I offered the reflection at Mass today at Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House on this final full day of the retreat I have been on the direction team for. The first Mass reading was from Jeremiah. Part of what I talked about is our need to be prophets not protesters.
Before the verses we heard in the first reading, Jeremiah had been prophesying in the temple court, proclaiming God’s judgment on those who have stiffened their necks and not obeyed God’s word. In response, the priest Pashur (son of the head of the Temple police) had Jeremiah scourged and placed in stocks.
Nor was this a single incident of hardship. Earlier in the book of Jeremiah his family turned against him and even plotted to kill him. Later he will be attacked by a mob, threatened by the king and ridiculed. He will be arrested, accused of treason, and thrown into a deep empty well.
None of this is surprising. Jeremiah was calling people to a radical transformation, condemning false worship and social injustice. And he denounced the people for depending on the Temple for security instead of turning to God with their hearts (which, you might imagine, didn’t make him very popular with the religious authorities).
Yet in the face of people either ignoring or persecuting him, Jeremiah spent forty years delivering God’s message to the people. Notwithstanding those who tried to plot against him, Jeremiah had confidence that God is with him and that, ultimately, his persecutors would not triumph, a confidence he proclaimed in today’s reading.
The question I posed is: Do we have the same confidence Jeremiah did? The confidence that gives us strength and courage even when things are looking bleak?
The answer to that question matters because we are all called, albeit in different ways, to be prophets.
In one of his homilies, the prophet Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980, said this:
Those who laugh at me, as if I were crazy to think that I am a prophet, ought to reflect on this. I have never considered myself a prophet in the sense of being unique among the people, because I know that you and I, the people of God, are a prophetic people. And my role in this is only to stimulate a prophetic sense in the people. This is something I can’t give them, rather it is the Spirit that has given it to them. And each one of you can truly say, “The Spirit came upon me when I was baptized.”
In a similar vein, John Neafsey in a wonderful book titled A Sacred Voice is Calling, while recognizing that some people have particularly strong prophetic imaginations, writes that each of us is called to cultivate our capacity for prophetic imagination, “to find our own way of making the Dream of God a reality.” Neafsy speaks of a prophetic imagination as an imagination that enables us “to look beyond the world as it is to the world as is could be or should be.
Prophetic imagination involves more than just criticism and tearing down, that is, more than just protesting.
Protesters do a good job of standing on the sidelines pointing out the problems, of telling us what is wrong. But they tend not to offer alternatives.
Pointing out what is wrong is not all that hard. I was a debater in high school and it didn’t take me long to realize that debating the negative side of any proposition was always easier than debating the affirmative side. It is always easier to tear down than to build up.
I’m not saying protest is not useful. It is. We do need people who point to what is wrong. But protest is not enough.
What the world needs – desperately – is people who can point the way to a new reality, to point us toward another future. People who don’t just yell at the old world, but lead us into a new one.
Our call as Christians is to be prophets, not merely protesters. Our call is not just to stand out in the square railing against the world as it exists (and there are certainly plenty of issues we could be railing about), but to transform the world into the kingdom of God.
A good question to reflect on is: am I a prophet or a protester? I’m guessing that we are all, at least sometimes, protesters. So the next step in our reflection might be: Where, when I’ve been a protester, could I have taken the next step and been a prophet? How do I move from the easier task to the harder one?