Prophets Then, Prophets Now: An Interview with Joan Chittister and Richard Rohr

Jamie Manson

During the first week of July 2006, the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) hosted a three-day conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, titled “Prophets Then,Prophets Now.” The conference was led by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, who founded the CAC in 1987, and Benedictine sister Joan Chittister. Just before the conference began, Jamie Manson, editor of Reflections, sat with both of them for an interview about the prophetic voice.

REFLECTIONS  Do you feel that a conference focusing on the history and future of the prophetic tradition is especially necessary now?

CHITTISTER  It’s probably more consciously necessary now than at any other immediate past period in U.S. history, except, maybe, during the Vietnam era. At the same time, this ought to be a constant in every society because speaking truth to power is the charism of the Christian. It is also the charism of the prophet. We each have a responsibility, in other words, to search for the truth and to say it. Otherwise, never mind the church, there cannot even be a democracy.

REFLECTIONS So this conference is meant to be relevant to people not only in relationship to their faith communities but also as citizens of their respective nations.

CHITTISTER Definitely.This isn’t just a religious concept.

ROHR Because that was the aim of the biblical prophet. We’re speaking to the historical situation and not just to in-house religious issues. The prophets of the Bible made the link between the two. Their focus was on the whole of society and the whole of life. That was their brilliance—that they saw the big picture, so many of their conversations were with kings and governmental figures. They knew that both “church” and state had to reflect the divine compassion and the divine justice.

CHITTISTER That’s key to the whole question of the prophetic voice in any society. It comes out of the experience and history of the time. When you look at the situation you’re in, prophets are not people who sit around theologizing out of some kind of airy-fairy transcendent overview of somebody else’s idea of what the world is. These are people who, out of immersion in the mind of God, speak about what the society is now and what the society should be. The prophetic movement in any society looks, first of all, at what is the Word of God for humanity. And then uses that as a measure for the way humanity itself is acting at this moment.

REFLECTIONS There was a time in this country’s history, not very long ago, when the voices of prophets such as Martin Luther King, Jr., William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and Rosa Parks rose up and were heard. The inner workings of many Christian churches were also in a concurrent movement toward transformation, openness, and unprecedented dialogue. Now, both our civil society and our church seem to be in a state of complacency. Do you have any sense as to what has led us to this current state? Have we lost our communal concern and desire for solidarity and become too individualistic?

CHITTISTER Well, I think that the way to control a people is not through poverty, but through affluence. When people are concentrating on their own economic development, they can lose sight of the people who have none at all. There is a flip side to that. There is another way to control a society and that is to see that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer at the same time. Why? Because the masses, the people out of whom the revolutionary voice of any ilk, political or theological, is usually spoken, are the people at the bottom. But if the people at the bottom are struggling for survival and can just about make it, if they have enough bread, but just enough bread, they keep working to get more. Now, what is every economist in the country telling us? The poor have gotten so poor, they know how to be poor, even if it means following the garbage cans of the world to the next meal. We’re losing the middle class. And the middle class is really, interestingly enough, the voice in most societies—the intellectuals, actually. Intellectuals don’t make big money, you know. They are the filter through which we see the social order. But they themselves are beginning to hang on—the professors who are living under the threat of declining populations in the colleges—they’re hanging on, too. So part of this is a survival problem, part of it is an intimidation problem, part of it is the problem of affluence and greed. Why is it so different now than then? Because at this time, we are losing this central part of the population—the largest part of the population—to a new kind of survival.

ROHR I’d like to build on that and point out a parallel within the church. The more the hierarchy reasserts its centralized dominance in everything, the more I am finding that many people in the Catholic Church today are passive dependent, and very often passive aggressive. I think that could be proven statistically. Let me give you an example: While doing a hermitage this Lent, I thought I would go to the local parish Mass. We were reminded about seven times during the homily what sinners we were, how unworthy we were. All these educated people in this upper-class parish, largely professionals or retired, just sat there, numbly taking this, largely poker faced. Right at the end, he reminded them, of course, that he would be hearing confessions and take care of their sinfulness. Consciously or unconsciously he built a dependency system on himself and taught them helplessness. He did not empower us as Christians. I wanted to walk out, but I didn’t. This is why it is good for priests to be out in the pews with some regularity. Now there’s a certain number of Catholics, as you know, who always walk out after communion. But in that particular church, I would say almost half the church walked directly from the communion rail out the back door of the church. So you see what you have. These people are just cooperating as little as they can, in case the whole thing is true, and then they disconnect. That’s the kind of passive aggressiveness I think we’re going to see more and more of in our Catholic Church if people are not respected as temples of the Holy Spirit.

CHITTISTER But, Richard, I think you have pointed to a part of the population you didn’t define. There are a lot of people in our churches now who are very sacramental people. They want the sacraments. They want the tradition at the center of their lives. They are really embedded in the Jesus story and they want their children to have some idea of communal and institutional worship, and they edit every single thing it does. They sit, they stare. They’re not even listening, and they didn’t stay for confession. There is a dimension of people in the churches today who are also thinking Catholics as well as non-thinking Catholics. The thinking Catholics, when they hear something like that, are often inclined to walk out, certainly right after communion. Or let’s put it this way: if not right after communion, definitely past the confessional box. Because they’ve got it. They can’t articulate it but they feel it.

ROHR That’s a more positive interpretation and I think it’s often true. I hope it is.

CHITTISTER Well,I’ll bet if we went over here and did a survey of these 1,300 people who are attending this conference, I’ll bet you’ll find out that two-thirds to three-fourths of them are in those very parishes, and they are sacramental people. But they are no longer easily intimidated or easily bounded. And that’s where the frustration is lying—between the institution and the people in the pews. They’re going to church but they, themselves, are in some sort of intellectual transition about what this church is teaching and how it affects them. It’s a fascinating question because I see just as many people as Richard does who do not question at all.

ROHR I think they shut down large parts of themselves to do that. They pay a big price for it. And they’re willing to do that—to shut down large parts of themselves.

CHITTISTER There is something psychological here as well as religious because we’re getting exactly the same attitude where the state is concerned. It’s exactly the same thing. It is, somehow or other, the kind of dependency that is looking for direction. Not leadership, but direction. “Tell me where to go because I don’t know.” Our constitution is being shredded a line at a time. Half of this country does not care, doesn’t even notice, will go so far as to say, “We have to do this in a time of war.” Now, I don’t know who you think declared this war. But I can tell you, as somebody who circles this globe regularly, there is a world out there that does not see us as its freedom fighters.

REFLECTIONS Do you think part of the reason people shut down, even in the most liberal circles, is be- cause through whatever privileges they’ve received they have lost touch with the oppression and injustice that continue to victimize women, non-white people, non-heterosexual people.

CHITTISTER That’sright.Ifthewomeninthiscountry would use their privilege on behalf of the four-fifths of the women on this globe who are beaten, op- pressed, invisible, destroyed, then I would be happy to hear those women say, “I’m not oppressed.” But as it is, I’m not at all impressed with them. Because as long as they’re all right, it doesn’t make any difference who isn’t. They do not use their privilege for prophetic truth. This also applies to us as citizens of this very wealthy, privileged country. We live on the largest ice cube on the globe and it’s melting and we don’t know it. We think this is the world. We’re living in a plastic bubble and we think we’re fully alive, fully human, fully adult, fully intelligent. It’s shattering. I have talked to high school kids in Ireland who know more about the world situation than I can discuss with too many Americans that I’ve met.

ROHR Another reason that I think there’s been a tightening up is the whole phenomenon of post- modernism. I have dated, based on other people’s scholarship, that 1968 is an artificial date for when we moved from modernism to post-modernism. I do find that people formed after that period are looking desperately for stability, order, certitude, clarity, authority, and absolutes. I was ordained in 1970 and I had the arrogant assumption that all priests ordained after me would certainly think like I did. And now I can hardly relate to a lot of young priests. I realize that they were formed in this postmodern flux. A lot of them grew up in single-parent families and want an authoritarian daddy to tell them what to do. The whole relationship of men to their father figures, their need for father figures, is something we are studying in our men’s work. If young men don’t have them, they demand them. I believe this has impacted so many young priests, many who have come from unstable family lives. They even call themselves “John Paul II priests,” and often Jesus is hardly mentioned. The Pope became their securing and validating daddy figure. What we have today is much more “Churchianity” than any strong concern for Gospel or Scriptural Christianity. So I think that’s one reason why we’re seeing the contemporary need for these kinds of conferences. We are in a postmodern demand, a “blessed rage for order,” as David Tracy rightly says. There is a demand for order, even if it’s not a truthful order. And that’s where it gets frightening. We would sooner have “satisfying untruth” than great truth, which is always somehow unsatisfying. That’s what happens when the small ego takes over.

CHITTISTER And that demand for order is happening because there are massive social changes going on. I would argue that this is probably the greatest period of social change in the history of the globe, and certainly in the history of the Western world since the thirteenth or the sixteenth century. Why? Because every single institution is in flux: marriage, churches, economic systems, cities, the whole notion of government. Every single item in the human context is changing and, at the bottom of it all, a new science and a new globalism, and a new notion of what it is to be a human being, a nation, a body. When you have that kind of ferment and foment and simmering everywhere, whether people want to admit it or not, there are some people that simply are looking for the cave. It’s too much to take psychologically. So you have what I call the retreat to commitment. So we’re in a phenomenal period of stress and counter-stress, change and unchanged, commitment and new commitment. This is a stew and we’re all working our way through it. The fear is that these things don’t just happen unless voices call for them and make them happen. So you see now, what you’re in is you’re looking for the synthesis of two voices—in church and in society. The past, the present, and the future are in all those voices. The fear of losing the tradition is a genuine fear and ought to be honored. The fear of losing it by failing to develop it is a fear that must be honored. Out of that must come the synthesis. But it won’t come if people abandon the questions. You’ve got to raise the questions.

REFLECTIONS How do we begin to empower people on a practical level? How do we let people know what the questions are?

CHITTISTER You’ve put your finger on what, for me, is the answer. The attempt right now is to silence the questions. “You may not discuss, you may not think, you may not do.” Also, if we can suppress the questions, we’ll have the time, we hope, to build up a young generation in the old answers. The way you empower is to refuse to be silent. If you’re silent now, if you fail to articulate the real questions now, it will take another fifty years just to legitimate the questions again.

REFLECTIONS And by that time, it’s going to be way too late for both civil society and the church.

ROHR It almost feels like the great Catholic tradition that formed us is becoming parochial, that it’s not “catholic” at all. It’s so tiny and defensive and afraid, and not even very tied to honest historical scholarship. This great tradition of wisdom and love, started by Jesus, is simply invalidating people who do not say it our way. And yet, ironically, Jesus consistently exemplified and taught two things: forgiveness and inclusivity. There is hardly a gospel narrative that does not teach one or the other, or both. I mean, what kind of a universe is this, if we can just silence the opposition? Even scientists do not do that, they just do more research. The irony is, as we both know, we’re simply going to create more opposition, a much deeper, more angry, more alienated, and more irrational opposition. In fact, much of the irrational dismissal of the church that I find among the alienated is a dismissal and a pat- tern that they first learned from us! It comes back to haunt us.

REFLECTIONS Richard has written that prophets live in a “liminal space.” That is, they live inside an institution, but on the very edge of it. By being in that space, the prophet doesn’t critique or throw stones from the outside, but neither does he or she remain complacent or safe on the inside. I wonder if nowadays, in our therapeutic culture, that’s simply too stressful? Have we become too concerned with ourselves and our own personal health and well-being to take risks for the sake of the community?

CHITTISTER It’snotallthefaultoftheindividual.Why are people as self-centered as they are about those things? It’s because there are no safety nets being built into the system and the society anymore that they can count on. I mean, they’re telling the older generation, “Get over it. This is the last time you’ll see Social Security.” They’re telling young people, “You’re going to have to take care of yourself.” Once you take away peoples’ support system, they’re into that survival mode that I was talking about a few minutes ago. It doesn’t look like survival because these are all good-looking people, driving big cars and living on tree-lined streets in nice houses. But they’re scared, absolutely.

ROHR So you’re pointing out that people are fleeing to individualism because there are not that many institutions that can be trusted.

CHITTISTER They’re being forced into individualism. It’s everybody on her own now because this government is not going to help. It won’t help you when your children are sick. It won’t help you when you’re close to death. It’s not going to help you when you can’t earn any more.

REFLECTIONS So in order to do the kind of prophetic work that you both are writing about, one really has to have a sense of hope.

ROHR If you don’t come from a core of hope,I don’t think you can be a prophet. If you’re just oppositional and negative, you’re no prophet. The core of hope, the absolute centrality of the inner-God experience, is crucial to true prophesy. And you can tell in a person whether her inner core is positive, hopeful, and believing, or cynical, sarcastic, and dead. Some in the hierarchy write us off. They think we’re cynics. In fact, we’re radical believers, deep believers. That’s what gives any of us the true authority to speak.

REFLECTIONS And that is completely grounded in our biblical tradition. I hear many Christians say, “I don’t read the Hebrew Bible. That God is so angry. I can’t deal with that God.” And I always respond, “No, that’s the God who’s profoundly wounded. That’s not an angry God. That’s a God we can relate to in ways that we cannot relate to the God of the Christian Scriptures.”

CHITTISTER The God of despair, the God of frustration, the God of great vision. That God is the God that leads to Jesus. It’s also the story of a people who are in exactly the same situation we’re in right now, and learning new things about God and life, little by little.

REFLECTIONS So there over 1,300 people waiting to hear you speak about the prophetic voice, and they are not looking simply for a spiritual high. How can these people living in individual communities inspire prophetic ways of being in the church and in society?

ROHR What I always encourage people to do,because they don’t feel they have power over the big system, is find one area where they’re gifted, one concrete, particular—the “scandal of the particular,” as Walter Brueggemann says, and begin there.

CHITTISTER We must train people to ask one question: About what are you most concerned? About which of these great global questions are you most concerned? And then join a group who shares your concern and move the globe with them. Is it global warming? Is it the ozone layer? Is it the women’s issue? Is it war? Where does your heart bleed? Over what does your soul weep? Identify that. Find the group, because they’re out there. Find the group that has committed their lives to burrowing through that issue and join them.

ROHR That’s where your gift is.

CHITTISTER Find what your gift is and link it with other people, because that is the answer to the despair of individualism.

ROHR The largest percentage of the prophets served as prophets for one event or one era or one king. It wasn’t like they wore the shingle “Prophet” from birth until death. They were called to operate as a truth speaker in a particular situation. Most of them were short-term prophets—for an event, for a period—which, I think, gives people a lot of hope that we can be prophets, too. As Moses says in the Book of Numbers, “Would that all the people of God were prophets!” (11:28). There is always one area where we are gifted to see and speak clearly.

REFLECTIONS Would you say that the particular situation that Jesus addressed was the frequently oppressive and corrupt nature of religious authority operating during his time?

ROHR Absolutely. That is so obviously the case. I offered a talk at a conference a few years back where I took Matthew’s gospel and pointed out how, just in that one gospel, there are so many scenes of hostility between Jesus and the religious authorities. It takes up nearly the entire gospel. I wonder how we made out of these Jesus narratives a religion that is not self-critical? It’s phenomenal to me.

REFLECTIONS It seems to me that Jesus was arguing with the rigidly conservative and judgmental Catholics and Protestants of the time. And yet, today, conservative believers use Jesus to defend themselves.

ROHR When we imitate Jesus that way, we’re called rebellious, disloyal, disobedient, unorthodox. I think Joan and I have paid our dues to orthodoxy. I can defend the orthodox tradition because it is the only thing that gives me the courage to talk this way. I was educated in the tradition and I know the tradition. The prophets were radical traditionalists. When many people speak about tradition today, they talk about something out of the 1950s.

CHITTISTER That’s maintaining the past, not the tradition. The tradition is alive and dynamic. Someone wrote once, “The only difference between an optimist and a conservative is that there are those who believe that foolishness frozen in time is better than foolishness fresh off the vine.” I do think that it’s probably part of the reason that people who are not asking the questions, finding their gifts, and bonding with others feel so overwhelmed that they prefer to disappear behind it. I have a friend who told me that, among her circle of women, one of them—a very privileged and wealthy woman—said that she could not talk about the women’s issue any longer because, if she did, something in her life would have to change. So the only way out of it is to close the door in your mind.

REFLECTIONS So in order to have prophetic vision, one must first go through some form of metanoia, a radical change of heart and vision?

CHITTISTER Absolutely. Once you see, you cannot not see.

ROHR The notion of transformation was part of the breakthrough that led me into working with men’s spirituality. It is in the male psyche to be heroic, to operate on some level of what he thinks is greatness. It’s usually associated with power, money, control, and dominance. And yet what you find across religious boundaries—not just Christianity alone, but explicitly in Jesus’ teaching—is that in every initiation rite there is a “language of descent.” The Christian phrase was “the way of the cross.” Males have to be carefully taught a wisdom path, and much of that centers on their learning how to critique their own power. Males believe that they are physically more powerful than women. Yet Jesus taught us that those positioned at the top are, in fact, the most trapped. Grief work was a part of every initiation rite because by becoming capable of empathy for suffering a young boy was able to shatter his narcissism. In Kenya, a group of male African lawyers took me on a tour of what they called “The Caves of Grief.” These were stalwart guys. They were dressed in their traditional robes. And they said, “Here, we had to learn to cry.” There is a brilliant recognition that males are often trapped at the top. Tears do not come easily to the typical male because such a large part of him has been closed down by always “ascending” into illusion.

CHITTISTER I really take that as one of the signs of hope in our society. In my lifetime, I have watched men be able to cry. You have no idea how that touches me. That says to me that a man has two choices. He can choose to tell the truth and be a human being or he can choose to lie about his invulnerability and become an animal.

REFLECTIONS So vulnerability, that openness to be wounded, is also essential to being a prophet?

CHITTISTER You can’t understand oppression until you have identified your own. How do you know what it feels like to be abandoned, to be poor and not be able to take care of your children, until you have stopped bullying your way through every institution on earth? Who stands in line if they have money and power? So many women religious give up the habit because we knew it was absolutely essential to our ability to identify with the very society we said we wanted to serve. Too much privilege came with the habit: every door opened and every restaurant had a table.

ROHR In male initiation rites the wounding of the initiate was universal. A boy was always symbolically wounded because it taught him, at least symbolically, the necessity of vulnerability, patience, and healing. The great traditions say that it is in suffering that you understand, and you don’t understand any other way. In fact, the Africans told me that it was precisely during the healing of their circumcision that wisdom was taught to them. Finally, they were in a teachable space. It is the same for history and for institutions.

CHITTISTER I have the sneaking suspicion that it has something to do with the male attraction to war. In war they can be wounded and be heroic in their wounds. There, they can cry for another human being and be considered masculine. They keep the power, hide the wound, make it heroic, and, some- how or other, have the community that goes along with all that.

REFLECTIONS It’s fascinating because Jesus was quite the opposite. He was the wounded one. The crucifixion, it seems to me, is the ultimate act of vulnerability. Prophets take similar risk. They speak out of a passionate love of their communities, and paradoxically is it exactly that love that puts them at risk of being hurt by their very own communities. Which is why I suppose, Jesus says, that the prophet has nowhere to lay her or his head.

ROHR The vulnerable position, identification with the crucified Christ, and crucified people will never be a popular position on either Left or Right. The Left is into its heady and rational idealism and the Right into its moral separateness and superiority. These are just different ways we create an identity for ourselves. Neither is the naked position of the Gospel, where “I live no longer with my own life” (Galatians 2:20). In that place, as Jesus warned, “the whole world will hate you” (John 15:19). One wonders why anyone would choose or want to be a prophet.