“Shaping Prophetic Voices for the Public Sphere” discusses the role of the church in the formation of the Christian intellectual’s concern for the common good. It draws on examples from Scripture and formulates the biblical mandate and theological rationale that undergird the need for Christian intellectuals to live out their call in community and for the sake of the community. It highlights some of the characteristics evangelical scholars need to emulate in fulfilling their vocation. Abson Prédestin Joseph is academic dean and professor of New Testament at Wesley Seminary. He is the author of A Narratological Reading of 1 Peter (T&T Clark, 2012); co-editor of Shaping Theological Education in the Caribbean: A Community Approach (CETA, 2011); and has published several book chapters and articles. He is an ordained minister from the Wesleyan Church of Haïti. He has read papers and taught in the USA, Haïti, Jamaica, Russia, Belgium, Kenya, and New Zealand, among other places.
A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. Isaiah 40:3-51
What is the role of the church in the formation of the Christian intellectual’s concern for the common good? This article seeks to contribute to this issue’s overall goal by providing examples of relevant practices that can help evangelical scholars expand their vocational understanding to include that of the public intellectual. Further, it seeks to contribute in helping evangelical scholars cultivate a sense of need for their work in relation to the broader context of the common good. This article uses narrative to discuss the power of stories to shape behavior. It surveys several prophetic narratives to identify key elements that contributed in shaping the vocation of those who have played a vital role in the life of Israel as a nation. In this way, this paper puts forth the biblical mandate and theological rationale that undergird the need for the Christian intellectual to live out her call in community and for the sake of the community. Appropriating these stories provides a foundation for the way today’s Christian intellectuals should understand their vocation as truth tellers and good news [gospel] bearers for the common good.
Narrative and Identity Formation
Narrative plays an important role in identity formation.2 Stephen Cornell explains the significance of narrative in creating ethnic identity3 by suggesting that in situations of breakdown, people tend to turn to narrative in order to create a sense of order.4 Members of a group intentionally or unintentionally claim a certain narrative as their story. Juha Ridanpää argues that ethnic minorities tend to create and use literary counter-narratives as “a means through which hegemonic discourse can be contested, collective memories embodied and sociocultural self-identities established and performed.”5 James K. A. Smith, for example, rightly argues for the development of a “social imaginary,”6 which is an affective understanding of the world that is fueled by the imagination. It is comprised of, and embedded in, stories and narratives that provide the frameworks of meaning by which individuals make sense of the world.7 We encounter this process in Scripture. For example, at the core of Israel’s identity as a nation is the memory of their alienness:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut. 26.7-9)
This was part of the liturgy that the children of Israel would recite each year during the feast of the First Fruits. This story highlights God’s faithfulness toward them, and reminds them of the need to live in obedience to God and be merciful to the strangers in their midst. It is a story/memory that forms their identity, shapes their behavior, and guides their actions.8
Paul Griffiths helpfully states, “Narrative discourse is extremely important for theology: it has cognitive powers and transformative capacities not available to religious communities in any other way.”9 If it is true that the community’s true identity is rooted in God, the appropriation and interpretation of stories by the Christian community is a theological task. In his epistle to the suffering and persecuted church, the Apostle Peter writes, “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your sojourn” (1 Pet. 1:15-17).
When we understand ourselves and our place within the larger story of who God is and what God is doing in the world, then we can learn how to live in a way that represents God faithfully. Gabriel Fackre proposes, “A Christian story worth telling is an encompassing one that rises out of Scripture’s intentions as interpreted and lived out by a faithful church and personally appropriated by the believer.”10 The Church needs to fulfill her role as a storytelling community that appropriates the biblical narratives and interprets them with the theological sensitivity that underscores the communal, counter-cultural, and ethical nature of public theology. This would empower evangelical scholars to embrace their vocation as public intellectuals for the common good.
The Church as a Storytelling Community
A storytelling community is a community that is gathered and unified around a shared experience. This is a dialogical process. The stories appropriated shape the community, and the community’s rehearsal of the stories perpetuates their relevance and underscores their normative characteristics. There exists a potential danger, however, whereby a community may use this process to create exclusion and raise boundaries that keep outsiders on the margins. The church should be diligent and intentional in claiming and rehearsing the stories that highlight the threads that bind us together. The church needs to use its privileged role as interpreter of these stories to recount and live them out in ways that render them comprehensible and accessible to outsiders.11
A concern for the common good then evokes the need to live as family and to treat outsiders as such. Public intellectuals need to become immersed in the biblical narratives in order to form an appropriate understanding of family and kinship identity that is hospitable. They need to become aware of the importance of crossing, and be willing to cross, boundaries in order to understand the lived realities of the other. Emmanuel Lévinas expresses this responsibility toward the other as a way of finding self, and of expressing what is Good.
[It is] in the responsibility for the Other, for another freedom, the negativity of this anarchy, this refusal of the present, of appearing, of the immemorial, commands me and ordains me to the other, to the first one on the scene, and makes me approach him, makes me his neighbor…Despite-me, for-another, is signification par excellence…it is the very fact of finding oneself while losing oneself.12
A storytelling community is a community that remembers. Miroslav Volf discusses the importance and centrality of remembering to identity formation when he states, “To be human is to be able to remember. It is as simple as that: no memory, no human identity.”13 Remembering goes beyond the mental process of committing stories to mind. It carries theological and ethical connotations. The Shema, which plays a normative role in teaching Israel about God’s nature and about their responsibility toward YHWH, contains the exhortation to remember and to be a storytelling community.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. (Deut. 6:4-7)
Israel is encouraged to remember and recount stories of God’s kindness and goodness towards them (Exod. 13:3, 8). Remembering the Exodus will play a central role in their life and in shaping their identity. This event will serve as reminder of God’s ability to perform similar acts of deliverance in the future. It is also an impetus to live in accordance to the covenant and in loyalty to God.14 To remember is an act of gratitude that leads to obedience and right actions.15 Forgetfulness leads to disobedience, the disregard and breaking of the covenant. The act of remembering creates space for penitence regarding past sins against God and provides opportunities for repentance and restoration (Ezek. 16:59-63).
Remembering also impacts interpersonal relationships. Israel’s memory of its slavery in Egypt serves as impetus for the call to be hospitable to the immigrant aliens in their midst (Deut. 24:14-15, 17-22).16 The church needs to create and be a space where stories of God’s actions on behalf of his people are recounted in ways that incite right actions and ethical conduct. The church needs to demonstrate a capacity to learn from past mistakes, to be penitent and repentant. The church needs to be aware of its own story of marginalization and develop the empathy necessary to care for those who are presently on the margins.
A storytelling community is an interpretive community. The interpretive task plays a crucial role in the community’s identity formation. It permeates the entire process. The community’s selection of the stories that shape its identity is in itself an interpretive endeavor. Of utmost importance is the lens, or the lenses, through which members of the community interpret these stories. In Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide, J. P. Fokkelman discusses the reader’s responsibility in interpreting a text. In particular, he proposes, “As the meaning of a text is only realized through the mediation of the reader, our responsibility for its meaning is greater than the text’s own.”17 He challenges interpretive approaches that highlight the distances between the text and the reader because they create a sense of alienation from the text. He warns against the temptation to impose one’s pre-formed convictions on the text. He invites the reader to allow the text to speak from within. The competent reader, he argues, is one who is aware of her subjectivity and is able to control it. This is crucial because only from a dialogue between reader and text can one arrive at the meaning of a story.18 I would add that this dialogue between the text and the community is crucial not only for the sake of finding the meaning of the text, but also for the formation of the community.
The interpretive community then needs to be open and vulnerable to the text’s influence on its existence. As the community reads and interprets these stories, the stories read and challenge the community in return. For this to be possible, there needs to be a shift in methodology and posture. Community members should not approach the stories in search of propositional truths that can be applied to contemporary settings. Rather, they should immerse themselves in these stories; enter their world to embody their message and be transformed.19 Gerard Loughlin explains that “Christian faith is sustained through and as a commitment to a story …The story is simply told, and faith is a certain way of telling it, a way of living and embodying it, a habit of the heart.”20 Therefore, the community needs to shift from asking, “How does this text apply to our context?” to inquiring, “What kinds of people do we need to become for this text to be actualized within our community?” Further, the community needs to submit to the influence and work of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Only a Spirit-led community can resist the temptation to produce interpretations that are self-serving. Only a Spirit-led community can nurture its members to grow from competent readers to becoming good people who are reading these texts.
Shaping Prophetic Voices
The church needs to appropriate, interpret, and embody prophetic narratives that can shape theologians and guide their engagement in the public sphere. This will empower evangelical scholars to embrace their vocation as truth-tellers and good-news-bearers in today’s world. A look at selected prophetic narratives can help inform what behaviors, sensitivities, and postures evangelical scholars need to emulate.
A Sacred Vocation
The church needs to form evangelical scholars who view their role, public intellectuals for the common good, as a sacred vocation. It is sacred in a moral and holistic sense. Scripture conveys that messengers who speak on God’s behalf need to display holiness of heart and mind. When Moses encountered YHWH on Mount Horeb, the LORD instructed him to “Remove the sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5). The exhortation to remove his sandals is an invitation to come into direct contact with the holiness of God, which has transforming powers. The narrative of Isaiah’s appointment underscores this truth (Isa. 6). Isaiah’s vision of God creates an awareness of God’s holiness and of Isaiah’s own shortcomings. The response to his cry of desperation constitutes a similar act of coming into direct contact with the Holy. “The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out’” (Isa. 6:7).21
Jeremiah’s call contains similar motifs. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5).22 Jeremiah expresses his inadequacy as well. This prompts God to respond with both an affirmation and a personal touch. “Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’” (Jer. 1:9-10).
In addition, the connection between holiness and the appointment to prophetic office is expressed through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Like Jeremiah, both John and Jesus experience their consecration before birth. John is said to be, “filled with the Holy Spirit” even before his birth (Luke 1:15). The angel tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35). At the start of his ministry, Jesus’ appropriation of the words of the prophet Isaiah for his own life and ministry underscores this reality. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19 ; cf. Isa. 61:1-3).
In his sermon to the audience gathered at Pentecost, Peter appropriates the words of the prophet Joel to explain the implication of outpouring of the Holy Spirit the crowd has just witnessed:
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18 ; cf. Joel 2:28-29)
The fulfillment of this promise at Pentecost points to God’s desire to inhabit and empower those who would avail themselves to experience his transforming touch and respond to his call to become his herald in the world. The church needs to play her role as a holy, Spirit-filled community where evangelical scholars are nurtured, transformed, and empowered in order to live out their prophetic vocation.
It is a sacred vocation in a holistic sense because it pushes against the tendency to separate matters of life into sacred and secular areas. Embracing one’s vocation requires the development of a vision that acknowledges and promotes God’s lordship over all areas of life. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isa. 52:7). The good news about God’s reign, the proclamation of salvation has far-reaching implications for every area of life: spiritual, physical, political, and emotional (Isa. 61; Jer. 33; Luke 1:67-79). The church needs to form scholars who espouse a holistic view of life, scholars who view their work as a sacred endeavor bestowed by God for the benefit of the world. The church needs to create space to invite conversation about the ways the work of evangelical scholars can contribute to the wellbeing of persons. Evangelical scholars need to posture themselves as good news bearers in the public sphere.
A Counter-Cultural Philosophy
Prophetic voices within Israel embody a counter-cultural philosophy. More often than not, prophets speak during times of crisis. As a result, their role often requires that they demonstrate their concern for the common good in counter-cultural ways. While their message is counter-cultural, they speak as insiders who identify with the promised deliverance, the plight, sufferings, and even sins of the people they are representing or/and challenging. They face opposition, yet show resilience by trusting and depending on YHWH.
The stories of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Nehemiah, and Esther provide examples of how thoroughly immersed they were in the life of their communities. Their status as insiders provided them the authority to speak truth to the situations their community was facing and to challenge their oppressors. In fact, it is likely that Moses expressed his worry and hesitation to God about bearing his message to the Israelites because he was relatively an outsider at that point. At least, he was worried they would perceive him that way (Exod. 4:1-18). Yet, in due time, Moses placed himself between God and the Israelites, and interceded to God on their behalf, and was willing to offer his own life for them (Exod. 32:7-14, 32-33). Isaiah identified with the shortcomings of Israel “I am man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). Further, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea obediently submitted to God’s decision to use their lives as object lessons, to demonstrate the embodied realities of the message they were proclaiming (Isa. 7:10-8:10; Jeremiah 27-28; Ezekiel 4:1-5:4; Hosea 1:2-2:1; 3:1-5).
While Nehemiah and Esther do not fit the prophetic genre per se, they are prime examples of heralds chosen by God to speak truth to powers-that-be. They identified with the plight of their communities, joined them on the margins, and used their privilege and influence for the common good. Nehemiah’s prayer embodies this reality. He offered this prayer when words came to him that those who had returned from exile were suffering disgrace, shame, and that the wall of Jerusalem was broken.
O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses. (Neh. 1:5-7)
After Nehemiah identified with the plight of the remnant and the sins of Israel, his concern for the good of the people of the city spurred him to action. It gave him the courage to request that the king send him to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. Similarly, Esther made the decision to face the king and intercede on behalf of her people only after Mordecai helped her to realize that her fate was intrinsically bound with that of Jewish community (Esth. 4:1-17; 7:1-4).
Evangelical scholars need to position themselves within the community, immerse themselves in its culture, understand, and empathize with its realities. The church needs to help evangelical scholars develop the kind of empathy that is characteristic of the actors listed in the stories above.
A counter-cultural philosophy not only requires one to speak from within the community; it calls for a level of discomfort with, and a willingness to challenge, the status quo. The discomfort can be internal, external, and/or relational. Esther wanted to remain silent because, for a time, she did not feel the discomfort associated with, and felt by, the larger community (Esth. 4:9-14). In contrast, Jeremiah voices the discomfort that he experiences when he tries to stay silent: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer. 20:9).
Discomfort can also come in the form of trials, external pressure, and opposition. The church needs to shape intellectuals who exhibit resilience in the face of trials. If they are to engage the public sphere while embodying a counter-cultural philosophy, they need to expect opposition, emotional and even physical attack. They need to learn how to live with the risk of being misunderstood and marginalized. Elijah, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul are examples of people who challenged the status quo and suffered as a result. Yet, in the face of opposition and suffering they showed resilience and steadfastness characterized by trust and dependence on YHWH (1 Kings 19; Jer. 38; 1 Pet. 2:21-252; Cor. 11:23-33).
Being an insider does not mean one needs to accept the community’s modus operandi. One needs the courage to challenge inter and intra communal realities that threaten the common good. It requires strength to bring words of comfort in times of despair, words of caution when complacency and false hope have settled in, and wisdom and discernment to know the difference.
A Hope-filled Message
The concern for the common good has at its core a message of hope. Prophetic voices rise from within the community to point people’s hearts to YHWH, to prepare the community to see and experience YHWH’s faithfulness. The church needs to shape intellectuals who promote and live out the universal message of hope that is central to the gospel.
A concern for the common good also captures the message of hope embedded in YHWH’s desire to bring deliverance to his people and level the playing field.
A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa. 40:3-5)23
At the core of the message of hope is YHWH’s redemptive work on behalf of his people. It is the recognition that his lordship and reign are demonstrated through his loving care. See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. “See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart” (Isa. 40:10-11, NIV).
Christian intellectuals who nurture a concern for the common good champion the message of hope in which God brings his people together as a reconciled community. They work diligently to make it come to pass. “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them… In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious” (Isa. 11: 6, 10, NIV; cf. 56:1-8).
Christian intellectuals who cultivate a concern for the common good resist oppression, fight against injustice in all of its forms, and embody and promote righteousness.
Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. (Isa 58:6-9, NIV)
Christian intellectuals need to be heralds of the message of hope which YHWH wants the world to hear. To be effective, they should not only proclaim that message, but they need to embody it and live it out. They need to engage the community to bring about the common good that God desires for all to experience. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8)
Echoing the Voice of a Modern Prophet
The church’s endeavor to shape prophetic voices for the public sphere can also benefit from rehearsing the story of a person whose life was driven by his concern for the common good. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a modern day embodiment of the behavior, way of life, and posture discussed in this article. King reveals that he was concerned about racial injustice since his youth.24 “I grew up abhorring segregation, considering it both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable.”25 King would embark on a search for a method to eliminate social evil since the days of his seminary career. Yet, it will take his involvement in the Montgomery Improvement Association to experience what could be termed his call to the prophetic office that he held during his short lifespan.26 Initially, King was reluctant.27 The turning point in his fight against segregation and inequality took place following a threatening phone call he received in late January 1956.28 After the threatening phone conversation, King was unable to fall asleep. He had reached the broken point when he confessed his fears and inadequacy to God:
Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid…The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.29
King testifies of hearing an inner assuring voice telling him, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”30 King appropriates Jesus’ promise to his disciple as part of the narration of his own prophetic call. He acknowledges experiencing the presence of God in an unprecedented way. This provided him the boldness to engage in the struggle for equality. He states, “Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”31 In his life, struggles, ministry and death, he has demonstrated the ways immersion in the narratives of God’s people can shape a Christian intellectual’s concern for the common good.
King was at home in his community. He empathized with the plight, sufferings and struggles of the African American population. He also viewed the United States as a nation, and in a way the world at large, as his community. In his argument for the right to vote, he explains,
When the full power of the ballot is available to my people, it will not be exercised to advance our cause alone. We have learned in the course of our freedom struggle that the needs of twenty million Negroes [sic] are not truly separable from those of the nearly two hundred million whites and Negroes [sic] in America, all of whom will benefit from a color-blind land of plenty that provides the nourishment of each man’s body, mind, and spirit.32
King was concerned not only with the sufferings and disenfranchisement inflicted on his African American brothers and sisters, but with a society and political system that made this possible. He made it clear that the non-violent resistance was aimed at destroying the system, not the members of the community who are caught in it.33 Using Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount as a point of departure, and love as the primary focus, King sought to cast a vision for a beloved community where love reigns. He was convinced that, because of love, “all humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers.”34 Therefore, one cannot harm a brother, without causing harm to oneself.35 He challenged and sought to bring change to both African American and white communities. In the end, he became not only a prominent face and voice for the Civil Rights movement, but the face and voice for peace and reconciliation because his promotion of non-violence would transcend the immediate societal ills he was speaking against. Charles Marsh rightly states, “King did not so much strike a balance between prophetic religion and the American dream as he imagined democratic possibilities from the perspective of Biblical hope.”36 The story of the community was his story. Because he was a participant in the struggle, his message resonated with power and authenticity crossing beyond the boundaries of his immediate audience through time and space. He demonstrated awareness of the risk he was taking by speaking truth to power, but was unwavering and steadfast in leading the fight against injustice, oppression, and segregation.37
King exhibited uncommon bravery as he challenged the status quo. His call to non-violence faced opposition from within, while his call to equality, freedom and justice for all faced pressures from larger society. He had the ability to talk objectively about the issues his community was dealing with, and parsed with a critical eye the challenges they faced. His sermons and speeches were filled with empathy. In a sermon preached in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, King urges the congregants,
In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even pay him back for injustices that he has heaped on you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself. Let him know that the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro [sic]. With this attitude you will be able to keep your struggle on high Christian standards.38
He challenged the church against apathy in the face of the plight of the African Americans.39
The churches are called upon to recognize the urgent necessity of taking a forthright stand on this crucial issue. If we are to remain true to the gospel of Jesus Christ, we cannot rest until segregation and discrimination are banished from every area of American life…All too many ministers are still silent. It may well be that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the glaring noisiness of the so-called bad people, but the appalling silence of the so-called good people.40
King’s vision for a reconciled community was shaped by his interpretation and appropriation of the story of Israel, and the teachings and life of Jesus.41 This appropriation shapes a theological anthropology that undergirded King’s message.42 Wills rightly notes that King’s ideological center was not socio-political, but theological.43 It is evident that he immersed himself in the biblical narrative. His speeches and sermon are replete with allusions and quotations from Israel’s story of oppression, exile, suffering, and deliverance gleaned from the prophets of old and from the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.44 He approached these stories as if they were his, and invited the community to see themselves through the same lens. From his voice resonated a message of hope that continues to guide and inspire a community, a nation, and even the world.
King’s prophetic voice and vision were shaped in the church and by the church.45 His parents also instilled in him a concern for the poor and the unconditional love of the neighbor.46 His father and grandfather were both ministers who embodied the gospel message and emulated before him not only a concern for the marginalized and the disenfranchised, but the willingness to speak out and act on their behalf. Jackson notes, “The lessons King internalized during his formative years at Ebenezer provided the roots for much of what he would endeavor to accomplish as a pastor and civil rights leader.”47 The church was also the locus from which King’s prophetic voice rang out. King was convinced that the church had to play a significant role in bringing about change and transformation in the public sphere.48 He demonstrated this by the way he fulfilled his calling.
In this article I discussed the role of the church in the formation of the Christian intellectual’s concern for the common good. I have used narrative as a springboard to demonstrate the power of stories to shape behavior. I have proposed that the church needs to fulfill her role as a storytelling community by appropriating and interpreting biblical prophetic narratives with the theological sensitivity that will empower evangelical scholars to embrace their vocation as public intellectuals who develop a concern for the common good. I have addressed the nature of the church community, what it needs to become, in order to be effective in shaping the behaviors of evangelical scholars. In order to fulfill her role, the church needs to be a storytelling community gathered and unified around a shared experience, a community that remembers, and an interpretive community that takes seriously its dialogue with the biblical text. It is a community that is willing to submit to the formative power and influence of the text. Further, I have discussed the posture one needs to adopt in order to develop a vision for the common good. Evangelical scholars who embrace their vocation as truth-tellers and good-news-bearers in today’s world need to view their role as a sacred vocation. They need to espouse a counter-cultural philosophy, and herald a hope-filled message. Finally, I offered a brief treatment of the life of a modern-day prophet whose voice still resonates in our minds and heart, and whose approach to life and concern for the common good is worth emulating. In his life, struggles, ministry and death, Martin Luther King, Jr. has demonstrated the positive ways the church can influence, shape and transform a Christian intellectual’s concern for the common good.
Cite this article
- Unless otherwise noted, citations in English are from the New Revised Standard Version.
- See Kay Young and Jeffrey Shaver, “The Neurology of Narrative,” Substance 30 (2001): 72–84.
- Stephen Cornell, “That’s the Story of our Life,” in We Are a People: Narrative and Multiplicity in Constructing Ethnic Identity, eds. Paul Spickard and Jeffrey Burroughs (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), 41–53. See, for example, Lilia Abadia et al., “Interwoven Migration Narratives: Identity and Social Representation in the Lusophone World,” Identities 25 (2018): 339-357.
- Cornell, “That’s the Story of our Life,” 45. See also Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 39–43; William L. Dunlop, Jen Guo, and Dan P. McAdams, “The Autobiographical Author Through Time: Examining the Degree of Stability and Change in Redemptive and Contaminated Personal Narratives,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 7 (2016): 428-436. This research demonstrates the correlations between change in life circumstances and narrative identity.
- Juha Ridanpää, “Politics of Literary Humor and Contested Narrative Identity (of a Region with no Identity),” Cultural Geographies 21 (2014): 711-726.
- James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 68.
- Ibid., 68.
- This concept still plays a very central role in Jewish/Israeli society. See Deborah Golden, “Storytelling the Future: Israelis, Immigrants and the Imagining Community,” Anthropological Quarterly 75 (2001): 7-35.
- Paul Griffiths, “The Limits of Narrative Theology,” in Faith and Narrative, ed. Keith E. Yandell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 217-236.
- See Gabriel Fackre, “Narrative Theology from an Evangelical Perspective,” in Faith and Narrative, ed. Keith E. Yandell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 199.
- See Amanda Beckenstein Mbuvi, Belonging in Genesis: Biblical Israel and the Politics of Identity Formation (Waco, TX.: Baylor University Press, 2016), 30-42.
- Emmanuel Lévinas, Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2006), 9-15.
- Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 147.
- Leslie C. Allen, “רכז,” NIDOTTE, 1:1100-1106.
- Ibid., 1:1102-1103.
- Ibid., 1:1103.
- J. P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 21.
- Ibid., 25-29.
- See Abson Joseph, A Narratological Reading of 1 Peter (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 29.
- Gerard Loughlin, Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 33.
- There are several parallels between these prophetic call stories: the vision of God, encountering (touching or being touched by) the Holy, and the appointment. Whereas Isaiah expresses his inadequacy immediately and prior to God’s call, Moses and Jeremiah express their inadequacy after God initiates the call.
- The Hebrew root דקשׁ and its derivatives are present in all three narrative descriptions.
- The text contains a parallelism that underscores the meaning.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperOne, 1986), 35-40.
- Ibid., 37.
- Troy Jackson, Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 2008), 50-51.
- Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From the Civil Rights Movement to Today (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 23-25.
- Martin Luther King Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1998).
- Ibid., 77.
- Ibid., 77-78.
- Ibid., 78.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “Civil Right No. 1: The Right to Vote,” in A Testament of Hope, 182-188.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” in Ibid., 43-53.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “An Experiment in Love,” in Ibid., 16-20.
- Ibid., 20.
- Marsh, The Beloved Community, 49.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “Suffering and Faith,” in A Testament of Hope, 41-42.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “The Most Durable Power,” in Ibid., 10-11.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “The Current Crisis in Race Relations,” in Ibid., 85-90.
- Ibid., 89.
- Jackson, Becoming King, 44-45.
- Richard Wayne Wills Sr., Martin Luther King Jr. and the Image of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 87-136.
- Ibid., 114.
- Jackson, Becoming King, 35-51.
- Ibid., 37-40; Lewis V. Baldwin, The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 101-140.
- King, Autobiography, 1-12.
- Jackson, Becoming King, 39.
- Baldwin, The Voice of Conscience, 51-100.