the prophetic mode in the Civil Rights Movement and in everyday politics

On Martin Luther King Day, Kenyatta R. Gilbert published an explanatory article in The Conversation about King’s “prophetic vision.” Gilbert traced King’s rhetorical mode to three “particularly inventive” Black preachers active during the Great Migration: “Baptist pastor Adam C. Powell Sr., the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) pastor Florence S. Randolph and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop Reverdy C. Ransom.” All three were political reformers and community leaders who echoed the Hebrew prophets (as well as the Gospels) in their sermons.

If you’ve made a careful study of King’s own writing and speaking, you will recognize constant evocations of the Biblical prophets. Just for instance, in the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King quotes Amos 5:24 (“But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream”) and Isaiah 40:4 (“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain”).

In fact, it can be a bit of cliché to call King and other Civil Rights Leaders “prophetic.” That combination of words yields 649,000 hits on Google right now. So it’s worth looking a bit closer at the texts of the nineteen biblical books traditionally called Nevi’im, prophecies, to see what we mean when we associate them with the great Civil Rights leaders.

These are heterogeneous texts, containing biographical information, autobiographical passages, dramatic narratives (like Jonah in the whale), reports of the Lord’s words, dialogues between the prophet and the Lord, dreams, acts of these wise men and women, sermons, predictions, and much poetry.

Although this whole body of text enriched King’s speech and thought, I think that we have something more specific in mind when we use the word “prophetic” for his words.

A prophesy, in the narrower sense, often begins with a moral condemnation of the present, often directed explicitly at the most powerful people: the kings, priests, and rich men:

Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them.

For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right. (Amos 5:11-12)

The prophesy may forecast the punishment and fall of these wicked men. “Woe unto you,” says the Lord, through Amos, six verses later. A classic prophesy then predicts a better time, a time of justice. This prediction is not empirical, based on continuing the current trends into the future. Rather, it is moral and hortatory. If the people begin to act righteously, then God will help them make the world better. “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:15).

A Hebrew prophet derives his authority from God’s interactions with him–or her, since Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Avigail, Huldah, and Esther are traditionally named prophets along with the bearded men. In contrast, a modern political prophet should be cautious about claiming direct divine inspiration. Instead, a modern prophet invites the audience to consider a moral description of the present. If they agree, and they behave as recommended, then the prophesy may become true as a result of their coordinated action.

So understood, prophesies can be rather humdrum. You are using the prophetic mode if you stand up at a PTA meeting and say, “The playground is a mess. If we all get together and clean it up this Saturday, the kids will be safer and happier next week.” The divine intervention and high flown language of the King James Version are missing, but you are still submitting a moral condemnation of the present, an exhortation to action, and a vision of the better world that will result.

The problem is that some prophesies are good, and some are bad. The bad ones either describe a morally worse world or demand unproductive actions. A certain President-Elect, for example, promises to make America great again in ways that I consider both unlikely and undesirable. We need methods for distinguishing good prophesies from bad ones. And two dominant modes of thought are unhelpful.

The scientific (and social-scientific) mode is unhelpful because it tries to separate empirical descriptions from moral judgments. Moral judgment is presented as mere opinion, and anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. This mode is also unhelpful because it predicts the future based on data from the past. We can make the future different from the past, but only if we refuse to assume that observed patterns must hold.

The professional mode used in bureaucracies (whether governmental or corporate) is also unhelpful because it is limited to means/ends reasoning. It says: If you want this to happen, you may (or should) do that. But what should you want to happen?

The scientific mode fits neatly together with the professional/bureaucratic mode when institutions use social science to find efficient means to their fixed ends.

The prophetic mode challenges these ways of thinking. A prophetic voice claims that some things really are bad (not merely in the prophet’s opinion), that a better future is possible, and that we can and must create that future by changing how we act. Prophesies are not hypotheses that are either true or false. They are exhortations that we can make true by how we react to them. They should be rooted in the experience of the speaker, the experiences of the audience, and a deeper tradition that preserves many others’ experiences, such as the Biblical background on which King drew so regularly.

King and his fellow African American Christian Civil Rights leaders exemplified prophetic thought. Their texts–together with the ways they were received and used–are models of a form of reasoning that is essential to citizenship in all times and places. Theirs is a gift that we must preserve and pass on.

See also: “an exercise for Martin Luther King Day,” “a different Shakespeare from the one I love” (with a excursus on the King James Version in Black political rhetoric),”the Nehemiah story,” and “homage to Hannah Arendt at The New School” (on “natality” as human freedom from the past).

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.