The Church Must Retain a Prophetic Voice

By Julie Clawson 10-01-2010

We have all heard the old saying that Satan's greatest ploy is to get people to stop believing in him. For when people aren't looking to fight his evil, then that evil has more room to flourish.

I fear something similar is occurring in our country in our rejection of social justice. Instead of gathering the people of God together to work against injustice like Jesus commanded us to do; those with interests in allowing injustices (especially economic injustice) to continue are attempting to convince the church to shun the very idea of justice itself. The easiest way for the evil of injustice to flourish in this world is for the church to believe we should be doing nothing about it. And as crazy as it seems, that tactic is succeeding. The public is being encouraged to flee churches that teach about justice, to equate social justice with the atrocities of Nazi Germany, and to believe that supporting social justice will result in the elimination of all religious liberties. Basically, to embrace the exact opposite of the justice-seeking way of life that Jesus demands of his followers.

Glenn Beck's recent tirade against those who care about justice illustrates this revisionist view of justice. He states that people who support justice for the oppressed are promoting a state sponsored church similar to the Nazi controlled churches in Germany. Playing on people's fears, Beck convinces them that unless they stay silent on justice issues, the government will take over their churches. According to Beck, "when you combine church and state, and you take a -- you take a big government and you combine it with the church, to get people to do the things that the state wants you to do, it always ends in mass death." His solution is to silence the voices for justice and let faith simply be about individual private commitments.

What Beck fails to realize is that silencing the voices for justice within the church is simply a passive way of giving control of the church to the powers of this world. Empires (the state in both political and economic realms) can either directly control the church (as Hitler did) or it can control the church by rendering it impotent.

Beck's example of Hitler's Nazi-controlled church reminds me of the Barmen Declaration (1934). An ecumenical group of Confessing Christians in Germany did stand up to the state-controlled church, sending the message that they had no fuhrer but Jesus. It was a bold move, but in demanding their autonomy they also gave up the right to speak truth to power. In creating for themselves the space to worship as they chose without interference, they inadvertently gave the state control of their voices, leaving the Confessing Churches little room to speak up on justice issues (like the extermination of the Jews). For this reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer disagreed with Karl Barth over the drafting of this declaration -- it sacrificed justice for the sake of supposed autonomy. While there is much to be admired in the Barmen Declaration, I have to wonder how Jesus can truly be the leader of the church if that church has allowed itself to be silenced in regard to justice issues.

Beck is correct in pointing out that throughout history the church has been controlled by the state to disastrous ends. But this is never because the state cared too much about justice. On the contrary, it was when the state-controlled "church" ceased speaking out on behalf of justice for the oppressed that power was corrupted, liberty was denied, and mass deaths did occur.

One thinks of Persian-controlled Ezra casting the foreign wives and children of the Jews into the wilderness to die as his religious zeal cleansed the land. Or of Charlemagne forcing the conquered Saxons to be baptized at the point of a sword. Or the silence of the church in places like Liberia, Kenya, Bosnia, or Rwanda when their "Christian" rulers oppressed the people. The state-controlled church can commit atrocities, but a church controlled through silence on justice issues is just as complicit in those atrocities.

The church must retain a prophetic voice. It cannot be a puppet of the state, but it also cannot be manipulated into silence. The church is never just a collection of individuals desiring their own private worship experience; it is the Body of Christ called to do his will. Standing up to empire (political or economic) on behalf of the oppressed is simply part of what it means for the church to be collectively faithful. That prophetic voice has to call for an end to injustice, and since empire is often the cause of much of the injustice in the world, it is going to have to be empire that takes the steps to undo that injustice. If Christians abandon the right to push the state to repent of (undo) the wrongs it has committed (even if that undoing makes our lives uncomfortable), then we have just granted the state the freedom to control us all.

I look to the people of faith who in recent years have done the hard work of helping the church find its voice as it not only speaks truth to power, but does so in ways that seek justice through reconciliation. When Fr. Andre Sibomana was named administrator of the Rwandan diocese of Kabgayi in August 1994, he knew the church had to find a way to repent of its silence and complacency during the genocide. So he suspended all baptisms, first communions, confirmations, and weddings until Christmas and called the church into a period of confession and penance. He knew that the church could not move forward into new life until its political sins had been dealt with. Similarly Desmond Tutu was the Christian voice calling for justice for years in South Africa. Once apartheid ended, it was only through the church working directly with the state through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that healing was able to begin. The church as a prophetic voice had to call the state (and its own members) to justice and at the same time grant healing through the transformative power of Jesus Christ. Or as Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole suggests, the church can never be just another NGO; it has to be a body that witnesses to a "different world right now."

portrait-julie-clawsonJulie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at and

+Tired of the hatred? Tell Fox News: You can do better than Beck!

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