July 5, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

A Prophetic Stance

Over at The New Criterion‘s marvelously titled weblog, “Arma Virumque,” an entry for 26 June 2008, “Yes Icon,” takes Christ Church of Alexandria (Virginia) to task for a banner that they had hung, inviting people to the church. The banner read, “The people of Christ church lead lives of compassionate significance and prophetic impact. Come share the journey.” The blog criticizes the banner for using the language of advertising and public relations hype. For example, the author asks what “compassionate significance” means, as opposed to mere compassion. It’s not a bad question, though saying as much does not mean that there is not a good answer. It might be that turning the word ‘compassion’ into an adjective modifying ‘significance’ indicates that these lives of compassion grow out of a whole program and sense of mission, such as that articulated in the gospels.

Further, the blog criticizes the term “prophetic impact,” asking whether this reference to prophecy means that the church community anticipates the revision and expansion of the Bible, where the words of the great prophets of Jewish tradition–such as Amos and Isaiah–are set out. The “Arma virumque” blog also criticizes the church banner’s language as a manifestation, perhaps, of postmodern religious language, which the blog then connects to the idea of Jesus as a kind of revolutionary figure. As the author puts it, “it could be argued that He [Jesus] was crucified for not challenging (Roman) authority.”

Were I a member of Christ Church of Alexandria, I suspect that what would have made me most uncomfortable about this banner is its proclamation of a radical commitment to the gospel, one that deeply challenges every part of my life. In fact, this invitation grows out of the whole vision that emerges from Jewish, and then later from Christian, scripture. As I remind my students, those of us who are Christian are latecomers–part of the reason that Harold Bloom quite accurately refers to Christian scripture as the Belated Testament. But as Bloom also points out–in his Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine–the one part of Christian scripture that most stands up to literary scrutiny are the complex and disquieting sayings of Jesus. These sayings disclose precisely the prophetic vision that the community of Christ Church of Alexandria finds itself called to and challenged by. Far from the language of public relations and advertising hype, the Christ Church banner used something closer to the ancient language of prophecy, a call to radical conversion.

It bears repeating that the fundamental meaning of ‘prophecy’ is a radical call to turn one’s life to the ways of the divine–as it also bears repeating that the term ‘radical’ in this sentence grows out of the Latin root radix, which in fact means root). A radical commitment is one that reaches down to and grows out from the very roots of one’s existence. To live a radically prophetic stance is a lifelong challenge, a call to constant conversion–not a one-time acceptance but a daily attempt to respond to the call disclosed in ancient scripture. The reason that the ancient prophets such as Isaiah and Amos sometimes project a vision of the future is primarily to indicate what is likely to occur if the people they are addressing do not revise their lives; the telling of the future is only a secondary meaning of the vocation of the prophet, whose primary mission is to announce the need for deep and ongoing conversion. I take it that the people of Christ Church are not at all proclaiming their success, but rather announcing the challenge that they struggle to live by, the call that they try to respond to with their lives of prayer and action. A brief perusal of their website shows that they are responding in truly marvelous ways: from food collection and distribution to work at a shelter, a mission to Belarus, help rebuilding New Orleans, and a trip to Honduras, as well as their ongoing lives of education and prayer. Clearly they are working to live lives committed to the gospel and inviting along whoever would like to join them. I suspect that they would agree we need all the help we can get when it comes to a life of ongoing conversion. Further, it is not that they are claiming to be prophets, but rather that they are working to live lives that respond to the great prophets, to incarnate in the world today what the prophets stood and stand for; such lives would no doubt have a “prophetic impact” by bringing the prophets’ words more fully into actuality.

As to the reasons for Jesus’ crucifixion, it is pretty certain, to begin with, that it was the Romans who crucified him, as the ancient historican Tacitus points out. Crucifixion was a form of public humiliation and execution that the Romans used, often to keep their subjects under control. For example, about 500 Jews a day were crucified “after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.” (John Dominic Crosson and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001, 246; this is a very informative book, which has influenced this present blog; those who are interested in following up some of these ideas will also find that much of my vision has been informed by the notes of the Oxford Study Bible; one might also be interested in checking out works by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Theresa of Avila, Karl Rahner, and David Tracy, among others. Of course, there is nothing like reading the disquieting works of the Jewish and Christian scriptures themselves.) Jesus was not the only Jewish figure of his day who was critical not only of the occupying Romans, but also of those among the Jewish officials who were cooperating with the empire. The Essenes, for example, were an ascetic movement within Judaism highly critical of the Temple establishment with its hereditary and elitist priesthood and its complicity with the Roman Empire. Perhaps Jesus’ protests against this occupation, as well as against local cooperation with the empire, comes across most clearly in the Gospel of Mark, where one of the demons in a famous exorcism scene identifies himself and his fellows as “legion,” a term used to refer to a division of the Roman army. It is in this whole context of occupation that Jesus’ campaign to criticize the Temple establishment (recall the scene of driving out the money changers) makes sense. It’s not that Jesus was calling for a violent response to the Roman occupation, but neither was he holding out for a kingdom solely in the hereafter. As he teaches his followers to pray to the Father, “Thy kingdom come” (emphasis mine)–meaning that the one who prays these words is also committing herself or himself to work for a world of greater justice now. The kingdom movement of Jesus has to do with bringing about the world of justice and peace that the prophets had already been calling for for centuries. It is this kingdom that I see the people of Christ Church of Alexandria working admiarbly to bring about.