I grew up in the Midwest during the 1950s and got my introduction to the civil rights movement on a small black and white television set. But I don’t ever remember hearing a word in church about the plight of Southern African Americans.
In my world, “conservative” churches stood for the gospel of Christ’s death for our sins, but didn’t stand against poverty or racism. We saw as “liberal” the churches that were committed to social activism while seeming soft on the gospel of spiritual salvation.
Over the decades that followed, I’m quite sure that I have never heard anyone praise churches that remained silent about slavery, women’s right to vote, or the civil rights of ethnic minorities. I am also just as sure that I have never heard anyone reason that a socially conscious church should trade it’s spiritual message for a political reputation.
So how do we walk the political tightrope? How do followers of Christ extend the role of Jewish prophets who courageously advocated in behalf of the oppressed (Micah 6:8; Isaiah 1:17-18), while together anticipating the New Testament gospel of Christ crucified, and resurrected for our forgiveness and eternal life?
In an attempt to come to terms with this tension, I’ve been thinking about the difference between political and prophetic strategies. By political I mean an effort to join and mobilize a majority of voters giving the endorsement of the church to a political party in an attempt to gain control of public policy. By prophetic, I mean appealing to reason to good will, and to faith in God to see the attitudes of Christ change individuals and groups from the inside out in a non-partisan way to appeal for social change that is for the good of the individual and society.
Let me give two examples, before trying a few more later. See if it make sense to you that:
1. A political voice often mobilizes support by concealing its own faults while calling attention to the weaknesses and limitations of the opposition. A prophetic voice is first brought to its knees by its own wrongs and failures (as were Isaiah and Nehemiah).
2. A political voice tends to speak for the special-interest groups it represents. As a result, it is likely to confront the sins of the right but not the sins of the left-or the sins of the left and not the sins of the right. A prophetic voice, in the best sense, represents the interests of all. The messenger of God, therefore, lovingly and faithfully confronts sins on all bands of the social spectrum. Heaven’s representative confronts the sins of the wealthy and the powerful as well as the sins of the poor and the weak.
Do you think this P vs P distinction is moving in the right direction? Or not?