The late Baptist ethics professor Henlee Barnette contended that his friend and mentor Clarence Jordan stood in the tradition of a biblical prophet.
In the very first chapter of Clarence Jordan: Turning Dreams into Deeds, Barnette offered a compelling definition of an authentic prophet and claimed convincingly that the definition applied to the founder of Koinonia Farm.
“Biblical prophets are more forth-tellers than fore-tellers because they speak to current religious idolatry and social injustice. Prophets are grasped by a sense of divine vocation or calling; yet they are human, persons of finitude,” wrote Barnette, who taught generations of Southern Baptist ministers.
“Often, they suffer because they attack dehumanizing ideas and institutions both religious and secular that have become sacrosanct. Their lives may be threatened because they challenge powerful evil forces in high places,” said Barnette about prophets. “An authentic prophet is often lonely, ‘a voice crying in the wilderness.'”
Barnette asserted: “They have a passion for justice and righteousness. Yet their stern demand for justice is tempered with mercy and love. Their ultimate goal or ideal is that of a redeemed people in a righteous community under the sovereignty of God.”
From Barnette’s perspective, Jordan was a “prophet in blue jeans.” He had one foot planted in the “Holy Scripture and the other in an unholy society.”
As a prophet, Jordan also had other characteristics ”evangelist, peacemaker, gracious host and academician.
One other characteristic set Jordan apart from his Baptist colleagues in the 1950s and 1960s. While many professors and pastors focused on how to define the Bible and to explain doctrines with the right words, Jordan focused on how to live the Bible.
“For Jordan, faith or belief in Christ means more than intellectual assent to a Christological position. Rather, faith is trustful obedience to God, the translation of conviction into conduct,” wrote Barnette.
The prophetic witness within the Baptist tradition would certainly include Barnette and Martin Luther King.
Beyond those men, one engages in risky speculation when applying the title of prophet to contemporary figures. Prophets are best judged after the arc of their work is done and distance allows some objectivity.
If false prophet is a term assigned in the popular culture to one’s adversaries, then prophet may be too easily used to praise one with whom one agrees. If false prophet is negative religious language, then prophet is praiseful language.
Disagreement and agreement are probably not the most useful measuring sticks, however.
When I presented Al Gore as “a Baptist prophet” at the New Baptist Covenant luncheon, I disclosed both my agreement with his position on climate change and engaged in speculation.
Yet I did so within the biblical context. After noting that Jesus was unacceptable in his own hometown, where he had offered a moral vision of economic transformation and environmental restoration (Luke 4:18-19), I said, “We have with us today a Baptist prophet who is so unacceptable that the Baptist establishment in his hometown neither acknowledged his winning the Nobel Peace Prize, nor honored with coverage his Nobel lecture.”
“Prophets are unacceptable because their truth is inconvenient. I present to you one who has ‘An Inconvenient Truth,'” I said.
My definition of prophet was tethered to the biblical theme that messengers who issued inconvenient, religiously troublesome or morally challenging truths were called prophets. Their truths resulted in rejection.
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country” (Luke 4:24).
Time will test the veracity of my assessment about Gore. But surely there is no doubt that a significant slice of the religious and political establishment finds his message unacceptable.
The same may be said of Jordan, King and Barnette ”each had an unacceptable moral message, one test of an authentic prophet.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.