For most of my adult life I have known people of faith who have liked to think of themselves as prophets. In certain areas of western culture, particularly among Christian seminarians, prophets are often perceived as cool.
Prophets are courageous and see through the mythologies of their times, penetrating to a deeper level of reality than their contemporaries. They seem to live at a higher elevation in the moral universe than the rest of us, and are filled with a righteous and purifying anger, a common emotional feature of heroes in western cultures, especially the United States Prophets inhabit a special human realm because they are called to stand toe-to-toe against forces of evil or oppression. They speak a God-revealed truth about life at a particular moment in history and set in motion social changes that heal the broken, bind up the wounds of those most hurt by social sin, and set captives free.
For many, prophets can embody a kind of holy detachment from the hideously imperfect muck of the human condition. They are often imagined as John the Baptizers, living in the real or theoretical wilderness and out-of-step with cultural conventions like dress and lifestyle. For some of us, prophets are even fantasied with unruly hair, a grungy look in clothing, and even the wild, driven eyes of the revolutionary consumed by the fire of a vision. From this position of detachment from the forces of culture, the prophet boldly challenges those who have abandoned the old ways to slip into paths of corruption and degeneracy.
When I was a young seminarian working in a diverse, poor (and sometimes violent) neighborhood, I thought, along with many of my fellow seminarians, that I wanted to serve as a prophet. I imagined a prophet must live a life of unparalleled joy and purpose, laser focused on God’s will for the world and fearless in following the path of righteousness. However, the more I delved into the scriptural testimony of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Joel, and Ezekiel, the more I questioned my naïve assumptions. I came to realize there is really little coolness in this necessary ministry to church and society.
Over the last few weeks, Dr. Flora Wilson Bridges has been guiding students at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry through a course entitled “Prophetic Preaching for Radical Welcome” which grapples with some of these very same and challenging nuances of prophetic voice.
In fact, one of the chief characteristics of a real prophet is that he or she does not want the job. Moses preferred a quite life tending his father-in-law’s sheep herd and tried four times to convince God to send someone else to speak to the Pharaoh (Exodus 3-4). Jeremiah tried to use the excuse of youthful inexperience to get off the hook of giving prophetic utterance (Jeremiah 1:6). Jonah ran in the other direction and had to have a close encounter with a big mammal to grudgingly muster the motivation to embrace his God-given prophetic task. When prophets go about their work, it also seems that they do not find it even remotely enjoyable. After preaching to Nineveh, Jonah sat under a tree to sulk (Jonah 4:5-6), and both Moses (Numbers 11:15) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:4) hated their prophetic burdens so much that they asked God to kill them and put them out of their misery.
If prophets are important to the human condition, and you would have a very difficult time making a case that they are not, every culture should get a reality check from time-to-time about who a prophet is, what a prophet does, and how a prophet goes about performing his or her mission. Fortunately for Americans, we get a chance to reflect on the prophetic role once a year in January during the nationwide commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. <Photo credit: SeattleTimes.com>
Most Christians would claim King as part of the Christian tradition’s prophetic tradition. He certainly left a prophetic mark on American society by challenging an entire nation to think and act according to biblical principles of justice. But, his life and work challenges the conventional image of how God’s cry for justice manifests itself through fragile humans.
First, Dr. King was not detached from society; he was immersed in it – its problems, the complexity and elusiveness of solutions, and the soiled institutions of both church and society. He was perennially frustrated that these institutions did not live up to their moral values. But, he learned to live with the frustration and disappointment and never allowed cynicism to either destroy his vision, diminish his convictions, or demonize his enemies.
Second, he didn’t yell at people from the sidelines. He was an incredibly polished orator and rhetorician. King was also multilingual. He modified his message to fit the audience he addressed so the largest number of them could find an entry point into the challenging egalitarian vision he presented. Martin Luther King, Jr., also did not exude righteous anger so much as compassion, confidence, persistence and an intense devotion to a national vision that applied the words and concepts of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to all people equally.
Third, we know from King’s life that prophets (at least in our time) need more than words and noble intentions; they need sophisticated skills in the inner dynamics of institutions. They need to understand the psychological and spiritual dynamics of the individual heart and mind, small group dynamics, how to analyze social situations, skills in translating a message to different audiences and so much more. More difficultly, they need to know themselves inside and out; they need to learn how not to lose heart in times of trial, and how to expand both their patience and their tolerance of others.
Fourth, King did not dress counter-culturally, but rather wore rather expensive, neatly pressed suits. He looked like the American icon of his time: the tailored Mad Men look, walking comfortably in the nation’s halls of power, even at a time in which an African-American man was not welcome in those halls. King came from solid middle-class African-American stock and he knew to win over hearts and minds of a hard-hearted people to a tough message required that he challenge only so many of the cultural conventions of his time at once.
Perhaps one of the most instructional aspects of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is that we know far more about his personal life than we know about most prophetic figures. King was a human first and foremost, not a plaster cast saint living on a different moral plane than those he challenged. Scholars and journalists have dissected and scrutinized his life to embarrassing levels of detail. His many imperfections are a part of the public record: his marital infidelities, his corner cutting on his doctoral dissertation, the smoking and drinking that he enjoyed out of sync with the Christian culture promoted by his Baptist roots. Yet, God used this imperfect and sinful human as a “drum major for justice,” (using one of his favorite images of himself).
The broken features of our personality, the weak links in our character, and our propensity for certain sins are all magnified under the stress and strain of a prophetic vocation. King’s life reminds us there is a constant risk of our own personal destruction in the cauldron of controversy occurring when prophetic utterance collides with the injustices of contemporary reality. Had King lived out the original dream for his life, living the intellectually rich and somewhat insulated life of a professor in a 1960s seminary or university, how might his life have looked differently? It is likely he could have maintained greater control over his personal imperfections. He would certainly have kept them less public.
When you look at the fullness of King’s life you get a better appreciation of what Martin Luther meant when he told Melanchthon “be a sinner and sin boldly” (see here). The current Pope Francis often talks about the risk of engaging the world in its messiness, to avoid becoming so sin obsessed that we fear taking risks in living and preaching the Gospel. God’s mercy awaits us all in our efforts to make the world a more just and humane place.
One of the great gifts in knowing so much about King’s life is having a greater sense of the degree to which a prophet’s loved ones must also suffer. We know little of the challenges faced by the families of the minor and major prophets in the Hebrew scriptures. We know too much about the pain caused to Coretta Scott King, Martin’s wife, and their children. Prophets pay an expensive price for the office of their ministry, and so do all those around them.
It is more than coincidental that King’s day is followed by an entire month focused on celebrating Black History Month. Every February school children are introduced to a long list of prophetic individuals in American history. These men and women changed their communities, regions, and eventually an entire nation, building upon each other’s work and inspiring future generations to take up the cause of racial equality.
Prophets come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and most of them are never recorded in the annals of history. In reflecting on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is important to remember how many prophets with his message hammered on American society before substantive change occurred. African-Americans in North America lived in poverty for
246 years of slavery.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation 151 years ago in 1863, and Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago in 1964. As Pulitzer-prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson told a large crowd at the Search for Meaning Book Festival this last month, black Americans have spent more time in slavery than freedom. Actually, she said, they endured the burden of slavery for 246 years. Lots of prophets have come and gone in that time period, each changing the culture in incremental steps. And, they walk among us still, although King is the one history will remember.
Martin would have been the first person to remind us that his message and advocacy for justice made in-roads in the United States only because it built upon the courageous work of countless men and women who came before him. Like King, those people devoted their lives to making the world a better place on their exit than their arrival. And, like the young Baptist preacher who was cut down in the prime of his life they feel an insistence and urgency in making our nation and world more worthy of our dignity as daughters and sons of God.