A prophet makes a vow of love, not of alienation. Daniel Berrigan wrote those words and they need to be highlighted today when a lot of very sincere, committed, religious people self-define as cultural warriors, as prophets at war with secular culture.
This is the stance of many seminarians, clergy, bishops, and whole denominations of Christians today. It is a virtual mantra within in the “religious right” and in many Roman Catholic seminaries. In this outlook, secular culture is seen as a negative force that’s threatening our faith, morals, religious liberties, and churches. Secular culture is viewed as, for the main part, being anti-Christian, anti-ecclesial, and anti-clerical and its political correctness is seen to protect everyone except Christians. More worrisome for these cultural warriors is what they see as the “slippery slope” wherein they see our culture as sliding ever further away from our Judaeo-Christian roots. In the face of this, they believe, the churches must be highly vigilant, defensive, and in a warrior stance.
It’s partly true that there are voices and movements within secular culture that do threaten some essentials within our faith and moral lives, as is seen in the issue of abortion, and there is the danger of the “slippery slope.” But the real picture is far more nuanced than this defensiveness merits. Secularity, for all its narcissism, false freedoms, and superficiality, also carries many key Christian values that challenge to us to live more deeply our own principles. Moreover, the issues on which they challenge us are not minor ones. Secular culture, in its best expressions, is a powerful challenge to everyone in the world to be more sensitive and more moral in the face of economic inequality, human rights violations, war, racism, sexism, and the ravaging of Mother Nature for short-term gain. The voice of God is also inside secular culture.
Christian prophecy must account for that. Secular culture is not the anti-Christ. It ultimately comes out of Judaeo-Christian roots and has inextricably embedded within its core many central values of Judaeo-Christianity. We need then to be careful, as cultural warriors, to not blindly be fighting truth, justice, the poor, equality, and the integrity of creation. Too often, in a black-and-white approach, we end up having God fighting God.
A prophet has to be characterized first of all by love, by empathy for the very persons he or she is challenging. Moreover, as Gustavo Gutierrez teaches, our words of challenge must come more out of our gratitude than out of our anger, no matter how justified the anger. Being angry, being in someone else’s face, shredding those who don’t agree with us with hate-filled rhetoric, and winning bitter arguments, admittedly might be politically effective sometimes. But all of these are counter-productive long term because they harden hearts rather than soften them. True conversion can never come about by coercion, physical or intellectual. Hearts only change when they’re touched by love.
All of us know this from experience. We can only truly accept a strong challenge to clean up something in our lives if we first know that this challenge is coming to us because someone loves us, and loves us enough to care for us in this deep way. This alone can soften our hearts. Every other kind of challenge only works to harden hearts. So before we can effectively speak a prophetic challenge to our culture we must first let the people we are trying to win over know that we love them, and love them enough to care about them in this deep way. Too often this is not the case. Our culture doesn’t sense or believe that we love it, which, I believe, more than any other factor renders so much of our prophetic challenge useless and even counter-productive today.
Our prophecy must mirror that of Jesus. As he approached the city of Jerusalem shortly before his death, knowing its inhabitants, in all good conscience, were going to kill him, he wept over it. But his tears were not for himself, that he was right and they were wrong and that his death would make that clear. His tears were for them, for the very ones who opposed him, who would kill him and then fall flat on their faces. There was no glee that they would fall, only empathy, sadness, love, for them, not for himself.
Rev. Larry Rosebaugh OMI, one of my Oblate confreres who spent his priesthood fighting for peace and justice and was shot to death in Guatemala, shares in his autobiography how on the night before his first arrest for civil disobedience he spent the entire night in prayer and in the morning as he walked out to do the non-violent act that would lead to his arrest, was told by Daniel Berrigan: “If you can’t do this without getting angry at the people who oppose you, don’t do it! This has to be an act of love.”
Prophecy has to be an act of love; otherwise it’s merely alienation.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.