Prophets in the System

Fr Richard Rohr OFM offered this reflection on Ash Wednesday on the Center for Action and Contemplation website
Prophets: Self Critical Thinking
A Self-Balancing System

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the central institution of Temple sacrifice, priests, and Levites attempted to balance itself with prophets, or the legitimation of official, sanctioned critics, even though they usually killed them in the end. But at least the immense institutional prestige and authority of ritual and priestcraft was balanced by the charismatic authority of the truth-speaking prophets. One was an inherited and ascribed status, the other was earned by speaking truth with no formal legitimation ever possible (Deuteronomy 18:9-22). There is no ordination for a prophet. So you can perhaps sense the inherent tension between prophets and priests, and also between prophets and kings (2 Samuel 12:1-7). Kings and priests were maintainers of social order. The prophets were disrupters of the social consensus. Within the system there is inherent conflict but, ideally, also a balance.
The priestly class, the scribes, the lawyers, and the temple formed a structured, rational religion. Prophets focused less on the rational, and spoke more from the right-brain, from intuition, through poetry and images and what they referred to as oracle, trance, or divination. To the prophets, everything revolved around faithfulness to Yahweh. For them it was all about the purity and integrity of the divine-human relationship, which led them to point out the immense injustices of their world, their kings, and their priests.
Prophets, by their very nature, can’t be right at the center of the social structure. They cannot be full insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either. Their structural position to this day is “on the edge of the inside.” You must know and live the essential rules before you can critique what is not essential or not as important. (See Jesus do this masterfully in Matthew 5:17-48.) As Moses, the first prophet, learned, once Pharaoh is your benefactor and protector, there are many questions you can’t ask anymore. You can’t ask about liberation of slaves in Pharaoh’s house, nor do questions of justice or equality make it to the dining room table. And if you do ask such questions, you will not be answered, but quietly–or savagely–eliminated. Is this not obvious? I think it would be very hard to preach the real Gospel in the White House, under any President of the USA, Democrat or Republican.
After Christianity became the established religion of the Western Empire in the 4th century, the priestly mentality pretty much took over in both East and West, and prophets basically disappeared. The Emperors even convened the Councils of the Church for many centuries. I have never come upon a single church in the whole world named “Christ the Prophet.” Maybe now you know why. The top of the hierarchy was where almost all clergy henceforth resided, and usually in the good company of kings and princes who were their patrons. That is the perspective for most of preaching and Scripture interpretation for the next 1700 years: from white, European, educated, comfortable, often celibate males. I am one myself, and we are not all bad. But we are not all–by a long shot! It is time for the democratization of the Church, and Scripture has given us all the needed building blocks to do just that (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12, Galatians 3:26-29).
My father, St. Francis, saw this problem in the 13th century and refused priesthood himself (he conceded to some early ordinations in the community, but only if such friars were first committed to radical poverty and humility). Pope Francis is evoking the same Gospel spirit, and I pray for his success and protection. What an irony that the ultimate establishment person would take the name of a non-establishment saint. It shocked the world, because we do not expect prophecy from popes. I am not sure we have ever seen a pope and a prophet in the same person in all of history!

Gateway to Silence
Welcome, uncomfortable truth!
Adapted from Way of the Prophet (no longer available);
and Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer, p. 37;
and Prophets Then, Prophets Now (CD, MP3 download)
Adapted from Way of the Prophet (no longer available);
and Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer, p. 37;
and Prophets Then, Prophets Now (CD, MP3 download)

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  1. Dear Fr.Richard,
    Kindly highlight the prophetic actions of Prophet Pope Francis,
    The prophetic actions are expected to be imitated by Cardinals Bishops, Priests, Religious and Laity.
    In priority the appointment of 8 cardinals and 8 laity are significant prophetic actions to be imitated by Religious congregations Dioceses and Parishes.
    Is there any one ?

  2. Let us be aware of those prophets in the system…you never know where they are or what they may say!

  3. Reminded me of the wonderful article written by Belfast based Capuchain priest, Fr Owen O’Sullivan back in 2003 entitled “Where are the Priest Prophets?”. Sadly, most or all of it still holds true. It first appeared in the Furrow magazine and was republished with permission here:

  4. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    You can find an archive of Richard Rohr’s previous meditations on their Facebook page:
    They are on the right hand side of the page, along with some other material. Look for the ones with “Richard Rohr’s Meditation” in the heading.
    And No: you don’t have to sign up for Facebook!

  5. Mary Vallely says:

    Thank you so much, MM @3, for reminding us of the wisdom and truth of Fr Owen O’Sullivan’s article. “Honest dissent” or “pretended assent?” We all know which is better and sadly many are still allowing the “demands of the power structure to have priority over those of the Gospel.” Pope Francis is trying to change this, I believe, but he needs much more support from grass roots clergy and people. What has happened to the Capuchin prophet who penned this? How come we allow such voices to be silent? I hope he is well. We need constant reminders such as these to waken us up from our passivity. Injustice needs honest rage to fight it.

  6. MM@3,thank you for sharing Fr.O’Sullivan’s article with us. I had never read it before. As you say, it is a wonderful article and he gets so much spot on, eg “There is so much untruth in the Church …..hypocrisy and humbug at every level” That, in my opinion, has been much more damaging to our Church’s credibility than the so-called secular agenda that we keep hearing about.
    However, I think we are very fortunate to have prophet-priests and prophet lay women and men frequently contributing to this ACP site.

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