Thinking Anew – ‘It takes prophets to interpret the present’
Martin Luther King: sadly, his prophetic message remains unheard in many places to this day. Photograph: AP
The season of Advent reminds us that prophecy has an important role in the development of religious thinking but we tend to steer clear of it because of the way in which it has been misused on the fringes of religion for centuries. History is littered with dated predictions of the end of the world, for example, that have come and gone without anything happening. Rasputin, the famous Russian mystic who died in 1916, prophesied that a storm would take place on August 23rd, 2013, when fire would destroy most of life on land and Jesus would come back to Earth to comfort those in distress. There have been literally hundreds of similar predictions.
Fr Thomas Merton had a more considered and wiser understanding of the prophet’s role: “A prophet is one who lives in direct submission to the Holy Spirit in order that by life, actions and word, he may at all times be a sign of God in the world of men.”
Tomorrow’s gospel is about John the Baptist, sometimes depicted as a wild man, who tells his audience that they need to change. If we examine what he is saying, we realise that he is speaking about social justice: a person with two coats must share with someone who has none; tax collectors are told to be honest; soldiers are encouraged to be satisfied with their wages. The prophet is reading the signs of the times and challenging his listeners to respond. But then he points people beyond himself to Jesus Christ: “I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” The prophet, aware of his own limitations, accepts that he is not the source of truth and justice; that lies elsewhere.
One of the great prophets of the 20th century was Martin Luther King whose fight against racial discrimination is defined by his famous “I have a dream” speech, which envisioned a healed America. In 1963 he was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, for participating in a protest march. From prison wrote a now famous letter to local church leaders who had criticised his presence in what they considered to be their territory as “unwise and untimely”. He wrote: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my hometown.”
Sadly, his prophetic message remains unheard in many places to this day.
We cannot all be prophets in the mould of John the Baptist or Martin Luther King, but we can live prophetically if, in Fr Merton’s words, we submit “to the Holy Spirit in order that by life, actions and word”, we are signs of God in the world.
That was true of the Rev Joe Parker who was Church of Ireland chaplain with the Missions to Seamen in Belfast when, on Friday July 21st, 1972, his teenage son Stephen was killed by one of the 20 bomb attacks launched by the IRA across the city that day. Joe’s reaction was remarkable and prophetic. He forgave his son’s murderers and with others promoted the Witness for Peace movement urging people to come together and make peace. He experienced the futility of the violence and the killing, but as he would later say there was a lot of opposition: “Unfortunately I was a little bit ahead of my time. A lot of people in my own church didn’t approve of what we were doing.”
He and his family later moved to Canada where he continued his ministry. He died there last April. A terrible price was paid in the years that followed by too many other families because those blinded by hatred and prejudice were incapable of recognising “the things that belonged to their peace”.
As Aiden Wilson Tozer said: “Scholars can interpret the past; it takes prophets to interpret the present.”