First of a two-part series

Paul Simon ends his famous song, The Sound of Silence, with the phrase: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls, and whispered in the wells of silence.”

Are they? Is the graffiti we see on the walls of our public bathrooms really prophetic? Are the silent frustrated words we can never speak something prophetic? What is a prophetic word?

Few things are as badly needed in our world today as is prophecy. But, what is a prophet? In the past, the term prophet was often confused with fortune-telling or future-telling (“play the prophet for us, who struck you?”) but it has nothing to do with predicting the future or with any other type of extraordinary knowledge of this sort. More recently, we have tended to see as prophet the social maverick, the justice protester, the person who is chained to a fence or arrested for a cause. This may be prophecy, but one must be careful not to make an automatic identification here.

A prophet does not foretell the future and is not necessarily a chronic protester. A prophet is someone who speaks for God, pure and simple. God’s voice is recognized because it does two things: It challenges more deeply than any other voice and, at the same time, it offers a deeper consolation than any other voice. When you hear a voice that deeply shakes you and yet, in another way, offers deep hope, a voice that both draws and upsets you, you are hearing a prophetic voice. When your reaction to somebody is like Herod’s to John the Baptist (“Herod was greatly upset when he listened to John, and yet he liked to listen to him.”) then, usually, you are listening to prophecy.

Unfortunately, not many voices in our culture do that. More commonly we experience only one of the two: a voice which greatly upsets us, but offers no deep hope; or a voice that offers cheap consolation without deep challenge. These are voices of false prophets.

Given that a prophet speaks for God and God has a special compassion for those who are hurting most badly, and given that God is calling us to share in a life beyond what we can even imagine right now, a prophet will necessarily be a person who speaks for the poor, who sees things from the point of view of those who are most hurting. Thus, a prophet will be someone who, invariably, stirs us up, upsets us, shows us where we are complacent, blind, selfish, using others. Hence, the prophet is always leaven, yeast, and therefore, usually a cultural and cognitive deviant.

Once that is said, however, something else needs to be said: Not just anyone who upsets people or who stirs up trouble in the name of God and virtue is a prophet. As well, not everyone who confronts the culture with its faults is necessarily doing God’s work. Gail Sheehy, the author of Passages and Pathfinders once commented something to this effect: “I don’t know why everyone seems to have to find a cause through which to work out his or her neuroses and frustrations. Some of us are more honest. We admit we are involved in a more process that’s called growing up!”

Sheehy’s comment highlights something which is very important and too easily forgotten: If challenge comes out of one’s own neuroses, or out of anger, or out of ideology, it is not prophecy, it’s only agitation and the person challenging others should be involved, as she so aptly puts it, in a more humble process.

Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners and one of the true prophets of our time, would concur. As would Daniel Berrigan. For both Wallis and Berrigan, a prophet is not, first of all, characterized by anger, but by love. Angry challenge and pointing out of someone else’s faults are only productive when their root is love. When they arise out of neuroses and ideology they only make things worse: they harden hearts rather than melt them, they polarize rather than heal, and they freeze and deaden what’s highest and noblest inside of others.

We experience this in our everyday relationships. When we are challenged, even bitterly, by someone whom we know truly loves and cares about us, that anger is productive. Because we sense the other’s love, we want to change. Conversely, when we are angrily challenged by someone, irrespective of how correct his or her challenge may be, whom we sense does not love us nor truly care about us, that challenge brings out what’s worst in us. We freeze over, harden, rationalize, and most often, entrench more deeply in the very thing we are being challenged on. We don’t see the challenge as prophetic, nor the one challenging as prophet. Instead we have the feeling that this someone has “gotten the goods on us,” they’ve done their homework and have finally gotten the chance to work out their spite. Spite doesn’t function the same way as love.

To be a prophet is not to proclaim oneself loudly as counter-cultural, as cultural deviant, as agitator, as divine disturber, as righteous protector of the poor, as angry by divine right. To be a prophet is to love the world and hope that you never have to get angry with it. To be a prophet is to cry tears of love when you are angry. To be a prophet is to get angry only to lead back to love.

Thus, to be a prophet is to challenge hedonism even as you affirm the goodness of creation; its’ to challenge consumerism even as you affirm the importance of enjoyment; it’s to challenge materialism even as you affirm the fact that the incarnation is all about God becoming material; it’s to challenge individualism even as you affirm the centrality of community, and it’s to call the culture to something higher even as you affirm everything that’s good within the culture.

To be a prophet is to make a vow of love, not of alienation.

Next week, some examples of prophetic writings today.