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Dennis C. Sasso

Prophets of Resistance and Civic Prophets

“Prophetic Resistance” has become a battle cry among some activist groups and individuals, especially in religious circles. From racism to environmentalist concerns, from the Middle East to domestic politics, social justice warriors declare themselves “Prophets of Resistance.” While in agreement with many of the causes of my prophetic colleagues, I find the self-branding problematic.

The role of the biblical prophet was not primarily one of “resistance,” but of persistence and resilience. The biblical prophet (Navi) spoke on behalf of fidelity to the Covenant, calling the people to repentance and renewal (Teshuvah). From Moses, to Jeremiah, to Jonah, the biblical prophet was reluctant to assume the mantel of prophecy. The biblical prophet always couched criticism and rebuke in the language of love and forgiveness. Though sometimes in the spirit of righteous indignation, the biblical prophet did not speak in the spirit of self-righteousness that often characterizes many a modern “prophet of resistance.”  One of the essential characteristics of the biblical prophets was humility.

The biblical prophet spoke “truth to power,” but with the “power of compassion”.   The biblical prophet recognized that power, per se, is neither inherently bad nor good. It depends on how and by whom it is used. Like passion, wealth, science, or even religion, power is neutral. H. R. Niebuhr reminded us, “Religion makes good people better and bad people worse.” The biblical prophet knew that love without power is sentimentality; power without love is tyranny.

Some “Prophets of Resistance” have labeled their adversaries, “Chaplains of Empire,” the bad ones who represent the “establishment.” This is not fair to many who labor in the field of the possible and in the service of worthy causes. Such vocabulary evokes apocalyptic images and gnostic notions of good and evil.  It erects walls of moral divide, the forces of light versus the forces of darkness.

We need prophetic voices today, but voices of “Civic Prophecy.”  Like the ancient notion of the covenant, the modern covenant of citizenship is meant to establish the social foundations of equality, justice, and peace. Civic prophecy speaks the language of truth, elusive as it often is, but in a spirit of civility. Its criticism is instructive and constructive; its vision, one of possibility and hope. Civic prophecy challenges and advises in the spirit of reason, not dogma. It speaks, not of absolutes, but of potential and possibility. It is melioristic, not fatalistic.  It listens, not just to prove itself right, but to seek to understand those who disagree.  It is grounded in the sacred sources and values of our nation’s democratic institutions and traditions: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and their ongoing interpretations and applications that have shaped the evolving Faith of America.

Civic Prophecy is motivated by a spirit of servanthood and leadership. It acknowledges that there are good people doing good work, both within the broader society and in minority communities. It recognizes diversity within all groups and does not make blanket statements that ignore such differences.  The purpose of civic prophecy is not to accuse and foster divisiveness, to point a finger of blame and instill guilt. It is rather to create bridges and develop coalitions that will result in renewal and healing.

Civic Prophecy calls us to distinguish between living in the past and living with the past and reminds us of our collective responsibility to one another, of our historic and covenantal bonds as citizens and members of civil society. It admonishes and inspires us to acknowledge and mend the wrongs of our predecessors even as we commit to values of justice and compassion that will yield life, liberty, and happiness, as individual and common pursuits.

Civic prophecy affirms individual responsibility and generational interdependence. It does not to hold children guilty for the sins of their parents, nor vice versa. It calls for the hearts of parents and children to be turned to one another. Civic Prophecy does not divide society into permanent victims and victors. It seeks to empower, to grant agency and to foster autonomy.

As we advance the moral agenda of our society, our nation, and the world, let us resist the seductive and self-congratulatory anointment, whether from the right or from the left, that confers knowledge of the one way, the true way, the only way. Let us have the courage and wisdom to engage in the conversation and collaboration of citizenship.  Let us respond to Civic Prophecy’s call: “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” in the pursuit of individual rights and dignity and in the forging of the common good.

About the Author
Dennis Sasso is Senior Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana. He is Affiliate Professor of Jewish Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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