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Struggling with Shadow

Prophets: Part One

Struggling with Shadow
Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Hebrew prophets are in a category all their own. Within the canonical, sacred Scriptures of other world religions we do not find major texts that are largely critical of that very religion. Prophets can deeply love their tradition and profoundly criticize it at the same time, which is a very rare art form. In fact, it is their love of its depths that forces them to criticize their own religion. This is almost the hallmark of a prophet. Their deepest motivation is not negative but profoundly positive.

The dualistic mind presumes that if you criticize something, you don’t love it. Wise prophets would say the opposite. Institutions prefer loyalists and “company men” to prophets. We’re uncomfortable with people who point out our shadow or imperfections. It is no accident that prophets and priests are usually in opposition to one another (e.g., Amos 5:21-6:7, 7:10-17). Yet Paul says the prophetic gift is the second most important charism (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). Prophets are not popular people. Note how the Gospels say it was “the priests, elders, and teachers of the law” who condemned Jesus.

Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with our shadow. It is in facing our own contradictions that we grow. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding that we break into higher levels of consciousness. People who learn to expose, name, and still thrive inside contradictions are what I would call prophets.

One of the most common complaints I hear from some Catholics is, “You criticize the Church too much.” But criticizing the Church is just being faithful to the very clear pattern set by the prophets and Jesus (just read Matthew 23). I would not bother criticizing organized Christianity if I did not also love it. There is a negative criticism that is nothing but complaining and projecting. But there is a positive criticism that is all about hope and development. This is no small point, and such a difference must be taught. The charism of prophecy must be called forth.

The United States and many other nations need courageous prophets as today’s world leaders show little or no ability to criticize their own duplicitous power games. I suspect that we get the leaders who mirror what we have become as nations. They are our shadow self for all to see, which is what the Hebrew prophets told Israel both before and during their painfully long exile (596–538 BCE). Yet, this was the very time when the Jewish people went deep enough to discover their prophetic voices—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others—speaking truth to power, calling for justice. There is every indication that the U.S. and much of the world are in a period of exile now.

The prophetic message is not directly about partisan politics (which is far too dualistic); it is much more pre-political and post-political and has huge socio-political implications that challenge every side. Those who allow themselves to be challenged and changed will be the new creative leaders of the next period of history after this purifying exile.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Way of the Prophet (Center for Action and Contemplation: 1994), audio, no longer available;

Prophets Then, Prophets Now (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2006), MP3 download; and

“Rebuilding from the Bottom Up: A Reflection Following the Election,” (November 11, 2016),

Image credit: Frieze of the Prophets (detail), John Singer Sargent, circa 1892, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Scripture shows the Hebrew prophets speaking to the people as one of their own, not above or apart from the community. —Richard Rohr
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