Commemoration of Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Jacob Riis, Prophetic Witnesses, (1918, 1918, 1914)
One thing I really love about the saints chosen for our Episcopal calendar is that they don’t have to be canonized by some church organization, produce verifiable miracles, or even be Episcopalian. Oh, they do produce miracles, not necessarily healing through intercession, but miracles that help change the world and some of the people in it. Take Rauschenbusch, Gladden and Riis; one was a Baptist minister, one a Lutheran preacher and the third a Lutheran turned Methodist. Each of them in their own ways saw the world as it was and also as it could be and then did what they could to make that “could be” into a more concrete reality.
Rauschenbusch rejected the substitutionary atonement doctrine which he had been taught as a child in favor of a belief that Jesus’ death was because of “social sins” he committed against the powers that were in control at the time. For him, the Kingdom of God wasn’t about a place people would go after death but rather could be present here on earth as the result of what we call the result of the social gospel. Gladden also preached the social gospel, exposed corruption in the state (New York) political system, supported labor unions and was an early proponent of integration. Riis was a writer and photographer which brought the images of poverty and crime to the attention of people who had, deliberately or not, refused to acknowledge that such things existed.
The three men are considered prophetic witnesses. A prophetic witness is a person who sees people hurting, notices where that hurt comes from, whether caused by individuals or corporate bodies, and not only calls attention to it but works to fix what is broken. The Episcopal calendar has a number of these prophetic witnesses, some ordained, some lay, but all concerned with the bringing of the Kingdom of God to life now through repairing the damage people have done to each other and to the earth itself.
We normally associate prophets with the Hebrew Bible, guys like Elijah, Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel and Jonah. These and others were called specifically by God to do speak to the Israelite people about the errors of their ways, namely, their forgetting God time and time again. Prophets shared in the punishments meted out, exile, long journeys, perilous times, and brought comfort to the people, reminding them that God was with them and would remain with them. All they had to do was change — and we all know how hard that is to do! They simply had to turn back to God, treat everyone with respect and justice, keep the laws God set up, and, most of all, put God first.
The Bible is full of examples when they did — and when they didn’t. The prophets merely acted as agents for God directly to the people, and it was often a very thankless job indeed.
Prophetic witnesses may not feel they have a direct call from God such as we expect from ministers, priests and deacons, but somewhere deep inside them there is a tiny spark that lights a passion to fix something, change something, encourage people to do something to make life better for others. I doubt anyone given the title “prophetic witness” would have deliberately gone out and used it as a qualifier for what they felt they needed to do but we see the result of what their passions achieved and we give them the accolade they would probably not claim for themselves.
Prophetic witnesses speak to a number of issues. They speak of equality among all people regardless of race, color, creed, gender, orientation or origin. They proclaim the need for care for the poor, the sick, the orphans and widows, the aliens among us, and those who, for whatever reason, cannot speak for themselves or make themselves heard in the halls of power. They remind us that this earth, our mutual home, is not just for us to despoil at will and without thought, but to be treated with respect and healed of the indignities we have visited on it through our greed, avarice and selfishness. They call us to explore the ways of peace rather than conflict, forgiveness rather than bitterness and hatred, and respect for others rather than the “me first!” mentality which seems to affect so many of us.
Rauchenbusch, Gladden and Riis used words and pictures to call attention to the wrongs they saw in an effort to change people’s thinking and way of behaving. Thanks to them we have seen improvement but we haven’t got the job finished yet. We have uncovered dozens of things that need to be corrected: immigration reform, prison reform, increased emphasis on quality education for all children, healthcare every person can afford, wages that allow everyone a decent quality of life if not a luxurious one, equality of opportunity for all people and not just those who look, talk or believe like us.
Prophets still exist. Some churches have an office of prophet which indicates a leader who must guide the people well and righteously. Many Christian denominations don’t have such a title, believing instead that Jesus was the last prophet but that others can be prophetic witnesses such as our three honorees for today and also people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., the bishops in the book I just finished reading,* and, in my personal opinion, voices like those of Jane Goodall and others who call for a change in how we go about doing things so that others might have a better life. Time will tell if they are the prophetic witnesses I believe them to be, but in the meantime they have voices that should be heard.
Anyone can be a prophetic witness; it just takes a passion to make needed changes. Heaven knows I don’t believe I have that calling but I know several people who I believe truly have it, whether or not they see it as such. Maybe the world would be a better place if we recognized the prophetic witnesses around us, the ones maybe we have overlooked or dismissed as just somebody with a cause to proclaim.
There are a lot of issues out there in the world crying for someone to take notice, and there are lots of opportunities for prophetic witnesses to step up. No fancy resume needed, no huge war chest of contributions, no particular degrees or honors required, just passion, a vision and an inspiration of how it can be achieved.
Sounds like a God thing to me.
* Smith, Kirk, ed., Bishops on the Border: Pastoral Responses to Immigration. (2013, Kindle ed.). New York: Morehouse Publishing.
Four bishops and a mission co-worker from different denominations write about their experiences at the border and with those who risk everything to enter the US. Also covered in the various essays are the history of immigration from Mexico and Central America to the US along with legislative and legal efforts to deal with undocumented and unregistered workers and their families. The book offers evidence of what the churches are doing to fulfill the Biblical mandate to care for the widows, orphans and the aliens in the land.