Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, famously made this biting critique of the church: "So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.” Unfortunately, this is oftentimes true in our own time as well. Many of us are left with the suffocating feeling that the church seems to stand for little that Jesus stood for and that our world is suffering because of it. What should be salt and light has become dim and tasteless.
This year’s theme for the Kairos Blog is “Renewal.” Renewal is certainly something we long for and need. Renewal comes from the Lord lifting up leaders among his people to call for a new course. These people are His prophets. In the abstract, the work of the prophet is a good and necessary thing in the life of the people of God. The prophets call us back to the standard of God. In fact, far from being cynical complainers, prophets call the people of God into a brighter future--a future characterized by love, peace, and justice--the future “beloved community” as King labeled it.
The Problem With Prophets
In practical terms, prophets create problems. The problem with prophets is that they critique the church and call us to change. (Apparently humans have always had a hard time with change!) The brighter future they envision can only materialize through self-reflection, repentance, and sacrifice. The process of change will always include coming to terms with undesirable truths about ourselves and our communities.
John the Baptist came onto the biblical scene within a long line of Hebrew prophets. In fact, he came preaching essentially the same message of repentance that Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea did. Jesus Himself does the same, adding that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Both John and Jesus continued the two-fold focus of the Hebrew prophets of calling the people of God back to faithfulness to Him alone and to establishing justice for the people made in His image.
I believe the problem with the American church is not the lack of prophetic voices; our problem is that we marginalize our prophetic voices, refusing to listen to them. In that way, we’re not very different from the 1st century religious elites that Jesus interacted with during his ministry.
And Jesus said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs.
In Matthew’s version Jesus adds, “You say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’”
The people of Jesus’ times liked to think of themselves are righteous superiors to their predecessors. They “honored” the prophets by building their tombs, all while not recognizing the very prophets in their midst. Of course, they would add Jesus and many of the apostles to this long list of martyred mouthpieces of God.
Do we see the same today? We need to look no further than Martin Luther King Jr. He is widely held as a modern-day prophet with days devoted to him, streets memorializing him, and other cultural landmarks of respect. However, many of the same people who quote King continue to fight against the things he stood for (i.e., racial justice, economic equity, and the end of militarism). Many reject the prophets in our midst who continue to advocate for the things he taught. We find similar responses to sexual abuse survivors and advocates who want to make churches safer places.
That’s the major problem with prophets. They’re much more lovable once they’re dead. A dead prophet is a prophet who can no longer challenge us, one we can make into whatever image we desire. The dead prophet is one that we can with confidence say, “had we have been there, we would have been different!”
The nature of the prophetic word will always make it difficult to hear. Many times, it will originate outside of the religious establishment. There is a necessary distance a person must have to be able to see and critique the established ways. Because of this, many of our prophets will be from the margins of our American society: racial minorities, women, Christians from the global south, the poor, and the young. Similarly, many of the prophets who start within the establishment can find themselves marginalized because of their demands for change. The prophet Jeremiah is a biblical example.
In another episode with the Pharisees, Jesus says, “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word” (John 8:37).
A fundamental question for those of us who seek renewal is: Is there room in us and our churches for these prophetic words? Are we willing to take necessary steps to restore what we’ve lost and obtain the promised brighter future? The comforting truth is that as long as Jesus is head of the church, there will always be hope. In the Kairos Network, we believe deeply in the church. It’s the only hope for the world. Clear eyed and humble acknowledgement of hard truths only leads us to greater productive action.
2 Ways To Renewal
There are two big ways we can pursue renewal that come out of the two-fold message of the prophets: to faithfully serve God and to work toward establishing justice. The first is that we can recommit to inviting people into the Kingdom of God. True and lasting peace is ultimately found in the new creation of Jesus. This will undoubtably take new churches for new people in new places. The second is that we can restore our Christian commitment to justice. Justice is certainly not a secular concept unrelated to “preaching the gospel.” Jesus, the prophets, and apostles organically combined the two. By committing ourselves to justice, we can make major headway in restoring our witness in the world by showing our concern for the common good. Our goal is for both of these things to work in beautiful concert as individuals and communities come to increasingly reflect the Kingdom of God in every way.
Prophetic voices can be hard to hear, but when listened to are better than thousands of well-wishers. Their hard truths and future visions can bring us closer to what we desire above all, Jesus and His Kingdom. If we can open up room for the prophets in our midst, we will experience renewal.