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

Reclaiming Prophetic Faith

Surveying the global scene as a student of religion, I want to argue that
religious conviction comes in three very broad types. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” are not all that helpful here and so I won’t use them. Instead, I will compare “authoritarian,” “mystical/ecstatic” and “prophetic” forms of religion. I am most familiar with the way these types play out in Christianity, but I think I see these rival forms in all the major religions–at least as far as I am familiar with them. Let me compare these different forms of religion more thoroughly.

The “mystic,” or “ecstatic” form of religious faith is centered in joyous, enraptured delight with God or the sacred, experienced more or less directly and powerfully. The mystic is “God-drunk,” and this form of religious experience is focused on God or the sacred almost to the exclusion of all else. The mystic may or may not have a community of faith, which may have various degrees of organization, but the mystic or ecstatic form of religion does not really require much institutional structure. Some in this type are solitary, and others live, work, and worship among similarly-minded folks.

Examples of this type of religion abound. In Christianity, they range from the medieval mystics (e.g., Dame Julian of Norwich; St. Teresa of Avila; St. John of the Cross; Bernard Clairvaux, etc.), to the early Quakers, to modern Pentecostals. In Judaism, some strands of the Chassidics and those who study the Kabbalah fall here. In Islam, the Sufis are the most obvious example of this form of religion.

Because of the intense otherworldliness of the mystical/ecstatic forms of religious faith, it can lead to neglect of matters of compassion and social justice here on earth. Others have used ecstatic religion to keep oppressed persons satisfied with the status quo. “Don’t worry about segregation because there’s a better world awaiting beyond the grave.” “Christians don’t need to worry about global warming or other ecological threats because Jesus is coming back soon and this old world will be destroyed for a new heavens and earth anyway.” We’ve all seen this kind of thing.

But mystics are not necessarily “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good,” as my mother used to put it. Take, for instance, the Pentecostal movement that turned 100 this past April. Pentecostals are “ecstatics” if anyone is. But that first generation or so of Pentecostals were also social radicals. They were racially integrated during the deepest part of “Jim Crow” America. The earliest Pentecostals often had women evangelists and ministers. They were almost all pacifists and experienced persecution for refusing to fight in the First World War. They worked primarily, in those days, with and among the poor. Pentecostalism lost its social radicalism soon enough (although there is a movement to renew it called the Pentecostal & Charismatic Peace Fellowship), but its early years show that mystic/ecstatic religion isn’t automatically or inevitably socially conservative. Mystics like St. Francis of Assisi or contemplatives like Thomas Merton show that such a combination of ecstatic religion and social radicalism comes in many different traditions.

The second form of religious faith is the “authoritarian.” This is the villain of our day. It shows up among Muslim fanatics, Jewish ultra-nationalists, and Christian fundamentalists. When authoritarian religion attaches to powerful nationalist or imperialist forces, it becomes deadly to more than just its followers, but to everyone within its reach. Authoritarian religion is dangerous and is the plague of our era.

Authoritarian religion is hierarchical in its institutional form–even if the tradition was for a low-church, laity-centered polity. Power flows from the top down–and doesn’t flow very far. An institutional hierarchy does not necessarily promote authoritarianism and this is not an indictment aimed only at those faiths with bishops or other hierarchs. Sunni Islam is supposedly radically democratic in structure, but Hamas (a Sunni movement) is certainly authoritarian. So are the pastors of most mega-churches in evangelical Protestantism. But heirarchy doesn’t automatically become authoritarian, there is no denying that hierarchies make things easier for authoritarianism to take hold. Institutional structures which minimize a clergy/laity split and which trust the grassroots to be able to be led by the Spirit of God and /our human conscience are harder places for authoritarianism to get a toehold. Authoritarians like hierarchies, preferably with ‘strong father’ figures in charge who simply tell the faithful what to believe and how to act and expect instant obedience.

Authoritarian religion is concerned with rules and regulations to a very high degree, seeing sacred Scriptures primarily as a rulebook. Its ethics are focused on purity concerns, dividing the righteous from the wicked very sharply. With control and purity as the bywords, sexual issues take center stage in ethical concern: women are relegated to lesser status, and those whose sexual orientation doesn’t fit a very narrow “norm” are objects of revulsion, discrimination, and fear.

By nature, this form of religion is exclusionary. Orthodoxy (“right teaching”) is defined very narrowly. Differences of opinion are tolerated, if at all, on only a very narrow range of topics and only within a small degree. Thus, adherents in an authoritarian religion will have impassioned debates over distinctions that outsiders have a hard time telling apart.

No matter how much the official doctrine of this form of religion speaks of “grace,” “mercy,” “forgiveness,” or “eternal security,” the underlying ethos is one of fear: fear of heresy, fear of breaking the rules, fear of science, fear of social change, fear of other religions, fear of forms of its own religion which are NOT authoritarian, fear of secularism, fear–ultimately–of God. (A person I know who holds to this form of religion has created clothing with the slogan, “I Fear God” and cannot figure out why they won’t sell!)

It is clear to me that the U.S. Religious Right, composed of Protestant Fundamentalists and the far-right fringe of U.S. Catholics, is a form of authoritarian religion. That is why its political allies are profoundly anti-democratic and engage in the politics of fear and secrecy. A democratic republic with separation of powers, checks and balances, real participation by the people is too messy. So, more and more power is invested in the Executive, laws are changed to allow more secret decisions, the legislature is turned into a rubber stamp for the Executive, and steps are taken to undermine an independent judiciary. The forms of voting are still allowed, although all kinds of tricks are used to disenfranchise groups likely to vote for another agenda. But real power is invested in plutocratic oligarchy.

Media consolidation erodes that check on power concentration as well. Every time a speed bump on the road to total domination is met, the masses of true believers in the dominant form of authoritarian religion (the “Christian” Right in this case) are mobilized through a manufactured threat (fear again). Though they control most forms of public life, they constantly are told that they are persecuted victims who MUST rise up and defeat law x or pass law y in order to avoid the downfall of civilization or the end of the world. Objectively, they hold more power than any other group in the nation, but one would never know that to hear the language of victimization, discrimination, and persecution which characterizes their discourse.

By contrast, prophetic faith is non-hierarchical in nature, striving for a discipleship of equals and servant leadership. Power is shared widely and tends to flow from the people to leaders. If the institutions are structured in hierarchical ways, prophets or prophetic figures appear on the edges of the faith community, outside the usual structures. The role of the prophet is to hold up a mirror to the faith community and the society in which it lives, to measure devotion to God, to justice, to mercy and compassion, and to bluntly say where all these fall short.

Prophetic faith may have a place for rules, but they are hardly the center of its understanding of the life of faith. Sacred Scriptures are not seen primarily as rulebooks, but as visions of the character of God and God’s purposes in the world–at least in monotheistic religions. The ethics of this type of faith redefines purity and holiness in terms of “compassionate justice” for the vulnerable, marginalized, or powerless.

By its nature, this type of faith is inclusive–it may warn of judgment against those who are violent or unjust to the powerless, but it seeks the redemption even of the oppressor. Orthopraxy (“right practice”) takes precedence over orthodoxy and both are defined in terms that allow for disagreements, dialogue, disputes, uncertainties, and ambiguity. The focus of prophetic faith is on justice for the neighbor, not on the righteousness of one’s self. Its major concerns are compassion, justice, peacemaking, the common good, care for the creation, empowering others. Sexual issues are not ignored, but do not dominate ethical concern. Even then, what counts is justice, right-relatedness, dignity, covenant faithfulness, and nonviolence in sexual matters, not purity concerns. The underlying ethos is not fear but joy–the joy of empowered service.

When this form of religion enters the political sphere, it does so to promote the common good. It may be motivated by the particularities of its own faith, but it offers arguments that can be understood by those of other faiths or no faith. It seeks to respect the adversary, no matter how much it must denounce particular actions, policies, attitudes, etc. In pluralistic democracies, prophetic faith will also seek to respect everyone’s religious liberty, rather than demanding special treatment for its followers or seeking to use the power of the state to enforce its mandates.

This form of religion has been marginalized in recent decades in the U.S., but it is clear that this was the form of religion which motivated the abolitionists, the first generation feminists and suffragists, the Social Gospel, the Catholic Worker movement, the church-based Black Freedom (“Civil Rights”) movement, the Liberation theologies of Latin America with their Base Communities, the church-based struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and much of the gospel-motivated peace movement. All these and more are forms of prophetic faith. So is the Jewish Renewal movement and so is the Muslim Peace Fellowship, and the movement for “Engaged Buddhism.” These are places where the prophetic spirit breaking through existing authoritarianisms, not in the name of secularism or a rival religion, but in the name of a more authentic version of the faith in question.

That concern for “authenticity,” is why terms like “liberal,” and “conservative,” are not adequate. Yes, prophets may emphasize change and revision: “Behold, I will do a new thing,” God says in Isaiah 43:19 (cf. Rev. 21:5) and Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount can contrast what “you have heard of old,” with what “I say unto you.” This openness to newness is at the heart of the current United Church of Christ campaign, “God is Still Speaking.” But prophets also often reach behind current traditionalisms for even older inspiration and bring that forward for renewal. The biblical prophets constantly upheld the spirit of Torah against current corruptions. Their battle cry might be paraphrased, “You have heard it said of old, AND GOD INSISTs!!” When Dorothy Day led the Catholic Worker folk to challenge her church’s institutional siding with the rich, she confronted bishops not only with Scripture, but also the traditional moral teaching of the church—pointing out that charging interest was condemned in the catechism itself! During the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (c. 1979-1994), the non-fundamentalist resistance continued to insist that dictator pastors, creedalism, the denomination telling local churches whether or not they could ordain women or sexual minorities (ordination is a strictly local church affair in most of Baptist history), and much else were monumental BETRAYALS of historic Baptist faith, rather than a return to traditional orthodoxy. And so it goes, mutis mutandis, in other traditions. Prophetic faith is often steeped in the tradition, even as it opposes all dead traditionalisms.

It is easier to motivate people by fear than hope in the short run. Thus, today, authoritarian religion is dominant in the U.S.–if not in numbers of adherents, surely in social and political power. But people grow tired of fear mongers and tyrants, even religious tyrants. Theocracies never last.

I believe there is a hunger abroad in the land today for prophetic faith. If we work to paint a vision of justice, compassion, creation-care, and peacemaking, motivated by a spirituality of nonviolence, people will respond. The authoritarian religious tyrants and their political allies will begin to lose influence. Of course, this means that people who hold to prophetic faith will have to share it, to get over their squeamishness about evangelism (rooted in the bad models they’ve seen from the authoritarian types) and bear witness to their alternative spirituality at every opportunity. I hope there is a renewal of the prophetic in every faith tradition, but I am most concerned about Christianity, and especially the unhealthy state of the churches in contemporary North America. We need to reclaim prophetic faith and we need to be bold in sharing it widely.

An African-American Pentecostal student at a Mennonite college was full of praise for the faculty and students and the way they lived their faith in service. Asked if he had any criticism at all, he responded, “I wish they would preach what they practice more!” Let us proclaim and practice a prophetic faith–the world is hungry for it.

August 10, 2006 - Posted by | progressive faith


  1. >This openness to newness is at the heart of the current United Church of Christ campaign, “God is Still Speaking.”

    I’m glad you brought that up. God is certainly still speaking, but He won’t contradict what He’s already said in His word, correct? So, we have to make sure that we’re hearing Him and not a culturally influenced view that would lead us into error. To help us clarify, we can look at church tradition to see what their views were and compare it to what we’re grappling with today to see what influence the current culture might be having in our interpretations.

    Comment by Roger | August 10, 2006

  2. Roger, you are right. But the history of interpretation is not flawless either: slavery was always accepted (just not race based) throughout the tradition. But it was always wrong!

    I’m afraid I disagree that God’s new speaking may not contradict the old. Jesus set aside Mosaic law–said not one jot or tittle would be put aside, but then broke all kinds of food laws, etc.

    I do not believe in inerrancy or a flat Bible with everything on one level of authority. People are flawed and can hear God wrongly–and those biblical writers, as an example, that thought God was okay with them committing genocide on Canaanites–were wrong, period.

    Discerning God’s voice is informed by Scripture and tradition, but is finally judged only by the spirit of Jesus Christ, the final Word for us. (Heb. 1:1-2).

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 10, 2006

  3. >I’m afraid I disagree that God’s new speaking may not contradict the old. Jesus set aside Mosaic law–said not one jot or tittle would be put aside, but then broke all kinds of food laws, etc.

    That’s a critical error. God doesn’t change – and Jesus wasn’t disobedient to the Father. A more in depth study on the types of laws of the OT is needed. Zondervan’s Bible Dictionary has some good background on the OT law to help make sense of it all.

    Here’s a quick summary:

    Aspects of the LAW:
    1) ceremonial – these are no longer needed. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice eliminating the need for imperfect animal sacrifices.
    2) civil – given by God to His people, to set them apart and make them Holy. Also temporary – as Jesus, the God-man, came to His people and in His death and resurrection offers all believers the Holy Spirit to sanctify them – to make them holy.
    3) moral – the principles that were the foundation of the law. These haven’t changed – God is still God, and we are still sinful.

    >I do not believe in inerrancy or a flat Bible with everything on one level of authority. People are flawed and can hear God wrongly–and those biblical writers, as an example, that thought God was okay with them committing genocide on Canaanites–were wrong, period.

    Jesus said that scripture cannot be broken. We can’t have a lower view of scripture than Jesus. All scripture is God-breathed and profitable to us. We may not understand God’s ways, but He is still sovereign, good, just, and loving. He’s a lot smarter than us so we can’t say we know better than Him and declare that parts of scripture are wrong. I guess that’s what faith is about, huh? If I could see and understand it all, I wouldn’t need faith. God doesn’t tell us everything we want to know sometimes, but He tells us what we need to know. But because of who He is and who He proves Himself to be, we can trust Him.

    Comment by Roger | August 10, 2006

  4. Roger,
    The Bible does have statements about God not changing. See, e.g., Malachi 3:6. However, it also has statements about God “repenting,” (e.g., Ex. 32:14; 1 Chron. 21:5) and changing God’s mind. So, we have to find a way to understand these things together. My own solution is to understand that the basic character of God doesn’t change, but this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t relate to people in new ways.

    Regardless about God, however, it is clear that human UNDERSTANDING of God does change–even the biblical writers. I do not understand Scripture as dropped on golden plates from heaven. Rather, Scripture is the Word of God IN HUMAN WORDS and those words are fallible. God trusted God’s message of redemption to flawed humans as “earthen vessels,” (2 Cor. 4:7).
    As for Jesus’ view of Scripture, I guess it depends on what he meant by “broken.” Jesus clearly had a strong view of the authority of what we call the Old Testament–but his authority was greater still. Your codification of laws, which does not correspond to any arrangement in the law codes of Torah, is an artificial human system imposed upon Scripture.

    I deny that I have a “lower” view of Scripture than Jesus, or even than you. I have a DIFFERENT view of Scripture than you (I reserve judgment about Jesus’ views vis-a-vis my own), but it isn’t “lower.” I have worked hard to try to form my view of Scripture and biblical inspiration from the texts we actually have and not some pre-existing noting of what God is SUPPOSED to have done.

    If you disagree, you disagree. But you seem to lurk on my blog waiting to “correct my heresies.” Don’t.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 10, 2006

  5. I’ll pass on commenting on the comments and just thank you Michael. You should be required reading for anyone interested in church history or just about anything else. You’ve always something new and interesting to contribute.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | August 10, 2006

  6. That’s overly high praise, Dan. BTW, you probably recognize this as a revision of a piece I wrote last year for the Life at Jeff Street blog where I only contrasted authoritarian and prophetic types. Further reflection led to this modification.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 10, 2006

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