Prophets: Part Two
The Edge of the Inside
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Prophets, by their very nature, cannot be at the center of any social structure. Rather, they are “on the edge of the inside.” They cannot be full insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either. A true prophet must be educated inside the system, knowing and living the rules, before they can critique what is non-essential or not so important. Jesus did this masterfully (see Matthew 5:17-48). This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. taught the United States, what Gandhi taught British-occupied India, and what Nelson Mandela taught apartheid South Africa.
Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value. A prophet critiques a system by quoting its own documents, constitutions, heroes, and Scriptures against its present practice. This is their secret: systems are best unlocked from inside, and not by negative or angry people.
Holding the tension of opposites is the necessary education of the prophet, yet Christianity has given little energy to what Paul says is the second most important charism for building the church (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). Prophets must be skilled in nondual thinking, but churches have primarily trained people in the simplistic choosing of one idealized alternative while denigrating the other. This has gotten us nowhere.
After Christianity became the established religion of the Empire in the fourth century, the priestly mentality pretty much took over in both East and West, and prophets almost disappeared. When the Church held so much power, prophets were too threatening to the status quo. The clergy were at the top of the hierarchy in the full company of their patrons—kings and princes—and even began to dress like them. Emperors convened and presided over the first seven Councils of the Church. What does this tell us?
For the next 1700 or so years, most of the preaching and interpretation of Scripture was from the perspective of power, from primarily European, educated, quite comfortable, and presumably celibate males. I am one myself, and we are not all bad. But we are not all—by a long shot! Where are the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ folk, the poor, and differently abled? How would they read the Gospel? Without these voices included, even central, I see little future for Christianity.
My spiritual father, St. Francis of Assisi, saw this problem in the thirteenth century and called people to live on the edge—of the Church, of the dominant economy which always protects the top, of patriarchy, of the “system”—through universal solidarity and chosen simplicity. Pope Francis is evoking the same Gospel spirit, and I pray for his success and protection. What a surprise that the ultimate establishment figure took the name of such a radical saint. It shocked the world because we do not expect prophecy from popes. There is hope!
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Way of the Prophet (Center for Action and Contemplation: 1994), audio, no longer available;
Scripture as Liberation (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2002), MP3 download.