Is Prophetic Boldness Overrated?
*** Disclaimer: The following is basically just me thinking out loud. I don’t agree with everything I’ve written below, and I acknowledge that there are inconsistencies. This is constantly a work in progress. ***
I often struggle with the value and effectiveness of an “in-your-face” radical prophetic boldness vs. speaking truth calmly and selectively with humility and kindness, even hesitation. Jesus was deliberately disruptive and subversive, right? He was a radical dissident whose antics got himself killed, and — as trite as this sounds when referring to the Son of God — I admit that I can’t help but admire this. But how are we to follow the One who also said that he is “gentle and humble in heart” (Mt. 11:29), claimed that “the meek will inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5), told the leper whom he healed to “say nothing to any one” (Mark 1:44), and called us to imitate his suffering (1 Pt. 2:21)?
More specifically, I wonder if prophetic boldness has the same problematic allure and pitfalls as does violence. When we are confronted with a seemingly insurmountable physical threat, we naturally feel compelled to do something — anything! — to repel this threat, and this something is often an irrational act of violence fuelled by aggression. It’s our go-to, knee-jerk reaction. But does prophetic boldness operate in the same way? Is what we conveniently refer to as “righteous anger” (to give it an air of sanctity and to show that we’re just doing what God does) underpinned by the same temptations, exasperation, and impatience and just as unimaginative and ineffective as violence? As the reality that violence is caught in a never-ending cycle is itself a testament to its own ineffectiveness, does prophetic boldness risk creating its own cycle by losing its audience, losing its credibility, and inviting proportional aggression and animosity in return? The courage and trust required to cultivate humility, to forgive, to be gentle and meek is often more effective at touching, stirring, and awakening the true self in our enemies, in the Other.
But it may be that this is so counterintuitive and seemingly far-fetched that we too often choose the vocal indignation that’s natural to us over the calm humility that’s supernaturally beyond us.
This cycle of violence reminds me of another cycle — the cycle of apostasy that many of us learned about in our undergrad OT survey courses. With this in mind, maybe instead of viewing the prophetic boldness of the Old Testament prophets who tried to awaken the obedience of God’s chosen people as a model to emulate, we are supposed to view it as an unsuccessful approach to avoid — an approach that failed to put a stop to the cycle of apostasy. Perhaps the fact that this was a cycle is evidence of the ineffectiveness of the tactics of the Old Testament prophets. And maybe the humble way that God became incarnate with such low fanfare is meant to show us an alternative to the prophets of old after centuries of their failure. We often fail to recall that Jesus had a very short public ministry on this earth that began about 30 years after he largely kept to himself and — so far as we know — displayed no prophetic boldness.
But some will point to Jesus’ so-called “cleansing of the temple” as an imitable example of prophetic boldness. Yet this type of display is relatively rare for Jesus, and I’m not sure we should have the same boldness of conviction as the One who is fully divine and possess all the authority that this entails that I don’t have (see my short piece on this subject here). I’m also not convinced that Jesus was acting as himself in this scene as he was dramatizing the violence that he would eventually endure at the hands of others. After disrupting the money changers and driving away the animals in the temple court with a whip, he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” about which St. John clarifies that “he spoke of the temple of his body” (Jn. 2:19, 21). His actions were therefore not meant to portray his own impetuousness, but instead mimic and reveal that of his murderers. It’s this boldness and convulsiveness that underpins violence too, and he might be linking the two in his own dramatization.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for passivity (if I’m advocating for anything at all). Quiet doesn’t mean silent. Stifling the creativity of the artists, discrediting the dissidents, and silencing the genuine prophets is what those who profit off of systemic and institutionalized violence want. But maybe the virtues of humility, patience, self-control, and kindness that have their origin in God are forces more powerful than the self-assurance and combativeness of prophetic boldness.