On Prophesy

Sunday 16th February 2014
Year A, The Third Sunday before Lent
St Peter's, Henfield
Amos 3:1-8
Ephesians 5:1-17

People like me can be very boring when we get onto the subject of the use of language: no, I'm not fanatical about the split infinitive as avoiding it can create very ugly sentences; yes, I do think that "different to" is linguistic nonsense; no, I'm not particularly bothered that "gay" doesn't mean what it did when applied in the early 19th Century to the dandies and fops that swarmed in the Brighton Pavilion; but, yes, I am appalled by the inversion of the use of the word "apparent" to mean resolved or clear beyond doubt, as in: "It is apparent that the two leaders have reached an agreement" when what the commentator actually means is: "It is now clear that the two leaders have reached an agreement" quite different from - nb "different from" - the statement that "The leaders have apparently reached an agreement" which means "As far as I can tell, the signs are that the leaders have reached an agreement, but I can't be sure". This isn't mere pedantry, to use a word to mean its opposite is, at the very least, confusing.

Thus it is, I am sorry to say, with the word "Prophetic" used in the Christian context. In the Old Testament the word was used primarily to describe declamations against idolatry. The prophet Amos, who supplies our first reading, was primarily concerned with idolatry but he also displayed a very strong social conscience, castigating the decadent rulers of Israel and Judea for their self-indulgence and their indifference to the poor. But one senses in Saint Paul that the balance has shifted. Yes, Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians emphasises the centrality of love but overbalances this with lists of personal infractions which go on well past the end of our extract. Thus, the word "prophetic" has degenerated to mean one who castigates sinners for their infractions. When we say that somebody is "like an Old Testament prophet" we don't mean that they urge us to love one another, we generally mean that they are chiding us severely for wrong-doing.

We know from Chaucer that this clerical tendency towards moral stricture was a feature of the 'high' Middle Ages but it reached new heights during the 16th Century when Protestant Reformers became localised moral legislators. The historical paradox is that while the Medieval Western Catholic Church believed that how we lived would affect our after life, it was relatively relaxed about human weakness, whereas Protestants, who claimed that we were either elected for salvation or not, down-playing the importance of living a moral life, couldn't help chiding and punishing, excluding and even burning infractors. Indeed, perhaps the worst feature of the Western Christian Church since Saint Augustine's development of the catastrophic doctrine of "The fall" and "original sin" has been the tendency of male clerics to exercise massive power over the private lives of their flocks, with a special emphasis on sexual vice and misogyny. And not only is that what people think prophesy is all about, they also think that that is what Christianity is all about; a strong moralising power of the clergy over the laity with particular emphasis on sexual sin!

Let me put this into some perspective:

This is rather a lot to take in, so let me summarise the relevant reference scores:

Whichever way you look at it, the figures in the context of the whole Bible are tiny but, still, the relevant references to power and wealth are almost three times as many as the relevant references to sex and gender. And this is the cue for the core of what I want to say:

To be properly prophetic in the context of the Bible is, first of all, to proclaim the centrality of the worship of the one true God, which is the Bible's over-riding concern; but if we are to consider the Church's role in earthly matters then the obligations we have to the proper use of power and wealth are of far greater importance than making rules about private behaviour. Of course, it is quite proper to argue that fornication and adultery can be of immense damage to the adults, but even more so the children involved, but that is nothing to the mass suffering of children in socially unjust societies. Thus, real prophesy is about righting the social wrongs of our world, not telling us off for our private infractions.

And this is particularly important as we approach Lent. We might, primarily for reasons of health or vanity, give up chocolate or alcohol for the forty days of Lent but of what use is that to the poor and the starving, the displaced and the tortured, the boys pressed into the army and the girls into prostitution? How will our gentle abstinence put right the ravages of climate change and the horrible depredations of global capitalism?

One of the phrases which has gained traction in recent times is that organisations like the Churches must speak "truth unto power" but what our leaders actually do most of the time is to speak "power unto weakness"; and unless we change them, nothing will change. It's too easy to bully the weak and refuse to look the strong in the eye; it's too easy to condemn our neighbour and ignore the wider world; it's too easy to reduce God to a moral authoritarian and forget all that Jesus and Saint Paul said about love. But whoever said that Christianity should be easy? A large proportion of the 355 relevant references to power and wealth speak of endurance and sacrifice; that doesn't just mean saints and martyrs, it means us.