Monday, March 10, 2014

What does a Prophetic Church Do?

I believe in central heating and in winter coats. I would be crazy to never go outside between Thanksgiving and May Day. It would be also crazy to turn off the furnace because I own a warm jacket.

A liberal religious congregation has to be both a religious community and a prophetic voice.

We need to think a little more seriously about what the prophetic church does. The dismissive vision of the prophetic church, one that you can hear or read many places in UULand, is that it is social club for leftists, a collection of political activists, the chalice wing of the Democratic Party.

What does the prophetic church do, according to this stereotype? It signs petitions and passes resolutions. It listens to stirring sermons about how other people are evil and up to no good. The most important part of the worship service is the announcements, where all the picket lines, teach-ins and demonstrations for the upcoming week are urged upon the congregants. The prophetic church is filled with strident, cramped, moralistic people who hold everyone else to impossibly high standards. It's Mao's Red Guards gathered in the spirit of prayer, (or meditation), or (silent contemplation). It hates everyone who is not on the side of love, and it wonders about you. Not only is the prophetic church mean, it is also ludicrous because it is ineffectual and disconnected from real people.

The prophetic church is portrayed as a dystopian perversion of religion. This portrayal harvests all the self-criticisms of the progressive movement and gives them a polish of rightwing disdain and contempt.

We actually have experience that is relevant. When Unitarian Universalist congregations committed themselves to a prophetic stance in regards to LGBTQ people, there was a fear that our churches would become "gay churches" and everything that the church would revolve around this: that the kids in the nursery would wear rainbow diapers and the gay minister would lecture the sick and dying about homophobia on their deathbeds. Every Sunday would be Gay Pride Day. I exaggerate of course, but many LGBTQ ministers did get the message that they needed to be "a minister who was incidentally gay, and not a gay activist who happened to be a minister."  That dystopian fear of a gay-obsessed church turned out to be a groundless fantasy born from anxiety.

The dystopian vision of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Political Correctness is equally a groundless fantasy born from anxiety.

So, what should a prophetic church actually do?

The prophetic church is engaged in the cultural conversation of the community to persuade people of the values and virtues of liberalism.

If that doesn't make sense to you, consider how conservative religion and conservatism in general have influenced the general culture. They have argued, in a thousand different ways, for 50 years, that the good of society depends on clear standards of right and wrong, and that some people are so committed to the wrong that they are evil, and that most people are tempted toward evil, and so they must be deterred with punishment or neglect. So for the Right, the safety net is a hammock; abortion is a way women evade the consequences of sexual promiscuity; prison is the answer to all crime, even drug use; some people are illegal; gay people are perverts intent on recruiting more people into their networks of lust. The Right have persuaded the culture as a whole of the existence of the demonic; they demonize as a general trope. No wonder that they can persuaded that President Obama is the anti-Christ.

I am not talking just about the Religious Right. Even people like David Brooks and George Will worry about the "moral hazards" of humane policies; they assume that most people have a proclivity toward sloth and greed.

The prophetic church should be engaging our culture and the community in a conversation that humanizes, instead of demonizes. We are resisting the dominant discourse of demonization. For every time that the cultural right paints someone as demonic, or inclined to evil, we need to answer by arguing for the humanity of the people in question. Why? Because we are Universalists, and view other people as like ourselves, and that most of them are doing the very best they can in the circumstances that they find themselves.

And how can conduct that conversation with the general culture? In a thousand different ways: from letters to the editor, facebook postings, personal conversations, sermons, tee-shirts, pamphlets, videos, advertising.

There is a whole level of messaging that the liberal church does not do. Mostly, we speak to ourselves -- already committed UU's. And occasionally we engage in some institutional advertising targeted toward what we think are 'like-minded' people in the general public. But when a church puts a Marriage Equality banner on the outside of their church, or raises the rainbow flag over the iconic New England town green, we are engaging in a general cultural conversation. We don't do that level of messaging very often.

We used to do this all the time; look at the Wayside Pulpit sayings that many churches put up for years. We used to put up, in the public eye, general statements of principle that countered the suffocating conformity and presumptions of that earlier era. Some were witty, or wise, but they were not trivial, and they conveyed what liberal religion meant.

To be clear, when I say we should be countering the discourse of demonization, I do not mean that we should be seeking common ground with the cultural right. I mean that we should be placing ourselves in solidarity with their victims, arguing that so-called "illegal" immigrants were working people trying to support their families, that drug addiction is a health issue, that most poor people are people like ourselves caught in very difficult situations and just need some help, that an unwanted pregnancy is not a mark of shame.

The overall cultural environment has been so anti-liberal that we have withdrawn from the general conversation, with the exception of smaller group of UU's who have been especially committed. Their commitment has been making other UU's uncomfortable during this period. We should all try to understand what goes on there.  

Overt organizing, the picket lines, and demonstrations, and teach-ins, is a concentrated and very focused dialogue with the external community. It is some of the work of the prophetic church, but not all. They are appropriate activities for people in certain life-stages and situations. But much of the work of a religious community will always be for people in other situations. The sick must visited; the children must be taught; the rituals must be performed and the holy must be celebrated every Sunday morning.



















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