Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Two Types of Religion

I am going to contend that religion comes in two very broad types. I will call the one type authoritarian and the other prophetic. I saw both types clearly last Sunday 25 April in Louisville. Those supporting “Justice Sunday” were prime examples of authoritarian religion while those attending the “Freedom and Faith” counter-event embodied a more prophetic, liberating faith.

Authoritarian religion is heirarchical. Power/authority (the two are equated) flows from the top of a pyramid or out from a tight bureaucracy–and doesn’t flow very far. It is very concerned with power and control.
Authoritarian religion sees Scripture as primarily a rulebook. Its ethics are very concerned with rules and with matters of purity and taboo, dividing the righteous few from the profane/polluted many. This leads sexual matters to dominate its ethics: women are relegated to inferior positions, sexuality is seen as a necessary evil, and those who differ from sharply-defined sexual norms are pariahs. Non-procreational sex is discouraged if not forbidden and artificial means of either aiding or preventing procreation are demonized. An idealized patriarchal family is defended as “the biblical norm,” despite abundant biblical evidence to many forms of family life.

By nature, this form of religion is exclusionary. Orthodoxy or right teaching is defined very narrowly and differences of opinion tolerated within a very small range. Uncertainty or ambiguity on any topic is unwelcome. Debates arise over narrow points that outsiders cannot tell apart because thinking is kept within narrow boxes.

The need for authority and control leads to love of a “strong man,” with the male gender very much intended. A strong father, a strong leader, a strong protector–a military savior figure to hold all hopes and dreams.

This is a religion dominated by fear: fear of heretics, of social change, of questions, of ambiguity, fear of outsiders, of secularism–fear, ultimately, of God. I know someone who belongs to this type of religion who is developing a line of clothing saying, “I Fear God” who cannot figure out why they won’t sell!

By contrast, prophetic faith is non-heirarchical. Power is widely shared and tends to be grassroots-initiated. The ideal here is for a discipleship of equals and for servant leadership. Leaders’ earn their authority by means of their wisdom, persuasiveness, talents, and the way their service empowers others. True leaders in prophetic forms of faith are not threatened by other initiatives, other voices, or constructive critiques of their own actions.

Prophetic faith may have a place for rules, but rules are not seen as the center of the life of faith. Ethical rules flow from broader principles which themselves are rooted in narrative convictions about the meaning of God, salvation, discipleship, etc. Scriptures are not seen primarily as rulebooks but as revealing God’s character and God’s purposes in the world–purposes of salvation and liberation in which we are invited by grace to participate. Prophetic faith redefines purity or holiness in terms of compassionate justice for the marginalized, vulnerable, or powerless. The focus is not on one’s own righteousness, but on the good of the neighbor, the enemy, the common good. Orthopraxy, right practice, plays a larger role than orthodoxy and both are defined in ways that allow for disagreements, uncertainties, explorations, and ambiguity. There is a strong sense of the major shape of the life of faith, but no felt need to have all the answers. Its major concerns are justice, compassion, peacemaking, care for creation, empowering others, the dignity of all, the common good. Sexual issues take a lesser role and then are not seen in terms of purity concerns but in terms of covenant faithfulness, nonviolence, mutual dignity, right-relatedness.

The dominant notes in prophetic faith are not control and fear, but joy. Joy–delight in God, in God’s creation, in others, in empowered service, in discipleship. This is an ethos than understands itself as different from the dominant culture, but is constantly inviting others in–breaking down barriers, not pushing others’ out.

We need far more of this prophetic faith, today. Unfortunately, those who have it, having often been victims of a bad model of evangelism from the authoritarians, are not bold enough in sharing it with others. Prophetic faith is to be lived–and proclaimed.

April 27, 2005 - Posted by | progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, theology

1 Comment

  1. Michael, I’m very glad you’re activly publshing in your blog. I like your broad notions of the two major types of religious expression currently found in the U.S. right now. These types cut across demoninational lines (something I read in the Jan/Feb issue of The Atlantic). It is also similar to what I’m reading in Marcus Borg’s latest book: The Heart of Christianity, although your approach is less judgemental.

    Comment by Kevin | April 28, 2005

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