Friday, December 2, 2011

The Prophetic Voice in Our Time

Excerpt from “Towards a contextual theology of prophetic communication :Communicating the Prophetic Voice of the Mainline Churches and the Prophetic Role of the News Media in Contemporary Fiji-Island Society”

(SUVA: PTC/BDES Thesis, September 2006)

The phenomenon of prophetic communication in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is the result of two basic factors. The spread of Christianity globally, with effects comparable to the growth and development of the early Christian communities in the New Testament, has seen an increase in the number of people who have heard the Gospel as well as those who have accepted Jesus into their lives. Similarly, to the events of two millennia ago, the increase in number of Christians, and those who listen to God, interpreting “the signs of the times,” has led to men, women and children hearing the prophetic call to righteousness and holiness and accepting that call. Also at the same time, the development and expansion of communication technology has resulted in more accessibility, availability, and variety. With the pervasiveness of the mass media, opening of windows to many different worldviews and events, the stories of many prophets from other lands are received and retold. The following examples illustrate the common message within the diversity of the prophetic voice.

a. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian, who left the security of the United States to return to Nazi Germany to work in the Confessional Church and during the second world war worked in opposition to the Nazis and was arrested and ultimately executed in 1945 for plotting against Adolf Hitler in 1945, just weeks before Germany surrendered. The publishing of his letters and papers smuggled out of prison have served as an example of the modern prophetic call for righteousness. An essay titled ‘After 10 years,’ written a few months before his arrest in 1943 serve as to the point of death:

Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call to God…. It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free responsible men. It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit, and since that day, many Christians have suffered with him. [1]

Bonhoeffer's story echoes the biblical tradition of prophecy. Like the prophets of the Old Testament who risked all to censure corrupt kings and priests, Bonhoeffer recognized that God calls us not only to care for the poor, oppressed and vulnerable, but also to challenge any religious or secular power that perpetrates injustice. His life exemplifies the prophetic call to action:

Loosen all bonds that bind unfairly, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke. Share your bread with the hungry, take the homeless into your home. Clothe the naked when you see him, do not turn from your fellow human beings.[2]

Bonhoeffer's work came to fulfilment only after his death. His insistence on the significance of a committed response to Christ's Sermon on the Mount, a call to social justice, inspired many of the world's great civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Junior, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His concept of a "religionless Christianity"[3] has helped Christian theology face uncertain landscape of the future. It is an idea, which exposes the vitality and relevance of faith in a world, as Bonhoeffer put it, "come of age."[4]

b. Martin Luther King Junior

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, can be considered a modern-day prophet who brought a message of freedom for his people while also speaking truths some did not want to hear. King's message was about more than civil rights. He was a dedicated defender of economic justice, bridging the gap between haves and have-nots, raising up the poorest to reach the fullness of their potential. He was opposed to war, not only because cost in terms of lives and destruction of property, but also because it sidetracks the society from addressing the terrible ills that exist within it.

King's legacy continues to inspire those who march toward justice and peace. Sadly, his dream, “that one day all children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,”[5] still only remains a prophetic vision. King’s concept of the prophetic role of the modern-day Church held that the churches must affirm that, “every human life is a reflection of divinity and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.”[6] King agreed with DeWolf that:

To be truly Christian, a prophetic utterance must arise from love for the victims of injustice or other evil and desire to bring all who are involved into a community of forgiveness, grace and mutual assistance.[7]

Unlike Bonhoeffer’s posthumous publications and recognition, performing his prophetic role in the United States of America, King was surrounded by the media and the subject of news broadcasts on radio and television and articles in magazines and newspapers. He gave regular interviews and addresses to reporters and journalist associations. His “I Have a Dream,” address at the March on Washington for Civil Rights in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial was not only attended by hundreds of thousands of marchers and supporters of civil rights but also broadcast live on radio and television to an audience of millions.

c. Oscar Romero

In 1980, in the midst of a US funded war that the UN Truth Commission called genocidal, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador promised history that life, not death, would have the last word. “I do not believe in death without resurrection,” he is quoted as saying. “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadorian people.” On March 23, 1980, he preached his last radio broadcast sermon directed at the National Guard, the police and the military, which has been described as his most thunderous prophetic denunciation of repressive acts committed by the security forces[8]:

I should like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and in particular to the soldiers of the National Guard, the police, and the constabulary. Brothers! We are the same people! You are slaying your campesino brothers and sisters! When a human being orders you to kill, the law of God must prevail: “You shall not kill!” No soldier is obliged to obey an order in violation of the law of God. No one is bound to obey an immoral law. It is time you recovered your conscience, and obeyed your conscience instead of orders to commit sin. The church is the defender of God’s rights, God’s law, human dignity, and the worth of persons. It cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We ask the government to consider seriously the fact that reforms are of no use when they are steeped in all this blood.

In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!

The next day, as he celebrated Mass, a sharpshooter murdered him. A number of those who attended his funeral were also shot in front of the cathedral. Romero had a prophetic view of the church’s voice and speaking truth to power at the peak of the repression and persecution:

If they ever take our radio [which had already been jammed and bombed], suspend our newspaper, silence us, put to death all of us priests, bishop included, and you are left alone – a people without priests – then each of you will have to be God’s microphone. Each of you will have to be a messenger, a prophet. The church will always exist as long as even one baptised person is left alive![9]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years,” in Letters and Papers from Prison, (London: SCM Press, 1953), 134-147.

[2] Is 58:6-7

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957), 123.

[5] From the speech, “I have a Dream,” at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington: 28 August, 1963.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1967), 99.

[7] L. Harold DeWolf, Responsible Freedom, (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971), 209.

[8] Jon Sobrino, Archbishop Romero: Memories and Reflections, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990), 116.

[9] Sobrino, 34.

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