When we think of a prophet, we might well imagine a bearded and eccentric biblical seer delivering God’s judgment on his people. But the prophetic office did not end with the sealing of the biblical canon. Thomas Aquinas said that God would always raise up new prophets for the reform of the Church. Inspired by the biblical prophets, figures from Joan of Arc to Martin Luther King have claimed to deliver a divine message of judgment on their contemporaries. If not truly prophets, these courageous naysayers could be said to exercise a prophetic office.
The volcanic moral passions that periodically upend our politics usually stem from some prophetic condemnation. We may get the language of our politics from the ancient Greeks and Romans—as reflected in words such as democracy, tyranny, citizen, demagogue, constitution, and even politics. But we get our moral crusades—against slavery, against alcohol, against Jim Crow, against abortion—from the example of the biblical prophets. No one doubts that Savonarola, Joseph Smith, and other self-proclaimed prophets changed history, we just don’t have good theories about how they did so.
A prophet is someone who claims to speak for God, not someone who predicts the future—though the divine message might well concern the future. Socrates claimed to obey a private divine voice, which vetoed some of his decisions. Joan of Arc also claimed to obey a divine voice, which told her to expel the English from France. Socrates was accused of impiety and Joan of heresy for claiming that a god spoke to them directly, outside of the official channels of divine communication—channels controlled, of course, by the priests of their day. A prophet is someone who listens to God’s word on unauthorized radio frequencies.
Prophets wage war against statesmen for their amoral realpolitik; and against priests for focusing on ritual rather than righteousness. In turn, prophets are persecuted by an alliance of political and religious authorities. Jeremiah was thrown into a dungeon by both the king and the priests of his day; Jesus was condemned by the Romans for sedition and by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy; Joan was killed as an enemy of the English King and as a heretic by her Church; Martin Luther King was beaten and jailed by Southern sheriffs as well as expelled from the National Baptist Convention. The best evidence of being a prophet is to be persecuted as both a traitor and a heretic.
Western societies are said to be governed by two swords: the political sword of state power and the spiritual sword of organized religion. As rival powers, states and churches have come to resemble each other: each has its own bureaucracy, laws, courts, and sanctions. These institutions give both state and church their staying power, but power tends to corrupt the politicians and priests who exercise it. Even in ancient Israel, the corruption of monarchical and sacerdotal power created a need for the Hebrew prophets, who wielded a third sword to rebuke both kings and priests in the name of God. Isaiah and Jeremiah condemned their kings for allying with pagan empires and excoriated their priests for empty ritualism.
Prophets play an essential political role, even though they lack the established power of kings or priests. Prophetic power is personal and charismatic rather than institutional or routinized. In Isaiah (49:2) and in Revelation (19:15), a prophet is depicted with a sword coming out of his mouth. Contrary to the prevailing ideology of the two swords, Western societies have always been ruled by all three swords: the regal, the sacerdotal, and the prophetic. A just society needs stable political and religious authority as well as prophetic challenges to that authority. Prophets cannot rule us or create good institutions; they can only denounce abuses of power by politicians and priests.
Prophetic politics is the politics of the veto. Prophets do not tell religious and political leaders what to do but only what cannot be done. The prophetic office exists to set moral limits on the exercise of political and religious power. Prophets chasten politics by reminding us of transcendent moral values.
The goal of prophetic politics is not to solve problems but to confront evils, not to espouse policies but to raise awareness. In societies where the authority of God was widely respected, prophets invoked that authority. Those who exercise the prophetic office today are less likely to invoke divine authorization. When Wendell Berry denounces the Department of Agriculture for hastening the demise of the family farm, he is playing a prophetic role; when Greta Thunberg hectors us for our wasteful consumption of fossil fuels, her office is prophetic; when Kenneth Roth condemns American violations of human rights, he is acting as a modern Jeremiah.
Prophets are wild cards in the game of politics. By invoking unconditional moral duties, they make the usual kind of discussion, debate, and bargaining all but impossible. Prophets are a standing threat to politics-as-normal and sometimes even an existential threat to the polity itself. Some of the ancient Hebrew prophets demanded that Israel not resist Babylon; later prophets insisted that Israel not cooperate with the Romans. The result was the same: the repeated destruction of ancient Israel as a political community. The prophetic cure sometimes seems worse than the disease.
There is no foolproof way to distinguish false from true prophets; that is part of the challenge that prophets pose to our politics. Efforts to contain the danger of prophecy are almost as old as prophecy itself. The rabbis of antiquity and Protestants during the Reformation both attempted to neutralize prophetic power by officially declaring that the age of prophecy was over. The Koran even foresees the danger of prophecy by declaring Mohammed to be the Seal of the Prophets, the last prophet. Declaring the end of prophecy, however, has done nothing to prevent the rise of new prophets, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.
All prophets look to the future—a future, however, that hearkens to the past. Prophets are conservative revolutionaries: they call their people back to first principles. In politics, they demand a return to the founding constitution; in religion, they demand a return to the covenant with God. Hebrew prophets promise a return to the Abrahamic or Mosaic or Davidic covenant; a return to the law, to the temple, and to kingship. Yet these same prophets speak boldly of a new covenant, a new law, a new temple, and a new David. Thomas More called England back to the law of the Magna Carta and Martin Luther King called America back to the Declaration of Independence. Everything remains the same and yet everything has changed.
Leaders of churches, synagogues, and mosques can learn from the prophets how to address contemporary political issues. Religious leaders are not themselves prophets, but they do speak prophetically when they denounce religious and political evils. Clergy speak with some authority about ultimate moral values, but they squander that authority when they promote particular public policies or political parties. It is one thing to condemn racism but another to support affirmative action policies; it is one thing to condemn abortion but another to endorse criminal sanctions. The wisdom of particular laws and policies depends on empirical knowledge of how society works, and religious leaders are not social scientists. Too often, a misguided moralism in law and policy only makes things worse.
Environmental or human rights activists can draw similar lessons for how to exercise the prophetic office. Denounce increased CO2 emissions without insisting on solar power; denounce atrocities by foreign governments without endorsing regime change; denounce soil erosion without insisting on subsidies for family farms; denounce religious persecution without endorsing the separation of church and state. Prophets are not policy wonks. Let others forge compromises and build agreements; let others design new political and economic institutions; let others get us to yes. Having the courage to say no is for those few willing to bear the enmity of the many.
Prophetic critique is always grounded in a vision of social justice. Better implies best: there is no reform without utopia. The United Nations General Assembly Building in New York bears this prophetic vision: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). Here the prophetic sword promises to replace the political sword. Prophets are guardians of our highest ideals and they keep those ideals alive by wielding the sword of righteousness with gusto.