True and False Prophets

Sandie Cornish

The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution – Gaudium et Spes – reflected on the Church in the Modern World. Although we find ourselves in a post-modern world, many of the insights of that document have enduring relevance.

For a start, the descriptive title, ‘The Church in the Modern World’, tells us something important. The Church is in the world – whatever kind of world it is – not floating above it. An other-worldly, excessively transcendent spirituality is of little use to us, and renders us no use at all to the poor and marginalised, who carry the spark of the divine presence.

If our spirituality doesn’t lead us to honour God in those around us, and to work for their dignity and rights, is it a Christian spirituality? A spirituality that fails to promote human dignity and human rights fails to take seriously the incarnation, the very Christ-event.

Secondly, the methodology of Gaudium et Spes is inductive. We look to history as the locus of revelation. In other words, we look to the ‘signs of the times’ to discern the movement of God’s spirit in the world. We aren’t likely to receive email from God. We have to be attentive to what God is communicating to us in and through our world.

Thirdly, Gaudium et Spes reflected on the role of the Church in the modern world – not just how the Church had behaved in the world, but what its proper role is in our changing world. The mission of the Church is essentially religious rather than economic, social or political, but that does not mean standing apart from daily life and making no judgment of how economic, social and political systems affect people (GS n 42).

Not only our fate but our salvation is tied up with the people among whom we live, with the whole of humanity. Our salvation is linked to that of all the sons and daughters of humanity.

The prophets didn’t foretell the future – they read the present. They were the ones who called on the people of Israel to remember their own story and be faithful to the God who freed them from slavery. They criticised the injustices in their own societies – and it got them hated, excluded, reviled and defamed – so this is one of the ways in which we will know that we are living prophetically and being true followers of the Son of Man.

The prophet Jeremiah criticised those who would heal the wounds of the people lightly, crying peace, peace, when there is no peace. These false prophets told the leaders what they wanted to hear, rather than the truth.

There are plenty of people who spend their lives ingratiating themselves with the rich or powerful by telling them what they want to hear. Many advisers are well liked who shelter leaders from the truth.

There’s an old joke about a new Bishop being installed. One of the old priests at the reception says to another, “Poor man, he’ll never hear the truth again!” I actually know a couple of Bishops who appreciate being told the truth; being given frank and honest advice, no matter how unpleasant – and that is a mark of real leadership.

Good news for the poor is likely to be bad news for powerful interests who benefit from their oppression. How do you confront injustice without upsetting those who benefit from oppressing others?

I’m not suggesting setting out to deliberately offend and upset people, or rejoicing in such disturbance as a positive outcome in itself, but rather acknowledging the reality of power. Social justice activists are often accused of being naïve for daring to imagine a new heaven and a new earth, but I think those who assume that work for social justice can be undertaken in a nice, polite, middle-class way without ruffling any feathers are the ones who are naïve.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that you might also be hated, excluded, reviled and defamed for being a self-righteous jerk who is on about building a kingdom – but not that of God! If it isn’t really for the sake of the Son of Man that we are being persecuted, then that suffering is not likely to be a blessing.

We can get a bit carried away with ourselves and think that we have to save the world, but if we are Christians, we actually believe that God already did that. All we have to do is play our part in the on-going realisation of the Reign of God, which will only be complete at the end of time.

So, the prophets are the ones who read the signs of the times and call us to faithfulness – we are being challenged to share their mission and its consequences.

I think the other big challenge in all this is rejoicing. Social justice activists don’t exactly have a reputation for being a joyful mob, although some of us have more than a passing acquaintance with the wine of joy.

Liturgists and management consultants would both tell us that it is important to celebrate our efforts and mark even the smallest of achievements – but we don’t often do it.

So what keeps us going and where do we find joy and hope?

The social activists and community organisers that I have talked to about this draw great strength and hope from the people, and from their faith (whether Christian or otherwise).

The courage and resilience of people in the face of terrible oppression is awe-inspiring, and the capacity of people to love and nurture is truly humbling.

It isn’t difficult to see the divine in this, but we can lose track of it when witnessing people’s capacity for evil and inhumanity.

When we serve people and resist that which diminishes them, then we inevitably have joy in our lives. Love is stronger and more creative than hate. If we freeze-frame human history rather than watching the whole film, it may not seem that way.

Think of your own lives. I bet that the things that have given you abiding joy are not those things that are selfish or motivated by hate or that come easily. I’ll bet they are also things for which you have sacrificed or suffered.

Often they are quite “ordinary” things. Marriage, children, the pursuit of knowledge – they aren’t very different to working for justice and the common good for your community, country or the human family.

(Sandie Cornish is the National Executive Officer of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council.)