What’s Love Got To Do With It? Charity & Economics

Tonight I went to see a lecture by Fr. Raymond J. deSouza, a Roman Catholic priest, commentator for the National Post, and economics professor at Queen’s University.  He was talking about Pope Benedict’s recent social encyclical which called for charity to become a part of our economic system in a foundational way – as in, all of our economic transactions should be in a spirit of charity.  Here’s my response, as formulated for Global Problems and Change class:

Raymond J. deSouza spoke about Pope Benedict’s recent social encyclical, in which the pope called for a new foundation or premise for our economic system: charity.  This is a revolutionary idea that defies our notion of economics, which is a system of human exchange (as opposed to gift-giving); to discuss it we must make some clarifications.

To make charity, in the sense of gift-giving, foundational to our economic system is nonsensical: a gift by definition cannot be demanded, yet in the distribution of goods the recipient or consumer of goods is the source of demand.  For such a system to work would require a central authority that is aware of the needs and desires of every human being and able to distribute goods accordingly – at which point these goods are no longer gifts, but allotments.  This is communism, and not at all what Pope Benedict is implying.  Instead, we should define charity as gratuitousness: to give (or pay) above and beyond what is required.  This is understood in the context of our current economic system which is based on efficiency, in which the goal of a producer is to lower their cost and maximize their profit, often by any means necessary.  The principle of charity applied to this situation would imply that a producer’s goal shifts away from maximizing personal profit and toward generosity, whether through paying ample wages to their workers or through charging fair prices for their products.  The model of success would no longer be infinite growth, but (ideally) greater “genuine wealth” for the entire community.

We must also be clear that charity must be defined in this sense rather strictly, because society’s frequent definition of charity as anything given that is not required of the giver actually demands less than the existing economic system.  deSouza noted that justice is necessary for the existing economic system, because a system of human exchange cannot profitably sustain itself without trust.  This is somewhat naïve, because it assumes that both parties in the exchange are equal; we know that most of the trade that occurs in the world is not on a level playing field, with consumers towering over workers in terms of wealth and social standing, and ourselves dwarfed by the corporations that perform the exchange; there is little trust involved, much less necessary.  Still, at least in theory, trade requires trust which in turn requires justice.  Surely the demands of justice, in any sense, outweigh the common definition of charity.  We must be clear, then, that charity is gratuitousness beyond the demands of justice: it’s justice, and then some.  Charity without justice may mean throwing a few coins at a beggar, while justice itself requires that I care for the disenfranchised in my society and change the system that contributed to their low social position; charity in its fullest sense, then, requires that I provide justice from a sense of gratuitous love.

Pope Benedict speaks about how reason has a limited horizon – limited to the natural world – while faith broadens that horizon: faith allows for the existence of God, to which reason can then be applied to gain even more knowledge and understanding.  deSouza applied this analogy to economics: charity broadens the horizon of a system that had previously been limited to demanding only justice by suggesting that we should give beyond what is demanded.  This is an apt metaphor, but we must remember that it describes only human action or response; the horizon is always wider than our reason can allow for or our justice can demand, for such is the generous nature of God.  For such a system to be implemented, then, it must be grounded in the understanding of charity as a part of God’s nature.  Just as faith allows our reason to perceive of God’s nature – not to create anything new, but to see reality as it really is – so too expanding the horizon of justice through charity is not giving a greater demand than that of justice, but recognizing that the true reality of God is not one of bare justice but of gratuitous generosity.  It is recognizing that, though demanding justice is good, it alone falls far short of God’s generosity.  This generosity can be seen in many places throughout creation, but is nowhere more visible than in its ritual enactment in the Church: the Eucharist.

In the Eucharist and the offering, at least as it is performed in liturgical settings, we celebrate the fact that everything that is comes from God, and that he gives it freely.  We receive the gift of Jesus Christ, his flesh and blood signifying not only God’s provision for our life (through the Bread of Life) but also his provision for our salvation (through the atoning blood).  These two tokens or emblems represent all of human experience, in life and death: everything that is, is from God and given freely in love.  We receive it freely and humbly, recognizing that these tokens transcend their physical form and represent our relationship with God, and God’s generous nature, in profound ways.  Then, in the offering, we too offer tokens – whether a tithe of 10% of our income, or choosing to give more generously, or whether a token in truth – recognizing that these “gifts” to God are a response to his abundant provision and a recognition of his true ownership of all we have.  The offering is thus another profound statement of our relationship to God, again revealing his gratuitous providence and generosity.  (In this paragraph I’m completely dependent on a reading from the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, though I read it last year and can’t remember the title).

A system of charity must be based on God’s generously loving nature, which allows us to give and receive with equal humility because it provides a class-free context in which we all recognize our position as no more than stewards, in which we are all completely dependant upon an Other and thus free to share with one another.  Outside of such a context there is much social stigma and shame involved in receiving undeservedly.  deSouza made the point that this shame often comes down to human pride, of which we are all guilty, and to an extent he is right, though I agree with the criticism of some that this comment came from, and was delivered to, people who are of incredible wealth and social position.  While it is true that the wealthy often have more pride to conquer, our world of inequality creates more reason for shame than simple pride: the poor, the disenfranchised, the destitute, often have many reasons for shame that charity can bring to the surface.  This underscores the point above, and shows the underlying weakness of this entire argument: such a system can only exist within the Church, within the recognition of God’s gratuitous grace and the classless social setting it provides.

Theoretically, Pope Benedict’s call for charity in addition to justice in the realm of human economics is inspired; indeed, the nature of God calls for it, even demands it, among those who represent that nature to the world.  But we are indeed in the world, and it is in the world that economics are a problem.  This call to charity in economics comes on the heels of a global financial crisis caused in large part by human greed – the opposite of charity – in a system that promotes injustice in large part as a result of the vast inequalities that exist within it.  This call for charity ups the ante, raises the standard for marketplace ethics and morality, because the basic demand of the economy (justice) is not being met.  But this requirement is not being met precisely because it is in the fallen world that economics is carried out; what good is it to pontificate on systems that only work in a perfect world?  What good is it to promote a system of economics that only works within the Church?  If economics fell into the context and under the presuppositions of the Church, then we would not need to urge charity in the hopes of at least getting justice.  Pope Benedict’s call for charity, then, is wonderful theology without practical application to the unbelieving world and its economic system.

We must not forget, however, that the Church is itself within the world.  While it is true that the economics of the Church are not the economics of the world, which is in a sense precisely the point: we enact an economy that is not of this world, within this world.  There is incredible power inherent in this.  deSouza made the point that the world tries to separate morality or ethics from business, as if business is outside of God’s sovereignty; we make the claim that nothing is outside of God’s sovereignty, and in living out this claim we call judgment on those who do not.  If a Christian business owner makes gratuitous generosity a part of his business practice, the world takes notice; if many do so, it provides a social standard – a standard that brings negative comparisons to those businesses that do not attempt to meet it.  When theology is performed by the Church – when Christ inhabits his Body – it brings judgment on the world and gratuitous love to the world.  So though this system has no application in global economics, its application within the Church is profound enough on its own.  To make this theology of abundance applicable, then, we must only live it out ourselves in obedience to the One we represent, and he can use it to change the world.

 

Off Balance, but Self-Critical

Institutions that are able to be self-critical, to examine themselves and speak up when they see a lack or an error, are institutions that last.  The Pentecostal Church was born out of such a situation: the major Church denominations held a doctrine of cessation that downplayed or ruled out the possibility of God moving in power among his people, and a few people who were willing to follow the truth wherever it might lead submitted themselves to God, even if it meant speaking in tongues.  Speaking in tongues was just the beginning, though, and people quickly began to experience their relationship with God in new, ancient, ways; they called this the “full gospel” because it included elements that the Church had previously lacked or left out.

The Pentecostal movement blew up in a big way, and led to many offshoots and parallel movements.  In this, too, the Pentecostals had to be self-critical; an awful lot of heresy and incorrect practices sprung up under the banner of Pentecostalism, and these had to be moderated or rejected – and they were.

Self-criticism is what separates fundamentalists and extremists from moderate and progressive believers.  It allows truth to reign over tradition.  It requires humility and the ability to admit that we may be wrong, but it allows us to move forward and pursue truth wherever it leads.  After all, all truth is God’s truth.  And of course, being self-critical requires that we are self-aware in the first place: we must examine ourselves, our beliefs and actions, and hold them up for comparison to Christ.

What I want to talk about today is not heresy, but in its own way it’s even worse.  We Pentecostals, though we claim to preach the “full gospel”, have left some out.  It’s not that we wouldn’t affirm these truths, but that we’ve either downplayed them or forgotten them, neglecting to give them adequate representation in our preaching and teaching.  What I’m talking about is nothing new; it’s a lack that existed and was criticized in ancient Israel, and in Jesus’ time as well, and we have only perpetuated it.  I’m talking about recognizing the physical aspect of human value and salvation.

In ancient Israel, before the fall of Samaria, the people had a great vigour and desire for God.  They were zealous in their worship, and wanted God’s presence more than anything else.  This sounds an awful lot like Pentecostals.  They sought God earnestly, and yet God’s prophets condemned them for neglecting to care for their people.  They performed all of the temple sacrifices and rituals, worshiping God with all of their hearts, yet they were condemned for continuing to support an economic and political system that victimized their own people and others.  Micah 6:6-8 is a good example of this.  Amos says much the same.

In Jesus’ day, Pharisaism was the leading sect of Judaism.  They were known for their pious practices: they observed the Law rigorously, and went very far out of their way to avoid sin.  The Pentecostal Church claims the Holiness movement as a part of our heritage: we too are deeply concerned about living holy lives – as we should be.  Because we avoid legalism, we’re not as “holy” as the Pharisees ever were – we don’t go as far out of our way, creating additional rules and laws, to avoid sin, yet we continue to strive for that ideal of sinlessness.  Yet Jesus harshly condemned the Pharisees, not because they created additional rules to avoid sin, but because even in their “holiness” they neglected to care for God’s people.  They supported economic and political systems that victimized the people, ran peasants off of their ancestral lands, and concentrated wealth in the hands of the political and religious elites.

It was not that the ancient Jews and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had bad theology: they knew the Law inside and out, and likely would have affirmed everything Jesus and the ancient prophets said – had they not been so strongly accused of failing in it.  Likewise, today we Pentecostals (and I can easily add any other Western churches here, especially of the Evangelical varieties) affirm that it is our job to care for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the orphan and widow.  Somehow, though, it just escapes emphasis in our teaching and implementation in our practices.

Pentecostals are known for our desire for worship and closeness to God, and our desire for personal holiness.  These are good things to do, and even good things to be known for, but they things will not save us.  And before you say “that’s right, we’re not legalists: we’re saved by grace” I’d like to say yes, we are saved by grace, which means that our level of personal moral holiness and our passionate worship are not salvation issues at all.  But we’re neglecting another aspect of salvation: the fact that there are people all around the world who are starving to death, not because they don’t know how to farm but because we subsidize our own farms so heavily that they can’t get a piece of our capitalist market.  They’re dying, and they need physical salvation.  They’re victims of our political and economic system; we are not only failing to properly address them, but we are complicit in the injustice that’s killing them.

In neglecting the physical, practical aspect of salvation we’ve reduced Christianity to a particular morality with future spiritual consequences.  The Pharisees did the exact same thing.  We tell the world that they need Jesus in order for them to be saved from their own immorality (which is our notion of personal sin), and are surprised when they don’t want to accept our judgment of them.  We’ve confused morality with salvation, and further, we’ve confused morality with justice.  We fight to keep statues of the 10 Commandments in courthouses, and argue about “legislating morality”, while our democratic system pays dividends to corporations whose economic policies have inflicted incredible poverty on people at home and around the world.  When life becomes bad enough, we promise people that things will be better once they die: we long for escape from this world that God has created for us, and we sell this escape as the “blessed hope” of the Church, to get away before God destroys this evil world.  This is the hope we sell, to run away from injustice rather than fixing it.

Jesus didn’t run away from injustice.  He died facing it, and in his death exposed it as the injustice it truly was, and his followers were inspired to subvert the unjust system and live the ethic that God demanded from the beginning.  We, on the other hand, tend to emphasize personal holiness and passionate worship.  I don’t know if we do this because it’s easier, or because we’re vulnerable to the same spirit of religiosity that sidetracked Israel and the Pharisees in their times, but either way we need to stop.  Our “full gospel” must be preached – all of it.  And maybe if people see us concerned about making a difference in the world rather than holding up an impossible moral standard, the cries of “hypocrite” will be replaced by genuine interest in a God whose care for others is evident in his people.

Giving Panentheism Another Shot

I”ve been reading some Walter Wink recently as part of my thesis prep – I’m hoping to write about the powers and principalities, and he wrote a trilogy on them in the 80’s, as well as The Powers That Be in 1999.  Within the latter, I’ve found another formulation of panentheism.  You may recall that I wrote a rather unfavourable (and poor) review of Sallie McFague’s panentheistic approach in the spring.

Panentheism is not pantheism.  Pantheism is the notion that God is everywhere and everything; and if God is everything, then everything is (a?) god.  Christians reject this notion outright: to us, God is the creator of everything – he is separate, set apart, and holy, while created things are common, secular, or profane.  At the same time, we believe that God is immanent – that is, he is everywhere, all the time; and he is transcendent, going through and beyond creation, not limited to it.  Here is one of the problems that I have with McFague’s argument: she presents creation as “God’s body”, which certainly highlights his immanence – his presence everywhere within creation – but does a great disservice to his transcendence.

Physics tells us that both space and time are expanding with the universe, bursting forth from a single, infinitely dense point some billions of years ago.  If God is the creator of that point from whence the Big Bang burst, then he is (if God is in any way physical or temporal, I suppose) outside of space and time.  But God isn’t physical or temporal, He is spiritual; He suffuses space/time, both filling it and transcending it just as air is both inside and outside of a house with windows open.  He’s everywhere, even where space and time are not.  So just like a fish is in the water or a bird is in the air even though fish and birds probably have little notion of what those things are, so the universe is in a sense in God.  “For in Him we live and move and have our being.”  So I have absolutely no problem with the notion that all things are in God; but is God in all things?  I know that God is in me by His Holy Spirit, but is God in the rocks and trees and birds?  McFague and other panentheists think so, and seem to think that by claiming that only humans are infused with God I am being arrogant in a colonial sense, denigrating the rest of creation as somehow more profane than myself.  At least, that’s the impression I got from McFague’s article (I’m sorry if you actually read it; worst paper of the year).

While Wink makes reference to the “God’s Body” argument, he generally approaches it from a different direction.  He declares that there are five worldviews, more or less, that have been active throughout history.  The “Ancient Worldview”, that of the biblical writers, is a picture of two spheres: heaven and earth.  Within these two spheres there is correspondance: what happens on earth also happens in heaven (see Jesus and Peter on binding and loosing, for an example, or heavenly and earthly sanctuaries in Hebrews).  These two realities reflect, and thus affect, each other.

The second worldview Wink relates is the “Spiritualist Worldview”, which I’ll call the Gnostic worldview.  It suggests that the heavenly and earthly spheres are separate, and that the earthly sphere is inherently evil: spirit is good, flesh is evil.  The physical realm is seen as a prison for the spirit, and therefore all physical desires and influences are negative and must be denounced and avoided.  Interestingly, Wink points out that this worldview is in effect when we Christians denigrate the created world, longing to go to heaven: we see Creation as fallen and evil, and can’t wait to “go home”.

The third worldview is the “Materialist Worldview”, which we might call the modern science worldgview, which says that there is no heaven, no spirit, but only the material world.  Everything that exists does so as matter, and anything that does not have matter does not actually exist.  Wink links, but differentiates, between “hard” materialism (this view) and “soft” materialism (being the love of material goods, consumerism).

The fourth view, the “Theological Worldview”, is presented as a response to the Material view created by theologians.  It effectively leaves the earthly realm to the materialists (scientists) and focuses all theological thought on the spiritual realm, with the two completely unconnected.  With this worldview, people are often forced to live two worldviews at the same time: believing in the spiritual realm on Sundays, and assuming materialism the rest of the week.

Wink points out that most of us fall into all of these categories to different extents at different points of our lives, and maybe even fall into more than one camp at a time.

Wink calls the fifth worldview “An Integral Worldview” which, rather than seeing two spheres, sees a spiral pattern: “This integral view of reality sees everything as having an outer and an inner aspect” (Wink, 1999, p. 19) and “Heaven and earth are seen here as the inner and outer aspects of a single reality” (ibid., p.20)So basically, while the ancient worldview sees the heavenly and earthly spheres being separate yet reflecting one another, the integral worldview sees heaven and earth being in the same place and time, only representing the inner and outer aspects of the same reality.  This is a little closer to Kathryn Tanner’s view, which I responded to at the same time as Sallie McFague.

Simply put, everything has a spiritual aspect as well as a physical aspect.  So instead of a war in heaven being reflected in a war on earth, this view recognizes that it’s the same war, in the same place, at the same time, simply with both physical and spiritual aspects.  So, just as human beings have spirits, so too do churches (Rev. 1-3: the “angels of the churches”), institutions (“powers”, “principalities”, “authorities”), cultures and other groups, and even regions and localities (cf. Daniel’s run-in with angels and the “prince of Persia”).  Wink doesn’t get too far into what has spirits and what doesn’t – the important ones are fairly easy to identify, and who really cares if a random pebble has a spirit? – but I would imagine that if he doesn’t think specific rocks and trees have spirits, nature as a whole certainly does, and likely nature within specific areas (a spirit of the Amazon, perhaps?).  Wink prefers to see these spirits as the spiritual aspect of worldly or social institutions rather than as angels and demons, which he figures as ancient personifications of these institutional spirits (think “team spirit” rather than personal demon or guardian angel), but does not say that personal demons could not also be true (which is good, considering the gospels record them as talking to Jesus).

Wink’s sources for this theology include “the new physics; liberation theology; feminist theology; the reflections of psychologist Carl Jung and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin; process philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, and David Ray Griffin; theologians such as Morton Kelsey, Thomas Berry, Matthew Fox; the Buddhists Thich Nhat Hanh and Joanna Macy; and many Native American religions” (Wink, 1999, p. 19).  Some of these sources are fairly normative for Christian theology; others not so much.  Some inspire confidence; others make me very wary.

Setting aside for a moment the notion of powers and principalities, is there anything to be said for there being a spiritual aspect to everything, to essentially saying that heaven and earth are not separate spheres but different aspects of the same sphere?  After all, if heaven is a spiritual plane or place, where does it exist in the universe?  If God is everywhere, then is he contained within heaven, or heaven within him – i.e. can we even differentiate between heaven and God?  If God is spirit, and his spirit is everywhere, then is heaven a place or simply a way to refer to spirit?  The sky is no longer an adequate reference for us.  If heaven is the home of God, and God is everywhere, then technically heaven is everywhere, and differentiated from earth merely by being spiritual rather than physical; therefore I have no problem with heaven being here and now.  To quote Jesus (almost completely out of context), “the Kingdom of Heaven is among you.”

So if Heaven is here and now, do earthly things necessarily have spiritual aspects?  If so, then I suppose we could say that in a way the universe is God’s body, because it is the physical aspect of the spiritual – but that still seems to limit the spiritual too much.  Yes, my spirit (or soul or mind) is more than just my body, but it is more than my body in that it is the spiritual aspect of my body; they are counterparts.  Though we could call the universe the physical aspect of God, it is still finite compared to his infiniteness: he’s bigger than his body gives him credit for (five points for the easy pop music reference if it’s combined with a comment on panentheism :).

Another thought: to what extent is this a thelogical issue?  Inasmuch as systematic theology incorporates philosophy, it does so in balance with scripture – and Wink says from the get go that the biblical authors do not share this worldview.  Did Jesus have “an integral worldview”?  Did he see demons as the spiritual aspect of worldly institutions, or as personal, potentially evil, spiritual beings?

Also, and this takes me back to McFague a bit, if the earth (or the universe) is God’s body, and creation is fallen as a result of human sin, does that make us a cancer?  Have we corrupted God’s body?  Looking at it from Wink’s perspective, with everything (perhaps everything except God, except in the obvious case of Jesus Christ) having both a spiritual and physical aspect, this isn’t as much of an issue; created beings are fallen in both the physical and spiritual aspect, though they were created by God for particular purposes.  In this, Wink escapes the easy fallacy of McFague: creation, though it is now recognized as being spiritual as much as physical, remains created and therefore separate from God and subordinate to him rather than extensions of him.

Still, lots of questions arise from this concept.  Please, weigh in!

The Role of the Prophets

For General Guided Readings in Old Testament, I have to write a 7-10 page paper on the role of the prophets in the pre-monarchic, monarchic, exilic, and post-exilic eras of Israel.  I’ve read 7 books for it so far, and still have 4 essays to go, but now’s as good of a time as any to gather my thoughts:

The Prophet’s role in Israel has included many tasks, and shifts fairly dramatically throughout salvation history.  It has two attributes, however, that remain constant: the role as God’s voice or representative, and a concern for justice.

The first prophet, the prototypical prophet, is Moses (though it could be argued that Adam, Noah, or Abraham held this position to some extent or another).  Moses held the role of oracle (speaking for God), miracle-worker, intercessor, leader, and judge (both saving and judiciary).  While his activities had significant cultic connotation and involvement, he was not a priest.  And though he functioned as judge over the people (a role he eventually delegated to others), he is most known as the Law-giver: for Israel, the Law of Moses sets the standard for justice in society.  Having delivered the Law to Israel, he not only judged disputes by the Law (and appointed others as judges) but also proclaimed God’s judgment on those who broke the covenant.  It should be pointed out that Moses did not execute God’s judgment, though that was surely within his prerogative; either the people carried out the judgment (e.g. stoning Achan) or else God carried it out Himself (e.g. the earth swallowing rebellious Israelites).  Moses directed (or led) Israel through the desert, though he himself followed the pillar of fire by night or the pillar of cloud by day.  In all of his judiciary and leadership roles, Moses stood as God’s representative.  Moses interceded for the people with God, begging mercy when they rebelled and delivering God’s messages to the people.  He performed many miracles, but it is always understood that he did so at God’s behest.  Once, Moses performed a miracle in a way other than that which God prescribed, even putting himself in God’s place in a fit of anger; this suggests that God had given Moses the power to perform miracles, and that Moses directed that power by his own will.   This will be important later.

Though Moses was God’s mouthpiece in Israel, God also made provision for a time when there would not be a prophet to directly relay God’s messages: the priestly function of interpreting the Urim and Thummim, a type of divination.  Interestingly enough, this is barely mentioned again in the Old Testament.

Contemporary to Moses was his sister, Miriam, who is called a prophetess (though it is clear that she is subordinate to Moses).  She seemed to have a leadership role in the camp, and sang a song of God’s victory, but also led a rebellion against Moses.  She did not outlive him.

After Moses there was a series of leaders who were not prophets.  Joshua was a political and military leader who also performed a covenant renewal ceremony, but though the book bearing his name is the first in the “Former Prophets” section of the Bible, he is not called a prophet.  He does not deliver oracles, perform miracles, or judge the people, and his cultic actions are limited to renewing the covenant and urging the people to follow God.

After Joshua, Israel was led by a series of Judges.  Some of these Judges “judged” Israel in the sense of settling disputes and providing political leadership, while others were raised up periodically to save Israel from subjugation by neighbouring nations through military uprisings.  Of all of the Judges, only Deborah is called a prophet(ess); she held court, which suggests that she judged disputes, and her title as prophetess suggests that she was also an oracle.  Her story is also one of military victory, though that role she shares with Barak and Jael.

The last of the Judges was Samuel, who was also a prophet like no other after him.  He was a Levite, a Nazirite, a Judge (political leader), a Prophet (oracle), and he performed many cultic functions, though he also was not a priest.  Deuteronomy tells that a prophet will arise “like Moses”; Christians always interpret this prophet to be Christ, but there is a sense in this verse that this will happen from time to time – that is, the role of Prophet will continue in Israel, to guide them.  In a sense, Samuel is the last prophet “like Moses” because he is the last to carry all of the roles that Moses did.  Everything changed when Samuel anointed the first kings of Israel: from then on, Kings held the functions of political rule, upholding the law, and dealing out judgment.

Monarchic prophets still spoke for God, but they no longer held the most central role in the nation.  Kings were not only the political leaders, but they themselves were often expected to carry out certain prophetic roles such as inquiring of God.  David is called a prophet in later writings, though not in the Old Testament (correct me if I’m wrong).  Prophets in this period still performed oracular functions, inquired of God what the King was to do, and even calling the kings to account when they failed to follow God’s instructions.  Though Israel had a king, God still ruled.  When kings disobeyed, prophets would announce God’s judgment (removing Saul, killing David’s firstborn and bringing trouble to his family, bringing a plague on Israel because of David’s census, tearing ten tribes from Rehoboam, ending the line of Jeroboam, etc. etc.).

It is interesting that in the southern kingdom the prophets were usually members of the court, advising the king and chronicling events, while in the northern kingdom the prophets were often outsiders and enemies of the kings.  These northern prophets are sometimes called militaristic prophets, perhaps epitomized in Elijah.  Elijah was a miracle-working, oracular prophet who called royalty to account for their sin and fought against idolatry, putting the prophets of Baal to death.  He was also the first (and last) to pass his prophetic office on to a successor, Elisha.

Although at first glance Elisha seems to continue in Elijah’s ministry, even duplicating several of the narratives, one interesting book (Elisha and the End of Prophetism) points out that the Elisha narratives are a sort of spoof on the Elijah narratives.  Though Elisha’s task was clear, given by God before Elisha himself was even called, Elisha failed to perform any of those tasks; he did not kill off the prophets of Baal, he did not kill off Ahab’s line, and he did not call the people back to Yahweh.  His miracles are often comical, sometimes frivolous, and occasionally even evil.  His companions, the “sons of the prophets”, are buffoons: they accidentally poison their own food; they lose an axehead while chopping wood next to the water; it seems that many of Elisha’s miracles are simply fixing their silly mistakes.  He calls bears to kill youths who make fun of him.  He performs his miracles “according to the word of Elisha” rather than “according to the word of Yahweh.”  It appears that, like Moses, Elisha has divine power bestowed to him, to use according to his own will; rarely does his will align with Yahweh’s, however, and the tasks that God gives him to do are only accomplished indirectly.  What Elisha did do, however, was use political intrigue to bring about regime changes in Samaria and Damascus, ultimately resulting in much bloodshed and atrocities.  Elisha represented exactly what a prophet was not to do, and after him the role of prophets was never the same.  The writer of this book suggests that it was because Elisha showed that the function of prophets was no longer to be powerful leaders or miracle-workers, but was to be limited to their oracular function.  It is clear that prophets had lost much of their roles already: even the good prophets in this period, who were concerned about Israel’s idolatry, did not mention the social injustice that came about at the hand of the kings.  Other writers say that prophetism changed at this point because the militant prophets, seeing the atrocities of Jehu, realized that they could no longer bring about political or social change by violence.

Another change at this point was the method of oracle: Micaiah ben Imlah, shortly after Elisha, was the first prophet recorded to have visions rather than simply relay words.  After him came the last of the monarchic prophets, Amos and Jonah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, who shift us into the “classical prophets”, or “writing prophets”.  Some of these prophets, such as Isaiah, maintain the role of court prophet, advising kings and inquiring of the LORD on their behalf; others are outsiders, like the northern prophets, who face nothing but opposition.  They are no longer miracle-workers, instead pronouncing God’s coming judgment on the entire nation (not just to the kings), often through dramatic performances, parables and enacted parables, and even the written word.  They are concerned less about personal sin than the previous prophets, and much more about social justice; injustice is a problem in society, perpetuated not only by the government but also by the priesthood and the people themselves.  Idolatry and injustice are railed against equally, and connected vividly.  This continues through the exilic and post-exilic prophets.

With the exilic prophets, visions become a norm.  With the increase in visual experiences, the writing involves much more imagery; eventually, in the post-exilic prophets, we transition into apocalyptic.  Apocalyptic, like the written prophecies before it, serves as a social commentary and call to justice and righteousness, giving hope to the righteous and fear to the unjust.  The prophets continue to call people to Yahweh, equating justice with worship, but they never take on ruling or miracle-working roles again, until in Christ we see Prophet, Priest and King all in one.

I said at the beginning that the prophets, the representatives of God, are always concerned with justice.  This fell off a little bit at a few points, as even the prophets were not always righteous or obedient: no mention is made, for example, of all of the social injustice that came during Solomon’s reign, as he taxed the people hard and conscripted them to forced labour.  Solomon, I would argue, is a parody of a king in the same way that Elisha is a parody of a prophet.  But I want to underscore the focus on justice for the prophets once again: when the prophets ruled, they enforced justice in God’s name; when the prophets did not rule, they spoke truth to power and demanded justice, in God’s name.

It’s struck me as I’ve prepared for this paper that prophecy did not end with Malachi: it continued in John the Baptist, and obviously in Jesus Christ, and continues to this day as an office of the Church.  Some even argue that this office to some extent applies to all believers.  Is it a role that we still carry out?  Do we in the Church speak truth to power?  Bonhoeffer argues that it is the mandate of the Church to remind the other mandates (government, family, work, culture) of their role – that is, it is the job of the Church to remind the government to uphold justice.  Do we?  Or have we left it for the artist, the poet, the activist and the sociologist?