American Christians don't much like prophets. We like prophecy, though.
American Christians don’t much like prophets. We like prophecy, though. Big, fat prophecy that cuts to the bone. Prophecy that can be ripped from contexts, jammed into a shredder, and be taped back together with hatred and bloodlust. Prophets are harder to manage than prophecy. Prophets don’t shut up. They get in our way. They make us uncomfortable and those in power don’t like to be uncomfortable.
The Powers, as the great theologian Walter Wink observed, teach the rest of us to shun the prophet. They tell us to bow at the altar of civility and to believe that our sin is that which makes them uncomfortable. They take the radical, life-giving prophecies of God’s prophets and use them to cudgel the very people with whom God is most concerned.
Prophets know that you can’t predict God. Prophets, by definition of the Hebrew words, are mouthpieces; spokespersons. Their words come as torrents and surprises. Some have seemingly short careers, like Amos. The Tekoan shepherd who was called from his peaceful life in the southern kingdom; Amos, who was charged with bringing a harsh word to the people of the North, to Israel from southern Judah, a word about obscene wealth amidst devastating poverty (Amos 6:4-7; 8:5-6). Gratuitous gluttony serves as a cruel taunt when masses live in a want that’s ache is so deep, God must respond. Angrily. Amos reveales a God who has no use for self-righteous, saccharine piety but requires of us social justice (5:18-24).
Social justice is a phrase that raises the hackles of the civility crowd. Amos’ calls were drowned out by those in power, as were Hosea’s. Hosea, a man whose existence became a tableau for God’s relationship with God’s people. Hosea’s wife, who was unfaithful for reasons we never hear, as she is voiceless; his children, likewise silent, bear names that foretell the coming travails: Jezreel, a place of death; Not Pitied; Not My Children; God’s deep pain over the apostasy of the people.
Hosea compares the people of Israel with fatted cows (4:16; 10:11); God is envisioned as maggots (5:12). The language pierces the mind and heart with images that are wholly and distinctly upsetting. That is the very point and purpose of this vernacular. To quote Hosea to assert that God expects us to prioritize imaginary lines on maps over the lives and well-being of people is blasphemy of the truest sort. Blasphemy that Ezekiel describes as “abusive speech” people level at God (35:12). Nehemiah cries out to the Holy One, describing the state of the people: “Nevertheless they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their backs and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies” (9:26).
Prophets have punched us in the jaw twice and the gut once before we even register the first strike. Everything you are doing is wrong. Isaiah of Jerusalem bellows: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16d-17). Overt and dramatic gestures of worship revolt God, who rejects their bloody offerings, Isaiah says, and charges them instead to look to their own bloody hands, dripping crimson from the oppression of their own people. Isaiah, whose career lasted forty years; Isaiah who died, exiled in Egypt, railing against the people for their apostasy. For their lives that were an affront to God.
Behold, the mighty Jeremiah, who in his own way is the culmination of the other prophets who came before him. Like Amos, he feels unworthy (Jeremiah 1:6). Like Hosea, Jeremiah uses his life in metaphorical ways, such as the linen loincloth (13:1-11); the wine-jars (13:12-14); his celibacy (16:1-13); the potter and the clay (18:1-11); the broken earthenware jar (19); and others. Jeremiah’s life is threatened repeatedly by those whom he has made uncomfortable. He shakes in his faith, yes, but he remains committed, and no matter what those powers do, they cannot not and will not shut him up. Prophets are in for the long, uncomfortable haul.
Uncomfortable is something we do unto others and should not be done unto us, American Christianity has for so long said. The us, of course, is white men. A trickle-down theology is employed; the blessings of God come first to the chosen, who then, in their deigning beneficence, bestow upon the rabble scraps for which they are told to fight and be grateful. American Christians like to hold up prophecies while persecuting the ways of the prophets. Certainly not all American Christians, but enough that we should not waste time on equivocation.
Jesus, the greatest example for Christians, was intimately and radically concerned with the least of these. Jesus was thoroughly, fervently, passionately Jewish in this regard. While I would never suggest to a Jewish person that Jesus is a prophet whom they have to accept, I also must squarely situate Jesus within the Jewish prophetic line. To do otherwise would be to misunderstand Jesus completely. Jews don’t need to think about Jesus’ Jewishness, Christians do, and we should extricate it from any connection to the current State of Israel. Supporting Israel because Christ will come back to destroy the Jews is disgusting and pollutes rational discussions of a rightful Palestinian state. Jesus functions as a prophet—along with, for Christians, a priest, a king, and an anointed one—and a most Jewish one, at that.
All of the prophets communicate the same outrage from God: Why do you not treat each other better? Why do you chase after ways that turn your eyes away from what God has created us to do and be: Love. Love is not some “politically correct” or “Marxist” version of God’s Word—and, seriously, people need to read more before using words and concepts above their ken— Love is rooted so deeply in the textual traditions that to remove the commandments to Love above all things, to love in ways that are uncomfortable and difficult, would be to remove the skeletal system completely, leaving only a putrid pile of flesh, some obscene sort of offering left at the altar of civility.
This idea is not original to me, but we no longer have ask ourselves—and here I’m writing to persons Gen X and younger—what we would have done in 1933. Or 1963. Times like these need prophets. And that is what we must be in the Church. God’s Word is clear: we will reap what we sow. I’m talking about the current idol of capitalism that has wed itself to the American flag and an AR-15. God expects us to make noise when Love is not winning out. God casts so many seeds in times like these, looking for good soil. We need to water our seeds of mindfulness, as Thich Naht Hanh tells us, even though others water seeds of affliction.
It is exhausting to live for the gospel. It is not easy. Jesus tells us that harvest time comes when we are ripened grains. When the soil has pushed us into the air, we are to be scattered ourselves, to be seeds that profligate seeds, throwing and thrown upon any available soil because then it is up to God and the seed. Toiling in the vineyards can make one’s bones yawn, there is no lie in that.
I wish lately there was more joy, but it is incumbent upon ourselves and each other to try to grab joy where we can and allow ourselves the fullness of it without guilt. Living prophetically involves griping to God and admitting that it all seems too big sometimes. Maybe most of the time. Prophetic living is dealing with enemies who are committed to shutting you up and sitting you down. None of us can do it alone. And not all of us have the same call. Community that is life-giving is community that affirms bodily agency and (dis)ableness, diversity of call, neurodivergence, the dignity of love and sexual expression, and is committed to the long haul, together. In the midst of pernicious evil, God gives us one another.
Let us not look to prophecy right now. Let us live prophetically. This is how miracles happen. And there are people who have been living prophetically for their whole lives and they are exhausted. They need each of us to do what we can, when we can, how we can, and then to build bunkers of love, holding onto God’s promise that we are never alone when we care about justice.
We certainly can’t say we weren’t warned.