Prophecy in the Progressive Church
by Fredica Harris Thompsett
Fredica Harris Thompsett is Academic Dean at the Episcopal Divinity School The following is a transcript of a speech delivered at the 1996 National Forum of The Center for Progressive Christianity. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available atwww.tcpc.org.
My goal is to help people know that we are all theologians. So this is not an academic presentation, per se. I want to say some things about what I think prophecy might be in a progressive church and in a troubled world. I want to say what I don't think it is, as well as what it might be. Number one, to be prophetic in the progressive church certainly does not mean to be doctrinaire. I don't know how you can be a doctrinaire progressive. So it seems to me that one of the questions is, how do you speak out in a post-Nicene way? How do you speak out in a post-Nicene way in a Nicene church? I've really got to ask the question because the friends that I argue with theologically assume that the fourth century was it, and that the work has been done.
Prophecy in the progressive church does not mean being doctrinaire. It does mean speaking out as a child of God. It probably means that we have just forgotten to ask the questions. The prophets asked the questions. Biblical ones did. And we often forget that asking questions can be the real way to God. Let's think along that line for awhile.
Second, prophecy in a progressive church and in a troubled world does not mean talking mainly about the future or a far distant time. It does mean being messengers now. This, I think, is important. I was talking with my Jewish chiropractor friend. He is under forty. I have learned to listen to him. He once said, "I know that the difference between prophecy in your church and in mine is that Christians believe it's about the future and Jews believe it's about now." I said, "No, it's conservative Christians who believe it's about the spiritualized future." If our message isn't about the now, we will fall into that trap of a far distant prophetic message that has nothing to do with the present. Prophecy in the progressive church does not mean talking about the future. It does mean being a messenger now.
Third, I think prophecy in a progressive spirit does not mean making abstract, disembodied statements. It does mean remembering concrete, living people and the struggles for life and liberation. Rigoberta Menchu is to me one of the great prophets of our time. This Guatemalan, indigenous woman speaks there about life right under her feet. It's embodied life, and it's real life, and it's diverse life, and it's painful life, and it's hopeful life.
Fourth, I think that prophecy in the progressive church does not mean following a generally male model of threatening or invoking punishment and condemnation. I venture to say this out of my affiliation with liberationist and feminist theology, and with the support of a couple of wonderful theologians, Letty Russell and Shannon Clarkson, who have just edited a new dictionary of feminist theologies. Prophecy does mean—in Letty Russell's words—proclaiming, encouraging, challenging, and strengthening. I am going to quote Richard Hooker, whom we like because he said smart things in the sixteenth century, and that was good news. He said we are inclined to win more to God by mercy than we are by the hard edge of condemnation. Not a bad crack in a century that burned people because they chose the wrong faith. You can throw away those gender labels now because we all know gender labels are illusory. Put that model of condemnation on the shelf, and take out that progressive model of encouraging, challenging, and strengthening. Test out that approach in your own life and in your own experience.
Fifth, prophecy in the progressive church does not mean standing apart from the people, from the community. It is not apartness. We also know it is not neutrality; we have to address apathy. It does mean a deep, critical, relational engagement with a community. This means mountaintops will not do. It probably means that caves are not a good idea unless you've got a bunch of folk in them. It probably means getting down into the valleys and into the mud pits and coming down into the streets. My pastoral training at the University of Chicago years ago was with the Blackstone Rangers. My Clinical Pastoral Education was Saul Alinsky. It made all the difference in the world.
Sixth, prophecy in the progressive church does not mean sweeping generalities, but focused identification of the ways and means of moving forward. Talking with some under forty folk, I heard one of them say, "I've got it. Prophets are kind of like new age folk, they channel the energies." We shouldn't bash new age people. They're tapping into something that's out there. They channel. They focus. Lots of things are going on. How can we really pay attention to channeling the energies? Think, for example, if those churches in the south that were burning were all the Christ Churches and all the Trinity Churches, do you think some folks would be helping us focus the energies? We've got some prophetic work to do up North in focusing energy about specific things that are going on in these times.
Finally, number seven, prophecy in a progressive age does not assume that prophets are few. It assumes that they are many and that they work together, not alone. Prophets are ordinary folk in the best sense of God's ordinary creation. There is myth out there. I had a very conservative Christian student tell me that in his understanding you waited a long time for a prophet to come. When one finally arose, it was three hundred years later after the event. I said, no, that is not the Hebraic understanding and it is not the Pauline understanding of gifts, including prophecy. You're on that ordinary gift list. "The gifts he gave were that some would be prophets." That doesn't mean a few shall be, only one or two, and they shall never meet. Years ago, Carter Heyward and I had the privilege of being in Brazil for an international encounter of Anglican women. I loved the Hispanic ability to call forth the prophets in our own present times. We don't do enough of that. We don't name the prophets in our midst. In closing this presentation, I'd like you to read and to hear a poem by Dorothee Solle that puts urgency on the matter of prophecy in a progressive church. When he came is the poem. It's sort of hard to compete with rock stars, but we've got to compete and to do something about our lack of energy. I hope you know Dorothee Solle's work. If you don't, this is a way to get to know her. She has something important to say in this post-holocaust world.
He needs you that's all there is to it without you, he's left hanging goes up in dachau's smoke is sugar and spice in the baker's hands gets revalued in the next stock market crash he's consumed and blown away used up without you
Help him that's what faith is he can't bring it about his kingdom couldn't then couldn't later can't now not at any rate without you and that is his irresistible appeal
This is a plea for prophecy and for staying present with the prophets in our lives.