the Second Great Awakening, the devolution of Christianity in the U.S. has continued, in part due to the lack of a robust prophetic tradition to bring it to its senses. This has left us with an easily distracted civil religion, led by charismatic leaders who may or may not follow Jesus’ teachings, that is easily co-opted by other agendas and ideologies. Christianity again finds itself excusing, participating in, and even advocating for various injustices often in violation of some of Jesus’ most basic teachings. (How many Christians serve in the U.S. empire’s military, perhaps the largest single source of violence and oppression in the world today, without a second thought despite Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemy?)
Looking out upon the current state of affairs, in which I see a highly problematic and ultimately apostate status quo dominating much of Christianity, I, as Niebuhr, am forced to ask, “What must the church do to save itself?”
Ultimately I think a rebirth of the prophetic tradition is an integral part of any serious attempt to address longstanding issues within Christianity. Christianity desperately needs prophets who love God more than their acceptance within Christian culture. Indeed any answer to Park’s two questions will require that Christianity create a space where it can receive criticism and enact reforms, and what better way to do this than to revive what it has lost?
So while people like Park and the other Killjoy Prophets, people asking the tough questions of the Church, people pointing out injustices in the Church, are often branded as insufficiently Christian, silenced, alienated or are put out of the Church, I hope they continue to keep speaking up. Like the prophets of old, they may find themselves operating from the margins, calling to the establishment in the city from the lonely places in the desert, but how else will the injustices and problems within Christianity be challenged or changed?