If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Where Have All the Prophets Gone?

Where have all the prophets gone? A first response to the question of Marvin McMickle might come from an old Pete Seeger song: Gone to graveyards everyone. In his book on reclaiming prophetic preaching in America McMickle laments the decline in prophetic preaching from U.S. pulpits and calls for a renewal of preaching that addresses the moral, social, and political issues of our day.

McMickle contrasts prophetic preaching, which addresses the social issues of a society, to preaching which focuses upon the internal life of the church, like praise and worship, and has been hijacked by a "royal consciousness," that is, preaching that serves our national interests. The latter type of preaching has captivated the American pulpit. When moral issues are addressed there tends to be a myopic focus on abortion and homosexuality. Justice cannot be limited to these two issues.

McMickle wants a broadening of moral issues addressed in the church and pulpit. He points to the biblical witness for addressing distributive (economic), restorative (judicial) justice, and war. His overview of these issues is very brief. Peacemaking and restorative justice are fields Mennonites have developed extensively and their work would have benefited McMickle's summary.

"Patriot pastors" are a target of McMickle's critique, particularly those conservative, Evangelical leaders who align themselves with the Republican party and serve the interests of the state. He does note a "subtle transformation" among some conservative Evangelicals, like Rick Warren, who have started to address wider issues like poverty and AIDS. My own critique would be that few of these "new Evangelicals" are addressing the systemic, economic, and political roots of many of these social issues. Others who recieve his critique are televangelists, megachurches with a "mini gospel, and prosperity preachers.

The truncated focus upon praise and worship in some churches leads to "cheap grace" according to McMickle. Worship without justice is paricularly addressed by the eighth century biblical prophets. McMickle calls for a balance of praise and protest.

Prosperity preachers receive extensive critique from McMickle. They blatantly misinterpret biblical texts of blessing to indicate that God wants everyone, and especially the preacher, to be blessed financially. He views prosperity preaching as a major hinderance to the prophetic word.

Prosperity preaching comes from a particular wing of the church. I believe that there is an even greater danger in the more prevalant middle and upper-class capitalist consumerism that is taken as normative within the church and society. It has infiltrated the church. This broad cultural idealogy and practice seems to be a greater hinderance to prophetic preaching.

McMickle is to be commended for addressing social issues like racism, sexism, heterosexism and for viewing the antiwar stance as being prophetic. From an Anabaptist perspective I feel McMickle has not drawn out some of his prophetic vision to its radical conclusions. The sermon he added at the end of the book left this Anabaptist wanting. He addressed the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance entitling his sermon Under God Is a Good Place. He notes those who are concerned about the separation of church and state, which would include Anabaptists like myself. As McMickle states, "The words 'under God' cause me the least concern" in the Pledge of Allegiance. I am with him as he goes through the pledge and offers his challenge to their truth in practice.

One nation. Are we really? When there are so many homeless and corporate executives plunder their companies and retire with exhorbitant wealth? When African Americans constitute 13 % of the population but more that 70% of the prison population? Republic. When thousands of votes in Florida were discounted in a presidential election? Indivisible. When we are divided by race, red and blue states and economics?

Under God. McMickle views these as the most important words of the pledge for three reasons. First, we are all under God as Creator of the world. Second, we are all accountable to God. Third, God is able to do more than we can do. My problem is that the context of these words seems to be ignored by McMickle. First, this is a pledge of allegiance to a nation. For Christians our primary allegiance is to God. And those two allegiances often come into conflict with one another. Second, the complete phrase is "one nation under God." Can Christians affirm that there is only one nation under God? Christians are citizens of God's realm and reign and members of the church, which is multinational, multiracial and multicultural. His concluding sermon could have been far more prophetic for my tastes.

Nevertheless, McMickle has provided another helpful resource for preachers and the church to renew the call to prophetic preaching.

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