THE PROPHETIC MOMENT
“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you God?”
“Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.”
About a third of the Old Testament is made up of books referred to as “The Prophets.” We are probably all familiar with some of them, or at least a few of their verses, whether from Isaiah or Jeremiah, Amos, Ezekiel or Jonah, though we are probably less familiar with Obadiah and Zephaniah to say nothing of Habakkuk and Haggai. Then in the New Testament we read about the “gift of prophecy” and how prophets in the early church brought messages of encouragement and guidance to congregations and individuals. We also read about “false prophets” who proclaim “peace, peace” when there is no peace, and prophets who misled the church usually out of greed. And then there are the self-proclaimed contemporary prophets who clam to predict the future, some who claim to have a hot-line to God, can heal you of all your diseases, and can tell you precisely when Jesus will return. But there are also others we deem prophets today who. in the tradition of the great OT prophets, speak truth to power, proclaiming the need for justice if there is to be peace and reconciliation. I generally use the word prophet in this sense, but when we use the word we need to be sure we know who we are referring to.
The great prophets of social justice in the Old Testament were not religious leaders or professional preachers, neither were they fortune tellers who knew precisely when the end of the world would come, nor did they spend their time writing proof texts for the coming of the Messiah. But as they witnessed injustice in the land, and saw the way in which the poor were oppressed conrary to God’s commandments, they declared in no uncertain terms that if Israel did not change its ways, it would be judged by God with dire consequences. But if they did change, the prophets declared, God would fulfil his promise of peace. In that sense they predicted the likely future, and also indicated that one day God would send his anointed one, that is, Messiah, to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Christians believe Jesus was that anointed one and therefore fulfilled not just the law of Moses but also the promise and hope of the prophets. Jesus, for us, was more than a prophet, but he was also a prophet in the lineage of the great prophets of Israel.
In 1985 during the first State of Emergency while I was teaching at the University of Cape Town, a well-known South African Roman Catholic theologian, Albert Nolan, arrived, almost out of the blue it seemed, to give a seminar in our Department at UCT. Albert, who was a leading figure in the anti-apartheid struggle was on the run from the Security Police, so his sudden appearance was quite dramatic, and our graduate students, who were already familiar with his writings, were excited to meet him in person and listen to his seminar presentation. It was all about a new theological document called the Kairos Document which was in the process of being drafted by a group of theologians in Soweto and Johannesburg. As he read it to us and talked about it, we soon realised that this was a momentous event, for the Document was the most frontal theological attack on apartheid we had yet heard. It was, in the tradition of a Hebrew prophets, a prophetic statement. At the end of the seminar we all put our names to it and within a few weeks the document was made public, causing a major stir within the churches and in government. And those of us who signed it soon came under attack from various quarters.
Next week Edwin Arrison and I will be attending a conference in Johannesburg to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Kairos Document, and as a matter of interest, Alyson’s great painting of one of the Stations of the Cross, will be unfurled at the opening ceremony in Regina Mundi Cathedral in Soweto. Also attending the conference will be people from around South Africa and the rest of the world, some of whom have subsequently produced their own kairos documents. So what is so important about the Kairos Document that we should celebrate its thirtieth anniversary?
Kairos is a Greek word which means “time,” not time understood in terms of years, months, days, hours, and seconds, that is chronological time; in the New Testament kairos refers to “God’s time,” the time of God’s judgment and salvation. Jesus arrived, St. Paul tells us, in the “fullness of kairos,” (Galatians 4:4) in other words, at the right moment, and Mark begins his gospel by saying that “the kairos is fulfilled. and the kingdom of God has come near.” (Mark 1:15). God’s time or kairos is, in short, a “prophetic moment.” That is, a moment in time when peoples and nations are in crisis and prophets arise calling them to grasp the opportunity to change their ways or else they will face catastrophe.
The mid-nineteen-eighties was such a time in South Africa. President P.W. Botha had infamously failed to cross the Rubicon in 1983 and the country was heading towards civil war. At that “prophetic moment” the Kairos Document was a call to Christians and the churches to actively resist injustice and work for a truly reconciled nation. Neither the government nor most white South Africans, were prepared to accept this word of prophecy which so fundamentally challenged the status quo with its clear cut message. But looking back, what the Kairos Document declared was right on target. It was in the tradition of the great prophets of ancient Israel. It was, as it claimed, a prophetic theological document.
Prophets of God’s justice are invariably rejected by the authorities and end up in prison or worse. It was Jesus who declared that Jerusalem rejected and stoned the prophets, and they did so because they refused to acknowledge the things that made for peace, namely doing God’s justice. So, with reference to himself, Jesus declared in the passage we read today, “prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.” And that was so true in South Africa, of Beyers Naudé, Sheena Duncan, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko and others, as it is of prophets around the world today who are speaking out about the ecological crisis facing us, or about the situation in Palestine, and a host of other issues, including poverty and corruption in South Africa. The message is the same as it has always been, Unless you change your ways disaster will strike.
As we take note of what is happening around the world as well as in our own country, we would be foolishly blind if we did not recognise the global and national crises facing us. The world has become a much more dangerous place than we ever imagined when we entered this new millennium. So we should listen to the prophets. They are not prophets of doom but prophets of justice and hope. This is God’s time, they declare, a time to grasp the opportunity to change. So let us not be among those who, as Isaiah said, “look but do not see, or listen but do not hear.” Rather let us following the counsel of the prophet Micah and the Kairos Document “ do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 13 August 2015