Each age has it own way of defining the word prophet. Today the common notion, particularly within church circles, seems to be that a prophet is someone who challenges the institutional status quo, someone who shakes things up. As such, he or she is almost automatically conceived of as an agitator, as someone who makes others uncomfortable.
There is some truth to this notion, but it is, taken without qualification, simplistic. As a contemporary axiom puts it: Every prophet disturbs, but not everyone who disturbs is a prophet. Prophecy takes many forms, some of which far more subtle, and sometimes more needed, than is the common notion of the prophet as an agitator.
I want here to suggest a prophetic ministry that is desperately needed in both the world and the church today, namely, we need persons, prophets, who have wide enough loyalties, deep enough hearts, and extensive enough sympathies to help hold together a community that is dangerously fragmented. In both the world and in the church today the sincere are divided from the sincere, the good from the good, the committed from the committed. Everywhere we see anger, hatred, bitterness, people blaming others, people frustrated and stepping away from communities they used to take part in, and people with highly selective loyalties, sympathies, and indignations. Daily, the world and the church are further polarizing.
What we are losing in all of this is community. The radical edge of both the right and the left are fragmenting the middle in such a way that, simply put, the world and the church are falling apart. Because of this there is a growing hysteria in both the right and the left and this is helping to justify a lot of things in the name of prophecy which are antithetical to it. Elementary charity, respect for others, and simple good manners are frequently by-passed in the name of higher causes. Ever narrower agendas and ever more selective ideologies get paraded as the answer to everything and anyone, be he or she ever so narrow and intolerant, can get status as a prophet, as long as that person can display sufficient anger and indignation about something. At the end of the day, the net result of this is that more and more people get alienated from each other and our communities and families are falling apart.
Prophecy is about genuine moral indignation and this takes many forms. Today we need to be morally indignant precisely about all of this angry, cancerous indignation which is so destructive of community. The task of prophecy today is to absorb division. To be a prophet today, in the church or in the world, is to let your person and your loyalties be wide enough so that they can be that place wherein all the different sides can meet, where the various indignations can spend themselves, like the storms they are, and where liberal and conservative, feminist and bishop, pro-life and pro-choice, victim and perpetrator, legalist and nihilist, puritan and liberated, socially concerned and privately obsessed can be at one table sat down. The task of the prophet today is keep incarnate the wide, all-embracing heart of God, a heart that has many rooms.
This will be a very lonely and painful vocation. In it, one will feel the earthly helplessness of the word of God, that powerlessness that comes from refusing to violate the widest and deepest contours of things. To be this kind of prophet is to sweat blood in the garden and to be powerless, defenceless, and silent before those who sit in the judgement seats of both the left and the right.
It will be a vocation within which one will, frequently, be hated by both sides, judged to be too liberal by some and too conservative by others. To be this kind of prophet is to be called wishy-washy, backward, puritanical, unbalanced, lacking in commitment to justice, sloppy in orthodoxy, judgemental, sold out, morally bankrupt.
And with that, will come an unspeakable loneliness, namely, the loneliness of true conscience, of moral isolation, of being divided from and judged by sincere persons. But that pain is the price of genuine prophecy, the price of absorbing division within a community.
Prophets, we are told, die somewhere between the altar and the sanctuary. Some of them die because they are agitators and speak out against the system. Others die because they get caught, as buffers, in the violence that follows upon that – and faith and community go on because of the blood of all of those martyrs.