Voiced in Paradox: Prophecy and the Contemporary Church

Carolyn J. Sharp

The legacy of ancient Israelite prophecy has been robustly appropriated in traditions of Christian social justice. There may be no more iconic representation of the prophetic voice than the resonant cadences of Martin Luther King, Jr., exhorting his audience to persevere in the face of entrenched White racism until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).1

Prophecy in this register is an act of witness: speaking truth to power, as William Sloane Coffin has said.2 The prophet may offer challenges about the misuse of political influence, as did the savvy court prophet Nathan when he entrapped King David through the heartrending story of the little ewe lamb (2 Samuel 12). Or the prophet may decry economic exploitation perpetrated by the rich, as did the brilliant ironist Amos in his invective against the sense of privilege that had become narcotic for the elite of eighth-century Israel.

But prophecy in Scripture offers more than a comfortable model for the uncompromising indictment of others. The biblical prophetic books testify in complex ways to God’s truth for living communities. Further, the appropriation of biblical prophecy by Christian believers must be seasoned by the recognition that all have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23) and that we dare not judge others (Matt 7:1-5, Luke 6:41-42). Honoring our Creator’s redemptive purpose requires that we speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). Jesus’ teaching invites us to inhabit a mature prophetic praxis that is grounded – always, seventy times seven! – in forgiveness.

We would do well to consider the nature of our contemporary cultural moment, which many have named postmodern. Technologies of globalization have created a world with porous boundaries and infinite possibilities for those with economic wealth and political capital to promote their own ideologies, for good or ill. Living communities today are geographically expansive, highly culturally fluid, and as diverse as Internet access and transnational travel will allow. Because communities are dynamic, hybridized webs of relationships in a process of constant redefinition, no single story of origins or identity will suffice any longer, whether for a single individual or for a community. Some lament the postmodern turn. But others of us understand the fluidity of contemporary identity as liberating, a heady freedom from coercive meta narratives that never truly welcomed us to begin with.

The Church dares take little for granted these days. Many in the pews on Sunday are believers relatively new to the faith or formed in another tradition. The average age of M.Div. students is getting younger across the country; incoming students may have had little background in church work and minimal exposure to Scripture. Race, sexuality, and gender do not mean what they once seemed to mean, because old assumptions are finally being resisted at their epistemological core.3 The Church is living into an identity that is becoming increasingly globally configured, ethnically hybrid, and decentered from European and North American cultural narratives, as Christian communities in the global South gain new members at rates exponentially higher than churches in the northern hemisphere. Many competing truths illumine and complicate our common life together.4 Christian faith these days bespeaks a paradoxical Church living in the interstices among contradictory narratives, understanding its own provisionality while nevertheless proclaiming the Gospel boldly, bearing in its own embodied life the dissonances, incoherences, and conflicting visions of a Body of Christ that is continually being transformed.

So how might we take up the prophetic voices of Scripture in this dynamic time of paradox for the Church and for the world? Two aspects of biblical prophecy can help us to envision the prophetic role today, aspects that have not traditionally been emphasized in social-justice movements. In what follows, we will consider the pathos of the prophet in community and the self-reflective writtenness of the prophetic word.

Prophetic pathos in community

I have become a laughingstock all day long;
      everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
      I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the LORD has become
      for me a reproach and a derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention Him,
or speak any more in His name,”
      then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. (Jer 20:7-9)

Jeremiah’s prophetic vocation cost him dearly in the intense political opposition he faced. The suffering he had to witness was horrendous: there was no “balm in Gilead” for the anguished Jeremiah or his people (8:22). Pathos embodied in community was the very heart of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry. The Word of God burned in Jeremiah like fire. But he did not voice that Word from a place of security and privilege – he prophesied in fetters. Jeremiah shows us that a bone-deep commitment to living in community is essential to authentic witness.

Contemporary prophecy likewise must spring from rootedness within our communities, and we must be willing to suffer with others. In his recent book, To Live in Peace: Biblical Prophecy and the Changing Inner City, Mark Gornik reflects on intentionally relocating to Sandtown, a desperately blighted urban neighborhood in Baltimore, to devote more than ten years of prophetic advocacy among the people there. Gornik knows that a truly God- bearing church “incarnates itself within the community and becomes one with its neighbors in the struggle.”5 This incarnational presence is radically different from tourism or charity. Gornik says, 

I am not referring to charity, relief, or compassion, but to focused activity that establishes a healthier and more just community. The emphasis is not on programs as ends in themselves or on the renewal of place apart from people, but on the development of people and the celebration of their gifts and callings in the context of their social and material world.6

Prophets make themselves present to real engagement in living communities – offering their “souls and bodies,” in the Eucharistic formulation, for Christ’s redeeming work with the suffering. Prophets must prepare spiritually for imprisonment, threats, deprivation, fear – and for the constraints that those things place on the moral imagination. Prophets must prepare to meet the despair of those who starve in the shadows of economic power, those who stumble traumatized and destitute through landscapes of tribal conflict and international war— and then they must speak a prophetic word out of that pathos, that lived commitment to staying present to brokenness.

Theological education has a crucial role to play here. The currency of “pedagogies of engagement”7 – teaching that prioritizes collaborative work and field-based learning across disciplines – raises important curriculum and policy questions for theological schools about how we can best prepare students for prophetic ministry. Imagine a divinity school trustee meeting devoted entirely to the issue of fostering engaged prophetic ministry!8 Change would come. For any theological school that funds and resources this preparation for contemporary prophecy will see the light of the Gospel transforming communities and human hearts as never before.

Writing the prophetic word

Go now; write it before them on a tablet, and inscribe it in a book, so that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever. (Isa 30:8)

The Israelite prophets shouted God’s Word from Temple gate and city square; they pleaded with kings and wrestled with priests. They performed the terror of God’s Word using rotting figs, shattered pottery, barley cakes baked on camel dung, even marriage with (oh, the drama!) sexually autonomous women. Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea offered all of themselves in their efforts to become transparent to God’s purposes. They knew that trenchant tones and vivid tableaux could fire the spiritual imagination, could draw the believer irresistibly into an encounter with the will of God. But displays of brilliant oratory and dramatic technique were only the beginning. The prophets also wrote. They wrote poetry and stories and exhortations and prayers. They risked writing in order that the power of God’s Word might reach peoples near and far, contemporary and yet unborn. After King Jehoiakim destroyed Jeremiah’s first scroll column by column, the scribe Baruch rewrote the entire thing in a defiant gesture of political and theological power.9 Isaiah implored his disciples to preserve in writing his vision of God’s purposes, so that it might speak a living word of witness to those who were yet to encounter God in another time.

Prophecy in the contemporary Church, too, must witness across geographical distance and through time. Martin Luther King, Jr., could say, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” He was present in Birmingham, yes – but, equally important, he wrote enduring words from there.10 Civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois gave countless speeches and taught classes, and those unquestionably had an impact through his decades of work for racial equity. But he also wrote feverishly, virtually every day, no matter what other obligations clamored for his attention. Du Bois wrote as a man possessed – no, as a prophet obsessed with proclaiming a word of truth in any way he could, through anthropological studies, editorials in the NAACP. monthly The Crisis, newspaper articles, letters to scholars and politicians, autobiographical writing, essays, historical books, novels, and dramaturgy.11 In the “After-Thought” to his monumental The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois offers this about the prophetic power of writing:

Hear my cry, O God the Reader; vouchsafe that this my book fall not still-born into the world-wilderness. Let there spring, Gentle One, from out its leaves vigor of thought and thoughtful deed to reap the harvest wonderful… . Thus in Thy good time may infinite reason turn the tangle straight, and these crooked marks on a fragile leaf be not indeed  


The contemporary prophetic voice must leave its own “crooked marks on a fragile leaf,” must risk the accountability and visibility of the written word in order to transform lives shaped by texts, text messaging, and slogans. In our global communities, writing has become an essential means of engagement. See prophecy at work in a blog such as that of Christian Scharen at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture (http://faithasawayoflife.typepad.com/blog/). Listen for prophecy on a Christian political Web site such as that of Tennessee state senator Roy Herron (www.faithfuldemocrats.com), or a listserv dedicated to protecting the integrity of all God’s creatures, such as the Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare (enaw@yahoogroups.com). In my parish, we are engaging many more people in an electronically mediated yearlong study of the book of Isaiah than we could ever have enticed to show up at weekly meetings (visitors welcome: isaiah_list@wu.wss.yale. edu). The fruits of written prophecy promise to be abundant indeed in this technological age.

Prophetic truth voiced in paradox

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me. (Isa 49:16)

The Isaiah tradition speaks a paradoxical word of hope into the experience of trauma and exile. With smoke still rising from the ruins of Jerusalem in the cultural background of this text, the Isaiah tradition dares to proclaim that God will not forget God’s people. The nursing mother’s intense care for her child is as nothing compared with God’s compassion. Pathos is here: this God of love has tears streaming down Her face, because God has witnessed the devastation of Jerusalem and the anguish of a beloved people. Writing is here, too. Jeremiah and Ezekiel had eaten scrolls (Jer 15:16, Ezek 2:9-3:3), bringing honeyed divine writing into their bodies. Now God’s people are inscribed on the very palms of the hands of God, indelibly etched into the being of the Holy One who creates, touches, transforms. The Creator of the Universe can do nothing – the metaphor of hands makes this clear – without remembering and caring for Her people.

So must prophets be in the contemporary Church: willing to suffer in and for our communities, willing to inscribe the prophetic truth of God’s grace everywhere so that we, too, can do nothing without remembering and caring for those whom God has made. Jeremiah encourages us to stay present to our broken and divided communities, to wrestle and lament and hope alongside him. Isaiah encourages us to write – poems, stories, essays, songs, prayers – so that we may bear witness beyond ourselves.

Christians live in paradox. We have been welcomed into God’s people only late, as a wild branch grafted into a vine long tended and loved (Rom 11:17-24). We seek to speak the wild truth of Christ into a world that does not understand incarnation and knows little of mercy, yet we polemicize endlessly and wound each other within a Church that seems to forget mercy almost as often as does the secular world. Naming injustice must continue to be a central part of scripturally grounded prophecy, of course. We still need the fulminations of Amos and Micah, within the Church’s walls no less than outside. But we would do well to move beyond the ungenerous indictment of others that so often characterizes contemporary political and theological discourse. Prophecy is much more than that. Prophecy is courageous presence in communities that suffer. Prophecy is writing words of truth so that the poor and the powerless may be inscribed on the hands of all who take up those texts and read. The Gospel demands nothing less.


1 Martin Luther King, Jr., in his incomparable “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on 28 August 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

2 William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 63. The full quotation is relevant: “Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation. Especially I would hope that Christians would see that the compassion that moved the Good Samaritan to act charitably – that same compassion prompted biblical prophets to confront injustice, to speak truth to power, as did Jesus, who, though more than a prophet, was certainly nothing less.”

3 See in the Spring 2006 issue of Reflections the essay by Virginia Ramey Mollencott, “Are There Really Only Two Genders?”

4 For a helpful assessment of biblical interpretation in the postmodern age, see Dennis T. Olson, “Between the Tower of Unity and the Babel of Pluralism: Biblical Theology and Leo Perdue’s The Collapse of History,” pp. 350-58 in Troubling Jeremiah, ed. A. R. Pete Diamond, Kathleen M. O’Connor, and Louis Stulman; Sheffield (Sheffield Academic Press, 1999). 

5 Mark R. Gornik, To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002), 113.

6 Gornik, To Live in Peace, 129.

7 The phrase comes from Russ Edgerton’s influential “Education White Paper,” written in the fall of 1997 when he served as director of education for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

8 Noteworthy here is the innovative school that Mark Gornik now heads: the City Seminary of New York (http://www.cityseminaryny.org), which is committed to intercultural education for urban peace ministry.

9 Walter Brueggemann says of the “dangerous, bold process of bookmaking” in Jeremiah 36, “the conflict evoked by the scroll is between royal power and scroll power… . [I]n some inscrutable way, liberated prophetic imagination and experience take the form of a scroll… . [S]uch texted reality is a great and relentless enemy of silence… .This text authorizes the mute to speak and to know what to say in the face of life-canceling power.” See Brueggemann, “Texts That Linger, Words That Explode,” 1-19 in his Texts That Linger, Words That Explode (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 8–9.

10 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written on 16 April 1963 and subsequently published in his book, Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

11 See the magisterial two-volume biography of Du Bois by David Levering Lewis: W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, and W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919- 1963, (New York: Henry Holt, 1993 and 2000).

12 Reprinted in W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings (Library of America; New York: Viking, 1986), 547.

Carolyn Sharp is Associate Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale Divinity School. Professor Sharp’s research explores aspects of the composition, redaction, and rhetoric of Hebrew Scripture texts.