“How do we follow the prophets?” asked Nora, the executive director of Interfaith, a progressive, multiracial, faith-based community organizing coalition that I began studying in the wake of the Great Recession and amid deepening political disagreement about how to move forward as a country.
“How can we be prophetic voices,” she continued, “in a world that is different, fearful, and blaming?”
She was speaking to a room full of lay leaders who had gathered in a church auditorium on a Sunday afternoon for Interfaith’s quarterly leadership meeting, the theme of which was “Prophetic Voice.”
The men and women in attendance were black, white, Latino, and Arab; middle-class and low-income; Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim; and worshiped in churches, synagogues, and mosques all over the city. They had not traveled there to worship together; they had gathered to discuss how they could work together to confront the economic challenges that Americans around the country faced.
Addressing the crowd, Nora suggested that channeling the prophets meant bringing the values and symbols from their varied faith traditions into their public actions, in order to show people that “things are not hopeless. There is a different way!”
Nora’s voice then rose as she began to list prophets who had played this role: “Moses, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Raquel, Jon, Rev. Fischer, Gloria, Robert . . .” She rattled off the names of several people sitting in the crowd.
“I am mentioning some of you by name,” she noted. “There are too many to say them all. But all of us are prophets! All of us are called!” Her voice had risen to a near shout now and echoed through the large room.
Democracy, conviction, and humility
American history has been punctuated by the actions of modern prophets who have called society to account for its sins, which, they have argued, constituted a breach of Americans’ covenant with God. Some of these men and women are remembered as cranks or retrograde theocrats, while others have been enshrined as champions of democracy and human rights. Yet even those who fall in the latter camp were often viewed in their time as crazies, troublemakers, and extremists, crying out in the wilderness, speaking truth to power, however unpopular it made them. They persisted because they believed they were called to do so—by God.
Confidence in one’s convictions is necessary under such conditions. Yet this same moral righteousness can also lead people to stop listening to others, to become so confident they have all the answers that they become unwilling to admit they may be wrong. Even if these prophets privately harbored doubts about their calling, once they decided to “follow the prophets,” as Nora put it, this involved playing a role. And performing prophecy means performing certainty.
Public performances of moral certainty (like many forms of protest, religious and otherwise) stand in tension with prevailing visions of how democratic citizens should interact with one another across their differences. These visions emphasize intellectual, or epistemic, humility, embodied in practices like public debate, deliberation, and negotiation, which convey an openness to the possibility that one could learn something new by listening to people whose views differ from one’s own.
Today, as political arrogance, partisan polarization, and information tribalism threaten to engulf our public life, it is crucial that we recover the political skills, spaces, and practices that encourage greater humility. This is not only necessary to strengthen democracy; it can also be an effective strategy for achieving practical goals. Indeed, even many activists who are driven by strong moral convictions believe they can achieve more by being pragmatic rather than prophetic—they wish to “win and not just ‘witness.’”
However, we must also be mindful that the kinds of deliberative practices most closely associated with humility are best suited for interactions between individuals who view one another as social and epistemic equals. Groups who are oppressed or marginalized are rightfully distrustful of these kinds of practices, which offer the appearance of an equal playing field, but on which they are barely considered players.
To create the kinds of changes they seek, oppressed and marginalized citizens must not only find alternative ways of making their voices heard, but also of calling the very fairness of these democratic norms and institutions into doubt. This is a task to which prophetic action is well suited, as a brief look back at some exemplary American prophets illuminates.
“Thus saith the Lord”
From inside an Alabama jail cell in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. explained why he had no choice but to join the campaign of nonviolent protest that led to his arrest. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he argued that segregation “is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.” He could not in good conscience continue to obey an unjust law.
Although Birmingham was not his hometown, King had been called there. “The prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns,” King wrote. Like these Biblical prophets, he continued, “so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.”
The white moderates to whom he addressed his letter ostensibly agreed with his goals, yet they viewed his methods as “extremist.” It would be more appropriate, they argued, to be patient, to negotiate. But waiting is only an option for those who do not suffer daily; negotiating is only an option for those who trust their counterparts will act in good faith.
King would wait no longer. Unapologetic, he embraced their “extremist” label:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love . . .Was not Amos an extremist for justice . . . And Abraham Lincoln . . . And Thomas Jefferson . . . So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
Aligning himself with biblical and modern prophets that most Americans would be hard-pressed to reject as unsavory figures, King rejected calls for moderation and reframed extremism as a moral, even democratic, virtue.
“They say I am crazy”
Unlike King, who despite his embrace of the “extremist” label still sought to reform the American system from within, the leaders of the Catholic Worker movement called for “a complete rejection of the present social order and a nonviolent revolution to establish an order more in accord with Christian values” (Catholic Worker, May 1977). Still, in their responses to their critics, they echoed King, aligning themselves with Biblical prophets who were dismissed in their day as “crazy.”
Dramatic images of these prophets line the pages of their in-house newspapers. One cover of the Catholic Agitator (published by the Los Angeles Catholic Worker) featured a photograph of a white-bearded man looking out over an urban skyline, next to the headline “Still Crazy After All These Years”: “Many in Israel found the prophets unintelligible. Most dismissed them as fanatic dreamers who preached a naïve idealism divorced from the ambiguities of the ‘real world.’”
On the cover of the 1977 issue of the Catholic Worker in which community members celebrated the life of Peter Maurin, the movement’s lesser-known cofounder, a line from one of his “Easy Essays” was used as a banner headline: “They say that I am crazy because I refuse to be crazy the way everybody else is crazy.”
An issue of the Catholic Agitator celebrating their founder Dorothy Day’s centenary highlighted her reputation as a “troublemaker,” noting that if she were canonized she would be the “patron saint of the homeless and also people who lose their temper.”
By celebrating being “crazy” “troublemakers,” members of this movement rejected traditional (they would say “bourgeois”) visions of democratic virtue. Instead, they valorized those “fanatic dreamers” who came before them, who imagined a different kind of world, and had the confidence necessary to fight for that world even when few others shared their vision.
Valorizing prophetic action
From the civil rights movement to the Catholic Worker movement to today’s movement of faith-based community organizing, ordinary people seeking extraordinary social changes model their action after the biblical and civic prophets who have come before them. They do so by bringing stories, symbols, and values from their faith traditions into their public actions in order to show people that “Things are not hopeless. There is a different way!”
Religion, in this view, is not a set of propositional beliefs or restrictive rules; it is a set of tools for broadening society’s collective moral imagination, and for holding society accountable when it fails to live up to its own values.
While religion in the former “priestly” form is typically associated with efforts by the powers-that-be to maintain order and the status quo, religion in the latter “prophetic” form has been an essential component of historical movements for freedom and justice.
Even so, those who operate in this prophetic register typically face the kinds of accusations that King, Day, and Maurin faced—of breaching democratic norms by privileging protest over dialogue; anger over calmness; extremism over moderation; conviction over humility; in short, by not playing by the rules of the powerful.
By valorizing this kind of rule-breaking, these modern prophets not only call attention to the unjust social order, but also to the injustice of political norms that prevent dominated groups from challenging that order.
This should not suggest that humility does not have a place in their work: indeed, deep listening and relationship building are central to their organizing efforts. But so are practices that help them remain confident in their convictions, amid the crush of voices telling them they are crazy.
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Note on title: Congressman John Lewis often uses the phrase “good trouble” to describe the kinds of disruptive yet nonviolent actions that were used by leaders of the civil rights movement and which he believes are still necessary today.
Images courtesy of the Catholic Agitator (Alternative Press Collection) and Catholic Worker (Alternative Press Collection), Archives & Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries, accessed with assistance from Graham Stinnett (Curator of Human Rights Collections and Alternative Press Collections).