What Happens When you Silence the Prophets?
In the Hebrew Bible, a good portion of the text is the writings or stories of the prophets. The prophets are (mostly) men who tell the people of Israel to repent, to turn back, to change their ways. In a recent Sojourner’s video theologian Walter Brueggemann and Professor Kenyatta Gilbert, who is the associate professor of homiletics at the Howard University School of Divinity sat down to talk about the role of the prophet in today’s world. In this conversation, they both began with their own definitions of a prophet that were born out of the Old Testament.
Brueggemann: Well, in terms of the Old Testament that I spent my time with, I think a prophet is someone that tries to articulate the world as though God were really active in the world. And, that means on the one hand, to identify those parts of our world order that are contradictory to God, but on the other hand, it means to talk about the will and purpose that God has for the world that will indeed come to fruition even in circumstances that we can’t imagine. So, what that gives you is both judgment and hope, and as you know very well, the prophetic books of the Old Testament are always that combination of judgement and hope, which I think, in the Christian tradition, factors out as crucifixion and resurrection. And we don’t often get that, the hope side, of the prophetic word in our own usage. What about you?
Gilbert: A prophet is someone who sees that this is not all there is, but is willing to face the fact that we are in a predicament and it’s only as we co-participate with God, can we find ourselves moving in the direction of a beloved community. So, when I think about what it means to be prophetic, I’m thinking, well, you talk about being numb to this present reality, you talk about royal consciousness, alternative consciousness.[i]
(Their whole conversation can be found at https://sojo.net/media/what-does-it-mean-be-prophetic-today)
A prophet is someone who sees the world as it is, with all its trouble and problems and mistakes, but also holds up a vision of what it could be. There is hope and lament; there is grief and joy. But what happens when all the prophets disappear.
In ancient Israel, the prophets were held with a type of respect. Yes, they were annoying and troublesome, but the kings and leaders understood their importance, so they were tolerated. Prophets give voice to the justice needed in our societies. Without prophets, there is no one to hold the powerful accountable. There is no one to say; this is not right or fair or acceptable.
When you silence the prophets, you create organizations that support the powerful to the damage of their relationships with God and others. A Washington Post article on the Southern Baptist church sex-scandal, quoted J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, “’We must admit that our failures, as churches, put these survivors in a position where they were forced to stand alone and speak, when we should have been fighting for them,’ . . . ‘Their courage is exemplary and prophetic. But I grieve that their courage was necessary.’”[ii] Of course, the Southern Baptists are not alone in dealing with scandal. Both churches and businesses often silence or punish the prophetic voices in their midst, creating an environment that is ripe for corruption.
So how do we prevent his from happening? There are always voices that are pointing out where we are wrong in our leadership, or when our organization is headed in the wrong direction. You know these people!
· Who are the people in your organization who cause you the most headaches, who are always pointing out how something could be a little better?
· Who are the people who second guess your opinions?
· Who are the people offering insights and critiques to some of the ways that things have always been done?
I think our impulse is to deal with these people a little less. Sometimes that means hiring someone new; sometimes, it means giving them less face time with the organizational leader; sometimes, it means that we seek to silence or undercut their voice. We give reasons for why they should not be listened to.
Hear this as an argument for the argumentative staff person, the complaining churchgoer, the critical committee member. We must create ways to hear the truth in these complaints because sometimes (although importantly not always) this person is a prophet in your midst. There is a critical tension here. There certainly are people who always complain and always are negative about your work, but sometimes we label anyone with a dissenting view as a troublemaker, when maybe they are holding up a picture of what a new and better reality can look like, maybe they are a prophet.
Just something to think on 😊.
[i] Kenyatta Gilbert and Walter Brueggemann, “What does it mean to be Prophetic Today?” Sojourners. Accessed May 8, 2019. https://sojo.net/media/what-does-it-mean-be-prophetic-today
[ii] Kristine Phillips and Amy Wang, “‘Pure evil’: Southern Baptist leaders condemn decades of sexual abuse revealed in investigation,” The Washington Post. Published February 10, 2019, accessed May 8, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/02/10/pure-evil-southern-baptist-leaders-condemn-decades-sexual-abuse-revealed-investigation/?noredirect=on