So Many Prophets
The term prophet is often bandied about in society, especially when we discuss current politics and culture. So and so is the prophet of a new era or the next generation. She is the prophet of a new awareness. Most of the time in looking back those who were proclaimed as prophets in their lifetimes are not thought to be so by history. Only a very few refuse the title as Bob Dylan did when he rejected the title in the 1960s.
It is difficult to avoid the term as it anoints a particular person and their viewpoint with an aura of authority. It lends instant credibility, which is why so many are so quick to anoint so many as prophets of this or that. It says far more about the viewpoint and agenda of the one doing the labeling than it does about the long-term impact of those so proclaimed. For purposes of discussion, we can safely ignore all those who are self-proclaimed prophets. These strike me as nothing but marketers of an over inflated ego.
What is a Prophet Anyway?
With all the use of this term and its clear appeal to ancient Biblical authority, it is necessary to inquire into the definition of a prophet. Most people, even religious ones think that prophecy is about predicting the future. Yet, the Biblical prophetic tradition is more complex than that simple framing. One of the better definitions I have come across is from a Catholic resource, which can be found here:
Often, people associate prophecy with predicting the future. The Anslem Study Bible states that the prophet’s primary concern is with contemporary events within social and political contexts. They focus on public morality, social justice, religious idolatry, and proper use of power. They are not confined to only speaking of judgment and damnation, but also of encouragement, mercy, and a hopeful future (Osiek & Hoppe 2013). Biblical prophecy began after the split of the united kingdom of Israel under Davidic rule. Prophecy began in the North due to the factor of the Northern wealth and the prophet’s role of speaking out against the culture of the Israelites. Biblical writings of the prophets have explained that “a prophet may suffer for his beliefs…An almost stereotyped formula incorporated in the historical books and Jeremiah refers to the failure of the prophets and, implicitly, to their sufferings” (Fischel 1947) According to Matthews, “a prophet may not be identified as simply a fortune-teller, social activist, doomsayer, messenger, moralist, or even predictor of Jesus” (19).
Whew! That’s a lot to take in. The first thing we should see is that this activity of those regarded as prophets must be about God. It is an explicitly religious message that they deliver. In short, they are calling the people of God back to what they believe God would have us do. This is particularly true about how we treat others, especially those at the bottom of the social/political pyramid.
This definition also seems to strongly suggest, though not mandate, that a prophet be unpopular and suffer for their beliefs. Also, it seems that in the Biblical tradition that prophets are “failures”, or at least considered as such at the time of their work. These parts need not concern us to a great extent, as it is more important to grasp the essence of the nature of a prophet.
So, it is a religious person, calling out what they see as injustice and demanding that the community get back on the righteous path set forth by God. It is a call directed to the governing authorities and to the people themselves and is always accusing the authorities of leading God’s people astray.
Excellent candidates for non-prophet status based on the first criteria are those that call out against the powerful but not in a religious context. This would include such leftist luminaries as Greta Thunberg or Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader. This even includes those with whom I agree. Anarcho-capitalists in general, the hardworking peaceniks at antiwar.com, and all those in journalistic and policy wonk positions working to limit the power of the state. These may all be believers but are not having a faith-based conversation, so they fall outside of the prophetic tradition.
There are certainly many who do speak within a faith context and are calling for change in the name of God. Does speaking in a faith context automatically accord one prophetic status? No. When we consider those who do speak within a faith context, we must consider whether they are demanding submission to the will of God. This is easier than it sounds.
There Are No House Prophets
This part of the definition immediately rules out for consideration for prophet status those who work for the government. You cannot call out the power structure and at the same time be a part of that power structure.
In Scripture we see many examples of such false prophets. These are the one’s whispering into the King’s ear that it is all right to continue their current path and that there is good reason to do so. We can clearly see this as erroneous. We do not even need to question the motives of those in this position, then or now, to see it as wrong. These folks may be totally sincere and believe every word of what they say. It is not for me to judge intentionality, that is up to God. We can, however, say with great assurance that what they advocate is a continuation of injustice.
We can say this because we know what injustice looks like. We know without being told what the screwing of the poor looks like. Even if we benefit from the current power structure, we can see the injustices that exist in that structure and the choices that go into its erection and maintenance. The true prophet’s role is to make us admit that what we are looking at needs to change and to do this by calling out the leaders of that unjust power structure in the name of God, of course.
This means, also, that another group of non-prophets are those seeking to replace one power structure with another. Simply railing against the existing government and demanding that the government be replaced or taken over by a different faction, even if you are speaking within a faith context does not make you a prophet. There are quite a few in this category. On the left, Liberation theologists (if they are still a thing) come to mind. As does Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, or Dr. Cornell West. Let’s not forget just about every leftist/progressive mainline Protestant pastor. These are folks who are speaking in a God context but are clearly advocating that a new power structure be erected to replace the existing power structure.
On the right, preachers like Pat Robertson, Robert Jeffress and groups like Focus on the Family demand significant change in how the power structure operates but not eliminating the power structure altogether. This takes all such people out of the prophetic tradition or makes them false prophets.
Political Power or God, Never Both
The truth is that political power is inconsistent with the Gospel and should be proscribed to the Christian conscience. We do not respond well to God’s free gift of Grace by turning on one another via the apparatus of state coercion. First this is clearly contrary to the Golden Rule as no one wants done to them by the government what they want the government to do to others. Therefore, the unifying philosophy between Team Red and Team Blue is hypocrisy.
Second, and more importantly, the government is a competing worship center. It demands obeisance, praise, and tribute. Look at the inscription over the Lincoln Memorial and read “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union…” A temple? Seriously? It could not be clearer with this and a million other examples that the government wants the people to bow before it. It is a clear 1st. Commandment violation. All of this is, as I have stated, the institutionalization of original sin.
It is an appalling abdication of their pastoral integrity that so many preachers have fallen into this trap. Those, liberal or conservative, who would place even one laurel leaf upon the altar of the state have placed themselves clearly outside the prophetic tradition, if not outside the shadow of the Cross. Yes, power exists, but that does not mean that Christians should blindly chase it, or wield it, however noble the intentions. It always ends badly, as God warned the ancient Israelites when they demanded a king. Better to follow the nonviolent path of resistance set forth by our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.
Whether there are any real prophets out there today I will leave to you to decide. I hope so, but like in ancient times, they are likely in short supply. All I know for certain is that it is time to stop being faithful to non-prophets and stop following false prophets and turn to the Lord for guidance. Peaceful cooperation is our only legitimate social response to God’s Good News and hearing a God centered message of peaceful submission to the will of God is a great litmus test to use to separate real prophets from false.
Praise Be to God