Can the prophet be critiqued?

Posted Apr 21, 2014 | Academy of Preaching and Celebration


By Frank A. Thomas

Frank A. ThomasIn my last blog post, I considered “Can any of us be critiqued?” The blog post asked the question of whether we can be critiqued in the performance of ministry. Many of us like the prophetic role of critiquing systems, structures, and unjust individuals, but how do we respond when someone “prophesies” against our systems, structures, behavior, or ideas. I posited that being constructively critiqued is one of the primary ways that we grow. In this blog, I ask: Can the prophet be critiqued? Can the critiquer be critiqued? Can the tactics, ideas, or behavior of the prophet be critiqued? Is any behavior justified because we deem it “prophetic?”

Several years ago, a mentor of mine was invited to a seminary campus to deliver a lecture. Upon hearing of the invitation of the speaker, one professor organized a protest and boycott of the event. The professor wrote a letter to the president, the speaker, and the seminary community suggesting that the invitation was an affront and the professor would use every means to boycott, protest, and work against the success of the event. Based upon the professor’s actions, the invitation became quite a contentious issue. I called to inform my mentor of the atmosphere, informed him that a call would be forthcoming from the president, and it would be understandable if he chose not want to come into this environment. He was nonplussed and came anyway, refusing to be intimidated.

When the lecture came, there were people who attempted to disrupt the lecture, including the professor. That group walked out at the beginning of the lecture—exiting, loudly, publicly, and symbolically to indicate their outrage at the proceedings. The conflict came to a head at the question and answer session, when with a line of people at the microphone to respond to the lecture, some of the protesters came back, jumped the line, grabbed the microphone, and read a list of accusations, indignations, and condescending comments toward the speaker, cloaked in the garb of being “prophetic.” When they finished, the speaker said calmly: “Would you please explain to me and this audience how everything that you just accused me of, you just did by disregarding all these people in line, seizing the mic out of turn and out of order, and attempting to throw the meeting into chaos?” The speaker further said:  “I would be happy to address your concerns if you would get in line like everyone else.” The protesters went ballistic until they discerned that the audience agreed with the speaker. They stormed out a second time, publicly, loudly, and symbolically, and the question and answer session went forward. After they left, the speaker said, “I thought seminaries were to be places of academic freedom of expression and the debating of ideas.”

I recount his incident to ask whether we can be rude, boisterous, disruptive, and disrespectful in the name of being prophetic. I spoke to a friend who had done such in battles to secure the rights of the poor in the face of exploitative interests of the rich and the powerful. My friend said sometimes you had to disrupt the status quo, make a scene to bring attention to the issues, and when you make enough of a scene, then issues tend to get addressed to resolve the media spotlight and the pressure.

After my friend’s comments, I thought about the fact that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible were disruptive. After reading Stephen Beale’s commentary entitled, “The Crazy Prophets of the Old Testament,” I share a few of the examples mentioned: In Isaiah 20, Isaiah stripped off his clothes and wandered around naked. In Jeremiah 27 and 28, Jeremiah could not be separated from the cattle yoke that he fastened to his shoulder. In Hosea 1, Hosea married a prostitute and named their daughter Lo-ruhama, which means ‘unloved.’ Many more examples from the prophets could be cited. Beale points out a key insight:

In the Scriptures, they [prophetic actions] are explained as symbolic acts that convey divine messages along with their words. For example, the stripping of Isaiah symbolized the future humiliation of Egypt and Ethiopia at the hands of Assyrian conquerors. Jeremiah’s yoke signified the servitude of the Jews to Babylonia.

I would guess that those being prophesied against would receive the prophetic as rude, disruptive, and inflammatory. But, is all prophetic behavior outside of critique?

I remind the reader of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., whom many considered disruptive, rude, and inflammatory. At the heart of King’s method was non-violent social change, and though protests, boycotts, and speeches were prophetic acts, the desire was to transform America and re-claim the “enemy.” My suggestion is that it is not the prophetic action, but the prophetic motive that leads to the critique of the prophetic action. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King articulated six principles of non-violence.

1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is a positive force confronting the forces of injustice and utilizes the righteous indignation and the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual capabilities of people as the vital force for change and reconciliation.

2. The Beloved Community is the framework for the future. The nonviolent concept is an overall effort to achieve a reconciled world by raising the level of relationships among people to a height where justice prevails and persons attain their full human potential.

3. Attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil. The nonviolent approach helps one analyze the fundamental conditions, policies, and practices of the conflict rather than reacting to one’s opponents or their personalities.

4. Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve the goal. The moral authority of voluntary suffering for a goal communicates the concern to one’s own friends and community as well as to the opponent.

5. Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence. The nonviolent attitude provides mirror type reflection of the reality of the condition to one’s opponent and the community at large.

6. The universe is on the side of justice. The fundamental values in all of the world’s great religions include the concept that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. For the nonviolent practitioner, nonviolence introduces a new moral context in which nonviolence is both the means and the end.

Frank A. Thomas is the director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration and the Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary.

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