An Unlikely Group
When it came to recruiting prophets, the Almighty should have worked through a professional head hunting agency. Instead, He constantly got stuck with the retiring, the reticent, the young, the inept and the battler.
As for terms and conditions, He never got it right. His prophets should have had Work Care, plenty of long service leave and funeral benefits (unless you had the good fortune to catch a ride in a passing chariot of fire). They were surrounded by perpetual complainers, devious public office holders, arm chair critics and corrupt networks. Job satisfaction had not been invented then.
But They Made Their Mark
But the old prophets made their mark. They took their God seriously and courageously spoke His word. Although they had difficulty winning friends, they did influence people. The well being of the fatherless, the widow, the dispossessed, the alien and the poor fired them up every time.
Wherever values were traded for fast gain, where needy people were ignored or exploited and where the well heeled and the powerful thought they had the last say, the old prophet was not too far away.
Now, the big question is: How do we nurture the prophetic voice in Australia today?
Nurturing The Prophetic Voice
It is time to speak up for God again, to blow the whistle for Him. Political accountability seems to be at a low ebb while economic rationalism has created the balanced budget as the golden calf of the 1990s. Ordinary Aussies are feeling increasingly powerless, frustrated and anxious on an increasing range of issues.
* It seems extraordinary that the once lucky country has growing numbers of homeless and genuinely poor people living without hope in quiet desperation.
* We have come to accept the permanently unemployed as a common statistic with no real awareness of the inordinate suffering of real people whose applications for work are rarely acknowledged and where the consequent loss of self esteem is a terrible body blow.
* TV sitcoms make fun of the very values which are the glue that holds families together. Amusing as Seinfeld may be, it enshrines an alley cat morality when it comes to sex. Worse, there seems to be no end to the violence and selfish behaviour which is characteristic of so many movies. We are allowing rubbish to be tipped into our community without effectively registering a complaint. It is hard to believe that the majority of Australians endorse material which overtly promotes antisocial activity and values which are diametrically opposed to happy and healthy functioning.
* Our community has been immeasurably enriched by newcomers from around the world yet we still grapple with an underlying racism which too often spoils us.
* The casino culture is flourishing with gambling related crime clogging the courts, individuals losing their means and the families of problem gamblers being helplessly caught up in it all. Clearly established cases of loss are dismissed as “anecdotal evidence” which is about the same as standing naked in a tropical downpour but claiming to be dry because no one can produce a weather report.
* There is a growing perception that the community is being increasingly run by a powerful and wealthy elite. One wonders where accountability to the community is in all this.
* Privatisation is being heralded as a new economic saviour but the outcomes for the ordinary citizen are questionable. There is a real concern that we are selling off the farm to outsiders simply because the price is right.
* Anybody with direct links into rural Australia knows the loss of hope which is endemic there. The closure of hospitals and schools, the amalgamation of councils and shires and the general reduction of services is tearing out the heart of country centres in what is seen to be a deliberate and continuing act of abandonment.
* The recent, hurried introduction of 24 hour retailing might be very convenient for those who want to shop at 2.30 am but it is a potential disaster for small business.
* Why the continuing withdrawal of services for the aged, the ill, the handicapped and the poor? Why is the reduction of legal aid now such a farce? It is merely confirming the view that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. Justice is there if you can afford it; too bad if you can’t.
* What special skill has it taken to produce waiting lists at public hospitals? And why are hospital wards closed when there is no shortage of people to fill them?
* And why is it that the ordinary pay as you earn worker does not have the same access to the tax minimisation avenues available to those with greater resources? One does not have to look too hard to find the offspring of the financially blessed receiving full Austudy benefits. It may not technically be an act of dishonesty but there does seem to be a lack of justice with such a practice.
* The energetic sale of schools in the name of rationalisation might be great for the reducing the budget deficit but what happens when the next generation produces its children and school accommodation proves to be inadequate?
* Fair minded Aussies do not need to be convinced that the treatment of indigenous Australians since white settlement has not been a glorious chapter. The desire for some form of reconciliation has much to commend it. But the gaps between Indigenous and Western cultures is vast and it is eminently clear that throwing endless dollars at the problem does not seem to be achieving very much. Further, the Mabo and Wik decisions have the potential to cause real unrest and needless division.
* The not so level economic playing field sees many of our trading partners happily placing tariffs on our goods while we reduce them and continue to sacrifice home grown industries and jobs. With the continual sale of Australian enterprises to overseas interests, one wonders what will be there for our kids when their turn comes.
* The dubious and unashamed practice of oil companies milking holiday motorists with fuel price hikes is nothing short of corporate banditry. Government strategies to implement competition and reduce prices have so far failed while the petrol pump remains a marvellous tax source.
* There are still magazines on the bookstalls in full view which amount to little more than meat catalogues. It is amazing that we have apparently been so easily conned by those anxious to protect their right to say and do anything when such a desire is so patently hostile to all that is good, pure and morally valuable.
This is but a sampling of the issues. With all the unease, why are we so silent? In all of the good things we do, why is the prophetic task of the church seemingly at the bottom of the list? How come we have so little to say? Why aren’t we giving stronger support and encouragement to those few who are attempting to address at least some of these issues?
What Are The Causes?
Diagnosis is not too difficult. Our very public laryngitis springs from a variety of obvious causes:
1) We affirm too little; we blame too much.
Your average Aussie has an amazing capacity for holding others responsible for anything which goes wrong. We love to take pot shots at leaders and highlight the ways in which they have not delivered for us. No government will ever get it right for everybody. So, what do we do? We bleat; we blame; we put down; we make judgements which are often uninformed and thereby unjust.
Our great mistake is that we tend to come out of the wood work for the sole purpose of registering our concerns. And we do not give credit where it is due. Christians would do well to be far more proactive in commending community leaders for decisions which are going in the right direction rather than lying in wait for something to backfire.
When we win the “wowser” title, it is often well deserved and we should not complain about it. If we have not done our research, or made informed contributions to public policy when the invitation is given, or have failed to offer better ways forward, we have no right to grandstand in retrospect. If are we are only ever seen to be complainers, who wants to hear from us?
2) With so many issues creating so much anguish we are afraid to engage in debate in case we are found wanting.
Most of us are spooked by political leaders who are quick to criticise the Christian community when we do enter the arena of public life. We are usually informed that this is none of our business and that are we should stick to “saving souls.”
But it is our historic commitment to the well-being of the community that prompts us to speak out in the first place. The standard jibe that are we are losing numbers flies in the face of the fact that the Church is still by far the largest minority group in the country and that more people turn out to church each week than for any other community activity.
3) Too often are we say nothing for fear of being off side with other Christians who may feel differently on particular subjects.
This fear is wonderfully misplaced. Whatever the differences in flavour between the churches, there is more than enough common ground to speak out clearly and collectively on a wide range of issues. The white anting of family values, the harsh treatment of the needy and the idolatrous worship of finance all provide reason for us to speak with passion and unity.
4) Much more seriously, many of us may not be personally touched by the present traumas in our Australian society.
The research tells us that the vast bulk of our Baptist community is drawn from the well educated, professional middle classes. As such many of us have not been touched by the economic difficulties of recent years. Our jobs are still intact although are we may be a little more circumspect about the way we deploy our finance. There are still new cars in our church car parks.
True there are those among us who have known hardship and loss. Yes, there are churches which have worked wonders in helping the strugglers. But most of us:
* Do not know what the inside of the local Department of Social Services office looks like (or even where it is);
* Do not have homeless friends;
* Have not battled with the loss of self esteem through being unceremoniously unloaded from our job with no hope of another;
* Do not know anybody with empty cupboards;
* Know little of the battle for survival faced by single parents;
* Tend to think that the unemployed, the homeless and the poor have brought their problems on themselves;
* Have not knowingly met anybody suffering from AIDS;
And because we are untouched by these realities, we are not moved to address them despite the powerful biblical mandates to do so.
5) We have distanced ourselves from the world of politics.
Our lack of interest in the world of politics is a serious mistake. The desire to avoid party politics actually offers tacit approval to policies and practices which may cause us enormous discomfort. So what are the issues?
* Our healthy ignorance: how many of us know the name of our local, State and Federal representatives, or where their offices are located?
* Our fear that we might become too involved in party politics;
* Our sense of powerlessness: we say nothing simply because we feel that it will have no effect on political outcomes;
* Our lack of realisation that a few thousand motivated greenies can have greater political punch than the 750,000 Australians who attend church weekly
The truth is that every politician is accountable to their electorate, to you, to me. They are in office because we put them there. Success at the polls is not a free pass to do what you want. If policies are shaped which conflict with our values, we can hardly take umbrage if we have not registered our practical reservations.
Silence is regarded as permission. Indeed, the “silent majority” are too often the foolish majority. We need to find our peace in the market place and be at home in constructive dialogue with those who may not agree with us.
6) We have lost objectivity within the church.
We are so often unable to see ourselves as others see us. If we are seen to be out of touch and trapped in practices and jargon which are meaningless to the uninitiated, then the problem is ours.
If we are intent on preserving our status and position and can only communicate when we are against something, then who wants to hear from us? And if our energies are inwardly directed to meet the needs of the saints alone, we have no reason or right to be prophetic.
Certainly the prophet of old demonstrated a passion for God and a lack of regard for self preservation. We play safe too often. We do not want to offend or displease. Noisy minority groups have no such hangups. They are passionate, believe in their cause and “if you do not like what are we are on about, that’s bad luck mate.”
How To Recapture The Prophetic Voice
So what can be done to lift the levels of communication and accountability? Just how do we begin to find that prophetic voice? Here are some suggestions:
* Invest time in getting to know your elected representatives.
The church is an active community group and offers an excellent opportunity for your local members to get to know people who already share a genuine commitment to the well being of others.
While there is great value in inviting politicians along to special services or events, there is also value in finding more informal ways of affirming and encouraging them. They are fine people who often share our concerns but who feel that they lack support in their constituency when the crunch time comes in deciding difficult matters of policy.
When you do want to address a matter of concern (or to offer support), you will have a caring relationship well established as a background.
* Another possibility is to take a much greater interest in local politics.
With enormous changes presently being made to the size and shape of local government boundaries and operations, there is again a window of opportunity for people of the right caliber to become directly engaged in local politics.
There is a real danger that some of our most gifted people are spending time sitting in the pews week by week when they could be exercising a most effective influence as local government councillors.
* Reach for a better balance between internal church matters and the well being of the community.
A selfish inward focus is not what it means to be “church.” It is time to start engaging with the real needs around us and to work with others who share the same hopes and aspirations.
Shake those half-challenged, gifted leaders out of internal church activities and commission them into community roles: service clubs, school councils, CFA (and don’t expect them to do something in the church as well).
* Pick up a few hot potatoes and address them.
What are the big deal issues where you live? Who is researching them? What is a thoughtful and constructive Christian perspective? How can the congregation move towards making a difference? What will you say and to whom?
* Remember that there is a connection between the mountain and the market place.
There is always a danger that we will continue to polish up our prayer life but stay shy of direct communication and action. The old prophets had no such problem. Engagement with the forces of evil grew out of their spirituality; it was all part of the same package. We have managed to separate them. Let’s pray and speak up.
* Give prayerful and practical support to those Christian leaders who are speaking up and taking action.
Thank the Lord for those who are already giving voice in public forums to a wide variety of concerns. Let’s not leave them high and dry when support is needed. They deserve our prayers, interest and support.
The prophetic voice? It springs from a love for Christ, a devotion to prayer and a passion for mercy and justice. Besides, there is a God Who calls us to be His people in His world. That part of the plot has not changed.
Rev. John Simpson
This article is reprinted by permission of the author. It originally appeared in Ministry Perspectives,
a publication of the Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia.