One of the workshops I attended on day 3 of VFJ 2010 was on prophetic engagement with politics and society. It was a panel discussion facilitated by Jeanette Matthews who is currently completing a PhD in Old Testament studies. The panel included Dave Andrews, Deborah Storie, and Phil Ireland. Jeanette opened the discussion by explaining that the prophets of the Old Testament were primarily spokespersons and not fortune tellers, which is pretty much the opposite of what I was told when I first became a Christian in my teens.
The prophets often performed strange symbolic acts. Ezekiel 4 is a good example of this. Generally, the prophets were into what you might call ‘shock and awe’, unlike the people in the wisdom books of the OT. The message that a prophet carries is a burden to them. But the point that really challenged me was that a prophet embraced the Word, that is, they lived out what they spoke. Some examples of prophetic actions from the OT are as follows:
- Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 19)
- Ezekiel (3:1-3, 4:1-3, 24:3-13)
- Jeremiah (chapter 19)
- Jeroboam and the prophet Ahijah (1 Kings 11)
- Isaiah (chapter 20)
- Micah (1:8)
One of the questions Jeanette raised about this is about whether or not there is room for such prophetic action today. I have no doubt that there is, and as usual, Dave Andrews gave a wonderful example. He was once out in his home town of Brisbane when a young man had just smashed a window and vandalised a shop front. The owner came out, mad as a snake as you would expect, and demanded that the youth be dealt with severely. On hearing the fracas, others came out and also had a go at the youth. But then one man said, “I know what we should do. Why don’t we give him a hug?” What?!!! But the man persisted, and he went up and gave the youth a hug. Slowly and awkwardly, the others standing around also went up and gave him a hug. Eventually, after yet another hug, the youth dissolved into tears and blurted out in remorse about how he was so sorry and he just wanted to be noticed. It was a perfect example of prophetic action in practise. It was non-violent and saved potential further violence. It is highly likely that if the hug-fest hadn’t of happened, the youth would not have shown any remorse and would have continued his angry life of committing the same offences again. But this prophetic act of love (they weren’t condoning his vandalism remember) brought the youth to his metaphorical knees and caused a heart change that mere punishment never could. Dave then made the point that prophetic action needs to be colourful and creative, designed to engage people. Anger is to be a last resort. My first thought on hearing this was that Jesus expressed prophetic anger at times, particularly in turning over the tables in the temple. But Dave emphasised that this was one of Jesus’ last acts and it got him killed.
Following this, Phil Ireland mentioned that one of the most prophetic acts that anyone can engage in today is to participate in a church. And he emphasised the word ‘participate’. It is being active in a church, not being a pew-warmer. His point was that participating in a church community dismantles the individualist ethos so prevalent in our culture. He followed this up by saying that our primary prophetic actions need to be through the church. People in the church can also inspire each other. For instance, often it’s the little acts that nobody notices that can be the most prophetic, such as tending your garden, as it tears down the culture of consumerism and reconnects us with the earth. Dave added that the most effective acts are often the most unseen ones. The most important thing is to live the prophetic life.
One of the points that Dave made was that a distinguishing characteristic of the prophets was their sympathy with God. And in the example given by Jesus who was strong in relating to the powerful and gentle in relating to the powerless, the prophet is to do the same. Deb reiterated this in saying that prophets always treat people as human beings – as people with dignity, especially the people they are prophesying to. We need to remember what we are wanting to draw people to. Finally, Deb mentioned that we need to respect the non-Christian prophetic voice. God does not only work through Christians. God can and indeed does work through anyone he wishes.
One of the points that Deb Storie made was that not everyone is called to be prophetic, and similarly, sometimes to be prophetic is to make space for others to do the prophetic acts. Backing up Dave’s comment, she also emphasised that prophets see the world through the eyes of God. Another interesting point she mentioned was that often, people in the OT thought the prophets suffered from mental illness. It is pertinent to remember that Jesus’ own family thought the same of him. But we need to remember too, Deb reminded us, that if they do have a mental illness, then that is fine. Dave mentioned that Michael Leunig is a great example of this, as someone who has been public about his own struggles.
It is panel discussions like this that stay with me for a very long time. A colleague mentioned to me afterwards that it was dialogues like this that made her want to go back to the Bible. That of course can only be a good thing. We sing a song at our church sometimes which talks about being a prophet of hope. The term ‘prophet of doom’ has widespread use, so the term ‘prophet of hope’ sounds somewhat of an oxymoron. I think the prophets were both. They sounded warnings of judgment as well as the hope of what a future with God can be like. God help me to be a prophet of yours. Amen.