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Prophets and Non-Prophets--Skeel

An article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday described a celebration of the work of the late rabbi and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote a famous book (“The Prophets”) about Biblical prophesy and was intensely involved in the Civil Rights Movement. According to the article, several of the speakers suggested that Barack Obama has prophetic qualities. I’m no expert on prophetic discourse, but it seems to me that the terms “prophet” and “prophetic” are almost always misused, often but not always by the evangelical left.

Oversimplifying radically, the Biblical prophets seem to me to have had three qualities. First, they called for a return to Godly behavior in their culture. “The prophet was an individual who said no to his society,” as Heschel put it, “condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism.” Second, they put themselves at great risk in proclaiming this message. Third, they predicted (often with specific prophesies) the consequences of a failure to correct the sinful patterns of the present.

One current misuse of the term prophetic, in my view, comes from those who argue that Christians should not get their hands dirty in the culture. We should distance ourselves from any involvement in political parties, for instance, keeping a pure, “prophetic” distance. This attitude is sometimes a reaction (or over-reaction) to the failings of the religious right. David Kuo’s recent proposal that evangelicals take a time-out from politics is a limited version of this. The problem with this conception of prophesy, it seems to me, is that it misconstrues the first characteristic of prophets. Although they were outside the seats of power, the prophets were very much engaged in the culture of their era.

The second misuse is labeling critiques of current policy “prophetic.” The liberal evangelical Jim Wallis regularly uses this term to describe efforts he favors– usually efforts opposing the Iraq War or calling for the government to do more to fight poverty or racism. Whether or not one agrees with these stances, it seems to me a radical misuse of the term prophetic to apply it to efforts that are taken in comparative comfort. I believe Martin Luther King can fairly be described as having been prophetic. I don’t think current anti-war or anti-poverty efforts can.

Can a politician ever be prophetic? In my own view, only in rare circumstances would a politician qualify. As noted, Biblical prophets generally spoke from outside the seats of power. But occasionally, a politician acts so boldly and presciently as to qualify, at least if we allow some liberties in the use of “prophetic” (such as applying it in a secular context). I agree with those who would say Winston Churchill’s warnings about Nazi Germany were prophetic. Barack Obama, on the other hand, does not seem to me to meet any of the three qualities of a prophet. He’s a wonderful speaker who may do great good, but his message is not in a prophetic mode.

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Comments ( 3 )

Leon Wieseltier had a very nice take down of what I call "prophetic conceit" in the latest issue of the New Republic.

Query: does being "very much engaged in the culture" of one's era per se require participation in electoral politics? IOW, does it require you to become an actual partisan? While I haven't read Kuo's book, I have always assumed that his proposed "fast" from politics was directed at the partisan dimension of political engagement.


The prophets were also very much opposed to oppression of the widows and orphans and poor of the society. They railed against the wealthy and those in position of power. What Obama is doing in supporting health care for all is definitely in that line. He is defending the vulnerable in our society. Yeah there was Amos in the Bible, but not all prophets warned of the day of the Lord, some of them emphasized the obligation to care for the vulnerable members of society. And in this Obama fits the description.

But one of the repeated calls of the prophets was to care for the weak and vulnerable members of society. Again and again they called people to care for the widow and the orphan. Obama is a politician who has put his legacy and position at risk by trying to reform health care so that it meets the needs of the poor and vulnerable in our society. In this way he is prophetic.