Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Message 2012

As published in the Sunday Times - 25th December, 2011

Above all, Christmas is about sharing love. It is remembering that the Christ came into this world, because God loves us. It is about love for all regardless of our status in society. The lowly shepherds were witness to this amazing phenomenon. Animals were present at the birth of Jesus signifying that this event was important not just for humankind but for the whole of creation, the whole earth.
St. Augustine, writing in the 4th century CE reflects on the birth of Christ:
He by whom all things were made was made one of all things. The Son of God by the Father without a mother became the Son of man by a mother without a father... The maker of the sun was made under the sun. He who fills the world lay in a manger, great in the form of God but tiny in the form of a servant; this was in such a way that neither was His greatness diminished by His tininess, nor was His tininess overcome by His greatness (Sermon 187).

At the heart of the gospel of salvation is God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. “Incarnation” is a word whereby we join other orthodox Christians in upholding a difficult but saving truth: Jesus Christ was completely human and fully God. Jesus was not God in disguise, or a man who was almost divine; he was truly human, truly divine.

God came to us as a baby, born in a human family. Jesus hungered, thirsted, and hurt, just like us. He was tested and temped like us (Heb. 4:15). He was no make-believe person and the final proof of that was his horrendous death on a cross. True, he was rightly human in a way none of us are. Though he was “tested as we are” says the Letter to the Hebrews “yet he was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Though we “walked in darkness,” (Isa. 9:2) he was radiant light. Though we have this propensity to rebel against God and try to be gods unto ourselves, he was fully obedient, even obedient to death on a cross. 

So the message of Christmas is both complicated -“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19 ESV); and simple - “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” (John 3:16 The Message).

The act of giving gifts, of celebrating with feasts and parties, is in reality a joyful expression of love. What is important that the type of gift, the quantity and quality of food and the intensity of the party not distract us from the intention of sharing love with one another. When the presents are put away, when the food is all finished and when the party is over, Christ remains. God remains. God is love. God is peace. God is good will toward all.

Rev. James S. Bhagwan – Associate Minister
Gaepo Methodist Church,
Seoul, South Korea
25 December, 2012

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ho! Ho! Holy Christmas! – Spreading the Love

Published as "A Reason for the Season (Off The Wall With Padre James Bhagwan) in the Fiji Times, Wednesday, December 21, 2011 

Last Sunday was the fourth Sunday in the Christian Season of Advent. Advent, as shared in last week’s column means preparation, preparation in this case for Christmas - the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ, and preparation also for Christians – for Christ’s return.

Last Sunday fourth candle of Advent, the Candle of Love, will be lit. Its light is meant to remind us of the love that God has for us. This Sunday will be Christmas Day when the “Christ Candle” signifying the birth of the Light of the World, will be lit.

Last Sunday afternoon, I joined the members of Gaepo Methodist Church in Seoul, as they took to the street to spread some Christmas cheer and spread the message of God’s love through Jesus Christ.

Braving the cold, we sang Christmas carols on street corners and handed out small gifts to those we met, many of them non-Christian. In keeping with my taste for the theatrical, I donned a Santa Claus outfit (fortunately I was able to find a jacket that fit) and so a number of people received presents from a “Fiji Santa”.

I noticed that as we approached some people they shrank back (I’m not surprised... many would if some strange brown man in a red suit strolled loudly up to them..) until we handed them a gift. In a few places, people rushed back in to their homes, workplaces to tell others who came out.

While our motive was to spread the gospel, it was expressed as spreading the joy and love we experience at Christmas. For me that is the gospel, the Good News, the joy of experiencing God’s love. It is a joy and love that we simply wish to share.

When one of the church staff emailed me pictures of my Santa Claus experience, I had to laugh at some of them. But then I began to think about Santa Claus and his relevance as one of the most (in some cases the most) popular images of Christmas.

This week you will see many Santas, outside shops ringing bells, in shop windows, on billboards, in advertisements and even on plastic bags.

How does Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas fit into the story of Christmas?

The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th (December 19 on the Julian Calendar).

Over the centuries St. Nicholas became Santa Claus. Santa was then portrayed by dozens of artists in a wide variety of styles, sizes, and colours. However by the end of the 1920s, a standard American Santa—life-sized in a red, fur-trimmed suit—had emerged from the work of N. C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and other popular illustrators. In 1931 Haddon Sundblom began thirty-five years of Coca-Cola Santa advertisements that popularized and firmly established this Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture.

This Santa was life-sized, jolly, and wore the now familiar red suit. He appeared in magazines, on billboards, and shop counters, encouraging Americans to see Coke as the solution to "a thirst for all seasons." By the 1950s Santa was turning up everywhere as a benign source of beneficence, endorsing an amazing range of consumer products. This commercial success led to the North American Santa Claus being exported around the world where he threatens to overcome the European St. Nicholas, who has retained his identity as a Christian bishop and saint.

(To learn more about how Bishop Nicholas became Santa Claus and how we see him today visit:

It's been a long journey from the Fourth Century Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, who showed his devotion to God in extraordinary kindness and generosity to those in need, to America's jolly Santa Claus, whose generosity often supplies luxuries to the rich. However, if you peel back the layers that have been added over the years, he is still Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, whose caring surprises continue to model true giving and faithfulness.

There is growing interest in reclaiming the original saint to help restore a spiritual dimension to this festive time, for Catholic and Protestant alike. For indeed, St. Nicholas, lover of the poor and patron saint of children, is a model of how Christians are meant to live. A bishop, Nicholas put Jesus Christ at the centre of his life, his ministry, his entire existence. Families, churches, and schools are embracing true St Nicholas traditions as one way to claim the true centre of Christmas—the birth of Jesus. Such a focus helps restore balance to increasingly materialistic and stress-filled Advent and Christmas seasons.

St. Nicholas / Santa Claus would probably agree with the saying, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

This Christmas, spread the love, spread the joy, not just to those who know you but to those who need to experience love and joy, if only for once this year.

Have a happy and holy Christmas Fiji!

Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is a doting husband and father. He is currently a student of the International Graduate School of Theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. Read more by visiting or

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shining a Light into 2012

Published as "Light over Darkeness" in Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan - Fiji Times (Wednesday 14th December, 2011)

As the HIV/AIDS wave began to crash on our shores and as communities were faced

not only with a new virus, that at the time, was a physical and emotional death sentence for those who contracted HIV and were rejected by their families, friends and communities, Sister Emi Oh, founder of CAPE (Churches, AIDS Pastoral care and Education), called on society to, “Instead of Cursing the Darkness, Light a Candle.”

While this statement was made in response to the attitude towards the epidemic and people living with HIV and AIDS, it is a phrase that rings true all the situations of apparent hopelessness that we find ourselves in.

I remember, living in London in 2000, coming across an article in the Evening Standard news paper which reported on the daily candlelight vigils taking place in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Suva during the hostage crisis in parliament in 2000. These inter-faith prayer vigils which were organised by the National Council of Women in Fiji, of which my sister Sharon was Secretary at the time, continued in the years to follow, becoming a monthly safe space for reflection, solidarity and the expression of hope.

Candlelight vigils are usually held as a way to remember lives lost to some disease, disaster, massacre or other tragedy or protest the suffering of some marginalized group of people.

It is hoped that by holding a candlelight vigil, participants will create awareness of the problem by shining light onto something often kept hidden. Vigils are usually moments of silence which gives those taking part a space to quietly reflect in the issue. It is way to share a sense of peace, hope, and commitment in a community.

This year, I participated in three events that used candles to reflect and inspire. The first was at the AIDS Candlelight Memorial Service hosted by the Pacific Conference of Churches at Dudley Church in Suva in May. There the First Lady, Adi Koila Nailatikau lit the first of over 300 candles to remember those Fijians who have lost their lives to AIDS.

In August, at the Biennial Consultation of Hindi Speaking Fellowships, candles were lit for members of this community of the Methodist Indo-Fijian diaspora who had passed away in the last two years.

In both these occasions it was a time of reflection – of lives; some complete, some abruptly ended before their time; a time for reflection on what was and also what could have been.

But there was another event in which candles were lit for reflection but also in which they were lit for inspiration. At the welcome service for the consultation mentioned above, the youth of Dudley Church, a group of ethnically mixed, dynamic young people, performed a dance with candles and diya. The dance was to a Hindi translation of the song “Carry Your Candle” by Chris Rice:

There is a candle in every soul; some brightly burning, some dark and cold.
There is a Spirit who brings fire; ignites a candle and makes His home.
Carry your candle, run to the darkness; seek out the hopeless, confused and torn.
Hold out your candle for all to see it; Take your candle, and go light your world.

Frustrated brother, see how he's tried to light his own candle some other way.
See now your sister, she's been robbed and lied to, still holds a candle without a flame.

Carry your candle, run to the darkness; seek out the hopeless, confused and torn.
Hold out your candle for all to see it; Take your candle, and go light your world.

We are a family whose hearts are blazing, so let's raise our candles and light up the sky.
Praying to our Father, in the name of Jesus, make us a beacon in darkest times.
Carry your candle, run to the darkness; seek out the hopeless, confused and torn.
Hold out your candle for all to see it; Take your candle, and go light your world.

As we journey through the Christian season of Advent in preparation for Christmas, in many churches last Sunday we lit the candle of joy. In the previous two Sundays the candles of hope and peace were lit as a reminder that Christ will come again and bring us everlasting peace and joy.

This Sunday, the fourth candle of Advent, the Candle of Love, will be lit. Its light is meant to remind us of the love that God has for us.

The American civil rights leader, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr. Said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. “

Last week I posted a suggestion on my status page on Facebook. It read:

“How about a nation-wide Candlelight Vigil for the last 10mins of 2011? In every home, church, place of worship.... 10mins of silent reflection ... on the year that was... 10mins of silent meditation ... in preparation of the year to come... 10mins of silent prayer for our home and nation of Fiji... The candle to symbolise the light that will help us find our way.... Click LIKE if you think is possible and you are willing to commit and let’s see if we can get some positivity flowing!”

Encouraged by the response to this post, I invite, I urge every community of faith, every neighbourhood, settlement, village on December 31st, and light a candle as a sign of hope, of your commitment to peace, compassion and justice and to making 2012 a better year for all in Fiji. Whether it is done in your church, mandli, kava session or in your home, each light can be a beacon of positivity and together they can herald 2012 as a year of enlightenment for our people and our country.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” (Edith Wharton - American poet, novelist and short-story writer, 1862-1937)

On New Year ’s Eve this year, you have an opportunity to be a candle and shine, or a mirror to reflect, the light in your soul.

Carry your candle, run to the darkness, Seek out the helpless, deceived and poor. Hold out your candle for all to see it. Take your candle, and go light your world

“Simplicity, Serenity and Spontaneity”

Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is a doting husband and father. He is currently a student of the International Graduate School of Theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. Read more by visiting

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Goodwill Hunting...

Published in the "Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan" Page 12 - Fiji Times, Wednesday 7th December, 2011

As we approach Christmas (which was almost cancelled last year if you remember the furor over the public holidays -, it’s always good to spend some time reflecting on the significance of the event.

Of course in Fiji most of us understand that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ Jesus. Born in abject poverty (there was no room in the inn or perhaps Joseph could not afford to take the available but expensive suite, or was it social discrimination against Galileans?) and while still an infant subjected to political persecution and forced to seek refugee status in a foreign land (the future king hunted by the present one and forced to flee to Egypt, from where an adopted prince had once fled with a group of slaves), it wasn’t the happiest or most glorious beginning for the earthly life of the Son of God.

In fact that humble birth does not have much in common with the commercial event that sees billions spent globally on food, decorations, presents etc. With the secularization of Christmas, along with Yule (Pagan) and Hanukkah/Chanukah (Jewish) and the Winter (northern hemisphere)/Summer (southern hemisphere) Solstice all at the same time the reference in most cards and advertisements to “Seasons Greetings” along with a chubby Santa Claus as the mascot for Christmas, the deeper meaning sometimes seems to get lost, even with a quick dash to Christmas Eve Mass or stumble to Christmas Morning Service.

Or maybe not.

Shopping, excesses, preparation stress and partying aside, surely something can be said for the joy of family and friends coming together and sharing their love for one another in the giving of gifts, even small ones, the sharing of a meal – be it a family feast or a simple lunch or dinner with a piece of fruit cake or glass of juice on the side.

It is written in the Christian scriptures that when Jesus was born, angels appeared to shepherds. These shepherds were most likely tending the unblemished lambs for sacrifice in the temple of Jerusalem in special grazing grounds in the valley south and east of Bethlehem. These men, who because of the work they did, were unclean and not permitted to enter the Temple, even though the sheep they tended were pure enough for sacrifice in the Temple.

The message to these defiled men, excluded by religious tradition from having a meaningful encounter with God in the temple (the only place Jews of the 1st century BCE could have expected to really worship) was one of hope and that was to lead, in their visiting of that baby in a stable, to a personal encounter with God.

A huge angelic choir appeared to these lowly shepherds singing God's praises, “Glory to God in the heavenly heights, peace to all men and women on earth who please him.” (Luke 2:13-14 The Message)

The King James Version of the Bible has the phrase “goodwill” instead of peace.

What is good-will?

Goodwill is defined as “a kindly feeling of approval and support : benevolent interest or concern;” or “ a disposition to kindness and compassion; ‘the victor's grace in treating the vanquished’”. It is the opposite of “ill-will”(hostility, animosity, bitterness, aggression).

The message at Christmas is of the presence of goodwill on earth to all humankind. Even the condition of “on whom God’s favour rests,” can be understood to mean all those who do what God asks: “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV), or “do what is fair and just to your neighbour, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don't take yourself too seriously— take God seriously” (The Message). This is something that we all can do.

Goodwill is so important in this world that it is even accepted as an “intangible asset” in accounting terms – yes companies have a dollar value to their reputation or their “goodwill”.

How much is your goodwill worth? What good do you do?

Is it fair to be the recipient of goodwill without sharing it with others?

This Christmas, as we write our lists of what to get for whom and plan our budgets, or wonder where on earth we are to find the money for things we wish we could enjoy and give to others; lets place some value on goodwill.

Albert Einstein once said, “Nothing that I can do will change the structure of the universe. But maybe, by raising my voice I can help the greatest of all causes - goodwill among men and peace on earth.”

Einstein’s message is echoed in the words of the late Kenyan environmentalist and political activist Wangari Maathai who in 2004 won the Nobel Peace Prize for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace and passed away on what will be exactly three months on Christmas day (25th September, 2011):

We can work together for a better world with men and women of goodwill, those who radiate the intrinsic goodness of humankind.

What kindness can you share this Christmas? To whom will you express compassion? Where and how will you enable peace as the world celebrates the birth of the prince of peace?

Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.

Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is a doting husband and father. He is currently a student of the International Graduate School of Theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. Read more by visiting

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Need for the Church to have Prophetic Voice in Fiji Today

Excerpt from: “Towards a contextual theology of prophetic communication :Communicating the Prophetic Voice of the Mainline Churches and the Prophetic Role of the News Media in Contemporary Fiji-Island Society”

(SUVA: PTC/BDES Thesis, September 2006)

The coups of 1987 and 2000 had contrasting responses from the mainline Churches. On May 14th, 1987, three hours after the military coup d’Δ“tat of the democratically Labour–National Federation Party Coalition, the President of the Methodist Church contacted some of the leaders of the Churches and produced a message on behalf of the Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian and Assembly of God Churches. The message which was broadcast at midnight that night and published in the local newspapers the next day appealed for the upholding of the Christian values of justice, peace, tolerance, goodwill, freedom and love, patience and forgiveness, sacrifice and obedience. The message called on the (at that time) Royal Fiji Military Forces to release all hostages and surrender to the sovereign authority of the land and for all people of Fiji of all religions to pray for the end of the crisis and immediate restoration of the democratically elected Government.[1] Nine days later the Anglican Bishop, the President of the Methodist Church, the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, the Regional Commander of the Salvation Army and the minister of the Presbyterian Church issued a joint statement condemning the coup and calling for the nation to come together. In the days, weeks and months that followed the leaders of the Churches issued two further common public statements. The Fiji Council of Churches, having been silent received letters of solidarity from the Pacific Conference of Churches and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa/New Zealand. The first public statement by the Fiji Council of Churches was in March of 1988 and addressed the issue of the Sunday Decree as well as Church and State. Further statements by the leaders of the Fiji Council of Churches were issued towards the end of the year (i) expressing concern on the constitutional process then underway and (ii) to give a combined Christmas message to the nation calling for the breaking down of barriers and creation of lasting peace.[2]

In May 2000 following the civilian coup, the prophetic solidarity of the Churches was not as evident as in 1987. The first statement on the events of May 19th came the next day when Methodist Church General Secretary Rev. Dr. Ilaitia Tuwere strongly condemned the civilian coup and associated looting in Suva city.[3] The following Monday, the Fiji Times newspaper carried a photograph of the Methodist Church President, Rev. Tomasi Kanailagi outside the Parliament complex.[4] The next day, in an article in the paper, Rev. Kanailagi disassociated the church from the coup, calling for prayers for the nation and saying that the church did not want “meddle into the politics” of the coup.[5] Five days after the takeover, with hostages still being held in Parliament, the head of the Anglican Church, Bishop Bryce also called for prayer, saying that it was the “Christian duty to obey and support the lawful authority of the state.”[6] The same day, former Methodist Church President, Rev. Joseteki Koroi in calling on looters to repent and for church leaders to be part of the repentance process, criticised the Fiji Council of Churches for its silence.[7] The next day the Fiji Times published a statement from the Council stating that it was against the “unchristian act of those who seized members of the democratically elected government,” calling the takeover a, “very thoughtless crucifixion of democracy,” and called for Christians to assist in restoring order by “little acts of love and kindness.”[8]

By the following week, newspaper reports contained more statements from the Fiji Council of Churches and church leaders, calling for peace and calm as well as condemning the coup. There was coverage of the daily peace vigil at the Holy Trinity Anglican church.[9] As the hostage crisis continued for the next month with more statements from the churches calling for an end to the crisis and support for first the President of Fiji and then after his stepping down, the military. The Methodist church, in particular was trying to distance itself from the coup makers, having earlier looked like was supporting them. Their defence was that they were providing pastoral counselling to the rebels in Parliament. This was an issue for the Anglican Church, Roman Catholic Church and the Salvation Army, who as members of the Fiji Council of Churches:

….wanted to take a united stand against the activities of those involved in the coup but were frustrated by the leaders of the Methodist Church who were, at that time, nationalistic in sentiment.[10]

A lack of prophetic voice in the crises in 2000 when compared to 1987 is discernable. In 1987, there were common statements by the churches condemning the coup and calling for immediate release of the government. In 2000, the churches did not make common statements until the Fiji Council of Churches was criticised for its silence and began to raise its voice after almost a week. The Lund Principle of the World Council of Churches, Faith and Order Commission states that, “churches do not say separately, what they can say together,”[11] in order to maintain solidarity and a visible unity of the Church Universal. According to Yabaki:

The churches have reached a point of maturity in their journey towards unity where they have been able to agree on an understanding of scripture, doctrine, baptism, to the issue of trafficking of women and unmasking hypocrisy and speaking to each other and together, as in the case of the Fiji Council of Churches and the Assembly of Christian Churches in Fiji.[12]

There is also a danger that by not speaking out on injustice and tyranny, the church, in its silence, may be seen as making a statement: that it is supporting the status quo.

The Methodist Church and other non-mainline churches raised and supported, in 1987 and again in 2000, the issue of Fiji becoming a Christian state. This goes against the image of the church in the secular world, where religion does not have a governing role. When a church is too closely aligned with the state, or traditional culture it is in danger of losing its prophetic voice as it concentrates on maintaining its power base, which is either the government support or the support of the people who favour the status quo. However, the Church is not a maintenance Church but an apostolic one, sent out with a mission to contextually address the issues of today.

For the Church to have a prophetic voice in the Fiji Islands, therefore, means speaking the truth, in love, to the issues of injustice, poverty, of peace, of making the church home for everybody in the household of God and being concerned about society. In a multicultural and pluralistic society, the Church has a particular mission to communicate the Gospel to that society. Therefore to be able to read the ‘signs of the times’ might entail having to do research on issues of morality such as homosexuality, or social injustice such as privatisation of water supply. A church with a prophetic voice, as Nathan, Jeremiah and Micah, must communicate with people in power in a way that challenges them about the use of power, about peacemaking and peace building.

Ernst calls for the Church to engage in a fourfold task to interpret the signs find solutions to the challenges of our times:

Reconstruction, in an attempt to identify and acknowledge the kinds of changes that have taken place and have negatively affected the lives of people;

Critique, to uncover ideological underpinnings and connections in order to unmask how economic and political power is maintained;

Denunciation, by assuming the prophetic role of identifying sources of evil and oppression;

Resistance, by mobilizing those who are oppressed;

Advocacy, by joining in solidarity in the struggle or in the promotion of specific projects in specified areas.[13]

The prophetic church needs to know how to speak to and about power in its own way, being biblical and informed by the power of the Spirit. The prophetic church is a critique of power, of how power is used in the world.

[1]Fiji Coups: Church Statements” in Pacific Journal of Theology, Series II No.1, Ed. Bruce Deverell, (Suva: SPATS, 1989), 38 – 53.

[2]Fiji Coups: Church Statements”.

[3] “Burning, looting shocks church,” in The Fiji Times, (Saturday, May 20, 2000), 5.

[4] The Fiji Times, (Monday, May 22, 2006), 8.

[5] “Methodists stay out,” in The Fiji Times, (Tuesday, May 23, 2000), 15.

[6] “Bishop calls for prayer,” in The Fiji Times, (Wednesday, May 24, 2000), 8.

[7] Tanya McCutchan, “Repent, looters told,” in The Fiji Times (Wednesday, May 24, 2000), 13.

[8] “Churches unite against crimes” in The Fiji Times, (Thursday, May 25, 2005), 13.

[9] Organised by the National Council of Women in Fiji.

[10] Lynda Newland, “Fiji” in Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands, M. Ernst (Ed), (Suva: PTC, 2006), 356.

[11] Yabaki, Interview.

[12] Yabaki, Interview.

[13] Manfred Ernst, “Conclusion: The Role of the Church and Christians in a Globalized World,” in Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands, M. Ernst (Ed), (Suva: PTC, 2006), 750.

The Prophetic Voice in Our Time

Excerpt from “Towards a contextual theology of prophetic communication :Communicating the Prophetic Voice of the Mainline Churches and the Prophetic Role of the News Media in Contemporary Fiji-Island Society”

(SUVA: PTC/BDES Thesis, September 2006)

The phenomenon of prophetic communication in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is the result of two basic factors. The spread of Christianity globally, with effects comparable to the growth and development of the early Christian communities in the New Testament, has seen an increase in the number of people who have heard the Gospel as well as those who have accepted Jesus into their lives. Similarly, to the events of two millennia ago, the increase in number of Christians, and those who listen to God, interpreting “the signs of the times,” has led to men, women and children hearing the prophetic call to righteousness and holiness and accepting that call. Also at the same time, the development and expansion of communication technology has resulted in more accessibility, availability, and variety. With the pervasiveness of the mass media, opening of windows to many different worldviews and events, the stories of many prophets from other lands are received and retold. The following examples illustrate the common message within the diversity of the prophetic voice.

a. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian, who left the security of the United States to return to Nazi Germany to work in the Confessional Church and during the second world war worked in opposition to the Nazis and was arrested and ultimately executed in 1945 for plotting against Adolf Hitler in 1945, just weeks before Germany surrendered. The publishing of his letters and papers smuggled out of prison have served as an example of the modern prophetic call for righteousness. An essay titled ‘After 10 years,’ written a few months before his arrest in 1943 serve as to the point of death:

Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call to God…. It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free responsible men. It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit, and since that day, many Christians have suffered with him. [1]

Bonhoeffer's story echoes the biblical tradition of prophecy. Like the prophets of the Old Testament who risked all to censure corrupt kings and priests, Bonhoeffer recognized that God calls us not only to care for the poor, oppressed and vulnerable, but also to challenge any religious or secular power that perpetrates injustice. His life exemplifies the prophetic call to action:

Loosen all bonds that bind unfairly, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke. Share your bread with the hungry, take the homeless into your home. Clothe the naked when you see him, do not turn from your fellow human beings.[2]

Bonhoeffer's work came to fulfilment only after his death. His insistence on the significance of a committed response to Christ's Sermon on the Mount, a call to social justice, inspired many of the world's great civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Junior, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His concept of a "religionless Christianity"[3] has helped Christian theology face uncertain landscape of the future. It is an idea, which exposes the vitality and relevance of faith in a world, as Bonhoeffer put it, "come of age."[4]

b. Martin Luther King Junior

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, can be considered a modern-day prophet who brought a message of freedom for his people while also speaking truths some did not want to hear. King's message was about more than civil rights. He was a dedicated defender of economic justice, bridging the gap between haves and have-nots, raising up the poorest to reach the fullness of their potential. He was opposed to war, not only because cost in terms of lives and destruction of property, but also because it sidetracks the society from addressing the terrible ills that exist within it.

King's legacy continues to inspire those who march toward justice and peace. Sadly, his dream, “that one day all children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,”[5] still only remains a prophetic vision. King’s concept of the prophetic role of the modern-day Church held that the churches must affirm that, “every human life is a reflection of divinity and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.”[6] King agreed with DeWolf that:

To be truly Christian, a prophetic utterance must arise from love for the victims of injustice or other evil and desire to bring all who are involved into a community of forgiveness, grace and mutual assistance.[7]

Unlike Bonhoeffer’s posthumous publications and recognition, performing his prophetic role in the United States of America, King was surrounded by the media and the subject of news broadcasts on radio and television and articles in magazines and newspapers. He gave regular interviews and addresses to reporters and journalist associations. His “I Have a Dream,” address at the March on Washington for Civil Rights in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial was not only attended by hundreds of thousands of marchers and supporters of civil rights but also broadcast live on radio and television to an audience of millions.

c. Oscar Romero

In 1980, in the midst of a US funded war that the UN Truth Commission called genocidal, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador promised history that life, not death, would have the last word. “I do not believe in death without resurrection,” he is quoted as saying. “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadorian people.” On March 23, 1980, he preached his last radio broadcast sermon directed at the National Guard, the police and the military, which has been described as his most thunderous prophetic denunciation of repressive acts committed by the security forces[8]:

I should like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and in particular to the soldiers of the National Guard, the police, and the constabulary. Brothers! We are the same people! You are slaying your campesino brothers and sisters! When a human being orders you to kill, the law of God must prevail: “You shall not kill!” No soldier is obliged to obey an order in violation of the law of God. No one is bound to obey an immoral law. It is time you recovered your conscience, and obeyed your conscience instead of orders to commit sin. The church is the defender of God’s rights, God’s law, human dignity, and the worth of persons. It cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We ask the government to consider seriously the fact that reforms are of no use when they are steeped in all this blood.

In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!

The next day, as he celebrated Mass, a sharpshooter murdered him. A number of those who attended his funeral were also shot in front of the cathedral. Romero had a prophetic view of the church’s voice and speaking truth to power at the peak of the repression and persecution:

If they ever take our radio [which had already been jammed and bombed], suspend our newspaper, silence us, put to death all of us priests, bishop included, and you are left alone – a people without priests – then each of you will have to be God’s microphone. Each of you will have to be a messenger, a prophet. The church will always exist as long as even one baptised person is left alive![9]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years,” in Letters and Papers from Prison, (London: SCM Press, 1953), 134-147.

[2] Is 58:6-7

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957), 123.

[5] From the speech, “I have a Dream,” at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington: 28 August, 1963.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1967), 99.

[7] L. Harold DeWolf, Responsible Freedom, (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971), 209.

[8] Jon Sobrino, Archbishop Romero: Memories and Reflections, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990), 116.

[9] Sobrino, 34.