A few weeks ago, my wife ran into a woman who claimed to be a ‘prophetess.’ It said as much on her business card. Of course, there is that line attributed to Jesus: “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown.” Rather, a prophet is often not recognized until after this death, way after his death. Yet there have been a handful of prophets who, to many, were known in their hometown during their life. Surely those who followed Jesus must have gotten it, didn’t they? Strangely, though, most of them are portrayed as dolts who believed that Jesus was leading them to armed conflict with the Romans. The women following him, however, were a bit brighter than the men.
Anyone with only a cursory interest in the Bible know of the delineated prophets: Isaiah, Amos, Micah and Zechariah. By the way, did you know that there were three ‘Isaiahs,’ writing over a period of 300 years? Neither did I.
In his newest book, Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non Religious World, author John Shelby Spong includes several chapters on prophets. He says of a prophet: The job of the prophet is to illumine the pain, not to eliminate it, to help people walk through it and to transcend it. It is not helpful to deny the pain and pretend that there is another reality in which the pain is not present.
Spong notes prophets not only of the Bible but in later centuries; he claims three rather recent prophets:
Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and a less well known person named Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. All saw and affirmed the humanity beneath dehumanizing systems. King and Mandela spoke to the humanity of people of color, Solzhenitsyn to the humanity of those oppressed by an economic system. Each of them spoke from outside the normal power positions of authority. King was a neophyte in the field of religion, a local pastor. Mandela was a resistance leader whose power actually grew while in prison. Solzhenitsyn was a literary man, an author.
A prophet is assumed to be one who delivers the word- the spoken or written word. Yet there have been ‘prophets’ of music, art, architecture, film, theater and many other non-verbal genres as well. Here in the U.S., pop culture in its many forms seems to appeal to many more of our citizens than the written word. Fewer and fewer children and adolescents read books; the same is true for the so-called Generations X and Y.
What about political prophets? Or is that oxymoronical? Why are some politicians [read Presidents] lifted in the eyes of historians and others? What makes Abraham Lincoln, for example, one of the ‘top 10 U.S. Presidents? Was it his leadership in the Civil War or his civil rights legislation? What about FDR? Wilson? Jefferson? Madison? Could Franklin have been a prophet? William Jennings Bryan?
The question arises: could a politician, aka, political leader, rise to the level of prophet?
Recall, Spong defines a prophet as one whose job is to illumine the pain, not to eliminate it, to help people walk through it and to transcend it. It is not helpful to deny the pain and pretend that there is another reality in which the pain is not present.