Sometimes after teaching or preaching about figures I may wish to describe as “prophetic,” people have sometimes commented, “But what are the big issues today?”
This question is asked no doubt with the desire that “we,” the church, may be prophetic today. Here are a few thoughts on being prophetic:
1. It is prophets who see the big issues.
Prophets such as Martin Luther King Jr., Clarence Jordan, Muriel Lester and Dorothy Day are people who made the issues they got involved in “big.”
That is, they took what was often acceptable and commonplace and began to say and show that this is not the way things should be.
They saw the issues and made them issues at a time when others simply accepted either that these were the ways things should be or that, however unfortunate, these simply were the ways things are. If we cannot see the issues, it may be that we cannot be prophetic.
2. Prophets are usually concerned with bigger than Christian issues.
Don’t get me wrong; they act very much out of Judeo-Christian convictions. Their focus, however, is often on issues that seek the common good or the good of those beyond themselves rather than acting to impose a Christian morality on personal behavior.
Some sort of theology that sees God’s sovereignty being over all of life and thus calling for Christian engagement in it is usually required of the prophet.
3. Prophets can be awkward.
Prophetic action causes conflict within their Christian tradition as well as beyond it. They can be “prickly” people against whom brushing up can be challenging.
This does not mean all rude people are prophets – some are just rude. It means that prophets will often annoy and provoke through their commitment to the cause, particularly if we do not see issues as they do or do not accept their theological reading of how God functions in history or do not believe that the matter matters.
Though I often argue that churches should be engaging on matters that matter, one of the problems of doing that is that we cannot agree on matters that matter.
4. Prophets belong to their Christian traditions and are products of them but often rise above them in some way.
Old Testament prophets seem to have picked up themes that had been made minor in their tradition and played them as major.
They were part of that tradition but they improvised in such a way that, for some, what they said was unrecognizable but was in fact nothing other than a different telling of the shared story.
A particular approach to understanding the Bible often accompanies those who become prophets.
For those mentioned above, as for many others, this includes placing considerable attention upon the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus as example as well as Lord.
5. Individuals rather than communities tend to be prophetic.
Yes, there are examples of communities who together have acted in prophetic ways as described above.
The nature of the prophetic, it seems to me, means that this is often difficult to enact and takes a particular sort of community with a depth of shared experience.
Having said this, prophetic action can also inspire communities to kill them or at least reject them – until of course the validity of the stance is universally recognized and they claim them then as their own.
6. Prophets are seldom self-acclaimed.
Prophets do not usually set out to be prophetic. They set out to right wrong and the recognition comes from others either in their rejection as a troublemaker or acclaim as a true prophet.
We should not so much be seeking to be prophetic as doing what is right as those who are seeking to follow faithfully in the way of Jesus.
Of course, what that means and how one reads that will impact how one responds to the wider issues.
Of course, as ever, the proof of the pudding is in the acting on the big issues that matter.
Supporting any of them guarantees neither success or acclaim or agreement, but here are a few in the British and European context: opposition to nuclear weapons as weapons of mass destruction, defense of human rights against national self-interests, defense of freedom of speech including religious speech, and a more human response to immigrants fleeing persecution.
Stuart Blythe is rector of International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam, Netherlands. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Politurgy, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @StuartMBlythe.
Stuart Blythe is associate professor of the John Gladstone Chair in Preaching and Worship at Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia.