“A Prophet on a Payroll.”
Early in my ministry I claimed credit for inventing those buzz-words to express the pastors’ dilemma when they address controversies that might rile the pew-dwellers.
But, before I claimed ownership, I Googled everywhere to find the origin of the phrase. Alas, the first time the words appeared was in the title of a conscience-call by John Bodo, minister and refugee from Nazi-dominated Hungary. His experiences convinced him “that . . . ‘mixing religion and politics’ is part of a clergy-person’s prophetic responsibility.”
So, I stopped declaring my authorship of the phrase. The real oomph I derived from the words “a prophet on a payroll” is that rabbonim, ministers, priests, imams, et al, must first and foremost be a “prophets,” even at the peril of their salary or job. They must address, through the Holy Word, teachings that their flock needs to hear, even when they don’t want to.
But, when the flock holds the purse strings, prophetic candor can lead to tenuous consequences. Clergy may face ugly emails and calls. Then they may be warned by well-intentioned congregants to “cool it.” They may be tongue lashed by the elders. Then, if they are still too controversial, or the congregation is too hissy, they may unceremoniously be shown the door.
So, does a rov even dare tippy-toe toward the prophetic calling? As the scary issues threatening America draw ominously closer, does the prophetic voice also become more compelling? Can they play it safe, or lull the congregation with continuing happy-talk?
All too easily, I fear.
Many clergy simply ignore the issues at hand – racism, xenophobia, indulgence of the wealthy, unfulfilled promises of prosperity, immigration inequity, militaristic rants, deafness to cries for social justice, ripping up testy relations with allies, idiotic assertions, and persistent bald-face lying. Each aspect is worth at least one sermon spoken in the prophetic voices of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Jesus, Paul, the Disciples, and in a more contemporary idiom, Dr. King, Rep. John Lewis, Revs. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller, Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joachim Prinz, and so many other bold visionaries.
Yet, some clergy win their prominence by doing a 20-minute comedy routine at the sermon slot. On the other end, many of them preach such obscure, heady theology and texts that even most college grads could not understand.
But, a critical mass of clergy do still hear the prophetic calling. They see that they can get along only so far with happy-talk. So, when does “so far” become “too far”?
Some rabbonim, when upbraided by uppity congregants, simply opt to become apolitical. The more intent among them will edge onto the mine field with an obtuse “You’ll know who I’m talking about, but I won’t mention their names.”
Then Boruch HaShem! A handful of clergy-people still has the courage to take the incoming flack. They will call out tyrants by name and be stridently candid. A wise rov will still try not to denounce a personality. But that tyrant’s policies, misguided leadership, malevolence, brazen falsehoods, are all fair topics for discourse and denunciation.
Yes, plenty of listeners will be hacked off. But, a minority of congregants will still “get it,” and even be motivated by the call. The same rov, of course, may be hung out to dry and carry the stigma of a loose-cannon.
Consider Gary Wills’ acerbic comment on Billy Graham’s role in Nixon’s “imperial” presidency: “It is well to remember that real prophets are ridden out of town, not invited to presidential prayer breakfasts.”
Now please, who among us hears the prophetic calling?
Open the Holy Torah. Listen to the message. See the reflection of what is best and worst about today. Speak in the voice of the prophet. Face consequences with resolve. Otherwise, your ministry might devolve into little more than vapid doubletalk.
Remember that we deliver our message standing in the footsteps of the holiest of men and women. I once preached at Dr. King’s church in Atlanta, and I dripped buckets of sweat knowing who had stood there before me.
Yet, we must believe that among the crowd, someone will be listening. That, if not the “payroll,” will make even the peril worthwhile.
WILUDI (Marc H. Wilson) is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, South Carolina. You may reach at firstname.lastname@example.org