The original spokesmen for God
The Old Testament prophets were individuals with a deep awareness of God and a passionate commitment to his will. They scrutinised the society in which they lived - a community bound to God by a special Covenant - and discovered, to their great sadness and anger, numerous forms of unfaithfulness and flagrant breaches of God's Law.
Faced with the abuse of political power, economic exploitation and religious hypocrisy the prophets were consumed with a sense of God's own anguish and outrage, which they articulated in a stream of vehement denunciations, warnings and demands for repentance.
Their very public appeals brought them into conflict with the political establishment, the rich sectors of society and the religious leadership. In their campaigns they emerged equally as the guardians of true faith in God, as enemies of all forms of idolatry and as advocates of the poor and powerless against their oppressors.
Amos condemned those who amassed wealthy estates by evicting the poor from their land and then bribed the courts to endorse their action, all the while maintaining their religious duties with solemn outward display. Hosea accused his fellow citizens of contaminating the purity of the traditional faith with elements of the neighbouring pagan religions. Zephaniah attacked decadent traders, palace officials, royal family members and religious officials, lamenting the deadening effects of their extravagance and luxury. Jeremiah ridiculed attachment to the Temple building in Jerusalem, declaring that God would rather see lives dedicated to righteousness and justice.
We are probably wise to beware of those who, in our own time, declare themselves prophets: certain brands of fundamentalist Christian advance their own self-serving definitions of "prophecy". But it is not wrong to feel the same burning sense of God's truth and justice that possessed an Amos, a Hosea, a Jeremiah - or a Jesus, for that matter. Present-day Christians should not too readily decline the rôle of the prophet.
In today's world the rich and powerful command means of violent oppression and ideological control far superior to those of any ancient monarchs. In today's Church the subversive content of Jesus' message is neutralised and domesticated as thoroughly as the court-controlled cult of Old Testament Israel.
In such circumstances the Body of Christ needs dedicated men and women who will, in Walter Brueggemann's definition, "nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us". To carry out this vital task is to liberate ourselves and others from the powerful, dehumanising idolatries which blind and enslave us.
At the beginning of the 1990's we were told that the cold war was over, the free market had triumphed. In reality the subsequent global spread of capitalism has proved to be a catastrophe for the human race and for the planet we live on.
In the economically advanced countries, labelled the "free world" by our politicians, most men and women are obliged to engage in paid work which is boring, pressured, meaningless and frequently insecure ("flexible"). Employees work much longer than they did twenty or thirty years ago, with far less time for holidays, relaxation, creative leisure or meaningful personal relationships. As compensation many find release, during their leisure time, in a sort of desperate, ferocious pursuit of excess - "bingeing", in tabloid-speak - itself a well-provided area of the economy. Capitalism creates a moral, philosophical and spiritual vacuum. It cannot generate the norms for purposeful human life or create the structures of a just society.
On the contrary: the advertising industry surrounds us with images of material happiness and the joys of the consumer lifestyle. A humane social order, free from patterns of manipulation and domination, is not available - or indeed possible - while capitalist social relations endure; we are urged to find satisfaction instead in accumulating commodities: sparkling teeth, people carriers, widescreen tvs, trips to Disneyworld. Huge efforts are made to shape our consciousness, character and behaviour according to the norms of a competitive, possessive individualism. Such efforts marginalise other, non-material, values and facets of human nature: fraternity, solidarity, mutual concern, kindness and love.
Behind the illusory images and the propaganda, citizens of the modern affluent societies are anxious, fearful, alienated from their own better natures and from each other. Unsurprisingly, many retreat into the private realm of family or personal relationships as a refuge from a larger environment experienced as indifferent and loveless - and even this often proves to be a morass of self-centred emotional demands and expectations. Frustration, unhappiness and spiritual emptiness often surface in apparently irrational outbursts of aggression and violence.
Moreover the benefits of today's market system are enjoyed only by a small minority, nationally and globally. One of the most significant phenomena of the last 25 years is the deepening polarisation of wealth. We have become accustomed to statistics which inform us that the private holdings of a few hundred billionnaires now equals the combined incomes of half the world's population; or that the richest 1% in countries like our own has massively increased its share of total national income, while the poorest households have seen their real incomes shrink. In Britain in 2005 quality of health and even life expectancy vary according to social class as assuredly as they did during the reign of Queen Victoria.
These trends are due to intensify and the governments of the capitalist democracies are already preparing for the threat of future social upheaval by eliminating democratic rights and legally-protected liberties and laying the groundwork of a police state.
In the countries of the developing world the impact of neoliberal capitalism has been even more baneful. As the working paper for the 2004 Congress on Consecrated Life noted, "An economy of exploitation generates wants and new types of poverty that lead in the end to an ongoing depreciation of life. The liberalisation of the world economy has not managed to avoid the evil effects which crush the weak and less developed peoples and countries" (Passion for Christ, Passion for Humanity, article 25).
The recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq signal a return to Great Power competition for the energy resources, raw materials and export markets offered by the poor regions of the world. And of course the systematic overproduction inherent in the profit system has also placed the world's physical environment under unprecedented strain.
The bourgeois Church
For us the important question is: can we say that the Catholic Church in Britain - bishops, clergy, parishes, lay associations, are responding to the mounting global crisis with analyses and insights redolent of the biblical prophets? And the answer, surely, is: no, we cannot.
Paulo Friere, the radical Brazilian educationalist and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, spoke of three different types of religious consciousness found in the Church. His categorisations are helpful in assessing the character and postures of the Church in our own country.
First, according to Friere, there is a traditionalist tendency: religiously backward-looking and nostalgic, authoritarian, politically right-wing, usually keen to ally themselves with the institutions of established order. The Catholic Tory MP Edward Leigh's recent attempt to create a right-wing movement around the slogan "faith, family and flag" falls within this category of religious traditionalism.
Then there is the modernising tendency, the ideology of liberal middle-class Catholics. In religious terms these Catholics desire to assimilate Church doctrine, morality and worship to contemporary secular values and they flatter themselves to think that they are radical in doing so. Politically they are far from revolutionary, reflecting their basic satisfaction with the status quo. They prefer to believe that the problems and divisions of global capitalism can be solved by pressuring political leaders to engineer adjustments and reforms - fairer trading terms between rich and poor countries, for example, or the cancellation of Third World debt.
Finally there is the radical or prophetic tendency, encompassing the mentality and practice of the liberation theologians and the "Church of the Poor", or base communities. Inspired by the biblical vision of God's Reign this third current attempts to engage in political consciousness-raising, thoroughgoing critique of capitalist ideology and the struggle to create a just and equitable social order.
I think we can acknowledge that in Friere's terms there is no prophetic, radical or liberationist tendency in the Catholic Church in Britain today, beyond a tiny isolated fringe - the few Catholic Worker communities, for example, or the commentary provided by a small number of relatively obscure publications and websites. Rather, the Church is divided between a traditionalist minority, struggling to uphold an often narrow view of orthodoxy, and the far more influential liberalising leaders and activists.
The roots of the Church's present composition lie in recent history. Many of the sons and daughters of yesterday's low-paid workers and traditional working-class families have become affluent professionals who still feel the need for a light sprinkling of religion over their consumerist lifestyle and bourgeois domesticity.
As the pages of any current diocesan newspaper testify our bishops are not striving to develop a socially-critical religious consciousness along the lines pioneered by Paulo Friere and the third world theologians. Quite the reverse: on large social and political questions their main concern is to avoid saying anything which might offend the political powers-that-be or the well-off sections within their parishes.
The current Church leadership is busily trying to construct a form of church life and communal worship which caters for, mobilises and holds onto the affluent social layer that constitutes "middle England". Hence the endless managerial schemes, training programmes for lay leadership, focus-group and "listening" exercises. Despite the radical and progressive slogans often attached to these projects their function is essentially conservative: to maintain existing church structures by replacing the dwindling numbers of priests with a new class of lay functionaries.
Keeping the tradition alive
The left-wing secularist criticism of religion has always been that it necessarily plays a reactionary political rôle, mystifying the real causes of poverty and exploitation, legitimating inequality and privilege, reconciling the deprived to their suffering. The reality is that like art, literature, music and other expressions of human culture, religion can assume the form of a legitimating ideology or it can challenge oppressive social and economic arrangements and act as an impetus for change. Historically believers in God have done both.
It may even be true that throughout history the majority of Christian leaders, theologians, intellectuals and commentators have been only too ready to side unquestioningly with wealth, power, privilege and "order". But that does not discredit the other, parallel, religious history of dissenting minorities and solitary individuals who have taken sides with the exploited rather than their exploiters and interpreted social reality from the standpoint of God's option for the poor.
To repeat: present-day Christians should not too readily decline the rôle of the prophet. In all the reflections and comments it offers Agenda for Prophets makes no claim other than that of striving to play a small part in keeping the minority tradition alive in our own generation, in the hope that some at least will "see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and be converted and healed by me" (Matthew 13:15).