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.