On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus broke out in lament for the prophets who had gone before him. The gospels depict a city and a religious establishment that was all too happy to welcome those who promised the renewal of their geopolitical fortunes, whose oracles foresaw their enemies’ demise. But when the prophetic gaze turned to their own idolatry and oppression of the poor, well, things got decidedly chilly.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you…
—Jesus in Luke 13
Elsewhere Jesus railed against those who built tombs for the prophets their ancestors had murdered.
But the truth is, you don’t have to kill a prophetic voice in order to stifle it. You just have to wait till it’s gone… then memorialize it. Sanitize it. Make it palatable. Usually this means overlooking the parts that were aimed at us, so we can claim the prophet’s legacy as our own.
Within hours of Mandela’s death, people were queuing up to eulogize the South African leader, to claim a piece of his prophetic legacy. One politician compared Mandela’s fight against apartheid to his own fight against the controversial US healthcare law. Never mind the fact that Mandela made healthcare a universal right, enshrined in his country’s constitution.
There was no shortage of praise for how Mandela had orchestrated a peaceful transition from apartheid to the rainbow nation. Such praise was even heard on the lips of those who once branded him a “terrorist” and gave their tacit support to the unjust regime he sought to dismantle.
Still others were happy to quote Mandela’s words on reconciliation and unity, but not those on poverty as a “social evil” or those railing against the atrocities committed in the name of our “war on terror.”
We did the same to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today we celebrate King as a voice against segregation and discrimination, and rightly so. We happily quote his line about all God’s children joining hands and singing together, but how many of us have also read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”?
How many of us have taken to heart some of his more radical ideas, like his call for civil disobedience in the face of economic injustice? Or his critique of the excesses of capitalism? Or his denunciation of violence and war?
Those in power have ways of dealing with prophetic voices like King. Memorialize them. Give them a national holiday. Eulogize them. Take the oath of office on one of their Bibles. And for God’s sake, don’t trouble yourself with what they might’ve said about all those drone strikes in Pakistan.
We love to claim the popular bits of King’s prophetic legacy as our own… and sweep the rest under the rug.
This tendency to sanitize the prophetic voice runs deep. We feel it especially at Christmastime, when we’re surrounded by placid nativity scenes and plush Santa dolls.
We sing songs and recite scriptures about “peace on earth.” But do we pause long enough to consider what “peace on earth” really means? Was it just a vague sense of goodwill? Or was it something more incendiary —say, a direct challenge to Rome’s claim to be the guardian of peace on earth?
At Christmas, even Protestants pay tribute to the Virgin Mary, but do we listen to her song about God reversing the fortunes of the rich and the hungry?
During Christmas, we repeat Isaiah’s proclamation that “unto us a child is born” and that the “government will be upon his shoulders.” But do we listen when the prophet Isaiah announces the policies of this child’s government, when he describes what belonging to his kingdom entails?
We shouldn’t settle for the sanitized version of the biblical prophets any more than we should settle for the sanitized version of Mandela’s legacy. Or Martin Luther King’s. The real thing is so much harder for us to hear — and so much better.