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Prophetic witness

11 December 2009

Second Terrace writes in Prophet Lite:

These days, it is the fashion in Christian quarters to claim to be a Prophet, or at least to use a Prophet or the whole lot of them (or the Apostles) as precedent for a thought or fuzzy impression about which one has grown excessively fond.

Prophets can be found in surprising places. I find them prophesying in daily, mundane conversation. One of my favorite dead giveaways is: ‘I’m really a great judge of character.’ By this expression, the Prophet means that his judgments about the quality of another individual should be taken as Gospel, or even more seriously than that.

I have found that they who claim such extraordinary powers are usually deficient in that very ability. ‘Great judges of character’ are usually blind to the sordid character around them. Meanwhile, saints who possess real clairvoyance would never make such claims.

Second Terrace goes on to note that much of what is claimed as “prophecy” or “vision” or “the leading of the Holy Spirit” in Christian circles is little more than a thinly disguised begging for money: Second Terrace: Prophet Lite (part one):

Most ‘visions’ are tricked-out New Age versions of ‘plans’ or ‘goals.’ Visions of this sort are grammatically (and thematically) similar to the Mission Statement of Ronald McDonald. They generally, even in church, have to do with corporate growth (so does McDonalds), customer satisfaction (so does McDonalds), and employee morale (so does McDonalds).

On the other hand, real visions are received by real saints: and even in this case, visions are not pursued, and they are certainly not broadcast.

In South Africa people are perhaps less inclined to make such claims for themselves, but quite often speak of the “prophetic witness” of others, like Beyers Naudé or Desmond Tutu, who opposed the apartheid regime. It was prophetic witness to “speak the truth to power”.

Is that what prophecy is all about? Were Beyers Naudé and Desmond Tutu prophets?

I think that is something known only to God. Their adulators and detractors will probably make it difficult for the truth about them ever to be known to human beings. I mention them in particular because though there are many others who are spoken of as having had a prophetic witness, they are two that I knew personally, not intimately as close friends, but rather as colleagues that I worked with on committees and conferences, and sometimes found myself defending to their detractors, and wondering about their adulators who regarded their every utterance as pearls of theological wisdom, even if they were inane, and sometimes stupid, and sometimes downright wrong.

In another post, on Liberation Theology, I mentioned an occasion on which I thought Desmond spoke a prophetc “word of wisdom” when he chided people at a conference on racism for sniggering at the remark of a man who asked why we didn’t just say straight out that racism was sinful.  Yet at that very same conference Desmond Tutu, who was then General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, suggested paying for the conference from a fund for the poor, because the purpose of the conference was to “benefit the poor”.

The conference had been called at the request of the World Council of Churches, which asked its South African member churches to evaluate its Programme to Combat Racism after ten years. The question of the cost of the conference made me decide to leave early. In group discussions, black people said things like “black people respond from a position of poverty and oppression”, but this was a conference of middle-class clergy, and their responses all seemed to me to be from the viewpoint of a privileged elite. The cherry on the cake was when we were discussing how to pay for the consultation, and Desmond Tutu said that it could be taken from a fund to help the poor, and rationalising it by saying that our discussions would be helping the poor — as if a bunch of middle class middle aged clergy having an expensive and comfortable conference with lavish food and spouting hot air would really “help the poor”. That seemed horribly self-deluding. John Warden (another delegate to the conference) wanted to leave because it offended his conservative sensibilities. I left because it offended my radical ones; the church was proving that Marx was right — that religion was the opium of the people. This bunch of middle-class clergy would never storm the barricades. They couldn’t even fulfil their threat to form a black confessing church. It fizzled out because there was no plan at all to implement it. It was all a lot of empty talk. And in that sense, John Warden was right. It was badly prepared. There was no concrete information on what the WCC Programme to Combat Racism had accomplished or even tried to accomplish. There was nothing concrete to say what we thought needed to be done, or how they could help us to do it. It was just empty rhetoric.

So the movers and shakers and power-bearers in the church met to “speak the truth to power” to those in the state, but who would speak the truth to them?

Well, a Methodist minister, Colin Morris, spoke an appropriate prophetic word more than 40 years ago

That phrase Revolutionary Christianity is fashionable. But what it describes is more often a way of talking than a way of walking. It is revolution at the level of argument rather than action. We take daring liberties with the Christianity of the Creeds and the traditional ideas about God. We go into the fray armed to rend an Altizer or Woolwich apart or defend them to the death. We sup the heady wine of controversy and nail our colours to the mast — mixing our metaphors in the excitement! The Church, we cry, is in ferment. She has bestirred herself out of her defensive positions and is on the march! And so she is — on the march to the nearest bookshop or theological lecture room or avant garde church to expose herself to the latest hail of verbal or paper missiles. This is not revolution. It has more in common with the frenzied scratching of a dog to rid itself of fleas than an epic march on the Bastille or the Winter Palace. Revolutionary Christianity is so uncomplicated in comparison that it is almost embarassing to have to put it into words. It is simply doing costly things for Jesus’ sake [1]

I can read that and mutter “Hear hear”, and sit in front of my computer (which my poor neighbour could not afford) and feel smug and self-righteous.
Second Terrace: Prophet Lite (part one) sums it up in a single sentence:

What is praiseworthy is a prophecy that enjoins giving so that there is no lack of goods, for anyone, in anyplace. A kind reader, Joshua, once offered a lovely snippet from St. Theophan the Recluse:

‘No one who loves his neighbor is wealthier than his neighbor.’

Now that’s a ‘word of knowledge’ you don’t hear everyday. Neither is it a popular interpretation out of a torrent of tongues.

What can I say?

Can I say, like Job (42:2-3)

I am the man who obscured your designs with my empty-headed words.
I have been holding forth on matters I cannot understand,
on marvels beyond me and my knowledge.
I knew you then only by hearsay;
but now, having seen you with my own eyes,
I retract all I have said,
and in dust and ashes I repent.

But I won’t, will I.

It’s too much bother to go and light a fire to make the ash. Instead, I’ll go on sitting in front of my computer, and post this, feeling slightly less smug and self-righteous.

Notes and References

Morris, Colin. 1968. Include me out! Confessions of an ecclesiastical coward. London: Epworth. ISBN: 0-7612-0010-4

One Comment leave one →
  1. 11 December 2009 12:58 pm

    Great post, Steve.

    I forget who it was who said that Christianity was a great idea which had never yet been tried. (Gandhi?)

    I also sometimes think that giving all your wealth to the poor is a great gesture, but unless you also give them the skills to manage and grow the money you have given them, it won’t help. I guess that’s one possible interpretation of the parable of the talents.

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