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I am frequently invited to sign a declaration on some topic of public concern. These days more often than not I decline to add my name to the list of signatories, even though I often actually agree with what the statement says.
Sometimes it is a call—usually issued by academics or church leaders—for peacemaking. Or it is a petition about some justice-related matter.
I typically read the statement carefully. Often I get the impression that the only folks who will read the document carefully are like-minded people. The declaration may be framed as “speaking truth to power,” but the “in power” types will really pay no attention. The drafters of the petition may realize that, but they take seriously an obligation to be “prophetic.”
I talked a lot about being “prophetic” in my early days of social activism, but I don’t use that word much these days. A while back I did a word search in my laptop files for everything I have written over the past couple of decades, and I did not find myself at any point explicitly advocating being “prophetic.” When I have used the word at all, I have typically been quoting other people, or discussing biblical “prophetic” literature, or arguing with my Mormon friends about whether a church these days has to be headed up by someone who is officially labeled “Prophet.”
A cynic might suggest that having served for two recent decades as a seminary president, I was attempting to raise money in circles where being “prophetic” does not attract donors with considerable giving capacity. I have tried to stay honest with myself about that possibility.
But I do have what I consider to be some good theological reasons for avoiding engagement in “prophetic” activity.
In ancient Israel there was often a tension between the prophets on the one hand and the kings and priests on the other. In the New Testament, though, there is not any clear call for leaders to function as prophets. Indeed, there is a solid theological tradition that says that the three “offices” of prophet, priest and king have come together in Jesus. The role of teacher seems to have become more important—as the Catholic Church recognizes in emphasizing the importance of “the magisterium.” And the Catholic Church explicitly recognizes that one test of the effectiveness of a doctrinal statement is whether it is “received.” Was the doctrine clearly stated? Has it been seen as important to the life of the believing community? Does it lend itself to confusion or to clarity about what is intended?
I don’t question that there are moments in history when we have no choice but to utter unqualified prophetic verdicts. This was certainly the case in Nazi Germany, when the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred for his opposition to Hitler, while so many in the German church had made their compromises with the regime. He, along with the great theologian Karl Barth, knew that there are times when we must proclaim a bold “No!” to a specific state of affairs, even if in doing so we are voices crying in the wilderness.
But outside of those extreme situations I see it as presumptuous—and a failure to take full advantage of the teaching opportunities open to us—to see ourselves as simply making pronouncements. If we have something important to say, we should pay careful attention to how best to bring people to see things our way.
Actually, when we see functioning as prophets as our only recourse, we may want to ask whether we got to that point because we have failed in our teaching efforts.
Those of us who teach students know that when we plan an introductory course in some important area of intellectual life, we do not say everything we know in the first lecture. Students need to be invited into an exploration of new and difficult subject matter, and they need to be instructed in the basics before getting into the complexities. An effective teacher does not say everything she knows on the first day. Good teaching does not consist simply in saying true things, but in leading people into the truth, even if that takes some time. And much can be gained by emphasizing, wherever possible, the continuity between the new areas of learning with what students already know.
And classroom teachers even need to be a little careful with the idea of “leading people into the truth.” We are all learners. Some of the best courses I have taught have been ones where I came away with the sense that I learned as much as—maybe even more than—my students in the process.
Much the same can be said, I think, for the public teaching role—as exercised by academics, pastors, denominational officials, laity leaders, and the like. Our public pedagogy requires a measure of empathy and reassurance toward those we want to influence—as well as a humble recognition that we ourselves are learners!
I find these characteristics often missing in those religious leaders who emphasize the need for “prophetic” statements on various topics.
If our goal is simply to say a lot of true things, then we can take comfort in the fact that we have performed our prophetic responsibilities when we issue straightforward public statements that come off as critical, say, of the concerns of many other religious folks.
But if our assignment is to teach the truth, then we have a more difficult—and more highly nuanced—task. Good teaching requires patience—a trait that we don’t often associate with prophets!
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