Tone Deaf

By Bill Mefford

Several months ago I and a few other alumni from Asbury Seminary wrote a letter to administration officials urging the seminary to declare themselves to be a sanctuary campus for all undocumented students, faculty, and staff (and we are still in conversation with Asbury about next steps). In the end, we gathered 150 people to sign, which for a conservative seminary, is pretty stunning.

As folks considered whether or not to sign the letter I heard some similar excuses from folks who refused to sign the letter. Some of those include: that I should have approached the administration first for a conversation before the letter; that folks had to take into consideration future career moves, and the most common one: the letter was too provocative in its tone (it really wasn’t). For those who chose to sign the letter that I talked to, they all shared one thing in common – they were first and foremost concerned about the treatment of immigrants in this country and under this administration. For all the excuses I heard from folks, they too shared one thing in common – they were all focused on the welfare of themselves, not the immigrant. 

The truth is far too many people use the excuse of the tone of prophetic statements and actions for their lack of engagement; their lack of faithfulness.

Jesus confronted the kind of comfort and privilege that having to adhere to a certain tone demands directly. Jesus, in fact seemed to care very little for his tone,and seems to go out of his way to be offensive in his tone. In the story of Jesus’ interaction with the Rich Young Ruler, a story that occurs in all four gospels and provides what I believe to be a much more relevant salvific example for people who live in the global North than any other story in Scripture, this ruler approaches Jesus because he has kept every command and done what is right and good, but still, he feels he lacks something. Unlike Jesus’ approach with the woman at the well in John 4, or the woman with the issue of blood, occurring in three of the four gospels, or the many acts of healing he provides to those who are both sick and socially marginalized because of their sickness, Jesus does not empathize with the young wealthy man. Indeed, Jesus does not employ a “seeker-friendly” approach. Jesus tells him to go and sell all he has, give to the poor and THEN, come and follow Jesus. If Jesus were to do this now he’d be kicked out of his seminary church growth class! Jesus did not see the rich young ruler as a potential donor; one whose ass he would kiss behind the scenes while he rails against the evils of capitalism to the large crowds he gathers and to the media hits he collects (and which he will show his donors to show how wildly popular and “prophetic” he is).

And good grief, have you read Matthew 23 lately? Jesus hardly holds back or worries about his tone as he brutalizes the Pharisees for being…well…Pharisaical. But if Jesus had railed against religious leaders today I am sure he would have gotten a Facebook message from a friend who asked, “Are you ok Jesus? You sound like your anger has gotten the best of you. Remember who you are speaking to and always remember to speak the truth in love!”

Yeah, I have those Facebook messages memorized by now.

Jesus was often more than a little tone deaf. Frankly, he just seemed at times not to give a crap if he sounded offensive. He almost seemed to relish it. He dispensed with the niceties if they got in the way of the message and its intended audience. We rely so much on making sure our messages are palatable that often they stop having any impact because we want to make sure we do not offend. I am not advocating going out and being an ass – good Lord, the ass we have in the White House is enough for the world at this time. But our supposedly prophetic statements now come across as well-polished, self-indulgent institutional statements that have been drafted 8-10 times and proofed to take out any provocative language. We are a sterile church. Justice is raw and we miss it when we worry more about the acceptance we seek and the Facebook likes we can gather.

The truth is we like prophetic actions so long as they are on the other side of the world or 50 years behind us. Oh, how we LOVE reciting Martin Luther King's sermons, but oh how we quickly and conveniently forget he was accused regularly of being a communist and shunned by conservatives and "liberals" alike.

We are not prophetic as a church and it has absolutely nothing to do with the tone of the words or actions. It has to do with the fact that we are way too comfortable with our status quo. We benefit too much from our places of privilege. Real prophetic actions shake that up too much. I say "real" prophetic actions because if you are flown into a city, housed at a 5-star hotel, fed 5 star food, and waited on hand and foot while you word-smith prophetic statements,then I got news for you: you're not doing prophetic ministry. That's just church bureaucracy.

One of the things we must remember about prophetic speaking and acting; there is rarely a “good time” for it to be heard. When I joined a small group of mostly unheard of clergy and undocumented immigrants committing civil disobedience in front of the Obama White House as we protested against his over-reliance on mass deportations one reason we weren’t joined by the big names or media personalities in Christianity (in other words, no “evangelicals”) is because too many felt like it was politically bad-timing to protest deportations. Frankly, they did not want to upset their access to President Obama. The ironic thing though was that these same big names and media personalities in Christianity, just a few months later, decided it was then the “right time” politically to suddenly be “prophetic” – just in time for the media cameras and reporters. Yeah, these media-driven personalities certainly are prophets – palace prophets.

Prophetic statements and actions are first and foremost generated by God’s Spirit grieving at the unjust treatment of the most vulnerable by the rich and powerful as well as by the silence of those not directly impacted by the injustice and who just wish the unpleasantries – more than the injustice itself – would just go away. Prophetic statements and actions are those, inspired by the Spirit of God, birthed in incarnational relationships among those directly impacted by injustice, making the statements that come out so regularly from denominational agencies that have been created in the luxury of the meetings rooms in five star hotels simply noisy gongs or clanging symbols.

Was that too harsh? I guess it was my tone.

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