A Heritage of Fire in the Belly

Christianity has a heritage of people with fire in their belly. In other words, the movement arising out Exodus and Easter is notorious for producing “prophets” – folks who see injustice and feel a burning swell that can’t be contained in their stomachs. Prophets speak truth in the face of power regardless of the consequences. They refuse to accept the status quo as long as oppression exists. Prophets echo the ancient words, “let my people go!” They are those who, in the words of Abraham Heschel, “begin to burn where conscience ends.”

I’ll be playing somewhat the role of a historian today. A few months back I posted an entry about liberation and how its roots are found in the Book of Exodus. I’d like to pick up now where I left off and tell a history of liberation, tracing its contours from ancient Egypt all the way into the present. In a future post I’ll ask what it means today, in our world of cutthroat economics and ever-growing military machines, to follow a God whose first name is Liberation. But before we can get to that question we need to do some theology and a history lesson.

Special thanks to artist and friend Matt Wideman who created this original piece of art just for this post. As you’ll soon see, this picture articulates the prophetic experience in living color.

In the first entry we looked at how Jews consider Exodus the first book of the bible since they think of God primarily as Liberator rather than Creator. From our reading of Exodus 3 we learned that the theme of liberation is even wrapped up in God’s name, “I am who I am.” Just saying this name is intended to invoke the story of poor slaves being freed from an oppressive empire.

Liberation is intrinsic to God’s being and his action, and I ended the post by restating God’s promise in Exodus 3:15 that he would reveal himself as Liberator to every generation from then on. That’s quite a big promise. So has God kept it?

A (Brief) History of Liberation

To begin with, God establishes the nation of Israel in direct response to this promise. His intention was that the nation would be a single communal prophet. God designed the Jewish society so that the horror and injustice of Egypt would never be repeated, and all that’s needed to show this is a sampling of the Torah.

In Leviticus 19 God warns the Israelites that they must never wrong or take advantage of an immigrant living in their land but instead should “treat the stranger as a native, and love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (19:34). In Deuteronomy 10 God tells the people “to love those who are strangers, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:17-19). And just a few chapters later God commands them to share with the poor and be openhanded toward those in need because “you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you” (15:15).

There are plenty more texts that point in the same direction. The Torah is clear that Israel was called to be a living, breathing witness to the reality that God’s name is Liberator. And when the people live by these principles, they shine like stars and are a light to the nations.

Unfortunately that’s not how the story always went. More often than not, Israel forgot her calling and lived like the other nations. And it’s no coincidence this forgetfulness always seemed to occur at times when Israel was powerful and prosperous. The reasoning is quite simple: the more wealth and power they accumulated, the more they began to resemble the very empire God had liberated them from.

If God is going to uphold his promise, then how does he respond? Here’s where the Holy Spirit enters the story.

God’s Liberating Ruach

Whenever Israel forgot she was called to work for the liberation of others, God sends his Ruach (Hebrew for Spirit, but can also be translated “wind” or “breath”) into the belly of a prophet to boldly proclaim this truth. God’s liberating Spirit is the means by which God has kept his promise to show himself as Liberator to all generations.

Israel’s mightiest king was David, but at the height of his reign in the 10th century BC he used his political power to mask adultery and murder within his administration. Thus God sent his Spirit into a prophet named Nathan to confront the king in his deceitfulness and abuse of justice.

By the 8th century the nation of Israel had become a super power, yet she was using her power, not to empower those without power, but to protect her power and privilege. God responds by sending his liberating Ruach into a man named Amos who storms the nation’s capital crying, “Let justice roll down like waters!”

God does the same with the prophet Micah. Filled with God’s Spirit, he delivers a thunderous “Woe!” to the elite upper class who’d been hoarding their wealth and stockpiling the nation’s military arms while the common people went hungry.

In the 7th century Habakkuk explodes on the scene. God’s Spirit propels him into the public light to announce that God has seen the people’s political corruption, lawlessness, and violence, and hence he will soon be visiting them with judgment.

Around the turn of the 6th century a prophet named Jeremiah arises with a message of God’s love and mercy, beckoning the people to return to their covenantal partner. The message falls on deaf ears, however; the people persist in unfaithfulness and indifference. As the prophet watches this drama unfold, he feels the flame of God’s Spirit burning within him like a fever. He describes it as such:

There is in my heart as it were a burning fire,
Shut up in my bones,
And I am weary with holding it in,
And I cannot.

God’s Ruach blows into the 5th century through the prophet Malachi. This time the prophetic word is aimed at Israel’s religious leaders. The prophet blows the whistle on their unchecked greed and exorbitant arrogance, warning them that religious credentials will not exempt them from the judgment of God.

Generation after generation, God sends his Spirit to remind the people that he is Liberator. Furthermore, he does this in the most intimate of ways – through sending his Ruach into humans so his message is conveyed in real time and history.

As for the prophets themselves, the experience is wildly intense and, at times, almost unbearable. They’re tapping into the divine pathos and bearing the emotive life of God; they have (again to quote rabbi Heschel) “fellowship with the feelings of God.” While the world is at ease and asleep, “the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”

A Double Hope Arises

At this point in history, there arises in Israel a hope that God will send a Messiah, which literally means “anointed one.” The belief was that this person would be fully anointed, that every fiber of his being would be soaked with God’s liberating Spirit.

Closely related to this, a second hope begins to emerge. It’s the hope that at some point God would unleash his Spirit into the world in a quantitatively new way. Up to this point the Spirit was a special endowment; it had only been given to certain individuals under special circumstances. But the prophets begin to speak of a day when the Spirit would be communally experienced.

And then right in line with this long stream of prophets comes a Jewish rabbi named Jesus in the first century AD. Some begin to ask of him, “Could this be the long-awaited Spirit-soaked one?” John tells us that after witnessing Jesus’ compassion for the impoverished and justice-creating work for the hungry, the people say to each other, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14).

With these rumors swarming around him, Jesus walks into a synagogue and reads a passage aloud from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

When he finishes he says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The message is as bold as it is clear. Jesus is claiming to be the full embodiment of God’s liberating Spirit and announcing to all who have ears to hear that he is enacting a new Exodus. Eventually Jesus is arrested and executed by the Romans as a political threat, but even his death on the cross is seen, in some paradoxical way, as part of his liberating mission.

As for the other hope, when the day of Pentecost arrives the Holy Spirit comes like a rushing wind and falls upon all of Jesus’ followers. In a new book titled The Justice Project, theologian Peter Heltzel summarizes Pentecost as “a portrait of God’s justice being materialized” in human history. Erupting out of Pentecost is “a Spirit-empowered, transnational, multilinguistic, intercultural movement for justice.” From this point forward, the gift of God’s liberating Spirit becomes normative for all who belong to Jesus.

And the History Continues

During the decades following Jesus, God continues to show himself as Liberator through the lives of people like Stephen, Paul, Phoebe, and Priscilla. These renegades speak out against the powers that be and fiercely proclaim liberation has come through Jesus. At one point their acts of civil disobedience cause such social disruption that an angry mob drags them before a city council saying, “These men have turned the world upside down…they are acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).

When we move into the second century, we find the Roman world devastated by the Plague of Galen, a disease that killed an estimated five million people. When a city was found to be highly contaminated, all the inhabitants would flee to other regions, leaving behind the sick and poor to die. Yet historians have noted one group that consistently chose to stay: the Christians. Filled with God’s Spirit, they stayed behind to care for the suffering regardless of class, tribe, or religion.

Shortly into the fourth century the church began sleeping with the Roman Empire and acquiring imperial power (a scandalous affair we still haven’t fully recovered from). Christian discipleship became domesticated and watered down. What had formerly been a subversive way of life now became merely a set of beliefs. In response to this compromise, St. Anthony and the desert fathers and mothers left the centers of power and started an underground movement in the desert. It was there they modeled an alternative to the triumphal, militant Christianity touted by Constantine and his lot.
Jumping to the thirteenth century, we encounter Francis and Claire of Assisi. This monk and nun spoke out against the church for replacing love and the cross with violence and the Crusades. While Christians and Muslims killed one another, Francis made a trip to Egypt on foot to meet with Muslim leaders and share the gospel through friendship and humility rather than hostility and the sword. (You think that might be a bit relevant today?)

In the fifteenth century, the church had lost nearly all its missionary identity, having stuffed itself fat with Italian riches and political power. In these turbulent times, a Dominican priest named Girolamo Savonarola came forward to confront the corrupt Medici family who controlled both Europe’s banks and churches. A precursor to the Reformation, he preached fearlessly until his arrest and execution at the stake.

In the next century, Martin Luther started a socio-theological revolt by nailing his thesis to a door in Germany, followed by Madam Guyon in France speaking out publically against the crooked King Louis XIV. The Anabaptist church was also birthed during this time, a radical movement of nonviolence and generosity for the poor that was often called a “new monasticism.”

In the 19th century we come upon Charles Finney, the great American evangelist. I sometimes hear people dismiss Finney because he is famous for popularizing the altar call (the part in a worship service where people are asked to walk down the aisle and become Christians). But people often don’t realize why he did altar calls. It was to sign up his coverts for the antislavery campaign. His message was, “Has God liberated you? Then come on down and become an abolitionist!”

Over in Britain William Wilberforce was doing the same thing, only with the parliament as his audience. A profound conversion experience imbued his heart with a rigorous passion for social justice and spurred him to spend more than two and a half decades campaigning against slavery and rallying others to do the same.

Along with women like Maria Stewart and Harriet Tubman, these and others were the prophets God empowered with his liberating Spirit to break the demonic chains of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

In the last century we find Oscar Romero, the Catholic Bishop of El Salvador, fomenting unrest in a time of social and political malaise. At age 26 he wrote in his journal, “What would it look like for a person to be possessed entirely by God?” then devoted the rest of his life to being that person. Denouncing the repressive militant government on one side and the guerilla Marxist revolutionaries on the other, Romero advocated nonviolent resistance while preaching a message of unarmed truth and love. Then one day while blessing the bread of the Eucharist he was gunned down in the middle of the Mass.

Here in the US the defiant and determined Dorothy Day led the Catholic Worker movement. She cared not only about the poor but also about why they were poor. She challenged the greedy systems that create and sustain poverty, and her sobering words still resound today: “Most of our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

And, of course, no survey of the history of liberation would be complete without Martin Luther King, Jr. Much is lost when we confine MLK to a national holiday and “I have a dream” sentiments. King was a fiery prophet. His national popularity plummeted during his later years as he increasingly spoke out against U.S. economic, political, and value structures. In a sermon delivered exactly one year before his assassination, King challenged our involvement in the Vietnam War, our growing global power due to unrestricted capitalism, and our exploitation of the poor in order to make middle-class comforts possible. Filled with God’s liberating Spirit, he beckoned us toward what he called “the beloved community,” a vision of a future society brimming with inclusive justice and love.

This is just a brief historical sketch; there are many more who could be mentioned. A history of liberation is inextricably woven into the history of the church. And while working through this history, I’ve come to notice six things these prophets have in common. (1) They have an unwavering faith in the God of Exodus and Easter. (2) They have a hyper-sensitivity to the well-being of others and, specifically, the well-being of those who are not treated well. (3) They work for both spiritual and social liberation. (4) They understand the personal and corporate dimensions of sin. (5) No matter how dark the situation, they sing of a better day coming when justice and peace will fully embrace. (6) And they have a readiness to spend and be spent in bringing this better day closer into the present.

Having Dynamite Lodged in Your Heart

Matt’s art piece gives us a glimpse into the prophetic life. Prophets feel God’s heart pounding in their chest. They feel his burning message swell in their stomach. His word reverberates in their voice. God wants to heal a world torn by human injustice, and prophets are those who embody this passion and desire. The prophetic vocation is akin to having a stick of dynamite lodged in your heart; it’s an experience that can only be described as “fire in your belly.”

From Moses to Martin, the prophets are real people in history whom God empowered through his Spirit to forever echo the words, “Let my people go!” But before we enshrine them and render their experience as unattainable for the rest of us, let me remind you that since Pentecost, God’s liberating Spirit is given to all who belong to Jesus.

God has kept the promise he made back in Exodus 3. He has shown himself as Liberator to every generation. That leaves us with only one question unanswered. And it’s a question important enough to be its own blog entry. How is God going to show himself as liberator to this generation?