The Prophet the World Needs: Why the Church Needs to be More than Just a Comfort

“To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is a slight; to the prophets a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”

-Abraham Joshua Heschel

My social media feed has a lot of pastors on it. The other day I was scrolling through and one of them was doing a quick video promo on a new Bible study their church was doing on “Philippians: Living Life to the Full.” This pastor is great. And their church is great. And I’m sure the Bible study will be great. But for some reason, my face almost exploded. It left me so unsettled I could barely stand it. Earlier in the day I had heard two stories about kids at the border dying and the Amazon rain forest on fire. These intersections just struck me so hard. So often our response to the pain of the world is to do more Bible studies.

I feel like I’ve struggled with the church my whole life – which is funny since I’m a pastor. Pastors should be the ones that love the church the most, right? Well, maybe I’m an oddball – but it’s a struggle. Don’t get me wrong – I love the people and I believe in the institution. But lately I’ve just been feeling more and more attuned to the reality that our world is on fire.

Families are being separated at the border.

Poor, confused children are put in cages.

Everyone I know is struggling economically.

People are sick and don’t have insurance or are consumed with medical debt.

Everyone is lonely.

The environment is in a crisis.  

And there is war and more war.

I could go on and on…but you see, right? People are enduring an epidemic of suffering.

And to some degree the response of the modern American church is and has been to offer people a place of comfort and a place to build community with other people. While this is an important function of the church, is this all that the church has become? Is that where this radical, revolutionary, world-changing movement that began with a message of a new Kingdom of justice – crashing into Caesar’s kingdom of exploitation- has ended up? This movement that was birthed in and through the life and teachings of an incarnate Messiah who was an executed political enemy of the state?

The church is so good at filling its calendars with Bible studies and get-togethers. With gatherings and readings and meals and parties- but isn’t the purpose of the church to change the world? To bring shalom? We so consistently and disproportionately spend our time and resources on building the inner life of the church.  On building up the inner life of the individual, and doing Bible studies on “living your life to the fullest” while the world is on fire, kids are living in cages, bombs are ripping into flesh, your next-door neighbor is drowning in medical debt, and the economy has exploited nearly every last thread of dignity from our lives.

So…you see my frustration.

Yes, we need community because we are deeply lonely – but are we asking ourselves why we are so lonely? Yes, we are separated and segregated based on income and race, but have we asked why? Yes, we are in desperate need of understanding and rest, but have we asked why?

Our economy has sold us a lie- that our value is found in our productivity. And whether we believe it or not, we have been pushed to the brink of survival and must continually strive harder and push ourselves further just to maintain. We slowly sacrifice our relationships, our community, and our sanity in order to keep ourselves out of the red. We are so worried about our health, our bills, our retirement, our kids’ education- there is no time for actual living. Our reliance on social media is not the cause of our relational disconnection, it is a symptom of it. Our reliance on convenience shopping and Amazon.com is not the cause of our community disconnection, it is a symptom of it. Our reliance on meal delivery services and grill washing services and childcare services is not the cause of our household disconnection, they are symptoms of it. We can’t even live our own lives because our economy has isolated us and told us to produce. And we do, because we must.

Yes, the sky is falling – and the church is continuing on in its role of being a comfort in an ever-increasingly chaotic world. But should the church help us adjust to injustice and stress, or should it be turning the tables of injustice over? Should the church help us acquiesce to an unfair system that is in essence stripping us of our humanity, or should it take on the system head on and fight it? For us. For our neighbors. For our future.

I know, it’s hard work. And we are so, so deeply tired. This world is so broken that when we get to church we are often exhausted and burnt out and lonely and heartbroken. We are seeking comfort and shelter, but is the church simply a medic station as we fight this battle? Or can it work to stop the war so that we don’t have to keep living on a battlefield?

As Bonhoeffer said, “we are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke in the wheel itself.”

The church should be a group of people who are deeply committed to caring for each other, caring for the hurting – but also committed to changing the structures of the world that are causing the pain in the first place. Like many have said, we can rescue people flowing downstream all day long but at some point we have to go upstream and figure out who is throwing everyone in the river – and stop that tyrant.

That will mean that we get political. Yes, political. God changes hearts but people make laws and we need laws that empower flourishing instead of sustain suffering. Remember, the prophets were always political.

The church won’t ensure access to healthcare through beautiful hymns. The church won’t lessen the burden of the economy on the middle and low income folks through a great sermon. The church won’t stop ICE from terrorizing our Latino(a) communities through a potluck lunch. While those things are important, if that’s all we do then we are missing the point. Jesus was building a political movement, not just a religious one. He was building a movement that was meant to liberate people who were suffering from the domination of the powerful. Jesus was establishing a new order of human interaction that was full of flourishing – for everyone. Politics, at its best, is the public negotiation of how we care for our citizens. To care for each other we need love and charity. The church can birth that through community and breaking down walls. But we must also take the next step. We need to learn from our African American churches who have been literally fighting for their community’s survival and see that the only way flourishing will happen is if the laws support flourishing.

Yes, I’m too political. Yes, I’m a pastor who is running for Congress. That’s my step. Maybe I won’t win – but I’m part of the process and will use that to push for justice. What’s your step? We all have to get involved, right now. In small and big ways. Because the world is under threat – existence is being thrown a deathblow – people are dying and suffering and the progressive church must embrace its holy calling to send some people upstream to stop the exploitation of human lives and send some people out of the clinic in order to stop the exploitive systems the powerful are waging on the rest of us.

Y’all are the prophets.

What’s your step? What wheel do you need to drive a spoke into?

Don’t know what to do? Feel overwhelmed? Then take a small step. Maybe the church is the wheel we need to start with. No, don’t just contact your Congressperson…contact your pastor. Write them a letter or send them an email. Tell them that your church must do more to stand up for the marginalized. Tell them why.

Believe me, they listen.

Then get a few others together that want to see the change you want to see. Form a group in your church and all of you contact your pastors. Organize within your church and demand change. The church has existed in the same function for far too long, and (for the most part), is no longer responding to the needs of society in the way it should be. We are far too concerned with our collective inner lives. And that’s our fault. We want our pastor to visit us when we are sick more than we want our pastor to stand up for the rights of the vulnerable. We will have to sacrifice in this too. But we must.

The forces that built the church no longer exist and if the church is to survive then we have to rebuild it to respond to the needs of the world around us right now. Our widows and orphans may just be immigrants and climate change. But take hope, your voice can shape the church. You have power. Your attendance, your giving, and your presence hold a great deal of power in your church. Use it. Organize change.

The sky is falling. Y’all are the prophets.

What’s your step?

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