(A Prophetic Challenge to the Faith Community)
Bishop Martin L. Johnson
Death is inevitable whether it be persons, movements or institutions, it is a part of life. A little over five decades ago a movement labeled death of God theology emerged. This theological movement contended that belief in the traditional theistic God was absent and new ways and language about God was needed. Main proponents of this radical theology were Gabriel Vahanian, Paul Van Buren, William Hamilton, John A.T. Robinson, Thomas J.J. Altizer, John D.Caputo and Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein. For them God had been reduced to a historical process and a renewed experience of deity was needed for modern humankind. The God-is-dead movement died, and rarely is it mentioned except in an academic course. This is adequate testimony that in many instances, death has its say, even with theological movements.
While death is a part of the human-biological process, it is not a reality to which persons eagerly look forward. We are informed by the experiences of those who lived before us that the impending biological process will ultimately take its course and that those of us who are alive will eventually encounter the final denominator of life, death. It is rather encouraging that in recent years we have witnessed phenomenal strides in death and dying issues. While I am not an authority on euthanasia, I am informed that a slow death is in fact more traumatic and anxiety-producing than a sudden death. For in a sudden death one has less time to suffer and agonize over what will happen. During the period of a prolonged death one has options. In a hospice where palliative care is provided, one has the choice of pain medication, therapeutic exercises, counseling, bargaining, grief or accepting the inevitability of their demise. Nations, communities and even institutions, including the church resort to denial. Denial says, “It is not happening to us.” During the denial stage we tend to exhibit behavior that suggests to our significant others that we are okay, only to experience the calamity, of certain death.
The supporting text for this brief reflection is Jeremiah, 9:17-19, which suggests a specific admonition to the impending reality of national death. For years we have utilized this passage as a divine call to revival. Contextually, the mourning, cunning and wailing women were only called or summoned in the event of a death. For the women designated in the text were members of a professional guild of mourners tasked with the function of mourning where there was a shortage of bereaved relatives. Indeed these were professional mourners. Jeremiah views this apparent cultural reality as having prophetic significance and inserts it into the message of his time to dramatize the dire straits of Israel’s tragic situation. While Israel appeared to exist as a nation, the prophet speaks with a strong sense of urgency of its imminent demise and proceeds to call for funeral arrangements. The Nation is dead with no one left to mourn its demise. (I Timothy 5:6.[KJV] ”But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.”) I am inclined to state the obvious: funeral plans are not appropriated until death has occurred.
While the notion of a “funeral arrangement” is used in a metaphorical sense I am compelled to speak prophetically. The Church has always had its Prophets and Priests, even though their roles and tenure varied. While the Priests spoke to God for humankind, the Prophet spoke to humankind for God. Additionally, the Priests lived long enough to retire but the Prophet died on the job. The role of the Prophet was a significant one in Ancient Israel in the sense that it called attention to the current and impending condition of the nation. The Prophet Jeremiah fulfills that role during the dark and final days of Judah’s daunting history. This pre-exilic Prophet lived during what was Judah’s final days as a Nation. It was his sad duty to announce to the Nation her impending death, by citing a funeral practice as an analogy and metaphor to describe Israel’s potential future. Because of the religious and political situations evident and the imminent political catastrophe, the Prophet Jeremiah utilizes a commonly practiced cultural and religious ceremony well understood in Judah.
Judah is now in the Land of Promise. She has long rejected theocratic rule. She has experienced many years of nationhood under Saul, David and Solomon. She has had a number of cross-cultural encounters, military engagements, and has been challenged religiously by alien gods and ritualistic practices that were totally different from the God of their fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Moses. Judah gradually forsook, the God of deliverance from Egypt, and from those nations in whose land she dwelt and gradually became servants of strange gods. It was the denial and rejection of Israel’s God that led to the demise of the Nation. Jeremiah chapter nine (9) capsules the alarming predicament in which the Nation found itself; imminent invasion, deportation and amalgamation into captivity. No one is exempt from the judgment of God, not even churches and denominations. We are all under judgment which begins at the House of God according to First Peter 4: 17.
There are obvious signs of dying institutions and all livings things. When institutions are dying they resort to outside help; when institutions are dying they begin crash planning sessions; when churches are dying they interject programs but no progress, motion but no movement, numbers but no vision, things but no substance, bureaucracy but no bounty and, quantity but no quality. They suffer loss of identity. The loss of a social club within a particular community is not really serious. When a church dies it is major. One sign of the imminent death of a church is a gradual departure from the foundational tenets of one’s faith. Psalm 11:3 (KJV) “If the foundations be destroyed what can the righteous do?” Death is imminent:
When Spiritually is Faked
When we place Programs above People
When we Worship the Creature above the Creator
When Ethics, Moral Principles and Standards become Secondary
When Ritual Replaces Righteousness
When Revivals become Fundraising
When we Lose Our Voice as the People of God
SHOULD WE CALL THE MORTICIAN ?
Bishop Martin L. Johnson is guest columnist for The Agora Blog for September 8 the week of the celebration of the Founder of the Church of God in Christ, Founding Chief Apostle Bishop Charles Harrison Mason. His brief reflective tome challenges and stretches us toward the high road if we are to be relevant in our time. He is no stranger to the academy having graduated from the Interdenominational Theological Seminary as a Mason Seminary student. He ranks among the top tier of graduate students that I have taught, having completed extensive doctoral studies in Education/History at New York University. Retired as a Colonel having served as a Commissioner of Chaplains for the Armed Forces Institutional Chaplaincy. Bishop Johnson is the senior prelate of the First Jurisdiction of New Jersey and pastor the Mt. Olive Church of God in Christ in Neptune, NJ. He has authored several books including Stony the Road We Trod: David Walkers Concept of Freedom and Theological Approaches to Pastoral Care; Is Anybody Listening?–First Publisher (Available in Bookstores nation wide) Chief Editor; Dr. Leonard Lovett www.theagora.net