Stand up, speak up, shut up: Lessons from a picketing prophet
In increasing intensity, the cry for justice, equity, and freedom for the oppressed, deprived, and marginalized is spreading around the world. Also, more classes and categories of society are lending their voices and marching in protest against the social inequities they find. Not left out of the fray are Christian churches, leaders, and members, especially in recent protests across America.
While many more Christians would, perhaps, have loved to join the marches for justice, for them several other questions first need to be answered: What role should Christians play in the issues of contemporary society? What examples or models do we find in Scripture that would serve as patterns for responding to such concerns?
One scriptural example of how to confront today’s social issues, I believe, appears in the ancient book of the prophet Habakkuk. This pithy account in the Old Testament presents a prophet who, rather than speaking as the oracle of God, seems to be taking up the role of a picketer in protest against his Sender and Sovereign.
The prophet Habakkuk
The prophet Habakkuk, who wrote the book named after him, lived just before the Babylonian captivity of Israel during a period when social injustices were especially abundant. It was a time of great national upheaval characterized by gross social injustice.1 While the prophet was, on the one hand, concerned with the oppression and abuse of the righteous by the wicked in an era when law was ineffective, on the other hand, he focused his attention on what he considered a more serious problem—God’s apparent silence and passivity in the face of unrelenting evil.2 Although he appeared to be greatly moved by the lack of social justice in his nation, themes in the book include faith, morality, and the necessity for prayer.3 And central to the book of Habakkuk are the themes of theodicy and theophany.4
The second chapter of Habakkuk, the heart of his brief book, relates his dialogue with God as he stands up, speaks up, and shuts up in the presence of the Almighty. Habakkuk, whose name means “to embrace,”5 makes his appeal before the court of the Sovereign of the universe through three significant acts. We will examine the significance of these three acts for contemporary Christians and their relevance for modern-day ministers immersed in a world of great social injustices.
After decrying the widespread injustice in Israel and God’s seeming indifference to the issues of the day, the prophet awaited the Lord’s response (Hab. 2:1). Habakkuk, like the other minor prophets whom God commissioned, was to confront contemporary vices and social issues. The messages of the minor prophets clearly indicate that God is truly concerned with how people, His creation, are treated—He has an interest in their welfare, because He is their Father. Similarly, God’s people ought to consider the plight of the alienated, marginalized, powerless, and oppressed. However, it ought not stop there. Not only are Christians to be concerned, but they are also to alleviate the conditions of such persons by addressing their situations, because we all share a common heritage with God as His children.
History demonstrates the impact of the Christian conviction, as they have a responsibility to stand up against society’s evils. For example, through Christian actions, eventually the great evil of transatlantic slavery ended, despite its widespread economic power. Also, because missionaries sought not only to preach the gospel but to transform lives, they established schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure that eventually brought social reform to the lands they had gone to evangelize.
At some stage, however, the passion for social issues became submerged under the priority of proclaiming the gospel, and the church eventually lost its position as the primary agency for bringing about social change. In recent times, after much debate and consideration, Christian organizations have finally come to acknowledge that they cannot divorce the teaching of the gospel from a concern for social issues, for they are, in reality, complementary.6 It is not enough just to protest the plight of the poor, suffering, or downtrodden. Christians must also act in their behalf, doing whatever is possible to bring relief. God’s children must demonstrate His love and mercy. Affected by their situation and motivated by divine love, they will do whatever has to be done to render help to all who suffer.
Another noteworthy step the prophet Habakkuk took was to speak up to the Lord about the social and moral issues that he observed (Hab. 2:1; 1:2–4). Similarly, Christians have, as part of their responsibility, not only to relieve the burdens of the suffering but also to speak on their behalf. Besides the hurt and pain caused by deprivation and oppression, another very significant issue confronting victims of injustice is their lack of representation. A critical factor for resolving the systemic injustice faced by the poor and suffering entails legal and structural reform—something they cannot do, due to their disenfranchised and powerless situation. For this reason, the voices of Christians need to be heard on behalf of the powerless wherever legislation is made and executed.
Fortunately, history records the powerful interventions and rhetoric of individuals such as William Wilberforce and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The advocacy they employed before the governments of their day did not consist merely of rhetoric alone but included artistic images that graphically depicted the visual horrors of enslavement.7
To the present day, there still exist many issues that demand the intervention of the church on behalf of those adversely affected by such powerful social forces as globalization, urbanization, industrialization, technological progress, and immigration. Such conditions and issues have been fueled by greed, selfishness, inhumanity, and all that sin has caused.
Curiously, the strongest voices speaking up for the suffering and needy are not coming from the church but, rather, from secular agencies. Yet, early in its history, the church became well-known for its ministries of compassion to the extent that the emperor Julian once remarked, “Jews took care of their own, the pagans took care of nobody, but Christians took care of everybody, not only their own, but the pagan needy as well.”8 However, at present it is the church that is trying hard to play catch up with secular philanthropic organizations who have well-developed structures and resources to deal with the social issues that the church now struggles with.
John Stott cites the primary causes behind the church’s current neglect of its social responsibility—known as the “Great Reversal”—as (1) the fight against theological liberalism, (2) the reaction of evangelicals to the “social gospel” promoted by the “liberals,” (3) the widespread disillusion and pessimism that followed World War I, (4) N. Darby’s premillennial dispensationalism teaching, and (5) the spread of Christianity among conservative, middle-class people.9 As a result, the church lost its position as the vanguard for social concerns and, in addition, abandoned its prophetic voice as the conscience to the nations.
It is encouraging to note that the Seventh-day Adventist Church not only seeks to engage the social issues of the communities where it is present but increasingly is taking a position of advocacy.10 Nevertheless, some still question how far the church should go in speaking out against societal wrongs and ponder what level of advocacy is proper to effect structural and systemic reforms that would correct exploitation and oppression.
A unique contribution of Habakkuk in response to issues of social injustice is the lesson of silence. After two rounds of complaints from the prophet and counterresponses from God, Habakkuk hears the command to be silent. The Lord is in His holy temple, therefore all the earth must hush (Hab. 2:20).
While engaged in the task of responding to social injustice and the concerns of the suffering, it is sometimes easy to succumb to the temptation of becoming more righteous than God. Not just a few persons have left the Christian faith over issues of theodicy, protesting, “If God is so just and righteous, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world?” Some have also suggested that part of the reason young people, especially millennials, are leaving the faith is that they do not see the church actively engaged in the social issues of the day. In other words, they regard the church and God as irrelevant to contemporary challenges and needs.
Habakkuk was not unique in questioning Yahweh about His justice. Others, such as Jeremiah (Jeremiah 12) and Jonah (Jonah 4), have done the same. Job seemed to be asserting his righteousness in contrast to the senseless adversity that he was passing through (Job 29).
Although the command to be silent (Hebrew has)11 was given to Habakkuk, it also applies to others seeking to address social injustice. It was note-worthy, however, that God prefaced the command by the reminder that He was in His holy temple (Hab. 2:20), which is to say, Yahweh is at His duty post, He is at His watch. Implied is the idea, “You stay at your post and take care of your job, because I am on top of Mine!”
Another important lesson speaks to those who might consider social issues more important than the task of evangelization. The fact that the Lord is in His holy temple means that He always has a plan wherever a problem exists. In our concern to respond to the plight of the powerless and oppressed, we must have the wisdom and discernment to know when to stand up in their behalf and when to wait in silence and prayer for the Lord’s greater purposes to become manifest. The prophet leaves modern-day activists to grasp the divine gift of patience. Christian activists and social ministers need, as did the prophet Habakkuk, to learn to trust that the Lord is in control so that they can step out of His way, lest they interfere with what He is set to accomplish.
In the third chapter of his short book, Habakkuk finally recalls the Lord’s miraculous works in history and is encouraged by them. Similarly, Christians who work for social justice and equity need to remember God’s mighty interventions throughout human history that demonstrate His sovereignty and justice. Crises in social injustice, therefore, provide opportunities for activists and protestors to question themselves, not God, as to whether they still trust that He is in control of human affairs (Dan. 4:17, 32), and that, in the fullness of time, He always acts. Contrary to the impression of the prophet and of some contemporary activists, God does have a divine timetable for responding to societal injustice, and His plans know no delay.12 His call for silence is also an appeal for reflection and introspection.
Without a shadow of doubt, Yahweh’s purposes will inexorably come to pass—Bible prophecies adequately demonstrate this. However, His people need to learn how to wait patiently and confidently. God’s ultimate solutions for dealing with societal injustice are usually long term and rarely quick fixes. As Jeff Boyd wisely observes, Christians who advocate for change fall into two errors of judgment—believing either that they can quickly end injustice or that they can make no change at all.13
We need to understand that human suffering, and the related cosmic problem of evil, results not from any single factor but, rather, occurs for complex reasons blending poor human choices, greed, selfishness, satanic devices—in short, sin. While we often may seek to address the visible signs of the problem, God goes to work at the root, and because of the intricate dynamics of interrelationship, solutions are not as easy as we think—just as the prophet Habakkuk discovered (Habakkuk 1).
Though we may not always discern God at work, we must recognize that God is always at work. He never sleeps or slumbers. Even when the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, the Spirit of God was still moving upon the face of the waters. Our task, then, must be to join God in His mission.
Dr. George Webber, former president of New York Theological Seminary, tells the story of how he and his friends, seated in chapel as students at Union Theological Seminary, read the words inscribed on the stained-glass window: “Go ye into all the world . . .” Webber says, “Sitting there with several fellow students, we felt a challenge to take the Lord of the church to the pagan streets of East Harlem. . . . The fact was that in East Harlem there were many signs of his presence for us to discover. If Jesus Christ truly is Lord, then we are called to point to signs of his presence, to join in his continuing ministry rather than to bring him as a stranger to a world from which until the Christian clergy arrive, he is otherwise absent.”14
Finally: Look up
Christians indeed do have a divinely appointed duty and responsibility, like the prophet Habakkuk, to stand watch at their duty posts, write and proclaim the words of the Lord against social injustice, and wait patiently in prayer and faith for Him to act. However, while they are waiting, they are expected to be living obediently and faithfully (Hab. 2:4).15 It is not enough for Christians to take up placards against social evil and injustice when even in their congregations racial, tribal, and class issues remain unresolved and ignored. We cannot cry out against the sins of government and not notice the hungry, homeless, and hurting in our midst. The voice of the church will be amplified and more authoritative when it is truly seen to be a fellowship of people who care for and are involved with each other.
Habakkuk also directs the attention of picketing Christians to the cruciality of worship even as they watch, write, and wait on the Lord. Service and ministry to humanity must never distract from the importance of worship and fellowship with God, for it is there that we discover, as did the psalmist, that God is always on duty in His sanctuary, working out His purposes in justice and mercy (Psalm 73).
Although Habakkuk, as a prophet, ought to be the bearer of divine judgments to the people, paradoxically he, rather, complains to God about the wicked. Perhaps another lesson for Christians involved in community would be that while they have a duty to respond to the needs of the suffering and powerless, they should, like the prophet, learn to look up and address their challenges to God. Habakkuk reminds us to stand up, speak up, and know when to shut up, for God is always in control and has never not been in control.
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1 Richard D. Patterson, “Habakkuk,” in Minor Prophets: Hosea–Malachi, vol. 10, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008), 398.
2 Ralph L. Smith, Micah–Malachi, vol. 32, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1984), 96.
3 Patterson, “Habakkuk,” 400, 401.
4 James D. Nogalski, Micah –Malachi: The Book of the Twelve, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Pub., 2011), 654.
5 Smith, Micah–Malachi, 93.
6 Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, and Timothy Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2010), 144.
7 Jeff Boyd, “Advocates for Social Change: Beyond Teaching People How to Fish,” in Church and Society: Missiological Challenges for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, ed. Rudi Maier (Berrien Springs, MI: Department of World Missions, 2015), 269.
8 Quoted in Darrell R. Watkins, Christian Social Ministry: An Introduction (Nashville, TN: Broadman andHolman, 1994), 9.
9 John R. W. Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today: A Major Appraisal of Contemporary Social and Moral Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984),28–30.
10 See Lehnart Falk, “Does the Church Have a Social Responsibility? Advocacy, a Biblical Legacy” and Jeff Boyd, “Advocates for Social Change,” in Church and Society.
11 Nogalski, “Micah–Malachi,” 674.
12 Patterson, “Habakkuk,” 414.
13 Jeff Boyd, “Advocates for Social Change,” 268.
14 George W. Webber, Today’s Church: A Community of Exiles and Pilgrims (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1979), 27.
15 Smith, “Micah–Malachi,” 107; Patterson, “Habakkuk,” 414.