Monday, April 28, 2008

The Prophetic Voice

While the remarks of The Reverend Jeremiah Wright may seem discordant and troubling, isn't that the role of the prophet? Isn't it the prophet's duty to speak "truth to power?" Several observers have likened Wright to the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah and Amos, preachers who used violent imagery.

Richard Landes points out a large flaw in this line of thinking:
As someone who has read the prophetic texts, and thought a good deal about them in the context of the tradition of self-criticism, I think these characterizations of the “prophetic stream” represent a profound misunderstanding. The prophets are ferocious in their criticism of their own people; they have relatively little to say about the real oppressive forces in the world of their day in the 8-7th centuries BCE. When the people of Israel get smashed by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the prophets don’t go into a rant about how evil these vicious imperialists are; they invoke them as God’s agents in punishing Israel for their sins. When, under more normative conditions, when they chastize rulers and aristocracy for their treatment of the poor, they do so again with vigorous, even violent rhetoric, but they do so in the hopes of changing their people. The prophets, however rough they may be, love the people they chastize, and rebuke them for the sake of their transformation.
Just so.

Another thing that occurs to me as I watch the videos of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's sermons is the reaction of his congregation to these harsh words--they are delighted to the point of laughing, dancing, and high-five-ing. The proper response to a prophet's words is repentance. In the time of the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah and Amos, this meant weeping and wearing sackcloth and ashes.

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