A Clear Litmus Test for the Church

There is a tension in organized religion between prophecy and culture.  In the playing out of this tension, organized religion runs the risk of accommodating itself to cultural expectations, bestowing a spiritual imprimatur upon them. When it resists this tendency and is faithful to its prophetic responsibility, organized religion poses a challenge to prevailing cultural assumptions that conflict with the gospel message of love and inclusion.

Prophetic religion can be likened to the unimpeded free-flowing movement of the Spirit, which like a natural spring of water gushes and spills out everywhere. Organized religion creates a walled reservoir collecting the gushing spiritual spring water of the Spirit, channeling it to become a flow of spiritual energy to irrigate civic and cultural life.

However, the fundamental weakness of organized religion lies in its tendency to reject its prophetic mission in order to compromise with the values of its surrounding culture, thus blurring the distinction between spiritual and cultural values. When this occurs, organized religion becomes cultural religion. Cultural religion not only suppresses prophecy but becomes its greatest opposition.

When religion puts on cultural blinkers, the journey from organized religion to cultural religion becomes a very short detour.

In the pages of the Old Testament, we witness this age-old struggle between the divine vision for Israel expressed in its covenant with God and its own vision shaped by an adoption of the cultural values of the world around it. The history of ancient Israel is a rollercoaster ride, a record of the ups and downs in a struggle that finds no simple solution.

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samuel-hearing-the-lordThe first lesson for this Sunday, the call of Samuel, is set in an age when: the word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread.  This is a description of a society in which God’s voice is no longer heard or even expected to be heard. In Samuel’s call, we witness Hebrew society’s final attempt to form a true theocracy in which God would be the sole leader.

Samuel was that last of the great charismatic Judges who ruled in Israel before the age of monarchy. In his call, we see God repudiating the religion corrupted by cultural values; that turned a blind eye to the misuse of power identified with Ely, then priest at the hill shrine of Shiloh, and his corrupt sons.

The period of Samuel’s judgeship is a watershed between tribal confederacy led by a charismatic leader and the emergence of monarchy in Israel. Under pressure, Samuel will finally gives way to the people’s demand: give us a king like all the other nations around us  -and anoints first Saul and then David to be kings of Israel.

The advent of kingship in Israel ushered in a new phase in the struggle between culture and religion. With the advent of the monarchy, Hebrew religion becomes corrupted by the cult of divine kingship. As a result, the office of the prophet now arises to speak out against the cultural corruption of Israel’s covenant with God. Israel’s new cultural religion gave its blessing not to God, but to kings who acted as if they were God.

In the politics of ancient Israel, prophecy becomes the counterpoint to the royal prerogative.

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The eternal truth is that political structures shift and change, nevertheless the need for prophecy remains. By the 1st-century, Israel’s period of monarchy is but a dim memory. In Jesus time an imperial Roman occupation worked uneasily hand in glove with Jewish cultural religion represented by the Jerusalem Temple establishment. Jerusalem and the Temple embodied a 1st-century equivalent to life within the Beltway. In his teaching about the kingdom of God. Jesus – the heir to the prophets -confronts the cultural religion of his day.

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Mark tells us of an incident between Jesus and the Pharisees that took place on the Sabbath. In his confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus shines the spotlight on the central issue of the cultural corruption of religion.

Chapters 2:1 – 3:6 record five clashes between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities. In this incident in the cornfield on the Sabbath Day, Jesus insists that God made the Sabbath for the benefit of human beings, not human beings for the benefit of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath observance harkens back to the Genesis story of God resting on the 7th day after 6 days of creation. Without regular rest and respite, our human capacity for the enjoyment of life is degraded. Thus God intends the Sabbath as an instrument of nurture and care. But the Pharisees had turned it into a religious instrument in the culture wars of the 1st-century; an instrument of social control enforced by punishment.

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As in Jesus’ day, so also today. Organized religion when it turns it back on its prophetic responsibilities to speak the good news of the kingdom to society -degenerates, becoming a bulwark in defense of the hardness of the human heart. Every day, we are witnesses to the most strident defense of cultural values and political expediencies loudly trumpeted by religious groups that have become so identified with a particular version of American culture that they no longer bear any resemblance to the radical and revolutionary expectations of God’s kingdom articulated in the teaching of Jesus.

When confronted by prophetic witness, cultural religion becomes something lethal in its defense of cultural norms. In its practice of an extreme form of identity politics, culturally co-opted religion lashes out against everything that threatens its hold on power.

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The Pharisees become so outraged by Jesus’ prophetic challenge that Marks tells us: they went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. Between the pious Pharisees and the worldly Herodians – between the so-called religious faction and those who cared for nothing but privilege and power, -can we imagine a more unholy and self-serving alliance? Regrettably, I think we can!

In a New York Times Op-Ed this week, Ross Douthat speaking about recent ructions in the white, male-dominated and politically power hungry hierarchy of the Southern Baptist Convention, poses our wider dilemma:

So the question posed by this age of revelation is simple: Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge?

Douthat concludes that:

For ….. all of us, the direction of history …… will be determined not just by Providence’s challenge, but by our freely chosen answer.

For organized religion in today’s America, there is a clear litmus test to determine the vibrancy of its prophetic health. This litmus test is simple, it is clear, and it is uncompromising:

Justice is what love looks like in public; tenderness is what love feels like in private. Cornel West.


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