Student showcase #8: A Prophetic Day

Continuing our focus on contemporary prophetic figures, today’s student essay discusses the prophetic credentials of twentieth-century social activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980). The essay is written by Lauren Wilks, who is from Nelson, NZ. She has just completed her second year of study for a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Economics and International Business. Next year, she plans to spend a semester in Mexico on the University of Auckland’s 360° student exchange programme. Lauren took our Bible and Pop Culture course upon a recommendation by her elder sister who took the course in 2012 and enjoyed it a great deal. Lauren assures me she loved it just as much! Her essay is fabulous, so we hope you enjoy learning more about the amazing figure of Dorothy Day.

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Dorothy Day (unknown photographer)

Living for more than today

Lauren Wilks

“…God did not intend that there be so many poor… we are urging revolutionary change.”

(Day, cited in Barrett, 2017)

Summarised in her own words, Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a passionate pacifist and one of the most well-known Catholic social activists in history. Her uncompromising vision for social justice caused disturbance among the status quo, but generated lasting change to society’s role in serving the poor. Borg (2001) established a framework to define biblical prophets, which we can use to determine if a modern-day figure or group fulfills a similar prophetic function. Fulfilling all six criteria of Borg’s definition, Dan can be seen as effectively performing a prophetic role. This essay will conclude Day is a contemporary prophet, focusing on her disturbance of social norms, her prophetic action to fight for social justice, and her relationship with God. The biblical texts of Isaiah 58, Isaiah 20, Ezekiel 2 and Isaiah 41, will be used throughout to relate Day to the biblical prophets.

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Dorothy Day (unknown photographer)

Borg (2001) explains that Biblical prophets disturbed dominant discourses, not just accepting, but challenging the status quo to fight for something they believed in. In Isaiah 58, Isaiah encourages the confrontation of injustice. He challenges false compared to true worship, stating religious practices are in vain if there are people who are oppressed, Isaiah 58:1, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion…” Day’s message of social justice, focused on pacifism and serving the poor. She confronted those in the church who were living comfortably, favouring the rich and powerful, while the poor were continuously mistreated. She insisted that the “church is the cross on which Christ is crucified”and that social injustice was an insult to Christ (Forest, n.da, para.23). Her heart for social justice was derived from Jesus’ message, particularly the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Day took this scripture of Jesus’ moral teaching and truly lived it out (Allison, n.d). Like Isaiah, she understood working for and being with the poor was an essential part of being Christian: “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” (Isaiah 58:7). She considered it immoral to call yourself Christian without acting out what the Bible requires. Day had a focused vision, which is evident in the following excerpt from her writings: “To follow the gospel teaching of the works of mercy. If your brother is hungry, feed him, shelter him. How can you show your love for God except by love for your brother and sister? The one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he hasn’t seen?” (Dear, 2011, para.28).

Day also challenged society to evaluate how everyone’s work benefits (or not) the wider community. She believed jobs in finance and advertising led to social tension by making people desire possession they did not need (Hinson-Hasty, 2014). Through her message of social justice, Day was a founding encourager in the Catholic Church expanding their outreach (Bailey, Ohlheiser & Zak, 2015).

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Day (centre) protesting World War 1 (1917) Picture from dorothydayguild.org

Day lived in the 20th century, a time where many believed they were obliged to serve their country during war. She was outspoken in her anti-war stance and did not accept that moral conditions ratify war (Parachin, 2016). Her message addressed people in power, particularly Church leaders as throughout history, Popes had blessed armies and supported crusades (Forest, n.db). The Church had accepted ‘just war’, but Day wanted non-violence to become a fundamental Christian principle. Her pacifist views were revolutionary to the Church, in that she claimed violence contradicted biblical values as it fortified the rich and devastated the poor (Coy, 1988). She believed that in order to achieve peace, the most vulnerable needed to be helped. Like the prophet in Isaiah 58, she did not hold back in telling the Church their shortcomings. In writing to the Vatican Council, she said war was a crime against God and man (Fox, 2015). Although her message was radical at the time, it has since been accepted and adopted by many. Pope Francis named her one of the four most influential Americans in history. His support of Day’s non-violent ideologies shows the development in the Churches attitude towards peace and social justice (Bailey et al., 2015). Her willingness to critique the system and not accept that poverty was a normal part of society saw many touched by her message of justice and humility. Day clearly fulfills Borg’s criteria of disturbing social norms to bring about revolutionary change.

Another criterion is that Biblical prophets took action to amplify their message, translating prophetic speech into prophetic action (Borg, 2001). With reference to Isaiah 20:1-5, both Day and the prophet Isaiah used action to signify the importance of their messages. Isaiah protested the military alliance between Judah and Egypt, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent…” (Isaiah 20:3). Day always focused on what she could do, taking Catholic theology and putting it into action in prophetic ways (Chapp, 2015). Rather than helping the poor during the day, then returning to her comfortable home at night, Day fully immersed herself in a life of poverty to proclaim the importance of her vision (Chapp, 2015).

 

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Day at pacifist rally, NY, 1959 (Photo by Vivian Cherry)

In May 1933, Day and Peter Maurin, a French revolutionary, started the Catholic Worker newspaper to synthesise Catholic social teaching and social justice (Xiaoyu, 2010). Her decision to live in voluntary poverty meant she was greatly empathetic, writing to and on behalf of the poor. The newspaper became a beacon of hope by confronting the oppressive system. She wrote about social injustices, using scripture to challenge the Church in failing to exemplify the Gospel message, but also to inspire action to help those in need. Her pacifist views caused division within the Catholic Worker movement, with those who believed war was justified breaking away from the movement. Even though her message was controversial, the complaints the Church received about the newspaper did not stop Day from publishing it despite its loss of popularity during the wars (Bailey et al., 2015).

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Dorothy Day’s Hospitality House, a shelter for homeless people

The actions Day took were to fulfil God’s will. Drawing on Matthew 6:10, she said, “We are working for ‘a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwelleth.’ We are trying to say with action, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’” (Zwick, n.d, para.12). Her writings on social justice drew those in need into Catholic homes, which led to the creation of the Houses of Hospitality. Day believed hospitality was part of Christian tradition, using the houses to live out biblical values (1 Peter 4:8-9). They provided food and shelter to the needy, and as Day’s message confronted the rich and powerful, the houses gave them an opportunity to serve the poor (Barnette, 2011). There was controversy around who was accepted into the homes, as some believed not all were ‘deserving poor’. Day replied by saying, as family in Christ, they were welcome to stay forever (Forest, n.db). She established and inspired many houses, by 1936, there were 33 houses throughout the US, with a growing need during the Great Depression (Forest, n.db). The movement continues today, with 200 Catholic Worker communities and 40 Catholic Worker Houses (Bailey et al., 2015).

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Dorothy Day, head of Catholic Worker, inside the Worker office
 Photo by Judd Mehlman/NY Daily News/Getty

Day spent her whole life serving others. Further actions she took for the oppressed include protesting outside the White House for women’s suffrage, which led to the first of seven imprisonments, and going on a hunger strike to protest poor jail conditions (Barnette, 2011). It is evident Day fulfils Borg’s criteria of prophetic action. With the Catholic Worker newspaper and the Houses of Hospitality, her life-long commitment of personal sacrifice translating vision into action.

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Day praying at the Church of the Nativity, NY, c.1970. Bob Fitch Marquette University Archives

Borg (2001) found the prophets to be passionate about both God and justice, a two-fold relationship between the world and spiritual realm. Day’s intimate relationship and experiences with God were the source of her vision for social justice (Dear, 2011). In Ezekiel 2, the spirit of the Lord commissioned Ezekiel to speak God’s word to the rebellious Israel, “…I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (Ezekiel 2:4). Day did not hear the audible voice of God calling her to serve the poor like Ezekiel and other Biblical prophets did, but God spoke to her through the Bible (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). Because she had an extensive knowledge of the Bible, she weaved scripture into her writings to convey not her message, but Jesus’ message. Using scripture as God’s mouthpiece, she once said, “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God” (Howell, 2017, p.97). Borg (2001) sees the prophet’s dream as God’s dream. Day fulfils this criterion as she lived beyond herself, challenged by Jesus’ message to serve the poor (Mark 10:21). Daily spiritual devotions strengthened her knowledge and connection with God, which equipped her to face the challenges her fight for social justice bought (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). She said, “When God asks great things of us, great sacrifices,” (Ellsberg, 2010, para.11). The prophet Isaiah experienced great suffering in his life. Through the trials, he continually looked to God to renew his strength and protect him. Isaiah 41:10, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you.” Day experienced discomfort in voluntary poverty. She let go of worldly possession as she believed to truly serve, was to give out of nothing (Hinson-Hasty, 2014). This was not easy, but her intimate relationship with God, through scripture and prayer, sustained her vision for justice.

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Dorothy Day with her grandchildren (CNS photo/courtesy of Marquette University archives)

Since Day’s passing in 1980, her message has remained relevant and is evident in the Catholic Church’s outreach. She is often drawn upon as a source of inspiration, upholding values of peace, community, and integration of faith and acts (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). It is clear Ezekiel was known as a prophet, Ezekiel 2:5, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear… they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” The Catholic Church has not named Day a prophet, but have identified her as an extraordinary person by commencing an inquiry into her canonisation (Catholic News Service, 2016). Elevating her to this status recognises her exceptional life and challenging vision of hope.

To summarise, Day can be regarded as a contemporary prophetic figure as defined by Borg. Her willingness to speak out for social justice, promoting pacifism and voluntary poverty, disturbed social norms. She used prophetic action through the Catholic Worker newspaper, Houses of Hospitality and protests, to solidify her vision. She believed in a personal God, and her strong relationship with him was the foundation of her mission. Although controversial at the time, her relentless commitment to pacifism and personal responsibility to the poor has continued to be an inspiration (Fox, 2015). Day’s legacy leaves a challenge, live out the Gospel and bear witness in everyday life (Ellsberg, 2010).

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Dorothy Day in 1970 (Bob Fitch Photo Archive © Stanford University Libraries)

 

Reference list

All Biblical texts are from the  New Revised Standard Version

Allaire, J. & Broughton, R. (n.d). An introduction to the life and spirituality of Dorothy Day. The Catholic Worker Movement. Retrieved from http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/life-and-spirituality.html

Allison, D. (n.d). The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Bible Odyssey. Retrieved from https://www.bibleodyssey.org/

Bailey, S., Ohlheiser, A. & Zak, D. (2015, September 24). Pope Francis praised Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Here’s who they were. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com

Barnette, S. (2011). Houses of hospitality: The material rhetoric of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. University of Tennessee. Retrieved from http://trace.tennessee.edu/

Barrett, L. (2017). Taking to the streets, and beyond. Yale Divinity School. Retrieved from http://reflections.yale.edu/article/god-and-money-turning-tables/taking-streets-and-beyond

Borg, M. (2001). Readings the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco

Catholic News Service. (2016, April 22). Inquiry into Dorothy Days life next step in sainthood cause. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/inquiry-dorothy-days-life-next-step-sainthood-cause

Chapp, L. (2015). The precarity of love: Dorothy Day on poverty. International Catholic Review. Retrieved from http://www.communio-icr.com/files/Chapp_-_42.2_Poverty_and_Kenosis.pdf

Coy, P. (1988).  A revolution of the heart. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Dear, J. (2011, January 25). Dorothy Day’s letters show heartache, faith. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org

Ellsberg, R. (2010, November). Day by day: The letters and journals of Dorothy Day. U.S Catholic Worker, 75(11), 34-36

Forest, J. (n.da). What I learned about justice from Dorothy Day. US Catholic. Retrieved from http://www.uscatholic.org/culture/social-justice/2009/02/what-i-learned-about-justice-dorothy-day

Forest, J. (n.db). Servant of God Dorothy Day. The Catholic Worker Movement. Retrieved from http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/servant-of-god.html

Fox, T. (2015, September 24). Day and Merton: The Catholic radicals Francis cited. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org

Hinson-Hasty, E. (2014). Dorothy Day for armchair theologians. Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press

Howell, J. (2017). Worshipful. Oregon: Cascade Books

Parachin, V. (2016, April 29). Dorothy Day, Social conscience of American Catholics. Our Sunday Visitor. Retrieved from https://www.osv.com

The Catholic Worker Movement. (n.d). Dorothy Day. Retrieved from http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/themes/On%20Poverty%20(Dorothy%20Day).pdf

Xiaoyu, P. (2010). The conversion of a radical – Dorothy Day and the Catholic social thought. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2(5), 7470-7478. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.05.112

Zwick, M. (n.d). What is the Catholic Worker Movement. Houston Catholic Worker. Retrieved from http://cjd.org/about/what-is-the-catholic-worker-movement/

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Student Showcase #7: The Prophetic Voice of Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, our essay continues on the theme from previous days about prophetic figures in contemporary popular culture. One of our most popular essay topics, students discuss the ways that various contemporary figures perform some of the same functions for which the biblical prophets were renowned, albeit in new secular contexts. Today, Francesca Lamont Vince discusses the prophetic credentials of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, arguing that he too performed a distinctively prophetic role during his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Francesca is an Aucklander, studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Media Studies and Art History. In the future, she hopes to travel overseas and fulfill her dream of becoming an art curator or art dealer. She took our Bible and Popular Culture course because she is familiar with the Bible and enjoyed learning about the ways societies interpret biblical texts and continue to portray them within contemporary culture. And she wrote a marvellous essay that I hope you all enjoy.

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Martin Luther King (Associated Press)

Martin Luther King Jr:

 A Modern-day Prophet Who Paved the Path to Equality and Justice

Francesca Lamont-Vince

This essay compares Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to revered civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and will conclude that King’s integral role in the Civil Rights Movement parallels the role of a biblical prophet. Like the biblical prophets, Martin Luther King Jr. had a passion for social justice, and devoted his life to liberating an oppressed group of people from unjust social systems. He maintained a close relationship with God and upheld the principles of his religion. He had a vision of racial equality and civil rights for all American citizens. King can be considered a modern-day prophet who delivered hope to the African American community. This essay will draw upon Marcus Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to demonstrate that King had similar attributes and a similar role within his contemporary society.

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Associated Press

Borg argues that a prophetic figure emerges from a situation of oppression by the elites (Borg 127). Martin Luther King Jr. was raised in a society engrained with racial prejudices and discriminatory ideologies regarding black Americans. The mistreatment of African American people and institutionalized racism remained an inherent aspect of American society that King was exposed to. He studied in a segregated school, used segregated buses, witnessed extreme poverty around his neighbourhood, witnessed police brutality against black Americans, and he was racially abused, humiliated and insulted on a regular basis. Furthermore, as an African American person, King never had the full rights of a citizen and was an outsider in a systemically oppressive society.

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Mississippi police attempt to thwart MLK on a march, 1996 (AP)
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MLK arrested in Montgomery for ‘loitering’ (1958, AP)

The oppression suffered by the African American people parallels that of the Israelite people in the bible. Borg argues that biblical prophets such as Moses, emerged to indict the elites, their domination systems and their egalitarian social vision (128).  Similarly, King emerged and began challenging existing elitist structures and authorities that were racially unjust. Therefore, Martin Luther King Jr. fulfils Borg’s definition as he emerged from an oppressive society and interceded on behalf of the oppressed African American community for justice and liberation.

According to Borg, a prophetic figure exercises a passion for social justice (Borg 118). King advocated on behalf of the oppressed African American population and demonstrated a prophetic concern for social justice and equality. Firstly, he orchestrated many events, marches and protests in his effort to achieve justice for the African American community, and he dedicated his life to nonviolent resistance against social injustices. In a letter he composed while in Birmingham Jail in 1963, he claimed that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ (King 6). King defended the rights of African American people and protested for equality. King’s concern with achieving social justice can be compared to the biblical prophet Moses. After being approached by God in Exodus 3, Moses pledges to deliver the oppressed Hebrew people out of Egypt (Exod. 3:7).

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The Selma-Montgomery march, 1965 (AP)

Similarly, King advocated on behalf of the African American people, who were victims of oppressive and racist regimes in America. He wanted to end discriminatory ideologies that were engrained in American society. He also wanted to abolish unjust laws against black people and establish justice for all. King used his privileged identity as an educated pastor to advocate and provide solidarity to those who were suffering at the hands of the oppressors (Slessarev-Jamir 28). His plight for social justice could also mirror the message preached by the biblical prophet Amos in the Old Testament. Amos said to ‘Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice’ (Amos 5: 12-15). Amos rebuked inhumane treatment of the disadvantaged and oppressed, and emphasized the practice of righteous behaviour. Martin Luther King Jr. put this message into practice in his fight to gain equal rights for the African American citizens. Unlike Amos however, King did not condemn the perpetrators of racism but rather he preached to ‘Love your enemies’ and that manifested itself in his nonviolent resistance approach (Ramsay 34). Overall, King denounced and protested moral evils, social inequalities and unjust social systems. In this way, he can be considered a social justice leader and thus fulfils one of Borg’s fundamental conceptions of a prophetic figure.

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Associated Press

Borg argues that prophets gained their inspiration, sense of mission and passion through their relationship with God and their religion (123-124). King was brought up in a Christian family, and was therefore exposed to Christian teachings. In 1954, he commenced his pastoral ministry in Montgomery. Thus, he was deeply familiar with the Christian teachings and values. Borg proposed that biblical prophets were agents of God, and that their purpose was to articulate God’s “dream” and purpose (138). It is evident that God was central in King’s life and motivated his actions as a leader. Essentially, King thought of himself as a mediator between God and Man, as he wanted to impart the divine wisdom of God to the American society. In his autobiography, he stated ‘I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him before’ (Ramsay 36). He wrote that an inner voice told him to ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever’ (36).

Calling on God to answer for suffering can be considered an important aspect of contemporary religious prophetic activism (Slessarev-Jamir 37). King felt that is was his calling and duty as a Christian to bear God’s message of love and justice for all, and that manifested itself in the Civil Rights Movement he led. A quote from Deuteronomy captures the essence of a prophet as a mouthpiece for God, as King himself was. ‘I will raise up for them a prophet, like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command’ (Deut. 18:18-19).

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Associated Press

Furthermore, Borg argues that biblical prophets acquired the courage for their mission from God (124). Just as the biblical prophet Jeremiah was beaten, threatened with death, and imprisoned, King too suffered death threats and acts of aggression, such as bombing and imprisonment (Borg 125). King remained resilient and brave in the face of the violent threats that were imposed on him and he indebted this courage to God. During the movement, King’s nonviolent approach toward the opposition was largely inspired by his Christian values. He encouraged the activists to passively resist against their oppressors, rather than impose violence. In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ he stated, ‘I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood’ (King 1). King therefore drew upon his Christianity to endorse nonviolent resistance. Upon analysing King’s actions and approaches during the civil rights movement, it is fair to say he was influenced by and highly connected to his spirituality and his relationship with God, just as the biblical prophets were. He not only considered his mission a moral responsibility, but also his responsibility as God’s devout servant.

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March on Washington 1963 (photo by Rowland Scherman)

Borg argues that prophets practiced ‘prophetic energizing’ to generate hope, and a vision of a better future (130). King shared a vision and dream for equality, liberation and civil rights for all American people. In his famous ‘I have a Dream Speech’ in 1963, King’s vision for the future is explicitly communicated. He argued that it was time to make ‘real promises of democracy,’ to achieve racial justice and to fulfil God’s vision of equality between all men (Sundquist and Miller 230). King then shared his aspirations and vision for the future of America, in the hopes that he would inspire his audiences. He stated, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…that little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers’ (232-33).

Similarly, Amos’ writings invoked hope and the prospect of change in the future. King acknowledged this when he quoted Amos in his speech; ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24). This is also an example of the way King utilized the radical bible to communicate his message of hope and change. Throughout his career, King often alluded to the ‘Promised Land’ predominantly spoken about by Moses in the bible (Exod. 12:25). He refers to the ‘Promised Land’ to arouse hope and the prospect of a better future for America. King fulfils the role of prophet as consoler, giving hope to the otherwise hopeless hearer (Rabe 25). King’s speeches, sermons and writings embodied a prophetic rhetoric, and he empowered the African American people by sharing a ‘dream’ and vision of equality to come.

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King delivers his ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington, 1963 (AP)

Overall, Martin Luther King Jr. can be considered a prophetic figure because he initiated change in his community and had a dream for social reformation in America. This essay has compared King to Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet. King emerged from an oppressive, racist society with unjust systems, and embodied the role of a prophetic figure who challenged this. He had an immense passion for social justice, similar to that expressed by Moses and Amos in the bible. Furthermore, King was largely influenced by the principles of his religion and believed his actions were guided by God. Lastly, King delivered a hopeful vision of the future to the American people, that of a nation who embodied equality and justice.

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References

All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV.

Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Harper San Francisco, 2001.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963, pp.1-12.

Rabe, Kent T. The False Security of the Believer. Xulon Press, 2008.

Ramsay, William M. Four Modern Prophets: Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez, Rosemary Radford Ruether. Westminster John Knox Press, 1986.

Slessarev-Jamir, Helene. Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America. NYU Press, 2011.

Sundquist, Eric J. and Mark Crispin Miller. King’s Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech. Yale University Press, 2009.

 

Student Showcase #6: The prophetic voice of Kendrick Lamar

Today’s student essay is another treat – like some of the other essays I’m sharing, it discusses the ways that certain contemporary figures appear to fulfill some of the same roles as the biblical prophets. Our author is Eddie Mataele, who is studying for a Bachelor of Arts here at the University of Auckland, majoring in Sociology with a minor in Pacific Studies. Eddie hails from Tonga, and currently lives in the Mangere district of Auckland. Once he completes his degree, he hopes to put it to good use working in the social and public sectors. Eddie took our Bible and Popular Culture course to meet his General Education requirements, and enjoyed the creative freedom offered by the assignments.

So, for all Kendrick Lamar fans out there (and everyone else too), sit back and enjoy the prophetic potential of this most fascinating musician.

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Wickedness or Weakness? The Prophetic Role of Kendrick Duckworth Lamar

Eddie Mataele

Music can be used as a refuge from the cruel and haunting realities of life. On the other hand, it can also be a powerful platform for an artist to describe and express these realities into a stimulating, euphoric, and somewhat controversial masterpiece. Kendrick (Duckworth) Lamar (born June 17, 1987) is an African-American rapper, songwriter, and recipient of seven Grammy awards; whose music has conveyed his innocence, triumphs, trauma, and tragedies while growing up in the notoriously dangerous streets of Compton, Los Angeles. The dominant themes found in majority of his music catalogue is his critique of oppressive social structures, violence of gang culture, and his connection with God (Graham, 2017). Kendrick Lamar produced music that defends the rights of disenfranchised communities in USA and uplifts the voices of troubled youths, while openly conveying his personal experience with God, fame, wealth, poverty, violence, pride, fear, and more (Faraji, 2016). Similarly, ancient prophets found in the Bible also share these features.

According to Marcus J. Borg (2001), prophets are an ally of social justice, challenge the status-quo, empowers oppressed people, and protects the hope of a brighter future. The clear difference between ancient prophets outlined in the Bible and Kendrick Lamar is the cultural context/setting they are situated in. However, Kendrick shares similar biblical prophetic behaviour with ancient prophets such as Jeremiah, in that both figures openly voices their condemnation against the injustices caused by those in power (Fischer, 2015). Subsequently, this essay will aim to deliver a comprehensive analysis which supports the belief that Kendrick Lamar is a biblical prophet.

A key element of a biblical prophet outlined by Borg (2001) is their passion for social justice and serving the interests of the oppressed and disenfranchised communities. Specifically, Borg mentions the concept of “prophetic energizing”, which revolves around a prophet communicating with the oppressed, utilizing language that promotes hope , defends their identity, and rejoices in creating a brighter future (Borg, 2001). The prophet Isaiah declared messages of prophetic energizing to encourage Jewish people to believe in justice, hope, and God when they were exiled from Jerusalem and Judah by Babylonians in 586 BCE by using uplifting language:

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace. The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands”

(Isaiah 55: 12)

south-park-kendrick-lamar-humble-00 These are some other aspects of the biblical prophets (and biblical texts more widely) which resonate with the music and impact of Kendrick Lamar, albeit in a darker and more aggressive manner. This is illustrated in his album “To Pimp A Butterfly” where he addresses issues suffered mainly by African-Americans. In alright”, Kendrick aggressively attacks white supremacy and police brutality while simultaneously glorifying the importance of developing strength from these struggles and express his faith in God. In short, he encourages his audience to find hope in the struggles they face, as it gives meaning to their inner-strength:

Hard times like, God! / Bad trips like, Yeah! / Nazareth, I’m f**ked up/ Homie, you f**ked up/ But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright”

The song also highlights the frustration and pain Black people in America are accustomed to because of the injustices committed by the police disproportionately killing unarmed African-Americans:

“Wouldn’t you know/ We been hurt, been down before/ N*gg*, when our pride was low/ Lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go? / N*gg*, and we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’/ N*gg*, I’m at the preacher’s door/ My knees getting’ weak, and my gun might blow/ But we gon’ be alright”

kendrickKendrick creatively describes the historical and relentless pain of being Black in America as severely debilitating. However, he counters it by claiming it will not erase the hope of self-empowerment and fighting for social justice which he expresses by continuously shouting “we gon’ be alright”. The impact of this song and its powerful lyrics has transcended music and entered the domain of social and political activism. Black Lives Matter activists draw strength and solidarity by chanting the lyrics we gon’ be alright during their peaceful protests against police brutality. Kendrick’s live performance of the song angered highly conservative and narrow-minded FOX News presenters who argued that a music genre (Hip Hop/Rap) has created more damage than racism among young African-Americans (Media Matters, 2015). Kendrick was thus effective in challenging the status-quo upheld by dominant systems of power, which regularly silence dissident voices of the oppressed (Faraji, 2016). Ultimately, the song “alright” was one of many in this album which advocated for social justice and served as a source from which African-Americans could draw strength, hope and unity.

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Marcus Borg (2001) also suggested that biblical prophets are representatives of God or individuals who know God. This is not implying that biblical prophets are divine individuals, but rather indicates that prophets are individuals who believe in God’s teachings and deliver these teachings in a distinctive and influential manner (Borg, 2001). These too are features of a biblical prophet personified by Kendrick Lamar. His most recent album “DAMN.” comprehensively expresses his fears about his potential to be led to damnation (condemned by God to eternally suffer in Hell); to overcome this fear, he must first acknowledge it (Yoh, 2017). This is highlighted in the lyrics of his song “FEAR”:

“I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ loyalty from pride/ ‘cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of God/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that love ain’t livin’ here no more/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that it’s wickedness or weakness”

Moreover, Kendrick references the commandments and statues written in the book of Deuteronomy 28, and delivered to the Israelites by the prototypical prophet Moses. Through these references, Kendrick ponders whether his previous acts of disobedience stemmed from his own wickedness or inner weakness (Yoh, 2017). From living in a gang-infested city ripe with violence and drugs, family members who were pimps and gang bangers, to suffering deep mental and spiritual stress due to his riches and fame, Kendrick’s world was filled with madness and chaos.

These experiences could drive a person towards a path of destruction. Kendrick likens his own suffering in this chaotic world to the curse bestowed upon Israelites, outlined in Deuteronomy 28. This suggests he believes it is in his (self-proclaimed Israelite) DNA to flourish in temptation and sin (Yoh, 2017). However, he overcomes the fears of succumbing to a destructive future by acknowledging his fears and trusting God’s wisdom. His greatest fear is that he could lose all his financial, social, and spiritual riches due to basking in earthly pleasures and not fearing God (Yoh, 2017). Less focus is placed on the joy of God and more emphasis is awarded to the fear of God. Consequently, he implies that people should fear God because the blessings bestowed upon them can also be swiftly removed from their lives by God.

KLThe story of Job shares a few similarities with the story told by Kendrick Lamar. Job was a wealthy family man who was a staunchly obedient follower of God’s teachings but suffered unbelievable cruelty in the face of servitude, because God wanted to discredit Satan’s claim that Job is good only because God rewards him (Crook, 1959). Thus, Job was subjected to unbelievable suffering and pain. However, Job found meaning instead of despair in those dark moments. He gained humility, a refined perspective of God’s grace and a deep fear of God. At the end, God rewarded Job by restoring double of what he lost, which promotes the critical message that fearing God and trusting his wisdom will result in righteousness and salvation (Crook, 1959). Thus, Kendrick recognises the blessings he enjoys now were delivered by God and he fears that God can also take it all away because of his inner-weakness/wickedness.

In conclusion, Kendrick Lamar confronts his fears in order to overcome it and through this process he develops a deeper connection to God. In saying this, he also promotes the message of giving hope to yourself in times of tragedy and injustice, as it will develop greater inner-strength and self-empowerment. His music provoked intense solidarity among African-Americans protesting cruel injustices imposed on their community which reflects a core element of a biblical prophet suggested by Borg (2001). Moreover, he utilises his influence and power as a famous artist to convey his experiences with God and the influence it has had on him. Kendrick Lamar’s storytelling in his music empowers the narratives of the oppressed, fights systemic injustice, and expresses his deep belief and fear of God. Thus, he aligns with these aspects of a biblical prophet emphasised by Marcus Borg (2001).

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Kendrick Lamar in the video to ‘alright’

References

Borg, M. J. (2001). Reading the prophets again. In M. J. Borg (Ed.), Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally (pp. 111-144). San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Crook, M. B. (1959). The Cruel God: Job’s search for the meaning of suffering. Boston: Beacon Press.

Faraji, S. (2016). Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance points to a simple truth: #Black lives matter when Africa matters . Africology: The journal of pan African studies, 3-6.

Fischer, G. (2015). Is there a Shalom, or not? Jeremiah, a prophet for South Africa. Old Testament Essays, 351-370.

Graham, N. (2017). What slaves we are: narrative, trauma, and power in Kendrick Lamar’s roots. Transition, 123-132.

Lamar, K. (2015). Kendrick Lamar Alright. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-48u_uWMHY

Media Matters. (2015). Fox’s Geraldo Rivera: “Hip-Hop Has Done More Damage To Young African-Americans Than Racism In Recent Years”. Retrieved October 13, 2017, from https://www.mediamatters.org/video/2015/06/29/foxs-geraldo-rivera-hip-hop-has-done-more-damag/204195

Piffin, B. (2015). Police harassment leads to crowd singing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUC_DOhfzwQ

Yoh. (2017). ‘DAMN.’ Decoded: Kendrick Lamar’s Album is About Breaking the Curse of Disobedience. Retrieved October 13, 2017, from http://djbooth.net/news/entry/2017-04-14-kendrick-lamar-damn-decoded

References from the Bible are taken from the New Internationl Version

Student Showcase 2: Politics, Prophets, and Jacindamania

Today’s student offering comes from Mathew Sherlock. Mathew hails from Devonport in Auckland and is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws conjoint, majoring in Spanish. He hopes to work in politics some time in the future. Mathew took our Bible in Popular Culture class because religion and the Bible were completely new subjects for him – thankfully, he found the course very interesting, especially our discussions around contemporary prophetic figures and the American Monomyth, or ‘supersaviour’ in pop culture.

Mathew’s essay was incredibly timely in its focus on the rise of Labour Party politician Jacinda Ardern, who stood as the party’s leader during the 2017 General Election. The election resulted in a hung parliament, with neither Labour nor the incumbent National Party having an adequate majority to form a government. After a nail-biting few weeks, on October 19th, New Zealand First party leader Winston Peters declared he was prepared to form a coalition government with Labour. So, exactly one day after Mathew submitted this essay, Jacinda was declared NZ’s new Prime Minister. Serendipity. To learn more about her impressive rise to power, read on and enjoy this most fabulous essay.

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Image from New Zealand Herald 3 August 2017

Jacindamania: Analysing the Election of Biblical Proportions

Mathew Sherlock

The General Election of 2017 seemed to be a guaranteed victory for the National Party. Until Jacinda Ardern entered the picture. After her appointment as leader of the Labour Party, Ardern swept the nation, in a craze nicknamed “Jacindamania” (Kwai 2017). Marcus Borg identifies that biblical prophets disturb our sense of normalcy, possess a passion for social justice, and bring hope to the oppressed (2001, pp.111-44). Through analysing Ardern’s views and her corresponding policies proposed throughout the election, we can see that she matches these requirements. Comparing Ardern’s actions with biblical prophets Amos and Deutero-Isaiah will reach the conclusion that Ardern can be regarded a contemporary biblical prophet.

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Election billboard with Jacinda Ardern and former Labour leader, Andrew Little. newstalkzb.co.nz

Borg (2001) identifies that a biblical prophet disturbs our sense of normalcy and challenges dominant discourses within society. Ardern certainly disturbed the political normalcy of the 2017 election, which seemed to be a landslide victory for the National Party with an anticipated fourth term in government. Under previous Labour leader Andrew Little’s reign, the main party in opposition was polling at 24%, its lowest point since the 1990s (Trevett 2017). There was no foreseeable chance of a non-National victory. However, after assuming leadership, Ardern drastically increased the party’s polling percentage, peaking at 44% at one point during the election (Small and Walters 2017). This unprecedented twenty-point advancement for Labour in the electoral race changed the course of what seemed to be an obvious continuation of the National-led government, into the most enthralling election campaign in recent New Zealand history (Du Fresne 2017). Throughout the campaign, Ardern challenged New Zealand: choose between risk and hope (“Stuff Leaders’ Debate” 2017). There is risk attached to sticking to the status quo, whereas hope can make change for the better (ibid.). New Zealand’s sense of normalcy was greatly disturbed; placed at a political crossroad between stagnancy and change.

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Dunedin artist Sam Sharpe with his Jacinda Ardern-inspired artwork. Stuff.co.nz

Ardern challenged the dominant neoliberal discourse shaped by the National Party’s nine years in government. Neoliberalism’s key features promote the value of the free market and individual choice in addressing inequalities (Mirowski and Plehwe 2009). Their main election promise was a tax-cut, reducing the responsibility on the state for poverty and other social injustices (“Tax and Finances 2017” 2017). Ardern’s social democratic views contrast greatly from this, which promote legislation to redress inequalities and oppose tax cuts when other pressing social issues are present (Heywood 2012). Ardern challenged National’s policies that sought to benefit the wealthy, as child poverty had not decreased significantly over National’s term in government “Stuff Leaders’ Debate” 2017). Ardern’s view on societal issues were seen through her proposed policies, reinvigorating the discourse on how to address social inequalities. Examples of this were her free tertiary education policy, Maori-centred attainment standards, and stricter rules on land ownership to promote more first home buyers (“Labour’s Plan” 2017). These challenged the discourse shaped over the past nine years which placed individual responsibility on solutions. Despite this, they were generally well received by the New Zealand public, as reflected in Labours large increase in polling.

Ardern’s actions can be compared with biblical prophet Amos. Amos became prominent in the northern kingdom of Israel, a society where the rich were living extravagant lives while the poor were suffering (Thompson 1992, p.72). Amos disturbed their sense of normalcy, condemning the severe social and economic disparity (Bergant 2006, p.94). Amos challenged that the rich “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). This critique of the wealthy citizens of Israel challenged the discourse surrounding the gap between the poor and rich. Both Ardern and Amos disturbed a society where the ruling class had failed to identify social and economic disparities, challenging the way they should be addressed. Thus, Ardern fulfils this requirement of a biblical prophet.

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Jacinda Ardern with Kelvin Davis, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Borg also identifies that a biblical prophet has a passion for social justice (2001, p.118). Ardern’s passion is seen through her views and policies proposed during the election. Ardern centred her campaign around her social democratic beliefs; emphasising equal opportunity, communal responsibility, and the power of effective social justice (Murphy 2017). Ardern’s social justice focuses on the marginalised and disadvantaged groups in New Zealand, aiming for a more equal society. One example of this is the implementation of Maori education programmes that emphasise Maori learning methods and measures of success (“Labour’s Plan” 2017). This redresses the disadvantage Maori students face in the current education system, possessing a disappointing 50.6% secondary school retention rate as opposed to 75.4% of non-Maori (Marriot and Sim 2015, p.5).

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Ardern on the campaign trail. Stuff.co.nz

From her social democratic viewpoint, systemic inequalities and disadvantages are argued to be a result of colonisation and ongoing disregard to differing values between cultures (Humpage 2015, p.450). As such, the implementation of such targeted policy helps distribute justice and equal opportunities to the groups that need it most (ibid.). Another example is Ardern’s assertion to reduce child poverty, claiming it was the initial reason for her interest in entering politics (“New Zealand 2017 election debate – LIVE| Newshub.”). Borg suggests that biblical prophets understand that sin comprises primarily as injustices, therefore placing such great emphasis on addressing social inequalities (2001, p.120). This is reflected in Ardern’s focus on marginalised groups in New Zealand society whom are impacted by such disadvantages. Reducing injustice is a key feature of a biblical prophet, and a characteristic that is prevalent in Ardern’s views and policies.

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Ardern visits the University of Auckland. Wikimedia Commons.

Ardern’s passion for social justice mirrors that of biblical prophet Amos. Amos viewed injustices not as crimes of warfare, but social issues (Borg 2001, p.118). His passion for social justice emerged through his indictment of the wealthy for exploiting the poor (ibid.). Amos saw a large class disparity, where the rich were gaining influence, while the poor became disempowered (Bergant 2006, p.91). This disparity eroded communal responsibility for societal problems within Israel (ibid.). Like Ardern, Amos’ focus on communal responsibility emerged through his passion for social justice. The wealthy had an obligation to help address injustices face by the peasantry that had become disenfranchised (ibid.). Amos brought these issues to light after first increasing his following through announcing God’s judgement against Israel’s neighbouring enemies (Borg 2001, p.118). Then, Amos took advantage of his growing audience to turn and indict Israel itself for its social and economic inequalities (ibid.). Amos deplored the economic differences solely benefitting the wealthy while disadvantaging the poor (Bergant 2006, p.91). Amos thus increased the power of his message and following through addressing social issues that stemmed from the economic class gap present in Israel. Although Ardern did not come from a religious perspective in her campaign, nor used God as a justification for her passion for social justice, she used similar techniques to Amos. Criticising National’s apathy to address social issues, notably income inequality and rising house prices in New Zealand helped increase voter support for the Labour Party, and Ardern’s electoral campaign (“1 NEWS Vote17 – Vote 2017 – Leaders Debate 1” 2017). Framing the social inequalities as the result of nine years of inaction from the National government similarly identifies Nationals “sins” as social injustices, as Amos did to the wealthy people of Israel.

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Jacinda Ardern speaking in Auckland, 2016. Wikimedia Commons

Borg also identifies that a biblical prophet has a vision, a dream that brings hope to the oppressed (2001, p.130). Prophets may engage in prophetic energising, which values the use of language to create hope and bring forth a bright future (ibid.). Ardern’s incredible achievements in the 2017 General Election in seven weeks of her campaign brought hope to many New Zealanders that the government can strive to do better. New Zealand could be greater than what it already was. Ardern made use of prophetic energising in her speeches and debates, using almost poetic language to inspire voters. An example of this was her response to claims that her effect on the election polls was vapid; she was merely stardust that would soon settle and fade. Ardern responded elegantly that “this stardust won’t settle”, because New Zealand should not have to settle with what the current government was providing (“Stuff Leaders’ Debate” 2017). Bringing forth a prophetic message that New Zealand could do better, Ardern provided hope to the large portion of the public that had felt left out during the nine years of a National-led government (ibid.). She made use of this energising effect, imploring voters to choose change, and a better New Zealand.

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Ardern being sworn in as PM. Governer General NZ

Ardern’s energising prophetic vision draws parallels to Deutero-Isaiah, an unnamed prophet in the later chapters of the Book of Isaiah (Borg 2001, p.131). Deutero-Isaiah brought hope to a large group of Jewish exiles, using similar prophetic energising methods to mitigate the widespread panic and despair (ibid.). He energises the disenfranchised Jewish exiles, all survivors of the deadly Babylon conquest by reaffirming their love through God’s sight (ibid.). Deutero-Isaiah used language to promote a sense of hope in the exiles, assuring them in God’s vision that they should “not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand,” (Isaiah 41:10). Deutero-Isaiah and Ardern both spoke to a group that felt denied of rights and freedoms in their society, and used prophetic language to bring forth a brighter future inspired by their vision.

Ardern can be considered a contemporary biblical prophet. Although she does not come from the traditionally religious foundations of traditional biblical prophets such as Amos and Deutero-Isaiah, she matches many of the key requirements proposed by Borg. Ardern disrupted the normalcy of the New Zealand General Election, challenged dominant discourses with a promotion of social justice, and used prophetic energising methods to bring hope to many New Zealanders looking for a better future. Negating any successes or defeats for her and the Labour Party, she is an inspiration for New Zealand.

lovely pic of Jacinda

 Bibliography

All references to the Bible are from the NRSV

Bergant, Dianne. Israel’s Story, Part 1. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2006

Borg, Marcus. “Reading the prophets again.” In Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. 1st edition, pp. 111-144. San Francisco: Harper, 2001.

Du Fresne, Karl. “The political drama is real this time as National faces stiff challenge for power.” Stuff. August 23, 2017.
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/96012551/the-political-drama-is-real-this-time-as-national-faces-stiff-challenge-for-power

Heywood, Andrew. Political ideologies: an introduction (5th edition). Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Humpage, Louise. “The Treaty and Social Policy.” In New Zealand government and politics, edited by Janine Hayward, 6th edition, pp. 449-459. Victoria: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Kwai, Isabella. “New Zealand’s Election Had Been Predictable. Then ‘Jacindamania’ Hit.” The New York Times. September 4, 2017.

“Labour’s Plan.” Labour Party of New Zealand. Accessed October 17, 2017. http://www.labour.org.nz/policy

Marriot, Lisa. Sim, Dalice. “Indicators of inequality for Maori and Pacific people.” Journal of New Zealand Studies, no. 20 (2015) pp.1-30.

Milne, Jonathan. “The last pitch: Labour leader Jacinda Ardern answers tough questions from Bill English, voters.” Stuff. September 17, 2017. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/96867354/The-last-pitch-Labour-leader-Jacinda-Ardern-answers-tough-questions-from-Bill-English-voters

Mirowski, Philip., Plhewe, Dieter. The road from Mont Pèlerin: the making of the neoliberal thought collective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Murphy, Tim. “What Jacinda Ardern wants.” Newsroom August 1, 2017. https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2017/07/31/40717/what-jacinda-wants

“New Zealand 2017 election debate – LIVE| Newshub.” Newshub. YouTube video. 1:38:02. Posted 4 September 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20KBI7vV_-U

Small, Vernon., Walters, Laura. “Labour leaps into the lead in new poll, as leaders prepare for first debate.” Stuff. August 31, 2017. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/96370074/labour-leaps-into-the-lead-in-new-poll-as-leaders-prepare-for-first-debate  

“Stuff Leader’s Debate.” Stuff.co.nz. YouTube video. 3:08:59. Posted 7 September 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2dZ42gx1qI

“Tax and Finances.” National Party of New Zealand. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://www.national.org.nz/tax_finances

Thompson, Michael. “Amos – A Prophet of Hope?” The Expository Times 104, no.3 (1992): pp.71-76.

Trevett, Claire. “Labour leader Andrew Little says he considered stepping down in face of bad polling.” The New Zealand Herald. July 30, 2017. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11896970

“1 NEWS Vote17 – Vote 2017 – Leaders Debate 1.” TVNZ. Video. 45:05. Posted 31 August 2017. https://www.tvnz.co.nz/shows/vote-2017/debates/s1-e1

Prophecy and M.I.A.

Today’s advent offering is from another Bible and Pop Culture (THEOREL 101) student, Pooja Upadhyay. Pooja is a fourth year student studying Law and Arts at Auckland, who thoroughly enjoyed this course, describing it as ‘a wonderful breath of fresh air’ in their otherwise hectic schedule. Pooja has written about British rap artist M.I.A., comparing her to Marcus Borg’s definitions of the biblical prophets. Enjoy!

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M.I.A.: Present-day Pop Prophet

by

Pooja Upadhyay

This essay compares Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to the popular-music rap artist Mathangi Arulpragasam (M.I.A.), concluding that M.I.A.’s role in western popular culture is similar to that of a biblical prophet. Like biblical prophets, M.I.A. challenges the status-quo, has a passion for social justice, and engages with forms of prophetic speech. Although she does not have the same relationship with God as biblical prophets, her relationship with God still resembles biblical prophetic behaviour in more secular ways. In sum, this essay will conclude that M.I.A. and ancient biblical prophets play similar roles in society.

According to Marcus Borg, biblical prophets challenge the status-quo (2001, 124-5). M.I.A. certainly follows suit. Firstly, many pop-culture artists tend to create mass-produce music that avoids controversial themes (Hirsch 1971, 372). Unlike these artists, she produces music that is politically charged. In her music video for “Born Free” (2010), she depicts US soldiers arresting boys with ginger hair, taking them to a field, and graphically killing them. The video is a shocking portrayal of genocide in modern-day United States, which led to considerable flak for the artist. M.I.A. used this to condemn western institutions and audiences for their outrage against the fictional video, and their contrasting indifference to a real video of “naked dead bodies being shot in the head, blindfolded” that she had tweeted months before. Thus, she challenges the status-quo with her art.

M.I.A. also confronts another convention of the pop culture industry, which requires mass-produced artist to package, market and sell not just their art, but themselves as a commodity (Shuker 2016, 132). She rejects product endorsement opportunities and struggles with the idea of the musician becoming the focus, not the music. Thus, similar to biblical prophets and their role as agitators, she refuses to conform to multiple aspects of the mass-produced pop-culture artist paradigm.

Pursuant to Borg’s work, biblical prophets are also passionate about social justice and advocate for oppressed peoples (2001, 118). M.I.A. is a champion of refugees and persecuted Sri Lankan Tamils. Through her song “Borders”, she brings the harsh realities of refugees to the forefront of western media consumption. In “Borders”, she lists a number of antagonistic ideas such as “identities”, “your privilege”, and “egos”. She ridicules these by rapping, “what’s up with that?” after each one, condemning the powers of the world for their identity politics and general complacency in alleviating the Syrian refugee crisis. M.I.A.’s passion comes through when she advocates for solutions and discusses how multi-culturalism and integrating refugees enriches communities.

A strong parallel can be drawn between the archetypal biblical prophet Moses, and M.I.A. when she advocates for Tamils. Called upon by God in Exodus 3, Moses takes responsibility for leading the Hebrews out of oppression in Egypt (Exod. 3.7). Similarly, through media interviews, she acts as a leader for the liberation of Tamils oppressed by the Singhalese regime. The exile and displacement experienced by the Hebrews in Moses’ narrative (and in other prophetic texts, including Isaiah and Jeremiah) resembles the experiences suffered by the Syrian and Tamil refugees for which she advocates (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 28). Thus, through her advocacy, she performs the role of social justice warrior that is so fundamental to Borg’s conception of biblical prophets.

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Borg posits that while some biblical prophets arouse feelings of hope through ‘prophetic energizing’, others engage in more pessimistic speech, called ‘prophetic criticising’ (2001, 130). This is where prophets speak critically of dominant systems of power, whose practices oppress others. M.I.A. criticises governments for their sins (their ignorance of others’ suffering and their persecution of particular groups), in a way that is similar to the prophetic critique Jeremiah performs when declaring the sins of Israel (Jeremiah 2). Rather than issuing a prophetic oracle though, M.I.A. uses 21st century media to convey her message, tweeting sarcastic and cynical comments such as, “Can u catch Pokemon Go at these refugee camps tho”, and “#SriLanka rejects international involvement in accountability + denies war crimes…again.” She thus fulfils the more negative function of prophetic speech, offering a voice of protest against those in power.

Despite, M.I.A.’s cynical dialogue, the effect of her prophetic behaviour generates hope. Although no current scholarship can demonstrate the effect she has on audiences, comments from Twitter and web articles suggest she arouses and inspires audiences. For example, Anupa Mistry, writing in the Pitchfork e-zine, discusses how she fears xenophobic attacks in Canada as a woman of colour, particularly after the Paris terrorist attacks (2015). Mistry argues that M.I.A. is a lifeline for outsiders like her. Additionally, on the release of M.I.A.’s new album AIM, some of her Twitter fans tweeted comments such as, “AIM uplifts me” and, “This album is a voice for the voiceless”. These are contemporary manifestations of M.I.A.’s prophetic impact.

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Lastly, Borg asserts that biblical prophets have a strong relationship with God. This relationship involves ‘call stories’ whereby God appoints individuals with a sacred task (Borg 2001, 124). While M.I.A. may not have received a prophetic ‘call’ from God herself, she does call on God herself through her art, as a means of highlighting God’s absence. In her song, “Born Free”, M.I.A. raps “Lord whoever you are, come out wherever you are”. In the video for this song, images of Mary and the crucifix appear in the context of the ghetto. This Christian imagery, in conjunction with M.I.A.’s demand that God come out, reflects the idea that despite victims of violence and oppression looking to God for protection, God fails to save them. Further, in the song “Story to be told”, M.I.A. raps that she wrote a letter to the Pope but “he never gave me a rope”, highlighting once more God’s silence in her time of need.

However, even biblical prophets have doubted God’s efficacy. In Exodus 5. 22-3, Moses asks God, “Why have you brought trouble on this people?” and then criticises God for not rescuing his people. Furthermore, calling on God to answer for suffering is a recognized feature of contemporary religious prophetic activism (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 37). Thus, M.I.A.’s apparent doubts about God’s power does not detract from the similarities that bind her to both biblical prophets and contemporary prophetic figures. And, while her proclamations, “I’m not a Christian girl”, and “I don’t even need a religion”, may appear to highlight her differences to religious prophets, I would argue that she still shares with the biblical prophets a passion for social justice, which, as with the prophets (Borg 2001, 123), is shaped and directed by the cultural context in which she is situated.

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This essay has compared artist M.I.A. to the biblical prophets, as defined by Marcus Borg. Like these prophets, M.I.A. challenges the dominant expectations that come with being a pop-music rapper signed with a powerful record label. M.I.A.’s passion for social justice resembles Moses, whilst her prophetic critique may remind us of Jeremiah. Although, God did not call on M.I.A., she still has the sense of duty towards her people that biblical prophets inherited from God. Overall, despite being centuries apart and living in hugely different contexts, M.I.A. still shares a similar role with these ancient prophets.

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Bibliography

Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. New York: PerfectBound, 2001.

Hirsch, Paul M. “Sociological Approaches to the Pop Music Phenomenon.” The American Behavioral Scientist 14, no. 3 (1971): 371-388. http://ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/docview/194670965?accountid=8424.

“How M.I.A. is a Lifeline in Times of Terror.” Pitchfork. Nov. 23, 2015. http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/967-how-mia-is-a-lifeline-in-times-of-terror/.

Jones, Gaynor, and Jay Rahn. “Definitions of Popular Music: Recycled.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 11. No 4 (1977): 79-92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3332182.

Lewis. Twitter post. Sept. 13, 2016, 1:10am. https://twitter.com/lewniverse/status/775607452653985795?lang=en.

MIA. “Born Free.” YouTube video, 9:05. Posted by “MIAVEVO,” April 28, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeMvUlxXyz8&oref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DIeMvUlxXyz8&has_verified=1.

MIA, interview by Jian Gomeshi. “M.I.A. on Q TV (viewer discretion advised).” Q on CBC. YouTube video. October 18, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaK0YBA8Lss.

MIA. “Born Free.” YouTube video, 4:42. Posted by “MIAVEVO,” February 17, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-Nw7HbaeWY&list=RDr-Nw7HbaeWY.

“M.I.A. talks about her music video “Borders” on Al Jazeera.” YouTube video, 3:58. Posted by “worldtown,” January 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTMQXBQMSU0.

“MIA: Pop singer M.I.A’s Interview on Channel 4.” YouTube video, 12:48. Posted by “Tamil News,” January 14, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezhPp5rK9UQ.

MIA. Twitter post. July 25, 2016, 1:02pm. https://twitter.com/MIAuniverse/status/757667438318260224?lang=en.

MIA. Twitter post. June 15, 2016, 7:05am. https://twitter.com/MIAuniverse/status/743081911703212032?lang=en.

MIA. Sexodus. Interscope, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOcRiv9BZwU.

MIA. Freedun. Interscope, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_Nc1FdTD10.

Shuker, Roy. Understanding Popular Music Culture. Oxon: Routledge, 2016.

Slessarev-Jamir, Helene. Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America. New York: NYU Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/stable/j.ctt15zc8pw.

Yusuf. Twitter post. September 13, 2016, 12.44am. https://twitter.com/yuzi/status/775600934076448772?lang=en.

Spotlighting student work 5: Corbyn and Christ

Today’s wonderful student offering brings us into the realm of UK politics, considering the prophetic (and Christ-like) qualities of that political phenomenon du jour, Jeremy Corbyn. The author of this piece is Harriet Winn, a first year student here at the University of Auckland, who is doing a BA in History and Theological and Religious Studies. Harriet originally hails from West London but now lives in Wellington with her family. While she admits the future is ‘frighteningly ambiguous’, she hopes to pursue a career in journalism or writing of some sort that invoves her working with people to make the world a more egalitarian place.

So, whether or not you are familiar with the intricacies of British politics, read on and enjoy this fabulous discussion of the Christlike Corbyn.

jeremy jesusJeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ – liberators of the last, the lost, and the least

By Harriet Winn

Jeremy Corbyn is a political anomaly. The hard-left socialist entered the race for leadership of the UK Labour Party somewhat begrudgingly, spurred on by his moral conviction that the government ought to be doing more for those in need (Hattenstone 2015). Whilst he was initially the distinct underdog of the contest, Corbyn emerged as the people’s favourite. He was elected leader of the Labour Party on September 12th, 2015 with an astonishing 59.5% of the vote (Eaton 2015). Despite living centuries apart, Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ have an exceptional amount in common; primarily, both are unlikely pioneers of radical socio-political movements. As established by the Council of Nicea in c.325, Jesus was monumentally more than a prophet – he was fully divine, yet he also displayed many of the traits of an ordinary prophet (Migliore 1991, 62-63, 148). Marcus J. Borg asserts that prophets fundamentally challenge the status-quo, have a passion for social justice, emerge as a prophet from a context of oppression by elites, and possess a vision of hope (Borg 2001, 111-44). Like Christ, Corbyn was the instigator of a grassroots revolution that embodied these traits, a revolution that prioritised compassion and justice, and spoke the language of hope. Corbyn is a 21st century prophet.

jeremy futureProphets disturb what society deems ‘normal’; they challenge unquestioned assumptions and reject complacency (Borg 2001, 111). Like many prophets before him, Jesus disturbed the normalcy of life. Roman Palestine was a nation created and sustained by imperial violence; ‘it is increasingly clear that Roman military violence created the very conditions of and for Jesus’ mission’ (Horsley 2014, 54). Yet, in a culture permeated by violence, Jesus advocated for peace. As famously quoted in the Beatitudes; ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also’ (Matt. 5:39). Jeremy Corbyn is also disruptive presence in the political sphere; he is rejuvenating politics by challenging the status quo and promoting peace. Corbyn takes a similar stance on violence and imperial war to Jesus; he is an ardent believer of pacifism.

jeremy stop the warLike Jesus, Corbyn does not just implicitly speak of pacifism – he actively engages in the advocacy and practice of it. ‘I have been very involved in the peace movement, the anti-nuclear campaign, the campaign against the Gulf war, the Afghan war…’ (Corbyn 2003, 39). Corbyn has made it exceedingly clear that he would never condone use of Trident: the UK’s nuclear weapon programme (Wintour 2015). His definitive stance on Trident has been interpreted by many of his opponents as threatening, a senior general from the UK military even insinuating that ‘the general staff would never allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of the country…’ (Eaton 2015). In a world where imperial violence and warfare is widespread and constant, Corbyn gives voice to a resonating and alternative rhetoric. Similarly to how Jesus’ radical values of non-violence unsettled Roman Palestine in the 1st century CE, Corbyn’s refreshing rhetoric moves against the grain of 21st century culture and politics.

Jeremy ladiesFurthermore, prophets have a passion for social justice (Borg 2001, 118-20). Central to Jesus’ ministry was the defence of those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Jesus’ ministry emphasised universality and inclusiveness (Braaten 2008, 167). Women in Roman Palestine were unquestionably inferior in status to men (Swidler 2007, 18). Yet, Jesus pioneered for the rights of women by teaching them the gospel; using examples of women doing good in his parables; choosing a woman to be the first witness of his resurrection; and by condemning misogynistic violence (John. 8:1-11) (Harrison and Richards 1996-7, 183). In the 21st century, the patriarchy continues to dominate and sexism still persists. Jeremy Corbyn pioneers for the rights of women and works earnestly to combat sexism and misogyny; 52% of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet are women (Arnett 2015). By giving more than half of the top jobs in his political party to women, Corbyn showed that he not only believes in the equality of women, but he will actively pursue it. Moreover, Corbyn launched a campaign called ‘Working With Women’ in which he claimed that ‘we will never be a successful society in which all are able to achieve their potential until we have equality for women’ (Corbyn 2015b). Distinctive parallels on the inclusion of women exist between Jesus’ ministry and Corbyn’s political campaign.

jeremy childrenLike women, another group of overlooked individuals are children. Children are often ignored or not taken seriously. This was the case in Jesus’ lifetime, yet he spoke widely of the importance of children and the value that they offer to society; ‘Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”’ (Matt. 19:14). Just as the inclusion of children was a significant element of Jesus’ ministry, Corbyn also makes time for children in his political activity; ‘Corbyn proudly shows me one [a card] from the children of Duncombe Primary School in Islington, north London. “Please remember, just as you have always been there for us, we are there for you,” it reads’ (Eaton 2015). The legacy of Jeremy Corbyn will likely be one of prophetic and zealous commitment to striving for social justice for women and children.

jeremy hands aloftIn addition to challenging the status quo and being passionate about social justice, a fundamental aspect of prophecy is that it arises from a context of oppression of the vulnerable by the elites (Borg 2001, 127-28). Jesus regularly reinforced the idea that all humans are equal, and also exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders (Matt. 23:1-39) – who were amongst the elites in the social hierarchy of Roman Palestine. In The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Jesus said; ‘“So the last will be first, and the first will be last”’ (Matt. 20:16). Jesus emphasised the irrelevancy of social hierarchies and implied that the poorest, the most vulnerable of society would be valued most by him.

Jeremy Corbyn at an anti-Apartheid rally, 1984
Jeremy Corbyn at an anti-Apartheid rally, 1984

Jeremy Corbyn also dismisses such rigid social hierarchies as harmful and unnecessary; he recognises that the government is firmly rooted in the ideals of neo-liberalism, which values a deregulated economy. Corbyn believes that the government’s preoccupation with austerity is partly due to neo-liberalism. He condemns both neo-liberalism and austerity and cites the latter as an excuse for the rich to oppress the poor (Corbyn 2015a). Contrary to the current Conservative government in the UK – who Corbyn identifies as elitist oppressors, Corbyn avidly believes in the ability of the welfare state to bring about better quality of life for the most vulnerable. Fuelling speculation about the divinity of Corbyn is his employment of biblical imagery when speaking of the welfare state; ‘…we want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system… we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society’ (Crossley 2015). Corbyn’s vision is one of egalitarian socialism: where the poor and vulnerable will be treated with the same dignity and respect as the elitist rulers.jeremy refugeses

Both Jesus and Jeremy Corbyn also perpetuate a narrative of hope – hope is the language of a prosperous future (Borg 2001, 130). Hope is a recurring theme in Jesus’ sermons. Even when not mentioned explicitly, the topics broached by Jesus evoked hope in the oppressed by presenting a radical new way of living and thinking. Jesus’ narrative of hope is found most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount; ‘“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’ (Matt. 5:3-5). Jeremy Corbyn’s political mandate is commonly referred to by his supporters as ‘politics of hope’ (Chakrabortty 2015). Thus, to his supporters – many of whom suffer social deprivation, he is an explicit icon of hope: a prophet. Corbyn speaks of themes which are similar to those evident in the Sermon on the Mount; ‘…even his biggest fans admit he can’t open his mouth without expressing the need for peace, justice and solidarity’ (Hattenstone 2015).

jeremy bikeYet, Corbyn does not just talk about hope – he is a living embodiment of the term. Much of English society has grown cynical with politicians, and this can be seen in the waning voter turnout, which has been in steady decline since 1992 (Electoral Commission 2015). The deep-rooted cynicism towards politicians can be attributed to a plethora of reasons, but one of the most compelling is the expenses scandal of 2009, in which many MPs claimed the mortgages of their second houses on parliamentary expenses (Rogers 2009). During this scandal, Corbyn emerged as a man of integrity and a politician who practiced what he preached; ‘…it was reported that he had the lowest claim in the Commons – £8.96 for a printer cartridge’ (Hattenstone 2015). Corbyn does not only instil a sense of hope in his supporters that through him they will receive a better quality of life – he regenerates faith in the political system. Through Corbyn’s commitment to the underprivileged faction of British society, and through his integrity, he has cultivated a narrative of hope.

jeremy hope

Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ: unassuming, pacifist warriors of social justice and hope. The similarities between the two men are pervasive and suggest that if Jesus walked earth today, he and Corbyn would have much to talk about. Corbyn is decidedly a contemporary prophet; he embodies the traits identified by Borg. Yet Corbyn surpasses prophetic status to something more potent – he is saviour-like; he resembles Jesus Christ. The similarities are uncanny; ‘Dichotomies don’t come much starker: the new leader of Britain’s left is either delusional or a saviour’ (Chakrabortty 2015). After all, even their initials suggest a divine affiliation…

Kaya Mar, Jesus of Islington, 2015
Kaya Mar, Jesus of Islington, 2015

Bibliography

 All references to the Biblical text are from the NIV, unless otherwise stated.

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Braaten, Carl E. That All May Believe: A Theology of the Gospel and the Mission of the Church. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Braaten, Carl E. Who is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.

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Corbyn, Jeremy. “Rogue States.” In Anti Imperialism: a guide for the movement, edited by Farah Reza, 33-41. London: Bookmarks, 2003.

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http://www.jeremyforlabour.com/working_with_women

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http://www.jstor.org/stable/43041998?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

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Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

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http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2009/may/13/mps-expenses-houseofcommons

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