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Q & R: humble AND prophetic?

Here are a couple of interesting insights and a really valuable question:


We met last night again at your talk at Busboys and Poets... I had a few thoughts following your talk last night that I wanted to share with you and perhaps start a conversation about.

First, just a random thought: My New Testament professor at Fuller would give me a rather chilling glare for stirring what he would call "Gospel stew" (i.e., mixing two different Gospel versions of the person of Jesus), but I think we can and should connect Jesus's statement in Matthew that "the Kingdom of God is at hand" with Jesus's reading of the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4, proclaiming that the "year of the Lord's favor" is fulfilled on this day. That, I think, adds a bit more concreteness to the statement that the "Kingdom of God is at hand" - saying that the Kingdom would be inaugurated by the Jubilee, when all debts were forgiven, all slaves freed, and the land redistributed.

To say that the year of the Lord's favor was being initiated on this day was to challenge the economic powers-that-be just as saying the Kingdom was at hand challenged the political powers-that-be - linking the phrases of the Magnificat, in which the powerful are cast down from their thrones AND the rich are sent away empty. It also has a bit more relevance to the contemporary situation than the Kingdom of God (which, as you've mentioned, is somewhat of a dead metaphor); we've still got problems with outrageous debt, with wage slavery and the prison-industrial complex, and with the improper distribution of land and other resources. To say that Jesus calls us to work in the inauguration of the Kingdom by fulfilling Jubilee gives us something a bit more concrete, I think.

Yes, I agree. Thanks for making these connections.

This brings me to my main question from last night. You mentioned the Gospel as a means to liberation and specifically cited the liberation theologians and the civil rights movement as emergent responses by the church to an oppressive culture. Both of these movements, though, featured strong and prophetic voices - people who were personally very humble before God and exemplars of love toward their fellow person, but who nevertheless weren't afraid to punctuate what they said about the mistreatment of the poor, the exploitation of workers, or the savagery of Jim Crow with a pretty strong "thus saith the Lord."

At the same time, you seem to privilege questions over statements - to suggest that those who are most confident in their beliefs are often the most oppressive and dangerous people. I would certainly agree with that, but would also add that those who are most confident in their beliefs - people like Dr. King, or Oscar Romero, or Dom Helder Camara, or Desmond Tutu - can also be the most liberating and dangerous (to the status quo) people.

So my question for you - and I don't know that this is an "answerable" question as much as it is something for us to think about as we consider next steps - is how we can reconcile this notion of "questing" and epistemological humility with what I think is a very real need for a church that is willing to stand prophetically and preach things like Mary's Magnificat or the book of Amos. How can we say we're on a quest and we don't have the answers, and yet at the same time stand against the rich and the powerful telling them with Mary's words that they will be knocked off their thrones and sent away empty while the oppressed take power and the stomachs of the poor are filled?

As you say, this question deserves a lot of thought. A few responses ...
1. Yes, I'm for epistemological humility, but as you suggest, that doesn't preclude (as some of my critics seem to think) the ability to speak out boldly. If the only people speaking out boldly are the ones who have rendered themselves invulnerable to self-critique and the possibility that they're wrong, and if the only people engaging in self-examination become too unsure of themselves to speak out with boldness, we're in a lot of trouble. (Actually, I've just described contemporary reality, recalling W.B. Yeats line, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.") We need both boldness and humility - as our best spiritual leaders have modeled.

2. A key in this distinction is character ... For example, I've known some preachers who are bold as the dickens in the pulpit, and they also dominate their wives and children with the same passionate intensity they dominate their congregations. Without the humility of character that's formed by pursuing love and wholeness in our most intimate relationships - as spouses, as parents, as children, as siblings, as neighbors, as coworkers - we're terribly vulnerable to becoming little more than loudmouths, which is a parody of true ethical boldness. (I've been thinking a lot about this hidden dimension of character in relation to my upcoming book, which is about the kind of spiritual formation that takes place in secret.)

3. The examples you gave - King, Tutu, Romero, Camara - beautifully exemplify this balance, although each was, I'm sure, flawed in ways that only their closest family members could see.

You mention linking strength in our own tradition with benevolence toward others when you talk about religious pluralism, but I'm forced to wonder how this might translate into a more prophetic vision of the church in the world - in which I think we need to tell the powerful and the rich (which in some ways include us, as members of the American empire, even as inequality within the empire is on the rise) that God is calling [them/us] to cast off [their/our] power, to forsake the things of the world, to empty [themselves/ourselves] (as individuals, groups, society, and nation) of economic power and imperial ideologies to serve the world.

How can we both prophesy - declaring the judgment of God as prophets like Moses, Amos, Isaiah, Mary, and John the Baptizer did - and love? How can we simultaneously stand strong in the words of the prophets and the words of God, telling a culture that is soaked in selfishness, oppression, inequality, greed, and violence that these things are against God, and be on this quest in which we always suggest that we're not sure about it?

I don't want to hold myself out as a great example in this regard, but I can share something of my experience (since you asked for my feedback). While seeking to model "epistemic humility," I have spoken out with whatever boldness I have to say things that I believe need to be said. In so doing, I've attracted some critics. I'm not complaining; that goes with the territory. But to get knocked to the ground by the criticism and keep getting up to speak again (knowing what's coming again) does require, I've found, an intensifying mixture of both boldness and humility. In Everything Must Change, I suppose I leaned more towards boldness, as I did in A New Kind of Christianity. In A Generous Orthodoxy, I leaned towards gentleness, as I did in Finding Our Way Again. I suppose there's a time and season for everything under the sun ... May God give us the wisdom to be bold when we should be bold, and gentle when we should be gentle, and to be humble and charitable in all cases!