Prophets and Priests

Herb Montgomery | April 5, 2019

Picture of woman using megaphone
Photo by Melany Rochester on Unsplash

“Where else do you see institutions threatened by the voice of prophets? We may not call them prophets in every institution, yet the punishment of prophets is a universal dynamic. Whenever there are people calling not only for personal piety but also for societal change, seeking to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone, those who have much to lose will use these tactics.”


“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31) 

RHM’s book of the month for April is Walter Rauschenbusch’s 1917 classic A Theology for the Social Gospel. Although Rauschenbusch writes in the language and limits of his time and social location, he and others in the early social gospel movement nonetheless broke new ground by calling Christians to return to the gospels’ teachings on social change, social justice, and social salvation. Their call contrasted with versions of Christianity that focus on private, individualistic, or personal salvation. Many who have been raised in evangelical Christianity today still are surprised when they discover the gospels’ focus on systemic injustice. This focus was accurately labelled the “social gospel” not because it focused on social salvation instead of personal salvation (as some have wrongly accused) but because it focused on social salvation alongside personal salvation.

Forty years after A Theology for the Social Gospel was published, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., read it and wrote, “It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried” (Stride Toward Freedom, p. 91).

This week I want to look at a juxtaposition that Rauschenbusch uses in the end of A Theology for the Social Gospel. I admit freely that it’s oversimplified in terms of what we know today. I also find Rauschenbusch’s description of the function or motivation of the ancient priestly class in this paragraph to misrepresent the priestly function in the Jewish faith tradition as a whole. I do believe Rauschenbusch’s description matches his own experience with institutionalized Christianity and the professional clergy’s push back against his call for a more socially focused gospel. I believe he is reading his own experience back into the text. I, too, can attest that it is difficult if not impossible to get professional Christian clergy to see things at times that their paychecks requires them not to see. This can happen within any faith tradition when an institution and those employed by that institution become aligned with injustice, exploitation and/or exclusion. Yet this passage from Rauschenbusch still has much to offer us as we seek to speak truth to power or call out systemic injustice despite push back from those who benefit by what Rauschenbusch named as “institutionalized sin” (whether within our faith traditions or our larger secular communities). The juxtaposition he uses is that of priest versus prophet in the Jewish faith tradition. I found his comments under what he classifies as prophetic deeply encouraging and this week I want to share them with you.

“The priest is the religious professional. He performs religious functions which others are not allowed to perform. It is therefore to his interest to deny the right of free access to God, and to interpose himself and his ceremonial between the common person and God. He has an interest in representing God as remote, liable to anger, jealous of his rights, and quick to punish, because this gives importance to the ritual methods of placating God which the priest alone can handle. It is essential to the priestly interest to establish a monopoly of rights and functions for his group. He is all for authority, and in some form or other he is always a Spokesman of that authority and shares its influence. Doctrine and history as he teaches it, establish a jure divine institution of his order, which is transmitted either by physical descent, as in the Aaronic priesthood, or by spiritual descent through some form of exclusive ordination, as in the Catholic priesthood. As history invariably contradicts his claims, he frequently tampers with history by Deuteronomic codes or Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, in order to secure precedents and the weight of antiquity. He is opposed to free historical investigation because this tears open the protective web of idealized history and doctrine which he has woven about him. He is the middle person of religion, and like other middlemen he is sincerely convinced that he is necessary for the good of humanity and that religion would perish without him. But underneath all is the selfish interest of his class, which exploits religion. 

The prophet becomes a prophet by some personal experience of God, which henceforth is the dominant reality of his life. It creates inward convictions which become his message to men. Usually after great inward conflicts and the bursting of priest-made barriers he has discovered the way of access to God, and has found him wonderful, ‘just, merciful, free.’ As a result of his own experience he usually becomes the constitutional enemy of priestly religion, the scorner of sacrificial and ritual doings, a voice of doubt about the doctrines and the literature which shelter the priest. He too is a middle-man, but he wants no monopoly. His highest desire is to have all humans share what he has experienced. If his own caste or people claim special privileges as a divinely descended caste or a chosen people, he is always for some expansion of religious rights, for a crossing of boundaries and a larger unity. His interest is in freedom, reality, immediateness, the reverse of the priestly interest. His religious experience often gives a profound quickening to his social consciousness, an unusual sense of the value of life and a strong compassion with the suffering and weak, and therefore a keen feeling for human rights and indignation against injustice. He has a religious conviction that God is against oppression and ‘, on the side of the weak . . . The prophet is always the predestined advance agent of the Kingdom of God. His religion flings him as a fighter and protester against the Kingdom of Evil. His sense of justice, compassion, and solidarity sends him into tasks which would be too perilous for others. It connects him with oppressed social classes as their leader. He bears their risk and contempt. As he tries to rally the moral and religious forces of society, he encounters derelict and frozen religion, and the selfish and conservative interest of the classes which exploit religion. He tries to arouse institutional religion from the inside, or he pounds it from the outside. This puts him in the position of a heretic, a free thinker, an enemy of religion, an atheist. Probably no prophet escaped without bearing some such name. His opposition to social injustice arouses the same kind of antagonism from those who profit by it. How far these interests will go in their methods of suppressing the prophets depends on their power and their needs.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, pp. 274-277, emphasis added.)

Let’s take a brief look at a few of Rauschenbusch’s statements.

History Contradicting Claims

Today, both science and history can contradict long-held religious beliefs or doctrinal claims. It’s tempting to become defensive and resistant to new information rather than learning how to lean into new information. Deconstruction is naturally uncomfortable. We must be honest in parsing the difference between resistance due to personal discomfort and resistance due to threats to institutions from which we derive privilege. As Rauschenbusch states, it’s possible to be “opposed to free historical investigation because this tears open the protective web of idealized history and doctrine which [one] has woven about [oneself].” 

Where have you seen this take place? Take some time to list examples that come to mind.

Selfish Class Interests

Religion has often been complicit in making oppressed communities passive and in exonerating or justifying one class’s exploitation of others. I agree with Rauschenbusch’s statement that when voices question the status quo, they are quickly labeled “enemy” or a “voice of doubt” or even “heretic.” We see an example of this in John’s version of the Jesus story: “Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about [Jesus]. Some said, ‘He is a good man.’ Others replied, ‘No, he deceives the people.’” (John 7:12)

All Humans Share 

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, had an inclusive encounter with the Divine. His desire was egalitarian inasmuch as he wanted those being excluded to also have a seat at the table. Rauschenbusch observes, “If his own caste or people claim special privileges as a divinely descended caste or a chosen people, he is always for some expansion of religious rights, for a crossing of boundaries and a larger unity.” Those who push for a more egalitarian society transgress boundaries in their work and are often accused of not staying within the lines drawn for them and for others in society.

Social Consciousness

The Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and many others throughout history who have stood up to institutionalized injustice, seeking change in individual hearts and social and systemic change as well, can often trace their social consciousness and the roots of their passion for social justice to the belief in a Divine Universal Love. As Rauschenbusch wrote, “His religious experience often gives a profound quickening to his social consciousness, an unusual sense of the value of life and a strong compassion with the suffering and weak, and therefore a keen feeling for human rights and indignation against injustice.” For Christians, this passion for justice is grounded in the belief that if there is a God who loves everyone, this same God stands with the oppressed and is on the side of distributive justice. It is ironic that those whose belief in Love led them to the work of justice too often come to be ostracized by the very religious communities they first learned that Love through.

Heretics

Rauschenbusch’s use of this term struck home for me. When we stand up against injustice and some of those in privileged positions in our faith communities are also in positions of privilege in our larger society, it still amazes me how efficiently religious systems label and shut out or suppress voices for justice that they deem a threat. “This puts him in the position of a heretic, a free thinker, an enemy of religion, an atheist. Probably no prophet escaped without bearing some such name.” I could give quite a few examples of where I have witnessed or experienced this dynamic. 

Suppression

“His opposition to social injustice arouses the same kind of antagonism from those who profit by it. How far these interests will go in their methods of suppressing the prophets depends on their power and their needs.” I’ve seen those who side with Love and Justice go from having a packed speaking schedule for years in advance to almost overnight being treated as if they no longer exist. In the Jesus story itself, suppression took the form of false accusation and execution. 

I want to be very careful here. Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. He was deeply Jewish, and most of his more inclusive interpretations of the Torah had Jewish precedents before him. Yet his interpretations threatened those who had everything to lose politically.

Where else do you see institutions threatened by the voice of prophets? We may not call them prophets in every institution, yet the punishment of prophets is a universal dynamic. Whenever there are people calling not only for personal piety but also for societal change, seeking to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone, those who have much to lose will use these tactics. 

If you are in the midst of being treated this way, remember, you’re in the right story. You’re not alone. Another world is possible. If you need to take a break for self-care, do so. It’s okay to take a break; just don’t give up. We are in this together. And together we can make a difference.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)


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Thank you for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you did. 

Wherever you are today, choose love, choose compassion, take action and seek justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.