America, a Land of No Prophets
Editor’s Note: Many on the American Right consider themselves devout Christians, yet their behavior – from cheering on aggressive warfare to protecting the wealthy while slashing government programs to help the poor – run directly counter to the Gospel teachings of Jesus.
Indeed, there are very few voices in mainstream Christianity that even try to square this troubling circle, as Christianity itself has become a powerful element of the dishonesty and corruption that rests at the heart of modern-day American power, a dilemma that the Rev. Howard Bess confronts in this guest essay:
In today’s English language, a prophet is someone who has the power to predict the future, but that is not the role of the prophets that we find in the Bible.
If we return to the root word and its meaning in Bible history, we get a different definition. In the Bible, a prophet is “a delegated messenger.”
The Bible prophets came from all stations of society. The office of prophet was not passed down by bloodlines, and they were never elected by any popular process.
Usually the prophet was reluctant. It was not a task that any security-oriented person desired. The prophet usually came from nowhere. According to the Bible, it was God who chose the prophet to speak an unwelcomed message of truth.
Almost always the prophet came with concerns about the marginalized and downtrodden people of Israel. His critical words of judgment were aimed at those in power.
Moses was the prototype. He was a fugitive who had killed an Egyptian soldier who was abusing an Israelite slave and had run away to escape the wrath of his once Egyptian cohorts. The Egyptian Pharaoh heard of the incident and decided to kill Moses.
After fleeing, Moses developed a new life in Midian. He married and had children. He was safe and secure, but God appeared to him in a burning bush and sent Moses back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and to demand release of the Israelite slaves.
Moses is described in the Bible as a prophet and became the embodiment of the title. The prophets that followed Moses spoke harsh words of judgment to those in power. They spoke tough words to King Saul, King David, King Solomon and all the Israelite kings that followed them.
The prophets had especially harsh words for the priests and others who controlled the Jerusalem temple and the religious systems that developed. Over and over again their concern was the treatment of the poor, the widow, the orphan.
In order to understand the particulars of the messages of the Old Testament prophets, the reader must put the prophets in context. The issues are not simply – “Who wrote it?” – but “When did he write it?” “What was happening at the time of the writing?” “To whom did he write?” “Why did he write the material?”
One central conclusion jumps out. The prophets were intensely involved in the religious, social and civic life of their community and of the nation. The prophet also never went to the powerful by invitation. He was an unwelcomed intruder with an unpopular message.
Jesus was clearly a prophet. He fits all of the qualifications. He was a nobody from an insignificant tiny village. His calling is presented as a unique act of God. His concerns were for the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the abused.
He was unrelenting in his criticism of Caesar, Herod and Pilot, who controlled government, and of the priests, who controlled the temple in Jerusalem. He despised the rich and condemned the way they got their wealth.
His followers were hesitant to follow him, and those in power came to hate him. In an attempt to silence his message, they killed him.
In 2011, the United States is without a prophet in the Bible tradition. In my lifetime, we have had prophetic voices, but only one truly significant prophet, Martin Luther King Jr. He fit the description and walked the walk.
Dr. King did not seek the role that was thrust upon him. Indeed, the burden often depressed him. Yet, he confronted racial discrimination. He championed the poor. He challenged the evil of the war in Vietnam. When he was killed, many among the rich and powerful were glad that he was gone.
Some will ask “How about Billy Graham?” Billy Graham was certainly the most popular Christian preacher of the last half of the 20th century. However, his popularity is the first signal that he was not a prophet.
The rich of America were Graham’s buddies, and he was a White House regular with every U.S. president during his years of popularity. He built an organization that was a financial juggernaut and is now a well-endowed institution.
Graham’s passion was the salvation of individuals who were willing to repeat the correct words in exchange for a promise of a home in heaven.
When compared to the prophets Moses, Micah, Jeremiah, Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr., Billy Graham is not only not one of them, but probably would be the object of harsh criticism by them all.
However, it is not just Billy Graham who fell short. It is the rank-and-file of American clergy – liberal, conservative and fundamentalist – who seemingly do not have a definition of morality that calls us to be our brother’s keeper.
We are electing people to government leadership who put self first and neighbor a distant second, especially if they are old, poor or sick. American clergy are largely silent.
America is in desperate need of a prophet. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. One percent of the nation’s population controls more wealth than the 95 percent at the bottom.
The middle class is shrinking and poverty is growing. Building prisons is a huge growth industry. We imprison primarily poor people and racial minorities, while the rich are the great thieves of our generation. They get off completely free.
The Bible speaks of times when there was no prophet in the land. That is the current situation in America. Oh God, we need help!
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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