The prophetic voice continues in history and it is that voice that is the subject of this final essay on the Jewish prophets, Jesus, and the prophetic voice in our world today. Although not recognized in a biblical sense, these courageous men and women challenge us, so often at their own peril, to live as God would have us live.
Like the biblical prophets who preceded them, modern-day prophets speak from the dual perspective of a transcendental nearness to God and a hypersensitivity to social injustice. They announce God’s profound sorrow at human sinfulness. They predict God’s coming wrath for society’s neglect of those in need. And they challenge all to seek repentance through the inner conversion of their hearts and the outer transformation of their lives.
In essence, the prophetic voice today continues to call us to solidarity with all of humanity, especially the most vulnerable among us, so all people might know their God-given human dignity and the salvation God intends for them.
In this light, Pope Francis spoke before a special joint session of the U.S. Congress on September 24, 2015.[i] There, he mentioned four American citizens who called the American people to live beyond self-interest and on behalf of the well-being of all God’s people: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
Abraham Lincoln, according to Francis, was
“the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that this nation under God might have a new birth of freedom.”
Lincoln spoke out against the sinfulness of slavery and called society to witness to its better angels so that all people, regardless of the color of their skin, might realize their human potential and participate in the opportunities afforded to its founding Fathers.
Martin Luther King, Jr., continued Francis, embodied the
“compelling need to live as one in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of people.”
King challenged American society to live out the ideals of its Declaration of Independence that proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, typified the prophetic call to reach out to the poor, oppressed and marginalized among us. For Francis,
“Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
Day lived by the gospel mandate of an active love and often quoted the Russian writer Fydor Dostoyevsky who said, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” That is, it engages human suffering wherever it exists so that the least among us might realize God’s presence to them.
Finally, Francis spoke of Thomas Merton, who
“remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. … (He) was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
Francis concluded his presentation saying,
“A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do, when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
Like some of the biblical prophets, Lincoln and King were assassinated in an attempt to quiet their voice, while all were vilified by the powerful of society who sought to maintain the status quo from which they profited at the expense of others. Then, following their deaths, society praised them for their noble nature and example to all. It is a recurring theme in history. The prophetic voice is not accepted until it has been eliminated from society.
In truth, society’s reaction to the prophetic voice is often not only denial, but violence. It brings to mind the words of Jesus who admonished his detractors in first-century Palestine,
Woe to you who build the memorials of the prophets whom your father killed. Consequently, you bear witness and give consent to the deeds of your ancestors, for they killed them, and you do the building. (Lk 11: 47)
There are other prophets among us who do not live on the platforms of those Pope Francis mentioned in his address to Congress. We need only think of the ordinary people who have spoken-out in recent times about the social injustice brought about by racism, sexism and the denigration of those who claim an alternative sexuality in our society. Black Lives Matter, anti-Asian hate, women’s role in the civil and religious spheres of life, and the LGBTQ community, give witness to this reality and to the human sinfulness that makes it possible. The prophetic voice makes ever-clear humanity’s redemption must continue to be worked out in history in each succeeding generation through its ongoing conversion and commitment to the human dignity of all people.
As people of faith, we are called to live the prophetic voice, even to proclaim it. We do so when we not only profess an intellectual ascent to faith, but also place ourselves in settings of social injustice. And once there, we summon the courage to act against human sinfulness and to offer life in its fulness to all those we encounter so they might become the people God desires them to be. For it is in our efforts on behalf of God’s larger plan for the ongoing creation and salvation of this world that our own salvation is achieved.