A prophet makes a vow of love, not of alienation. Daniel Berrigan wrote those words – and they need to be highlighted today, when a lot of sincere, committed, religious people self-define as cultural warriors, as prophets at war with secular culture.
This is the stance of many seminarians, clergy, bishops and whole denominations of Christians today. It is a virtual mantra within the Religious Right and in many Catholic seminaries. In this outlook, secular culture is seen as a negative force that is threatening our faith, morals, religious liberties and churches. Secular culture is viewed as, for the main part, being anti-Christian, anti-ecclesial and anticlerical, and its political correctness is seen to protect everyone except Christians. More worrisome for these cultural warriors is what they regard as the “slippery slope”, wherein they see our culture as sliding ever further from our Judeo-Christian roots. In the face of this, they believe, the churches must be highly vigilant, defensive and in a warrior stance.
Partly they’re correct. There are voices and movements within secular culture that do threaten some essentials within our faith and moral lives, as is seen in the issue of abortion, and there is the danger of the “slippery slope”. But the real picture is more nuanced than this defensiveness merits. Secularity, for all its narcissism, false freedoms and superficiality, also carries many key Christian values that challenge us to live more deeply our own principles. Moreover, the issues on which they challenge us are not minor ones. Secular culture, in its best expressions, is a powerful challenge to everyone in the world to be more sensitive and more moral in the face of economic inequality, human rights violations, war, racism, sexism and the ravaging of mother nature for short-term gain. The voice of God is also inside secular culture. Christian prophecy must account for that. Secular culture is not the Antichrist.
It ultimately comes out of Judeo-Christian roots and has inextricably embedded within its core many central values of Judeo-Christianity. We need, then, to be careful as cultural warriors, not to be blindly fighting truth, justice, the poor, equality and the integrity of creation. Too often, in a black-and-white approach, we end up having God fighting God.
A prophet has to be characterised first of all by love, by empathy for the very people he or she is challenging. Moreover, as the theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez teaches, our words of challenge must come more out of our gratitude than our anger, no matter how justified the latter. Being angry, being in someone else’s face, shredding those who don’t agree with us with hate-filled rhetoric and winning bitter arguments, admittedly might sometimes be politically effective. But all of these are counterproductive long-term because they harden hearts rather than soften them. True conversion can never come about by coercion, physical or intellectual. Hearts only change when they’re touched by love.
All of us know this from experience. We can only truly accept a strong challenge to clean up something in our lives if we first know that this challenge is coming to us because someone loves us, and loves us enough to care for us in this deep way. This alone can soften our hearts. Every other kind of challenge only works to harden hearts. So before we can effectively speak a prophetic challenge to our culture we must first let the people we are trying to win over know that we love them, and love them enough to care about them in this deep way.
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