I find the prophetic tradition of the Bible such a fascinating bridge into contemporary life. Their social commentary recorded in the 7th and 8th century B.C. profoundly describes the injustices that we are facing today. They offer almost uncanny descriptions of the failure of the "powers that be" to provide adequately for the poor and marginalized while maintaining a status quo that protects and enriches the elite. Without the benefit of all contemporary statistical analysis of trends and facts and figures about wealth disparity, they rely on another source of critical analysis, namely from G-d. “What is going on down on earth,” says G-d, “is a violation of the covenant I have with humankind, that they are to ‘act justly, love mercy, and walk, humbly.’ Tell the people to shape up, or else…”
But, of course, it was no easier to “shape up” people then than it is now, and the Hebrew prophets became even more strident in warning that the existing social order wasn’t sustainable and would be falling apart, and catastrophe would follow unless the people changed their ways. Nobody then or now likes to hear this kind of dire message, and it is always easier to deny the message and ignore or dismiss the messengers than to sink into its obvious truths.
But their message could not be ignored. Things did get worse (space does not allow the details) and the prophet's nation crumbled and fell into despair. And much of the prophetic message then is one of lamentation to express the loss, grief, sorrow and regret for the absence of the blessings their society had squandered. My reflection this evening is how similarly we ignore the various warnings of destruction if our societal and environmental abuses continue. And I am left to wonder how deeply we also will lament our failure to make crucial changes demanded of us today.
Lamentation is not a word we often currently use, but I think it is a key concept for us to ponder today. We are in a crucial process of reckoning with our need to truly lament the way we have treated the earth and each other, as difficult and unwelcome honest assessment may be. Until we are prepared to accept the dire predictions of climate change, for example, and to deeply lament how we have abused the natural world, we cannot make the changes required of us. The temptation of a numbing status quo will always be a huge barrier.
The pandemic, however, has forced us all to step back and take a “prophetic assessment” of the plight of the entire planet. The present historical moment demands of us, as did the prophets of old, that we reckon with the suffering, destruction and unsustainability of the present course of the world, and in response we must radically change course.
Like my comments above, the age old prophetic voice can be threatening and ominous, and we understandably resist it. It can just feel too judgmental and hopeless. But there is another side to the prophetic messages. Following their condemnations, the prophets suddenly pivot to a message of hope, and I want to conclude with that assurance for us as well.
For at least the last two or three generations we have been culturally immersed in consumerism, and for many of us Americans especially we are unable to transfer attention beyond our personal needs and comfort to the welfare of the common good and the planet itself. Although we are still too immersed in surviving the pandemic, it has forced us to look beyond these immediate needs. Many of us wonder and worry about how we are to make a living and return to a more stable life after the pandemic and, in addition, to a yet to be determined political reality. The wiser ones among us have created an even greater appreciation for the unity of the world because the virus threatens all of us. As a result many have a greater appreciation for our common plight and our need to work together nonviolently for critical changes. What would it mean if I were to reject the temptation of just trying to get back to life pre-pandemic? What if the whole world, in fact, were to institute common values that support sustainability and the ability to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly?” In spite of the violence that also pervades the world, I also hear the voice of compassion and nonviolence rising.
So at heart today’s prophetic message, as it has always been, is a spiritual and political challenge. Our timeless prophetic warnings need to be taken seriously, and soulful reckoning and lamentation needs to take place. People of faith need to rise up with the hope and assurance that change and reconciliation is possible, that our lives will make a difference whether or not that is immediately apparent. We are encouraged to believe, like the prophets past and present, that a higher power of love and truth will ultimately offer forgiveness for our unfaithfulness and folly and provide impetus and guidance toward a new creation of a beloved community that longs to come to being.