Sunday, March 20, 2011

Social Change and the "Prophetic Position"

There is a beautiful piece up on Huffington Post Religion right now from Fr. Richard Rohr, entitled "Life on the Edge: Understanding the Prophetic Position," in which Fr. Rohr reflects on the unique challenges and opportunities of the prophetic position. Fr. Rohr's words are particularly relevant for those of us who find ourselves situated on the religious left, as the religious left has historically been at its best when it has raised its voice in prophetic critique of the institutions and systems to which it is tied.

At the heart of Fr. Rohr's article is an exploration of the "unique and rare" liminal space occupied by the prophet:
He or she is always on the edge of the inside. Not an outsider throwing rocks, not a comfortable insider who defends the status quo, but one who lives precariously with two perspectives held tightly together -- the faithful insider and the critical outsider at the same time. Not ensconced safely inside, but not so far outside as to lose compassion or understanding. Like a carpenter's level, the prophet has to balance the small bubble in the glass between here and there, between yes and no, between loyalty and critique.
This liminal space, that location of the 'connected critic,' is one often inhabited by the icons of the religious left. Calling ourselves and our communities to justice only succeeds when we engage authentically with the resources native to the systems that help us understand what justice truly means. When those systems themselves, our communities of belief and practice, become implicated in the perpetuation of injustice, the responsibility of calling the community back to the way of justice, the way of God, falls to the prophetic voice. As the prophetic voice often challenges deeply entrenched systems of power, the role of prophetic speaker is not without its hazards; just consider the examples listed by Fr. Rohr of contemporary prophetic voices:
If you look at some who have served the prophetic role in modern times, like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, John XXIII, Simone Weil and Oscar Romero, you will notice that they all hold this exact position. They tend to be, each in their own way, orthodox, conservative, traditional clergy, intellectuals or believers, but that very authentic inner experience and membership allows them to utterly critique the very systems that they are a part of. You might say that their enlightened actions clarified what our mere belief systems really mean. These prophets critiqued Christianity by the very values that they learned from Christianity. Every one of these men and women was marginalized, fought, excluded, persecuted, or even killed by the illusions that they exposed and the systems they tried to reform. It is the structural fate of a prophet.
But though these figures at times seemed intensely critical of the shortcomings of their own traditions, the powerful spiritual resources of those very same traditions allowed them to go on, and continue to work and witness for justice. Such is the power of the prophetic voice, and at our best, such is power of the religious left.

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