In some theological circles, most notably liberation or contextual theological and the ecumenical movement there is a considerable amount of talk about the prophetic role of the churches. In these discourses, prophetic role of the churches and Christians usually means that of announcing the “truth to power”, or proclaiming a Gospel-based critical message towards the mighty of this world acting in a manner that violates the rights of the marginalised. These marginalised may be humans or belong to the rest of the creation. Yet, it is rather seldom that a church assumes an actual prophetic role.
Why are churches seldom prophetic?
First of all, one easily grants the name prophetic for any progressive social or political activism that pleases the observer. However, not all socially or politically engaging theology or ecclesiastic action can be counted as prophetic. For example, today general religiously motivated exhortations to care for the environment to reduce climate change are not very prophetic, no matter how needed they might be. When viewed through the Hebrew Bible, prophetic proclamation usually takes place in the margins, happens at a considerable personal cost or risk, and goes against the grain – either popular opinion or the powers that be.
How to relate to power has been a tricky question for churches for two millennia. Benefits of jumping in the bandwagon of powers that be have often been great – avoiding persecution or other social and even economic gains. Each church is also an integral part of the community where it is located, and Christians are prone to share many of the values of the surrounding society. Many churches adjust their positions according to what they count will increase (or slow down the decrease) of their membership. Additionally, Christians often genuinely believe in the state propaganda or general opinion – Christian faith does not automatically provide anyone a moral high ground or special analytical abilities from where to observe the mundane politics as if from outside.
Churches in authoritarian societies
In many cases, a church would be in the position of challenging the powers but instead of doing that, rather plays happily in the oppressive symphony orchestra. Thus, the leadership of the Orthodox Church in Belarus stands by side of Lukashenko’s regime even if the church members are facing oppression in the streets when demanding free and fair elections. Many Belarussian churches in the diaspora have condemned Lukashenko. Putin’s Russia is turning increasingly oppressive towards its citizens, with politically motivated assassinations (often with poison), arbitrary arrests, skewed court cases (as judged by the European Court of Human Rights), state (supported) media attacks on dissidents, intimidation, and imprisonment. Those actions await Russians who dare to challenge the economic or political power of Putin and his cronies, or the reinterpretation of Russian history that is being forced upon the people. A part of that is rehabilitation of Josif Stalin, one of the most ruthless dictators of human history, and a fierce persecutor of Christians. What does the Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate do? It supports the regime when the church members’ human rights are abused, and the memory of her martyrs is mocked by lifting Uncle Joe back to the pedestal.
However, when in minority and in a precarious situation, the church’s decision to take a prophetic stance could lead from a situation of oppression to persecution. Thus, it would be unrealistic to expect that for example Chinese churches would stand up against Xi’s regimes abysmal human rights record – from Uighur concentration camps via Tibet to crushing the Hong Kong calls for democracy. Christian churches are in minority, and already now in a tight spot. Any organization is bound to struggle for its survival. Therefore, it is more likely that individuals act as prophets rather than churches.
Churches in freedom of speech contexts
How about the ecumenical movement that sounds often so prophetic renouncing all kinds of evils all around the world? The World Council of Churches’ silence on Belarus, Russia and China is both remarkable and understandable. For the WCC to raise its voice, a member church in the country would need to take up the matter. At least in some cases, the risk of (increased) oppression and even persecution may make this line of action prudent. That policy is golden for the oppressive regimes – do not meddle with the others’ internal affairs. The churches in Belarus and Russia do not want, and the ones in China cannot introduce their governments’ human rights abuses in the agenda. Both Belarus and Russia belong to the Moscow Patriarchate which, in turn, represents the lion’s share of the Orthodox in the ecumenical community. Would the WCC get a temporary mental disorder and offend the mighty Patriarchate, the latter’s exit would turn the WCC primarily into a club of Protestant churches.
Even in situations where democracy is in danger but not yet perished – like the USA during the last four years – truly prophetic action was hard to spot. The nation was divided, and so were the churches – according to their market share. Churches targeting towards market segments opposing Trump were happily proclaiming their anti-Trump Gospel. That does not count as prophetic, it is politics. Churches in the Trump-market segment predominantly went along with their customers, possibly uttering a few words against Trump’s obscene language. However, they were basically approving the anti-democratic, xenophobic, and toxic turn in the history of the nation. Evangelicals and other conservative Christians would have been called to prophetic proclamation, even at the cost of losing dollars in the Sunday collect, but such voices were far and few. Even in the USA, power, prestige, and politics reigned over sincere search for the Gospel values.
Many churches of Western Europe avoid drastic positions regarding climate change and its root cause – almost unrestricted global capitalism. Securing popularity and the churches’ societal position dampens the voice. The same dynamics is at play regarding a range of issues, with variations between churches in different countries. Whenever the public opinion begins to turn, these churches follow.
There will always be prophets but instead of churches, they are individuals making moral choices at a great personal risk.