Prophets were like Gandalf, my 15-year-old self mused into a glass of pulpy orange juice. Too young to brood over coffee like an aloof seminarian, I settled into imagining waspish old men with crinkled faces, dirt-gritted beards, and eyes that pierced skin with otherworldly intensity. Those eyes carried the secrets of ages as they flared to life when a nation needed scolding (for lack of a better word). I saw prophets like Gandalf with threadbare robes preaching off arid mountaintops, voices reverberating like thunder and staves thrusting towards the heavens that sent them.
Prophets were the alien messengers sent in human skins to defy kings, topple empires, unite the peoples of Middle Earth if necessary. The pantheon of Old Testament prophets constructed itself in grand, fantastic visions of raven companions, fire called down, crushed golden idols, and leviathans of the deep. Speaking to the peoples of ancient worlds on behalf of a simultaneously wrathful and merciful God, prophets held mythic sway over my imagination. They belonged to a different age, far removed from me and my glass of orange juice in America, the intoxicatingly greasy scent of McDonald’s coming from three blocks away, and my phone chirping incessantly with text messages. No leviathans to call forth here.
In Western streams of Christianity, there is that temptation to consign the prophetic into the attic of the past, where we can survey it like historians rather than active recipients. The words rippling with righteous rage and lacerating grief bear little relevance to those who are not exposed to that as part of their daily reality. Heightened in emotion and vivid in imagery, the words of the ancient prophets are exactly that–ancient. Western Christians are not always taught to seek prophetic meanings in the events and people surrounding them now; in fact, I have observed a reflexive hesitation towards the idea of the prophetic in our time. When living in a Western country bathed in empiricism and a tailored-to-you app culture, Christians may experience trepidation in exploring the hokey-seeming concept of prophecy. Let’s just say that it would never make the top three of an Awesome Spiritual Gifts list on Buzzfeed.
But if we believe in a spiritual dimension that undergirds our physical reality, why don’t Christians talk about the prophetic more? I think part of the problem is that, again, many Christians are not encouraged to look for the prophetic already woven into the fabric of our current world. Their sensitivity to how the Holy Spirit works through people in prophetic ways right now is diminished, their lenses blurred. So when missionaries bring forth incredible stories of miraculous healings, the repentance of national leaders, searing judgments against immorality declared over entire communities in the global South and East, Western congregants squirm. They may praise God for the miracles and clap hands together, but inwardly people are thinking: This is crazy.
There is a troubling pattern of thought within Western Christianity where people do not believe in the prophetic anymore because they don’t believe God works that way anymore. Or maybe He works that way in the Third World, where fantastic, larger-than-life and exotic spiritual acts “make sense.” A white American congregation can view pictures of hundreds of brown people prostrate and praying for salvation, can hear about the casting of demons and the throwing down of corrupt governments, and they can leave the church service with no illusions that it could ever happen in their neighborhood. In the postmodern Western world where the “integration of reason and faith” often equates to “the submission of faith to reason,” Christians have the privilege of being skeptical of the prophetic. Elevated above the destitute and desperate circumstances of peoples in the global South and East, maybe it’s safe to say that Western Christians don’t need prophets anymore.
The other glaring problem lies in how Western Christians define the prophetic. When the only portrayal of prophets we get is the crooked old men shouting at tyrannical Israelite kings, it’s easy to separate whatever relevant moral lesson we can find in the story from the idea that prophets are normal and actually an expected part of living in a world not fully redeemed yet. They appear in the Bible not as special Gandalfs sent to help out a very screwed-up Israel and then evanescing when no longer needed, but rather to serve as markers for how prophets serve a vital function for every age and every country. Scripture highlights a reality where prophets are always among us.
Moving away from the old-man-with-staff archetype, when we look at the function of prophets in the past, we are able to clarify what they look like now–especially since we serve a God who is consistent in the way He interacts with human beings. It is possible that Western understandings of the prophetic are so limited that it prevents Christians from receiving words with the prophetic implications they contain. It’s like God has placed Pokemon in every corner, flailing for our attention, but no one knows to go find them. Our lives would be rocked if we did.
So what do prophets do? Just look at the prophet Isaiah:
The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
2 Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth!
For the Lord has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
4 Woe to the sinful nation,
a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.
5 Why should you be beaten anymore?
Why do you persist in rebellion?
Your whole head is injured,
your whole heart afflicted.
6 From the sole of your foot to the top of your head
there is no soundness—
only wounds and welts
and open sores,
not cleansed or bandaged
or soothed with olive oil.
7 Your country is desolate,
your cities burned with fire;
your fields are being stripped by foreigners
right before you,
laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.
8 Daughter Zion is left
like a shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a cucumber field,
like a city under siege.
9 Unless the Lord Almighty
had left us some survivors,
we would have become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah. Isaiah 1:1-9
Something tells me that attendance for religious services dramatically decreased after Isaiah offered this message (it’s not exactly a feel-good sermon). But what we see is a human being allowing God to speak through him in order to address his people–in this case, the Israelites of Judah living in a nation that was sinking into corruption. Isaiah provides a staggering vision of his nation’s current state of depravity, calling out its wrongdoings and conveying God’s anger and grief at His peoples’ rebellion.
Throughout the Old Testament, prophets emerge as the dauntless voices carrying God’s messages to His people. A consistent theme arises: these people inspired by God arrive on the scene to Shake. Things. Up. They condemn political leaders for disobeying God (Samuel). They direct entire populations out of oppression (Moses). They predict the failures of exploitative empires and governments (Daniel). They call the people to repentance (Huldah–yes a prophetess). They mourn injustice within their land (Jeremiah).
These are the people authorized as vessels of God’s truth, pouring it out to the communities that do not even recognize how desperately they need it.
There is also a distinction we can make between “prophets” and those who “speak prophetically.” The Bible presents so many examples of people uniquely called and gifted to make predictions, challenge, provoke, and guide the communities in which they are placed. I believe there is an even greater number of people who, when aligned with God’s purposes and equipped with clear sight, speak and act with prophetic implications. They may not be called to devote their lives to professional ministry or preach by baptismal waters, but God speaks through them in ways that stir revolution and agitate nations out of complacency.
I think we can discern prophetic voices by asking one question: Who is challenging us? A week ago, I heard a pastor preach on Revelations and explain how the nature of prophecy is to “de-stabilize those who are comfortable so we are secured in Christ.” The prophetic is meant to be unsettling because it shows us what we don’t want to see and leads us both to conviction and blessing. So we have to conduct some self-analysis, pinpoint our areas of discomfort and tension, and then ask ourselves, Who are the voices prodding that sore spot?
In a discussion about racial issues in the church, Bishop T.D. Jakes points out: “Pain is a gift that draws us to areas we need to give attention to…anything you ignore long enough will emerge as a symptom that hurts us in order to heal us.” He suggests that pain wields a prophetic function in that it alerts us to the deeper problem and challenges us to do something about it. Prophetic voices are then the people who provoke discomfort by pointing to our wounds; they cause pain by exposing us both to the reality of suffering and evil…and the reality of our culpability in it.
Prophetic voices prescript acknowledgement and repentance of sin on both an individual and communal dimension. When we are cloistered in the relative security of our lives, prophetic voices drag us out of our havens so we can look at the walls and remember the slaves who built them, the exploited land upon which the foundations sit. Wherever we experience tension that won’t leave us, wherever we encounter words that won’t let us settle, there we will find the people speaking prophetically to our time and place.
How do we even know if someone is speaking prophetically? If we are honest with ourselves and God, we can test the words we hear against the consistency of Scripture and God’s nature. We can separate mere opinion from the truths that rankle us because they expose us. The impulse to dismiss a person’s words because they are “angry” or”make me feel bad” is an excuse, not a theological rationale. If anything, our resistance may represent the very barometer of our need to hear these words and change because of them. Maybe we resist their words because they reveal our frailty, our harmful acts towards our neighbors, our ignorance. Maybe we don’t trust them because we haven’t seen the wounds with our own eyes, so how can we believe it’s bleeding? Maybe we don’t want to wake up to this horrifying depiction of our community’s brokenness–but we must.
If prophetic voices act as the pain index of our communities, they should result in motion. When someone yells at you that you are sick, you don’t just say “Uhhh…okay” and curl further into your couch–you get up and search for the means to heal. In the same way, when certain people point out a reality that either we ignored or were oblivious to, our practices should alter in response to what we have heard.
A dear professor of mine at Wheaton once told me, “Prophetic voices bring people to the margins.” They move us out of our bivouacs of ignorance and privilege and pull us to the “taboo topics” and stories and grievances and injustices that demand the Church’s attention. They should be the people stoking the fires of controversy or they aren’t being prophetic. Consider this: in Scripture, prophets are always the people who are thrown out from the mainstream religious community. They are the people facing torture, death, imprisonment, isolation, insult, harassment, utter rejection from their own peoples! Who among us now face this type of dismissal when they bring before us the unyielding truth of our communal and national sins? Who is bearing the burden of the injustices we neglect to confront?
Since prophetic voices are the ones to draw us to the margins, it is most often those who are marginalized who are speaking prophetically to us. These also tend to be the voices treated with the most suspicion.
I think of Gustavo Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians like Virgilio Elizondo who gave me the vision of a political God who stands in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and calls for their emancipation.
I remember reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree by Cornel West and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and being startled into the reality of how deeply racism pervades America and the Church as a whole. I remember hearing from Michelle Higgins at Urbana ’15, her voice tying these threads together by declaring that #BlackLivesMatter is “not just a political statement–it is a theological reality.”
I think of my current pastor Robert Guerrero and his call to love and serve the immigrants in our midst. I think of his challenge to the Church: that it becomes an incarnational body leading movements of social justice rather than lagging behind secular activism.
I remember weeping as I read Soong-Chan Rah’s book Prophetic Lament and his striking indictment of the silence and passivity of Western Christians on issues of systemic racism.
I think of peers of color at Wheaton who rage against the disparity between the poor and privileged, who contest the harassment LGBTQ persons experience in my country.
I remember professors who drew my gaze to the plight of the undocumented, ripping away my ignorance so I could not longer sit idle.
I think of friends like Lourdes Delacruz championing the restoration of their local communities across cultural, racial, socioeconomic lines. I think of friends confronting disunity and prejudice in the spheres of their churches, schools, places of work.
I remember being shaken by Mark Charles as he advocated for a Truth and Conciliation commission in the US so we do not forget the atrocities of our history, especially regarding our abuse of indigenous peoples. I remember Christina Cleveland, Lecrae, Noel Castellanos, Kathy Khang, Larycia Hawkins.
These are only a few of the voices that have spoken prophetically into my life and cast a farther net to capture the attention of our world. Their words forced me to look at myself and my nation; they led me to grieve the darkness, the brokenness I found there. Their words also cracked into my consciousness so illumination could pour through–so I could see my steps forward. Prophetic voices are a gift in that way–they hurt us to heal us, as Bishop T.D. Jakes would echo. Instead of allowing us to lie in the refuse of our denial, these people throw us into upheaval until we are so shaken out of our entrenched patterns that we finally align with the purposes of God’s heart and the direction of his redemptive work. They risk so much to throw us into riot so we too can be part of a greater movement of restoration.
The words that are the most prophetic open our eyes to the death already in front of us so we will cherish that which cultivates life and pursue it doggedly. Know this: the prophets of the past are buried, yet their words speak to us still. The prophetic voices of today are no less loud, no less unsettling, no less demanding, and they wait in the desert for the day we leave our oasis and enter the parched places where we are needed most.