Some of the more interesting discoveries a teacher gets to make come from listening to students who are discovering things for themselves.
One of these occurred recently in a class on the prophetic literature of the Old Testament as we were looking at the “call” of the prophet, as illustrated by Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah.
We noted the divine initiative of enlisting human partners to confront the injustice of social life and the superficiality of religion that had distorted the covenant faith of that period.
We also discussed how these prophets were not distinguished by particular credentials or status, but only by their willingness to put their lives at the service of a truth for their time.
The question usually arises, and it did this time: Does (or why doesn’t) God call prophets any more as in the old days?
Someone responded with the example of Martin Luther King Jr. as a prophet in the 20th-century response to the injustice of racial discrimination.
Another suggested that the Occupy Wall Street movement and its expressions around the country fit the profile as well – a collective prophetic voice confronting the power of entrenched economic perspectives that perpetuate the imbalance that characterizes our time.
The parallels are striking: an inconvenient truth is spoken to power, the needs and rights of the exploited are affirmed, the system ignores or discredits the prophetic voice and justifies itself by pointing out how disorganized, unproductive and uncredentialed are the voices calling attention to the problem.
It is an ironic appeal to the consequences of a problem as a reason for not addressing it, when the real reason is the preservation of advantage.
Maybe, the students were suggesting, the “call” of King and of those who are calling out our economic problems is the same as that of the ancient prophets.
This is a good insight, and one that students discover rather easily when reading the eighth-century prophets and stories about their predecessors, Nathan and Elijah.
It is not an unusual direction for a conversation on the ethical focus of biblical prophecy – prophets are called in every age to address the counterfeit forms of faith that sanction distortions of the covenant.
Then the conversation took an unexpected turn. Someone suggested maybe God calls everyone to a prophetic function; people respond – or not – in ways that are appropriate to who and where they are, challenging injustice in its obvious and its subtle forms or leaving it unchallenged.
To be sure, some prophets become famous for their courageous challenges to power on the big issues.
But also there are those who dare to speak up when incorrect information is presented as fact, who refuse to participate in humor that is intended to belittle, who will not join in the teasing of an insecure classmate, who will not leave unchallenged the parroted words of demagogues who make millions fanning the flames of fear and ignorance and reinforcing prejudices that are always hungry.
If the prophetic call comes to each of us, then there is a place for each of us to speak truth: to the power of peer pressure when popular thinking supports discrimination and injustice; to the power of “institutional necessity” when disclosure of an injustice or a crime would harm a successful program; or to the power of money and exploited fear when the goal is the preservation of advantage for the few at the expense of the common good.
This discussion among a group of students has led me to wonder if a corollary of the priesthood of the believer, which we embrace with such passion, would be the “prophethood” of the believer.
It would not necessarily mean leading marches, delivering speeches to large crowds, or even having a pulpit.
It would mean embracing the “call” to be an agent of the gift of covenant faith when distortions arise that alienate, distort and reflect contempt for the community it envisions.
This way of thinking would fit what seems to be apparent in the rest of the biblical testimony: the accounts of the “call” of these prophets is not just a report of what God did once upon a time, but a disclosure of what God is doing all the time, and an invitation for us to embrace it and see ourselves and the world through its lens.
Discovering our inner prophet – I am grateful to some insightful students for encouraging me, and themselves, to try to do that.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).