Quick: give me a Bible verse on social justice. What comes to mind?
Was it Micah 6:8? Isaiah 1:17? Zechariah 7:9-10? Jeremiah 22:3? Chances are it was from one of the Old Testament prophets. Or perhaps it was from Psalms (e.g. 82:3), or one of the Torah passages about justice for widows, orphans, and foreigners (e.g. Deuteronomy 15:7-11).
What about New Testament verses? The NT is full of calls to social action (e.g. to love God and people, or the Good Samaritan). But it doesn’t tend to label these things as justice. There’s a couple of OT quotes about justice, and a few stories about people not getting justice, but few commands to do justice. Why so different to the OT prophets?
Aren’t we called to “speak truth to power” as the OT prophets did? Isn’t that the kingdom of God in action? Shouldn’t we call the leaders of our nation to account as the prophets did in Israel long ago? Isn’t that kingdom work?
Please consider the assumptions undergirding that approach. Is it appropriate to compare our nation and our leaders to the nation of Israel and its leaders in OT times? Israel was a theocracy, a nation ruled by God. He gave them their laws, including many laws about social justice. They did not elect a king: the Davidic family was divinely elected to represent their heavenly sovereign on earth. But many of the kings of Judah and all of the kings of Israel failed to represent the heavenly king properly: they “did what was evil in YHWH’s sight.” So YHWH sent prophets to confront the rulers who misrepresented him.
It is completely inappropriate to transfer that framework to our nation. We are not a theocracy. The nation of Australia is not called to represent God to other nations. Malcom Turnbull is not a divinely appointed king representing on earth the king in heaven. Consequently no Christian “prophet” has any divine mandate to confront him or his government for failing to accurately represent the God he is not representing. That’s just bad exegesis, misapplying the Bible.
That should be obvious when you read the NT. When did Jesus prophetically confront Herod? How many prophetic messages did Jesus send to Caesar, or to his local representative Pontius Pilate? John the Baptist lost his head over a critique of Herod, but Jesus avoided Herod. Jesus prophetically engaged the Jewish leaders for misrepresenting God, but he did not critique the gentile rulers for failing to provide social justice.
What about Paul? When Paul said “Jesus is Lord,” was he implying that Caesar is not? A number of NT scholars discuss that question in Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (IVP Academic, 2013). Paul’s message implies that earthly rulers will lose their power when everyone bows to Jesus’ name, and Paul does want to proclaim Jesus’ kingship to rulers (Acts 9:15; 28:31). But Paul never critiques Roman rulers on matters of social justice. He never instructs Rome on how to run the empire.
The Book of Revelation contains strong denouncement of the empire (Babylon/Rome), but the prophecy is addressed to the churches, not to Rome. Its warning is that the people of God must not be deceived by the beastly empire. They must guard against the false prophet that pretends to represent the Lamb but is actually deceiving the churches by speaking the beast’s message. Revelation is speaking prophetic truth to the church, not “speaking truth to power” if by power we mean the political system.
The kingdom of God is not making prophetic announcements to the current system. True prophets neither proclaim or denounce Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. They proclaim Jesus and his reign as the only salvation for the planet. They don’t attack the present political system; they embody an alternative one — the kingdom of God.
“Speaking truth to power” sounds attractive, especially as it implies nonviolent confrontation. But is that what we’re called to do? Denouncing the dark powers that currently run the world is a waste of effort. Proclaim Jesus and embrace justice. The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
Don’t confuse our democratic right to protest with our mandate from God. Our divine mandate is not to denounce the rulers of this world; it’s to be the kingdom of his Son. Don’t try to drive the darkness out; be the light.
What others are saying
Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 10:
There are deeply problematic things about the model of truth-speaking-to-power.
Examples of authors calling us to “speak truth to power”:
Thomas B. Slater, “Context, Christology And Civil Disobedience In John’s Apocalypse” in Review and Expositor 106:1 (2009) 63:
The Revelation to John is the earliest form of Christian civil disobedience. It is a biblical warrant to speak truth to power.
Russell D. Moore, “From the House of Jacob to the Iowa Caucuses: The Future of Israel in Contemporary Evangelical Political Ethics,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 11:4 (2007) 19:
American evangelicals—as long as they are rooted in a biblical worldview—understand supporting legitimate authority, even as they understand speaking truth to power. As long as this is the case, American evangelicals will support the Israeli state …
Carl Trueman, “Uneasy Consciences and Critical Minds: What the Followers of Carl Henry Can Learn from Edward Said,” Themelios 30:2 (2005): 45:
We need Christian [Edward] Saids who will not waste time on junk but rather will dare to speak the truth to power in all circumstances and however uneasy it might make our consciences.
Robert Allen Warrior, “Response,” Semeia 75 (1996) 209:
The post-colonial, on the other hand, seems for now to be the location from which to speak truth to power and to find like-minded people who seek ways to address the conditions of suffering under which our planet’s majority exists.
[previous: So what is the kingdom?]
10 thoughts on “The kingdom and prophetic engagement: speaking truth to power?”
I’m really challenged by this post. I have always seen it as a Christian responsibility to speak out for justice. Jesus told the Pharisees not to neglect justice and the love of God, and I would say that when Paul said that Jesus is Lord, he was most definitely implying that Caesar is not. That is the whole reason the early Christians were persecuted. Caesar was seen as ‘Lord’ and ‘Saviour of the world’ and so when the Christians proclaimed another king and refused to pay ultimate homage to Caesar, that was a threat to Rome and so the Christians had to be punished. (I know you know all that, but I’m just making my point).
I would also be interested in how you take Matthew 25:31-46 as being referenced to ‘the nations’. I agree that there is a big difference between the OT prophets calling Israel to justice as Israel was claiming to live under God, and a secular state like Australia which doesn’t claim allegiance to God. Given this, are you saying then that Christians in Australia can stand for justice (eg. for the Manus Island refugees) as our democratic right but not in the name of God, or that we shouldn’t stand for justice at all? I would see embodying an alternative kingdom as caring for the marginalised, as Jesus did. In the case of the Manus Island refugees, that would mean calling for them to be released and be treated with compassion.
In the case of the US, what of people like Martin Luther King, who stood for justice for African Americans. Is that different because America claimed to be a nation under God?
I’m wondering if you see embodying an alternative kingdom as care for the outcast, as the early Christians did, but not advocating for justice for them in the name of God. Is that what you are saying?
Lateah the Christian and Lateah the social worker are currently having friendly, internal discussion about this one Allen! Needs some more thinking through, but my current thoughts are this.
From a biblical perspective, your argument is sound and I cannot but agree. But my personal, lived experience tells me that the out working of love is sometimes not as clear cut. In my work there are times when myself and my colleagues become aware of societal and bureaucratic structures that cause (often unintentionally, but sometimes not) injustice, pain and harm to others. Put very simply, my job is to help those people. But if I just showed love by addressing each individual circumstance, without trying to address the cause, I become at worst part of the problem and at least working in a perpetual futile loop. Don’t get me wrong, I know that I am no Martin Luther King Jr, but I believe I am called to play my small part with others playing theirs to hopefully bring about change to protect the vulnerable. So, I can hear the argument that yes this is the right thing to do in my role as a social worker in the world, but it is not what Jesus called me to do. However, that doesn’t sit well with me as I know my whole being must come under the Lordship of Christ and I am called to reflect him everywhere that I am (and I’d rather not develop a split personality!). I know that being a social worker is part of who God made and called me to be and I believe pointing out (in a kind and gentle way) where structures are harming others is a part of reflecting the love of Jesus Christ. How do I know this? Because I know what it looks like when I don’t and it is not God honouring! And because of the examples of others, such as Martin Luther King Jr!
I can hazard a guess as to what type of ‘prophecy’ this blog is aimed at, and in those instances, I totally agree we are not called to do that! But I think there are times when enacting our Kingdom calling in our small corner of the world requires trying to change structures that cause harm. And unfortunately in the work God has called me to, this is hard, messy, complicated work with often no clear path!
All that said, I could be completely off track and am open to redirection! Love your work Allen!
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Lateah, this is a great question about integrating our faith and our work when there are conflicting values / expectations / limitations. It deserves a well considered response. Will reply.
Thanks for this question, Lateah asking about the work context of your life.
In working in a secular setting, we have at least an implied contract about what our employer expects, permits, and prohibits. In choosing to work there, we agree to those terms. At times, that means confronting those in charge on behalf of those we’re paid to serve. That’s appropriate, even if difficult. So yes: your social work job requires you to stand up for and defend vulnerable people. It’s part of your role in that job, so I understand what you mean when you say, “I think there are times when enacting our Kingdom calling in our small corner of the world requires trying to change structures that cause harm.” Fair enough.
But I wonder how effective that kind of change is at the macro level in the long term. Joseph’s advice to Pharaoh resulted in many lives being saved (Genesis 45:5-7; 47:25; 50:20). But eventually another Pharaoh who remembered nothing of Joseph commanded the killing of many innocent lives (Exodus 1:15-21). The Bible’s narrative seems to be that human rulers always end up being corrupted by power. Confronting the rulers of this world is sometimes helpful in the short term, but doesn’t take us far enough.
It seems to me that the only thing that changes the world long-term is redemption through the Messiah, so people embodying the lifestyle of the kingdom of God, under the governance of God’s anointed ruler. Only when embodied in God’s people does God’s eternal plan comes to light, making God’s multi-faceted wisdom known to the rulers and authorities (Eph 3:10).
In the meantime, it can feel like being split persons — living gospel realities, while constrained by limitations at work. You’re right: it’s hard, messy, complicated, often with no clear path. We all share that struggle: Paul was constrained to a jail cell when wrote Ephesians.
So, by all means, do what you can at work, and use the opportunities you have there to care for people as Christ’s servant.
Thank you Allen! I have a much better understanding now of what you are saying. And I agree, the world continues in corruption and harm despite the actions of many good people over many years. And if we think that we are going to be able to eventually complete God’s kingdom here on earth with our continued efforts to change corrupt powers and structures, we are deluded. Jesus already won and is king, we just need to join him! And he is the only one who can and will correct and renew the whole world in its entirety when he comes again. And that is what we live in hope of!
In the meantime, I will continue to challenge powers that are causing harm when I have the authority and calling to do so. Why? What would be the point if the above is true? To give those in my life whom I have been given the honour of serving a little practical taste of the kingdom of God here on earth, a kingdom where the king cares about the injustices and pain many experience in the here and now. And hopefully they too will join the kingdom and fight the good fight.
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Thanks for this Allen. I’ve been thinking about what you have written and am struggling with it. I have always assumed that advocating for justice is a Christian thing to do. I definitely see that there is no real comparison between the OT prophets criticising Israel for neglecting justice, as Israel was a theocracy and was mandated to do justice in the name of God, whereas Australia is a secular state and has made no commitment before God to do what is right.
That leaves me in a conundrum though about how to deal with, say, the Manus Island asylum seekers. There are people like Jarrod McKenna who both embody an alternative kingdom (through his ‘First Home Project’ where he houses asylum seekers) and protest against our Government’s cruel policies towards asylum seekers. Would I be right in assuming that you are saying that we as Christians can exercise our democratic right to protest against this injustice, but not do it in the name of God, because the Government of our secular state is not expected to obey God? Or are you going further and saying that it is not the Christian’s place to protest at all about the plight of asylum seekers on Manus Island?
In terms of following what the early Christians did, and what Paul is saying when he declares that Jesus is Lord, I think he is most certainly saying that therefore Caesar is not. By saying there is another Lord (which Caesar was referred to as, as well as ‘Saviour of the world’), Paul is being incredibly subversive and posing a threat to the empire. That is why so many Christians were persecuted, not because they worshipped Jesus per se, but that they said Jesus was the only rightful Lord (I’m aware that you know all this, but I’m just making my point).
What also of people like Martin Luther King? Or would you say that he was protesting against a Government that claimed to be governing a nation under God?
I would see embodying an alternative kingdom to include protesting against injustice (whilst putting forward a credible alternative).
Interested in your thoughts.
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Great thoughts, Nils. Love the way you’re engaging.
As you perceived, this is controversial stuff. It really is important that we focus our efforts on what our king wants. I look forward to your thoughts on this as well.
There’ll be more posts on how we live kingdom life in our culture and time.
This has definitely given me food for thought about different contexts and responses. Totally understand that our allegiance and true redeemer is to be Jesus alone. There are a number wrinkles to add to (or at least consider) to your framework:
We must remember that during the time of the writing of the epistles most folks were not people in power but were people without the right of Roman citizenship (Jesus himself likely did not have citizenship status) or at least not in positions to affect direct political change. Their opportunities to do good for larger society, at the policy level, was limited. Didn’t Paul (who was a Roman citizen) speak truth to power, not only of his unjust treatment as a citizen by the powers that be, but spoke to them constantly that they would be reconciled to God?
Joseph (as you mentioned in your comments), Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah were not priests or part of the theocracy of Israel either, but they affected policy of the pagan government for the good of those in need. It was not permanent, so wouldn’t that be a case for the continual need to speak truth to power (not limited to a certain time)?
If we have the privilege to be citizens, and citizens in a democratic country no less, we have more opportunity than most to do good that affects a great number of people (ultimately if we are citizens of the Kingdom of God shouldn’t that make us better engaged for Kingdom justice on earth as it is in heaven? Yes, we worship the King but that cannot be separated from the Kingdom reign and what that should like that we ask everyday to be done here as it is in Heaven). Jesus reminds us that “to whom much was given, of him much will be required.”
Lastly, and most importantly the law and the prophets calls us to seek justice. Jesus makes clear he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill them (and tells us to pursue the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness [Matthew 23:23]) and those that set them aside (yes, even after the appearance of Jesus) will be called least in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:17-20). The very book of Revelation you reference is full of speaking truth to power – a rebuke to the church AND to the systems of the world (the Roman empire of the time)- with stern warnings to religious folks that align themselves with worldly power and for “Babylon” excessive in their luxuries while others suffer. What we do or fail to do for the least of these still matters. Isaiah 1:17 is consistent with Matthew 25:31-46. It is certainly not the root of salvation but it is the fruit of true salvation.
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