Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Film negative by photographer Warren K. Leffler, 1963. From the U.S. News & World Report Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Photograph shows a procession of African Americans carrying signs for equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing, and an end to bias.

Calling all prophets

August 21, 2023

Throughout my life, I’ve encountered all sorts of definitions for the word prophet. For years, I thought broken-down marquee signs resting on dying grass beside dirt roads signaled the coming of the next prophet or prophetess. I imagined these individuals showing up like a force of nature for a mid-week revival in some tin roof-tottering tabernacle. Their presence, words, and promises of the Holy Ghost were dangerous instruments of revelation. I found prophets to be scary.

I grew older, a little wiser. Still leery of attending any sort of revival, even if dinner on the grounds was promised, I received other ways of viewing prophets and what they did. Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination helped strip away the 1-900-Miss Cleo soothsayer imagery I had so linked with the vocation. This was a big step.

But it was Kathleen Norris’ work The Cloister Walk that resonated with my spirit. Her words describe the prophet as society’s “necessary other.”[i] It’s a moniker that struck me. Like an artist or poet, Norris’ prophets were necessary because they possessed something that needed to be heard and seen but that people perhaps didn’t want to hear or see. Prophets are complex in nature, offering language laced with abrasiveness. I came away thinking the purpose of a prophet was to start conversations rooted in necessity.

However, Norris also uses the word “other” to describe their role. An “other” is considered the supplemental, the additional, or the extra. The one who offers the counterpoint, the different perspective, and the dissenter. Those “other” voices are essential in the biblical narrative, frequently attributed as representing God’s message to the masses.

With the help of Norris, Brueggeman, and many others, I’ve since been on the lookout for prophets—those I felt spoke directly to me.

Prophets like Will Campbell—a renegade Baptist minister who, in 1957, marched alongside 9 African American girls on their first day of school as they integrated the previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Campbell was the only white person at the inaugural Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This same man would later minister to members of the Ku Klux Klan. He even met and ministered to the killer of his friend, Martin Luther King Jr, James Earl Ray, because he believed “if you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love them all.” Campbell knew that white supremacy was manipulating poor whites in its own unique way.

I came across Carl and Anne Braden in Louisville, Kentucky. Carl and Anne, seeing the damage and unfairness of redlining, which allowed suburban housing access to whites but not African Americans, were charged and prosecuted for sedition by the state in 1954 for helping purchase a home for Andrew Wade and his family. The sedition charge came because Wade was a black man.

I also found a prophet in Howard “Buck” Kester. As a college student, Kester would visit the ghettos of Poland and see the similarities between how Jews were treated in Europe and how African Americans were treated in the States. He would come back changed, striving to unite poor whites and blacks around a common cause. His work with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union as one of its core leaders helped forge powerful relationships between the two groups.

The end of the relevance of the church will not come at the hands of a pandemic, AI technology, or a particular party gaining power; no, it will come at our own doings. It will come when prophets stop speaking.

Some of you may be picking up on a theme here; I’m talking about white folks, prophets, in the South. Sometimes we have to see others like us doing the work we want to do before we can do it. As a pot-stirring Southerner, so was the case for me.

I look at such prophets as individuals who challenge the larger narrative. They are invitation givers who ask society to reflect. They are course changers who tell us it doesn’t have to be this way. They have a participatory message of involvement. They ask for a response, one way or another.

I guess you could say prophets have been on my mind. How could they not when witnessing our world? Protestors responded with demonstrations of civil unrest every day. Holy agitators feeling a burning in their bones have a message needing release. And it all starts with taking a step back and receiving that “necessary” vision, that “other” word one doesn’t already have. Producing a response of repentance to say, “No, I can’t go in this direction anymore.”

For me, this means I can’t keep allowing injustice to permanently affect my community.

I can’t stand by and enable lobbying committees to pass legislation that oppresses minority groups in this country and worldwide.

I can’t stand by and hear these statistics revealing the disparity in the criminal justice system.

I can’t uphold the construct of racial supremacy and allow it to keep the division between people.

I can’t stand by and say, “Well, that’s just too political.”

I can’t stand by and allow comments and jokes of racism, misogyny, and bigotry to go unchallenged.

I can’t let a world that keeps on spinning go on, knowing a gender pay gap exists that will one day affect my daughters.

I can’t stand by and allow the elite to make laws that discriminate against those in the LGBTQIA+ community, nor can I allow those with religious authority to falsely condemn them for who they are. Not when I know they are children of God.

I can’t stand by and be silent while broken families are at our borders.

I can’t keep silent and watch young men and women being deployed to war with the belief that redemptive violence is the answer because it never is.

I’m done with all of this.

I can’t be a peacekeeper anymore. Instead, I want to be a peacemaker.

For too long, those who Christ came for, the broken, the suffering, the oppressed, the shackled, the beaten down have cried out to God, aimed their voices at the church, and said, “Here, here is our problem!” And the church’s response has been to keep the peace, remove itself from the issue, and not talk about it. I can’t be part of that anymore. Not if I want to be a prophet like Campbell, the Bradens, and Kester.

I hear the concern from folks. There is fear about the future of the universal church. They worry the church will be replaced, and other institutions will swoop in and fill an individual’s time. They fear what many old prophets discussed: the coming doom and destruction.

The end of the relevance of the church will not come at the hands of a pandemic, AI technology, or a particular party gaining power; no, it will come at our own doings. It will come when prophets stop speaking, and people stop saying, “I can’t.”

And when that day comes, we ought to just let it die.

Put that on a marquee sign.

Justin Cox is senior pastor, Second Baptist Church in Suffield, Connecticut. He received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at McAfee School of Theology.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Norris, Kathleen. The Cloister Walk. New York: Riverhead, 1996.

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