I used to think that “prophets” were people who foretold the future. Indeed, that’s common usage. Dictionary synonyms include seer, soothsayer, clairvoyant, prognosticator, diviner, oracle, augur, sibyl
But that’s not the role of Biblical prophets. God’s prophets are people who proclaim God’s will for the people, who tell the truth about things as they are in the present moment and who cast an imaginative vision for the future.
They are people of extraordinary courage and faith, who are engaged in life, who play their part fearlessly, willing to risk everything for what they believe they are called to do.
Sometimes the prophet tells the truth to an individual in power, as John the Baptist did when he condemned Herod’s adulterous marriage to Herodias.
Sometimes prophets hold up the mirror to the sins of the culture at large. That’s what the prophet Amos was called to do in the 8th century BCE (before the common era). We read the passage in chapter 7 where he’s getting the prophet’s reward, being banished by the High Priest from the Israel.
Amos had delivered God’s judgment on the systemic social injustice there: the luxurious lives of the rich urban landowners and the poverty of their rural tenants.
In chapter 6, Amos named it:
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
And lounge on their couches,
And eat lambs from the flock,
And calves from the stall;
Who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
And like David improvise on instruments of music;
Who drink wine from bowl,
And anoint themselves with the finest oils…
Amos’ focus on social justice and on inequality spoke loud and clearly across the centuries to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King quoted Amos in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail—his response to the white pastors calling for moderation rather than the “extremism” of civil disobedience. He wrote:
“Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ ”
I confess that the righteous anger found in Amos gives me pause. But commentator Elaine James explains that the wrath and the love are inseparable for Amos: “…God’s love demands righteousness… God is not indifferent to human suffering, oppression, and injustice.”
James quotes the late Dr. James Cone, distinguished Professor at Union Theological Seminary and pioneer in Black Liberation Theology: “The wrath of God is the love of God…to [those] opposed to liberation of the oppressed.”
Amos’ words still speak to our own condition, nearly three millennia later. As the inequality between rich and poor grows wider every day, the suffering of the socially and economically vulnerable grows, too.
Fortunately prophets continue to arise. God’s passion for justice touches hearts in many fields, including the performing arts. Cries for Civil Rights and for peace in Viet Nam were sung by the likes of Peter, Paul, and Mary and Pete Seegers throughout their careers.
West Side Story was also a prophetic piece. It shone a spotlight on the suffering of poor young people in New York City who, being shut out of the mainstream, turned their frustration on one another in racist-fueled gang violence.
West Side Story has been widely performed for decades. But it was a gutsy tour de force to translate Romeo and Juliet to the reality of the mean streets and ethnic violence of 1957 New York. And it was a struggle to get it produced even though three of the creators were famous already: playwright Arthur Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein. The fourth, Stephen Sondheim, was making his Broadway debut at 27 as the lyricist.
The play was innovative and challenging in every way, including the violence. Bernstein recalled how hard it was to find backers for “a musical, the first act of which ends with two corpses on the stage…” For context: this was the year that The Music Man swept the Tony Awards.
West Side Story was a social-justice masterpiece, crafted by men who were victims of prejudice themselves. All were closeted gays. And they were Jewish. Prophetically the play brought to Broadway the reality of poverty, racism and gang violence going on a few blocks north of the New York theater district.
The play was prophetic, too, in the popular sense. Alas. FEMA’s outrageous failure to care for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria sixty years later smacks of the same racism.
Who are the prophets in our midst today? Who dares to tell the painful truths, to shine the spotlight on the injustices in our own place and time and cast a vision for what might be?
One whom we are blessed and privileged to know is The Rev. Dr. Alika Galloway, Pastor of Liberty Community Church, our partner parish on the Northside of Minneapolis.
God has called Pastor Alika to witness and respond to the dreadful consequences of generational poverty and generational trauma in the African-American community here. They include the hard reality of sex trafficking. Pastor Alika became aware of the terrible exploitation of women (which is an international problem) when she and her husband began their ministry in the Broadway neighborhood some years back.
So she opened the church to provide a space of safety and where victims can share stories and move toward healing. This was the first step in her vision for the new Northside Healing Space. It is modeled on Thistle Farms in Nashville TN, which came into being twenty five years ago as the vision of Rev. Becca Stevens and continues successfully ministering to women coming out of prostitution and drug addiction.
As Pastor Alika studied the issue of sex trafficking deeply, she learned that girls as young as 12 fell victim. So she created an after-school program for middle school boys and girls to protect them and promote their studies. The program strongly promotes college preparation with measurable success. One of their girls just graduated with honors from Duke.
The bitter reality of sex trafficking has challenged my naïve, Pollyanna view of the world. That’s what prophetic truths are supposed to do. And Pastor Alika’s vision for the Northside Healing Center is bold. That, too, is prophetic.
In his classic work, The Prophetic Imagination, Old Testament Professor Walter Bruggemann wrote:
The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation.
Pastor Alika’s prophetic vision for a healing center is taking shape. It is becoming a reality. It has captured my imagination. It has given hope to me and many others.