Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

America’s Lady Prophets Fighting for Democracy: Upending the U.S. Caste System

Statute of Liberty. Photo is from Shutterstock.

Imagine the House Un-American Committee targeting the biblical prophet Amos for proclaiming that “if you have more than you need, you’re a thief.” Former Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy would have called him a totalitarian Marxist out to take away our freedom to treat the world like our trash can. Amos would have suffered through a congressional investigation.

McCarthy would have questioned Amos while hunting for evidence that he had corrupted our youth with Marxist dogma films and classes at American Universities. Other prophets would have been targeted. Perhaps Isaiah would have been called before the committee right after Amos. Isaiah, without doubt, would have read a statement before questions began:

“People of the United States, ‘…unlock fetters of wickedness,and untie the cords of the yoke, let the oppressed go free; break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin… And you offer your compassion to the hungry, and satisfy the famished creature—then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday.’”

Isaiah, like Amos, would have been blacklisted. The hearings would have ended with Jeremiah, who (most likely) scolded McCarthy: “Senator! Have you no decency? ‘Improve your ways and your deeds.'”

Don’t expect to find political leaders from back then quoting the political poets of the Hebrew Bible, nor should you expect politicians of today to quote the prophets. They hate them. It’s most likely mutual. The Hebrew prophets have no patience for the prosperity gospel. Their social and political words have always blamed the wealthy and powerful for the suffering in our midst, not because they’re anti-wealth, but because they’re anti-wealthy people making people poor and then blaming poor people for being poor. Blaming the victim for the crime of the criminal is idolatrous terrorism, where never ending material wants and power eclipse seeing the vulnerable face of the other.

In a course in which we read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work, “The Prophets,” I ask my students if they can identify modern-day prophets. Some years, they mention Greta Thunberg. When mentioned this year, some said that she can’t be a prophet if she’s not directed by God. The social poets of the Bible are all directed by God. The students agree with Heschel that Martin Luther King is a prophet in the biblical sense. I do not share my opinions on this with the students. Class isn’t about my opinions. It is about students developing critical thinking skills.

My criterion for prophets is looser than Heschel’s. Isaiah provides me with the social criterion: if you amplify our obligations to give compassion and help to the vulnerable and satisfy the famished, you’re a modern prophet in my book. Greta Thunberg is a prophet. Four other contemporary social political prophets are Isabel Wilkerson, Heather Cox Richardson, Dahlia Lithwick, and Jennifer Rubin.

Isabel Wilkerson is an African American writer, journalist, social political commentator, storyteller, narrator of human experience, a writer who draws out peoples’ social drives in American politics. Wilkerson shows in her latest work, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” that Americans live in a caste system with white people at the top and black people at the bottom.

Heather Cox Richardson is a white, blue-blooded New Englander professing American History at Boston College. She explains how we arrived at this time of MAGA. Richardson explains that the fight against inclusive democracy begins in the antebellum south, even before it, and doubled down on their voice when they spoke to deconstruction of post civil war reconstruction. Her history book, “How The South Won the Civil War,” documents the history of the fight against inclusion informing today’s MAGA right wing, e.g., the College Board’s recent erasure of documented African American history from African American history advanced placement classes, known as AP classes. The College Board constructs these classes to be taught to highly achieving high school juniors and seniors. The courses count for college credit.

Dahlia Lithwick is a Jewish immigrant who has become a Paul Revere from the American legal world, warning that fascists are here killing our democracy. She directs us to look at the laws being changed at the expense of those at the bottom of our caste system. Lithwick’s latest book, “Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America,” chronicles female legal prophets fighting to save American democracy.

One of the loudest of today’s prophets is Jewish Democracy warrior Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post. I like to think Rubin echoes the prophet Debra. Her latest book, “Resistance: How Women Saved Democracy From Donald Trump,” shows the debt that today’s American democracy has to women.

These four women prophets intersect in telling us that if we don’t wake up, we will not have an inclusive democracy, but autocracy. The continuance of our caste system, locking people out of the democratic community. Like the biblical prophets before them, these women speak not merely to warn us, but to show us the changes we need to make to upend the American caste system denying Democracy to all, directing us to create a better, safer, more hospitable place, just like the biblical prophets do.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College