Presented at the South Carolina Progressive Network Summit
Hello, my name is Neal, and I’m a recovering Baptist. One of the reasons I fell in love with Unitarian Universalists and became one is because, unlike any other religious group I have known, they can laugh at themselves. We UUs may be dead serious about human rights and social justice, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. We can tell jokes on ourselves. You may have heard some of them.
A Unitarian Universalist died and came to a crossroad in the hereafter with three signs. One said, “This way to heaven.” Another said, “This way to hell.” And a third one said, “This way to a discussion about heaven and hell.” Without hesitation the Unitarian went to the discussion.
A jet airliner was having serious problems in flight, and it became apparent that the plane might crash. Everyone on board began to pray, except for the UUs. They organized a committee on air safety.
They’ve come up with a Unitarian version of the TV show “Survivor.” Contestants have to drive from Pelion to Pickens with a bumper sticker on the back of their car that says, “I’m a gay, atheist, vegetarian, and I’m here to take away your guns.” Anybody who gets there wins.
Unitarian meetings must be very confusing to visitors. A person speaks and says nothing. Nobody listens. Then everybody disagrees.
What do you call a dead Unitarian Universalist? All dressed up with no place to go.
Why did the Unitarian cross the road? To support the chicken in its search for its own path.
Why is a Unitarian congregation like granola? When you take away all the fruits and all the nuts, all you have left are the flakes.
Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused.
Today I want to conduct a Bible study, and our Bible study is about prophets. Who are prophets, and what do they do? Many people think prophets tell the future, but prophets in the tradition of the ancient Hebrews told the truth. It’s informative to look at the etymology of “prophet.” In Hebrew, the word for prophet is “nabiy.” That shares the same root with “nabat,” the Hebrew word meaning “to see, to look intently at.” So one clue to what prophets do is that they help us to see more clearly. “Nabiy” also shares the same root with “nabach,” which means “to bark like a dog.” So a prophet makes a lot of noise to warn us of danger or to wake us up.
Hear the barking of some of the Hebrew prophets:
I hate, I despise your religious festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings, I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. — Amos
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; But they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid. — Micah
The Spirit of God is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. — Jesus
According to the etymology of the word, prophets bark to wake us up so that we can see “what’s going on,” to quote Marvin Gaye. The Biblical prophets were saying, “Wake up, Israel! This is not the way the Creator intended the creation to be. God intended for you to establish peace and justice here on earth as it is in heaven.” Modern day prophets, like Martin Luther King, Jr., are saying, “Wake up, America! You’re not living up to your creed. You say you believe that all people are created equal, but you are not practicing what you preach.”
We need prophets in every age because we can’t see clearly on our own. We can’t see the forest for the trees. We are born into a particular time and place, and the history of the place becomes our history, and the culture of the times becomes our identity. None of us asked to be born to our particular parents, in our particular communities, attending our particular schools and churches, in 20th century America, but we were. We could have been born at another time and place, but we weren’t. We perceive, think, and act the way we do because that’s the way people of our time and place perceive, think, and act.
In this regard, the old doctrine of original sin makes sense to me. It doesn’t make sense to me to believe that we are born sinful, inherently flawed, and defective. How can you look at an innocent newborn and believe that? But it does make sense to believe that sin is original to us, that it was in the world before we came on the scene. We are born into a sinful world — into families with unhealthy relationships, into communities with self-serving tendencies, into institutions with unjust practices, into nations with self-aggrandizing policies. These sinful ways of being in the world are in the air we breathe. We don’t make a choice of whether or not to breathe. We just breathe, and no matter how polluted the air is, we continue breathing, and we assume that the air is normal.
I once had a client in therapy who couldn’t see the abuse in her marriage. She had been born and raised in an abusive family. Her father had abused her mother and her. It seemed natural and normal to her for men to treat women that way.
Every age has assumed that its particular ways of perceiving, thinking, and acting were perfectly natural and normal. 300 years ago, it was regarded as natural and normal to slaughter native peoples of this land. After all, they weren’t human. They didn’t have souls. Killing them was more like hunting animals.
Two hundred years ago, it was considered normal to put people with darker complexions in chains and treat them like livestock. After all, they were naturally inferior.
One hundred years ago, it was deemed normal that women should not vote, own property, or have their own bank accounts. After all, nature had made them dependent on the guidance and protection of men.
Fifty years ago, it was considered natural and normal that we should attend separate schools, stay at separate hotels, eat at separate tables, sit in separate sections of the theater, drink from separate water fountains, and be buried in separate cemeteries because of differing skin color.
In the not so distant future, people will look back at us and say, “Can you believe that in 2006 the voters of South Carolina amended their state constitution to prohibit gays and lesbians from marriage? What were they thinking?”
Prophets take us to the mountain top so we can look down at the valley where we live and see the smog in the air we breathe. I think it is telling that in the Hebrew scriptures, prophets usually ascend a mountain to commune with God and gain perspective on the human condition.
Prophets speak the truth to two parties — the oppressed and the oppressors, the exploited and the privileged, the two sides of any and every unjust system, whether it’s in your house, your nation, or the global community. My favorite definition of a prophet is this: “A prophet comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”
They comfort the afflicted by affirming their dignity and worth. They say, ” There is a reason your life is hard. The deck is stacked against you.” They say, “Your suffering is not accidental, natural, normal, or the will of God.” They say, “You’re not crazy for thinking that this is unfair because it is unfair. You have a right to be angry because this is wrong. You have a right to your own opinions and beliefs, to your own thoughts and feelings, to your own aspirations and choices. You have a right to say no. You don’t have to put up with this because you’re a human being.”
Prophets comfort the afflicted by helping them find their faith, not necessarily faith in God, but always faith in themselves. In fact, I think it’s harder to believe in yourself than to believe in God. Having faith in yourself is trusting that queasy feeling in your stomach when you’re treated inhumanely. Having faith is trusting that bolt of indignation that straightens your backbone and adds volume to your voice when you’re violated. Having faith is believing in that pang of conscience that whispers inside your head when you see injustice with your own eyes and giving voice to that whisper so that it speaks with conviction from your own lips.
When people who have been oppressed believe in their dignity and worth and find their voice, they will not be held down again. Gandhi brought a world empire to its knees when he led his fellow Indians on a walk to the sea to make their own salt rather than remain dependent on the British to manufacture salt for them. When they realized their inner strength, on that day their dependency ended. Frederick Douglas put it this way: “Find out what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice which will be imposed upon them. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” Martin Luther King put it this way: “A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
Prophets comfort the afflicted, and they also afflict the comfortable. To prophesy means “to see, to look intently at.” Prophets help the advantaged to see that their advantages come to them because the political and economic systems are tilted in their favor. Prophets help the privileged to see that their privileges come at a price that someone somewhere has to pay. Prophets help the comfortable to see that their comforts cause someone somewhere to suffer.
This is hard for the comfortable to see because they are typically not bad people. Most CEOs who head corporations are fine, decent people who love their families, are loyal to their friends, go to church, and give generously to their communities. But many of them participate in systems and propagate policies that have bad consequences for people who are invisible to them. Plus, they don’t see the truth – or don’t want to see the truth — because to set things right, they’d have to share some of their privileges and sacrifice some of their advantages, and they don’t want to do that. They have grown comfortable with the air they breathe. They will resist because they see their lifestyles as normal and the status quo as the natural order of things. Again, Frederick Douglas was perceptive when he observed, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.”
Their resistance to change takes a predictable course. A prophet appears on the scene and barks about injustice and suffering. At first, he or she is ignored because he or she is just a lone voice in the wilderness. Then a few join the cause, and they are mocked, ridiculed, and not taken seriously. Then it grows into a movement that must be taken seriously, and the establishment begins to worry. They fear the loss of control, the loss of their power and privileges, the loss of their way of life, and their fear is expressed as outrage. They don’t argue with movement’s message; they attack the messengers. The social establishment calls them rabble-rousers and trouble-makers.
The political establishment labels them traitors and accuses them of being unpatriotic. The religious establishment refers to them as heretics and infidels, maybe even Unitarians. As the prophets continue to bark and their movement becomes irresistible, the establishment becomes desperate and resorts to violence – lawful, legal violence. Dissenters are arrested, and their homes are ransacked and bombed. The police unleash dogs on peaceful protesters, discharge fire hoses on demonstrators, and shoot into the crowd. The prophet Amos was exiled from his own country. Micah was thrown in prison for sedition. Jesus was crucified. Gandhi and King were assassinated. Finally, the movement hits a tipping point, and a majority of the people begins to see what’s going on, and real change comes about. Then the establishment builds monuments to the very prophets they had reviled and declare national holidays in their honor.
The tipping point occurs when there is passion, when the afflicted feel deeply their hurt, deprivation, and anger, when the comfortable feel deeply their compassion, which means “to feel with.” They can finally feel compassion when the suffering of injustice becomes visible. Injustice is not an abstract concept. It’s physical blood, sweat, and tears.
When you can look beyond the low price tags at Wal-Mart to the sweatshops in China, where workers work 14 hours a day, every day of the week, making less than $3.00 a day, then you feel differently about shopping at Wal-Mart.
When you can look beyond the video images put out by the Pentagon of so-called “smart bombs” hitting distant buildings — as if it were a video game — to the tens of thousands of civilians beneath those piles of rumble, most of whom are children, then you feel differently about this war. If a majority of Americans could see those images, this war would end tomorrow.
In the New Testament, the word translated as Jesus’ compassion literally means “his bowels turned over.” To see clearly the price that has to be paid for the privileges we take for granted will turn your stomach … and turn the status quo upside-down.
That’s what the barking of prophets does to us and for us. Prophets like Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Jesus. Prophets like Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi. Prophets like … you and me?
Retired from parish ministry after serving Main Line Unitarian Church near Philadelphia, Pa., Rev. Dr. Neal Jones served as pastor of several congregations including the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, S.C. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Wake Forest University, a master of divinity from Southeastern Theological Seminary, and a doctorate from Baylor University.