By Phoebe Farag Mikhail
The news is abuzz these days about President Trump’s recent announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Joining many others with concern over this development, I shared the Coptic Orthodox Church’s statement on that matter on my Facebook page, and was soon asked by a friend, “Why is the church getting involved in this matter? The church should not get involved in politics.”
The church, or other religious institution, should not get involved in politics. Religious institutions and leaders should not be involved in endorsing candidates for office or affiliating themselves with one political party or another. When they do so, they often reduce their moral authority and dilute their prophetic voice. The prophetic voice is something different. It is not “getting involved in politics,” but speaking out about public policy when there is grave injustice. Faith communities and institutions have a long tradition of using their prophetic voice.
We hear the “prophetic voice” in 2 Samuel 12, when the prophet Nathan rebukes King David for adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband. It is from this Abrahamic tradition that we get the term, and it continues throughout history, with the prophet Elijah rebuking King Ahab for murdering Naboth and taking his vineyard, the prophet Amos crying out against injustices towards the poor, and John the Baptist rebuking Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. The prophetic voice continues in the ensuing centuries.
I am most familiar with the Christian tradition, and often return to the example of St. Ambrose of Milan, who once refused the Emperor Theodosius entrance to the church after the emperor massacred the city of Thessalonica. The historian Theodoret recounts this event:
When Ambrose heard of this deplorable catastrophe, he went out to meet the Emperor, who—on his return to Milan—desired as usual to enter the holy church, but Ambrose prohibited his entrance, saying “You do not reflect, it seems, O Emperor, on the guilt you have incurred by that great massacre; but now that your fury is appeased, do you not perceive the enormity of your crime? … How could you lift up in prayer hands steeped in the blood of so unjust a massacre? Depart then, and do not by a second crime add to the guilt of the first.”
The Emperor’s response to this prophetic voice mirrored King David’s. He returned to his palace and repented with tears, eventually returning to the Bishop Ambrose and begging him to allow him to enter the church again. Theodoret again describes Ambrose’s response:
Ambrose stipulated that the Emperor should prove his repentance by recalling his unjust decrees, and especially by ordering “that when sentence of death or of proscription has been signed against anyone, thirty days are to elapse before execution, and on the expiration of that time the case is to be brought again before you, for your resentment will then be calmed and you can justly decide the issue.” The Emperor listened to this advice, and deeming it excellent, he at once ordered the law to be drawn up, and himself signed the document. St. Ambrose then unloosed his bonds.
In order to re-enter the church, the emperor had to prove his repentance by changing other unjust laws that he had made. You can read the whole account here.
Not every leader heads the prophetic voice the way this emperor did. Elijah was exiled, John the Baptist was beheaded. Their voices, however, resounded.
In the Coptic Orthodox Church, the late Pope Shenouda III was
placed under house arrest for his criticism of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for allowing Islamist groups political power. Sadat was later assassinated by one of those violent Islamist groups, and the Pope was eventually released by former President Mubarak. In November 2010, he raised his voice again, this time criticizing the Egyptian government publicly during a Wednesday meeting for allowing State security forces to open fire on Coptic protesters in Giza, Cairo, trying to protect their church while it was repaired. There had been numerous attacks on Copts before this one, but this was the first to be directly enacted by the government itself against its own citizens. Perhaps Pope Shenouda sensed it would not be the last. A few months later, Coptic demonstrators were brutally massacred in front of the Maspero building by the Egyptian Army ramming into them with their vehicles. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces denied it happening despite clear video footage of the incident, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which ruled soon after, stayed silent, only to see the face of the same brutality when their armed occupation of Raba3a Square after the depose of Morsi was dispersed. If only the government had heeded the prophetic voice.
I sometimes wish my church would speak out more often about public policy, but I am thankful that in the Orthodox tradition, the prophetic voice is raised sparingly. Spoken too often, it loses its power and becomes a part of the cacophony of today’s political atmosphere, where everyone has an opinion and can share that opinion indiscriminately, no matter how uninformed the opinion is, or how unwise it might be to share it.
If the church does not speak up as an institution, individuals certainly can. I appreciate Aristotle Papanikolaou’s admonition to individual Christians about using their own prophetic voice:
If Christian witness is to point to what is more than the political, then Christian responsibility is not done after we vote; it only intensifies after an election. No matter who is elected, Christians must always exercise a prophetic voice … What Christians must avoid most is what I call political Nestorianism, which is a politics of dualism, a politics of us vs. them, a politics of demonization. What Christians need to struggle to realize, and this is an ascetic struggle demanding spiritual commitment and discipline, is a politics of empathy.
What is a politics of empathy? It is a politics that demands we put ourselves in the shoes of those who suffer. It is a politics that looks upon those who differ from us with love, not suspicion. It is a politics that requires us to avoid the current ideological tribalism that plagues the U.S. government and serve as bridges instead. When the reasons for moral outcry now seem to arise daily, and sometime hourly, I have chosen to focus on taking action and on making a difference in my local community. For me, sometimes the prophetic voice might be loudest when it is through actions, not words.
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