Social Justice and the American Prophet

The issue of social justice remains the hottest topic I’ve ever written about on this blog. My essay, “On the Difference between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice,” written two years ago, still receives more hits per week than any other essay. So, I’m going to address the topic again from a new perspective.

American Christianity has a long tradition of producing social reformers, social ethicists, and public theologians. These individuals are often seen as carrying on the tradition of such Old Testament prophets as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. They speak to the general population and their leaders, that is, to the whole nation, as if America had inherited the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. They demand justice for the poor, for minorities, for women, for gay people, for transgender people, and for every other oppressed group. And they often root their demands in the biblical vision of justice and community. And this prophetic persona is not limited to left-leaning personalities. Others, right-leaning prophets, take up the mantle of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha and call for repentance from immorality and idolatry. This phenomenon is not limited to high profile preachers, professors, and nonprofit CEOs. With the advent of social media, every Tom, Dick, and Susan can become a prophet to the nation. Of course no one listens to Facebook prophets; no one cares and no one changes.

As venerable and as American as this “prophetic” tradition is, it is based on a false premise. There are no American prophets, and there never have been. And the reason is simple. God has not made a covenant with America or any other nation or nation-state to be his people. The Old Testament prophets were sent by God to challenge God’s covenant people to repent of their unfaithfulness to the covenant. The prophetic ministry presupposes a divine covenant and its binding responsibilities. Apart from a covenant, a prophet is without authority; she or he is just another political advocate. The covenant nation was a failure. The only divine covenant in force today is the New Covenant Jesus sealed with his blood. The new covenant people is not composed of one ethnic group, or of the people living within the borders of one nation state, or even of all humankind. You cannot enter it through birth or the social contract. You enter by faith and baptism into Jesus Christ and in so doing you place yourself under the sole Lordship of Jesus. Prophets have authority only as they speak on the basis of the New Covenant to the New Covenant people, the church. The death and resurrection of Jesus marked the end of divine covenants with nations. There are no state churches or church states! And there are no national prophets!

Does Christianity have a message for the people of America or for the world? Yes. But it must be spoken by a different persona, the evangelist! The message to those outside of God’s covenant people is “Repent and believe the Gospel.” To speak prophetically to people outside the new covenant deceives them into thinking that as long as they believe in whatever social reform is being advocated, they don’t need to repent of idolatry and immorality and become Jesus’ disciples. They are deceived into thinking that political power can accomplish as much good as the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; that they don’t need to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2), that they don’t need to “live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6), that they don’t need the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38),  that they don’t need to worry that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4), and that they don’t need divine mercy and forgiveness.

If you find yourself wanting to be a prophet to America (or Canada or Germany or any other nation), if the state of things outrages you, be careful lest you substitute a political message for the gospel and a superficial call for social change for radical conversion to Jesus. Don’t mistake anger and personal offence for passion for justice. Don’t mistake insults, judgments, and self-righteousness for prophetic inspiration. Don’t take Amos or Elijah as your model. Their day has come and gone. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Live it and preach it. If you aim to live as a disciple of Jesus your life will have an inadvertent prophet effect. The light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

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16 thoughts on “Social Justice and the American Prophet

  1. nokareon

    There is no Gospel—evangelion, good news—apart from the call to enact justice, to bring about the kingdom of God in the world. Thus did Jesus tell the disciples of John: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf here, the dead raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” This is why Jesus’ earliest proclamation of the Gospel—”the kingdom of God is at hand”—is exemplified by exorcism and healing.

    What does give me pause in today’s culture is the way the term “Social Justice Warrior” has come to refer to those solely advocating for the platform of the progressive movement. I leave open the question of whether issues like LGBTQ and racial advocacy are social justice proper—they may well be. But they certainly cannot be the whole story; and if equating social justice with these forms of advocacy ends up masking need and oppression in other areas—such as in populations experiencing homelessness—then it constitutes no justice at all, becoming a different form of oppression.

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  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    Doing justice and loving mercy, which I deeply believe in, is not the same as attempting to use political power, morally ambiguous at best, to force others to do justice. Of course, one cannot be forced to do justice anymore than one can be forced to love. No covenant, no justice.

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  3. John

    Isn’t the exercise of politics one of the freedoms we have received as citizens of this nation? Christians in the United States have been blessed with something that those of the first century were not…the ballot; and we are called upon to use it wisely and compassionately. So how is it that justice and the vote can be so easily separated? After all, I do not hear any objection to using politics to end abortion. But once the conversation moves into using politics to ensure justice for all individuals, the conservative evangelical suddenly sees the political process as an enemy of the gospel.

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  4. ifaqtheology Post author

    I think you are getting ahead of me. My one point is that we cannot address America or any other nation as if it were the church or as if the covenant with Israel had been passed on to it. I did not intend to deny that a Christian may participate in the political process as a citizen that appeals to the law of the land or even to natural law or commonly accepted principles of justice. In fact, I believe this is permissible. Thanks for making me clarify this!

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    1. nokareon

      I do worry, though, at the blasé way some invoke the “we cannot impose Christian morality on non-Christians” line, though. Certainly, many duties binding Christians are supererogatory or even counterproductive for non-Christians—for example, “take up your cross and follow me” or “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” However, other issues that Christians campaign for concern objective moral values or duties that hold regardless of the religious affiliation of a person. For example, abortion is an issue that is not just based on religious affiliation, but is either permissible or immoral for all based on answers to objective questions. In such a case, it is a misplaced objection to say “we cannot impose Christian morality on non-Christians.”

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  5. ifaqtheology Post author

    The expression “we cannot impose Christian morality on non-Christians” frames the issue wrongly. The specifically Christian way of living cannot be “imposed.” It must be freely embraced. Everyone has a moral obligation to God whether they acknowledge it or not. And I have no problem appealing to reason and natural law; or appealing to legislated law. My concern is the unthinking confusion of the church and the nation. Just when we think we have convinced the nation to act like the church, we discover that we have convinced the church to act like the state!

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  6. Metaview

    Perhaps your goal here is just to offer a critique of what you see as a modern phenomenon, but a great number of so-called “public theologians” are doing exactly the opposite of what you suggest in the first part of your blog, which means they actually criticize the notion that “America had inherited the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai.” They find themselves pushing back against an American civil religion which has for centuries identified the American nation with the church by appropriating the covenant for itself and, more recently, using language such as “a light on a hill” or a version of American exceptionalism that is shot through with notions of chosenness–as if America is somehow special in God’s eyes as compared to other nations. These “justice seekers” expose symbols within the nation which have been used to buttress a type of religious nationalism where the nation itself has become the object of adoration and glorification. They challenge the heritage received from puritan divines, who too often applied biblical sentiments to the nation while disparaging indigenous populations and identifying settler colonialism with the decrees of God. What role does the church play in this misappropriation of the Gospel?

    Arguably this is how many people understand the prophetic tradition and not necessarily as the result of God making “a covenant with America or any other nation or nation-state to be his people.” In fact, as framed above I find your position to be reactionary. As I read it your reaction to these modern “prophets” causes you to reduce the prophetic work of Christ, a work to which the church witnesses along with his royal and priestly work, to the work of evangelism. Thus the history of humanity is not decided by and characterized by the work of Christ and his reconciliation. It is decided by the way the church actualizes the covenant in evangelism. Perhaps I am misreading you here?!? I am willing to concede that I may be.

    It seems to me, nevertheless, that you are unwilling to allow the term “prophetic” to be used more loosely, as it is in a number of traditions, such as the black prophetic tradition. This narrowing of the term also seems to overlook important OT references, so instead of “all scripture being inspired of God and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” it is as if the witness of Amos, Isaiah, Habakkuk, and others is to be left behind in an older dispensation. And what about good ole Balaam or God’s use of Cyrus or Nineveh’s repentance as a criticism of Jonah’s self-righteousness? What about the good Samaritan and others whom God uses to shame the church in the NT? How do we understand the churches’ relationship to the principalities and powers where it makes known the wisdom of God (Eph 3:10-11; 6:12)? Of course I don’t expect you to answer all of these questions, but the tendency to reduce the witness of scripture and the prophetic church tradition to an “inadvertent prophet effect” seems a little short-sited and not reflective of those who see and witness to the light shining in the darkness.

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Your reply is quite sophisticated and deserves a longer reply than I have the time to give. I concede that many thinkers criticize the “Covenant” nation idea I am targeting. But “the enemy of my enemy” is not necessarily my friend. I am criticizing it in view of the New Testament notion of the new covenant and my understanding of the mission of the church. The thinkers that come to mind when I hear your description of modified prophetism don’t seem to do this. The ground of their criticisms seems to be a secular progressive (or a liberal, demythologized Christian) vision of society that views New Testament Christianity as the problem. (I concede that there are evangelicals who think striving for “social justice” in America through political means is central to the gospel.) Indeed I am aware of the black “prophetic” tradition. However I don’t think this tradition is one unified tradition. There is MLK, and there is James Cone. MLK mixed biblical prophetism and American enlightenment-inspired ideals in a rhetorically effective formula; he retained his connection to the church. I am not sure that Cone lives in the same thought world.

      My concern in my piece is the integrity, identity, and faithfulness of the church. Defining the mission of the risen Christ so that it includes the American prophetic tradition (maximum or minimum in scope) as you seem to do, in my view, runs the danger of diluting, diverting, and suborning the mission of the church to a political vision limited to this world. It has been done over and over again. Perhaps I am overly cautious of this danger, but given the history of the church from Constantine to the Deutsche Christen I think I am justified in issuing my warning.

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  7. Victoria Vaughn

    God sent prophets to other nations besides Israel. Do you consider this is because he had covenants with them? If not, what’s to stop prophetic exhortation to any and all nations today?

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  8. ifaqtheology Post author

    Victoria: Perhaps I can address your observation in greater detail later. But let me make a quick reply. I suppose we would need to examine what these prophets said. Perhaps Jonah is the prime example. His message was “repent.” My concern in this essay is with those who seem to assume that America is a sort of Christian nation under all the mandates of new covenant. Indeed, all people are subject to God’s law written in nature and conscience and there is no problem of reminding people of their failure to live up to it.

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  9. nokareon

    I just wanted to add (as if I haven’t commented enough already) that I’ve found Miroslav Volf’s remarks on this topic to be very helpful. Check out his talks on the topic, usually with titles similar to “Striving for the Common Good” or “Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World”.

    Miroslav Volf on Veritas Forum: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyRjmvmISgA

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  10. Charlton Hillis

    Ron, Dick shared your blog with me; we both like reading you and intend to order some of your books. Is there an email address or something where I could discuss some things further with you?
    Charlton Hillis

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