Respectability is NOT Faithfulness
(At last Sunday’s Princeton University gathering in the Chapel to “address issues of racism and prejudice” some students turned their backs on the University President. Later in the service, a manifesto was read by a student speaker and some students held posters, and then walked out as a form of protest. Some are calling such acts, “disrespectful” and “unnecessary.” This past week I’ve been trying to listen and thoughtfully respond. Below is a humble attempt to explain my position.)
Like many traditions, I claim to be part of a tradition that quotes and venerates people called prophets — folks who do bizarre, strange, counter-cultural things to wake those slumbering; to rouse those sedated by their own privilege; to startle those turning their backs on the oppressed, rejected, violated and despised.
Though some think of prophets as those who foresee the future, more often than not biblical prophets are speaking into the present day, and critiquing the powers that be.
In our day, the prophetic tradition is often invoked when those being silenced are out of options. Friendly conversation hasn’t worked. Gentle reminders have been ignored. Polite discourse has been ineffective. Rhetorical warnings have been disregarded. Those called to be advocates, choose blissful ignorance over solidarity. At times like these, a prophet is called to step up.
Unlike a priest, who speaks on behalf of people to God, the prophet speaks on behalf of God to people. Sometimes with words, but often, with symbolic actions.
Prophetic acts may be sometimes eccentric, but always revelatory. They’re embodied acts intended to reveal, expose, and uncover.
To some, prophetic acts may seem ineffectual, silly, even insane. But to the prophet, they are divine, inescapable, mandates from God.
Prophets paints dramatic, embodied pictures through their actions. Whether it’s Jeremiah stuffing his loincloth (aka: underwear) into the crack of a rock, Isaiah running about buck naked, or Ezekiel eating a scroll, the acts of the prophets were sort of an ancient Hebrew version of “guerrilla theater.”
Using tactics that at times surprise and shock onlookers, guerrilla thespians and biblical prophets both perform in public spaces to create “revolutionary sociopolitical change.” They raise eyebrows.
And that’s precisely the point.
Sometimes the only way for the silenced to be heard, is for others to be shocked. Shocked out of complacency and silence. Shocked out of fear and ignorance. Shocked out of greed and delusion. Shocked out of privileged fragility.
Now, some could argue the prophets behavior is disrespectful. Isaiah is too radical, stripping down and baring all. Jeremiah is improper. Ezekiel is straight up crazy.
But here’s the thing about prophets: THEY KNOW THAT BEING “RESPECTABLE” IS NOT THE SAME AS BEING FAITHFUL. Prophets know that being polite can actually become a stumbling block to prophecy.
So prophets do (eventually!) what God asks of them. They don’t do it after seeking human approval or acceptance. They aren’t promised anyone will take them seriously. But prophets do what they do, because they have to tell the truth.
Regardless of the reception of the hearers, regardless of the efficacy of their actions, prophets are compelled to SHOW the truth.
So, what could this mean for us?
What could it mean for those us at Princeton University?
Perhaps it means we celebrate the prophetic impulse in the actions of those who confront the powers of our day.
Maybe it means we withhold judgement on actions others deem “disrespectful” or “inappropriate.”
Maybe it means that we seek to affirm (even if we don’t always understand) prophetic “symbolic actions” like protests, walk-outs, die-ins, and other kinds of demonstrations.
Maybe it means we learn what it means for us, in our own contexts, to confront the powers and principalities that seek to dominate, exploit, control, hurt, tame, quiet, and manipulate.
Maybe it means we participate in symbolic actions that seek to disrupt the status quo; behavior that confronts and disturbs personalities, programs, and institutions that need a full-on prophetic overhaul.
For white folks, maybe it means we seek to be in solidarity, without being in the spotlight. Maybe it means we seek to be an advocate, without being ally-centered.
So I invite you, (if you haven’t already) to imagine more faithful, creative, even “shocking” ways to create socio-political, revolutionary, change. Because we desperately need change. In our world. In our country. In our cities and towns and neighborhoods and families. Even at Princeton University.
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