The word “prophet” usually brings to mind those men we read about in the Old Testament who prepared the way for the coming of Jesus. The Isaiah’s, Ezekiel’s and Micah’s of old – people who were special, set apart from others. They had visions… a little like oracles. But if that is all we envision when we hear the word prophet, we are missing the truth that, as Christian disciples, we are all called to be prophets.
When I ponder what it means to be a prophet in our world today, the first words that come to my mind are ones that, as a child, I first heard uttered by Robert Kennedy (although they actually originate with George Bernard Shaw). “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘why’? I dream things that never were and say, ‘why not’?”
Prophets have the ability to look beyond the world as it is and to see what it could be. John Neafsy (in A Sacred Voice is Calling) speaks of a prophetic imagination as one that enables us “to look beyond the world as it is to the world as is could be or should be” – to imagine what God’s kingdom on earth could look like.
That means, by definition, that prophets challenge the patterns of the world in which we live, which means something more than simply criticizing and tearing down. One of my heroes, Shane Claiborne, in a wonderful book titled The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, makes a useful distinction between prophets and protesters. He writes:
Protesters are everywhere, but I think the world is desperately in need of prophets, those little voices that can point us toward another future. …Whether in the church or in circles of social dissent, there are plenty of people who define themselves by what they are not, whose identity revolves around what they are against rather than what they are for.
Protesters are still on the fringe like satellites, revolving around the system. But prophets and poets lead us into a new world, beyond simply yelling at the old one.
In other words, protesters do a good job of standing on the sidelines pointing out the problems, of telling us what is wrong. But they tend not to offer alternatives or solutions.
Pointing out what is wrong is not all that hard. When I was a high school debater, it didn’t take me long to realize that debating the negative side was always easier than debating the affirmative side. It is always easier to tear down than to build up.
That doesn’t mean protest is not useful. The Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, has valuably raised consciousness along several lines, notwithstanding criticism that it lacks a concrete game plan. We need people who point to what is wrong. But protest alone is never enough.
What the world needs – desperately – is people who can point the way to a new reality, to point us toward another future.
That is our call as Christians – to be prophets, not just protesters. Our call is not merely to stand out in the square railing against the world as it exists, but to transform the world into the kingdom of God.
A good question you might sit with is: am I a prophet or a protester? I’m guessing that we are all, at least sometimes, protesters. So the next step in your reflection might be – in those times when I’ve been a protester, how might I have taken the next step and been a prophet? How do I move from the easier task to the harder one?
I would be remiss if I ended without acknowledging that there is a risk here. It is not just that it is difficult to build up rather than simply tear down. It is also that, if what we are called to do as prophets is to challenge the patterns of the world in which we live, we are going to be preaching some pretty unpopular things. And that doesn’t go over very well with the existing world order.
Shane Claiborne once quipped that “prophets usually get killed” and it is not hard to evidence the truth of that even in only fairly recent times: Dietrich Bonhoeffer…Martin Luther King…Oscar Romero. And, even when they don’t get themselves killed, prophets are often vilified and condemned. That was true in Biblical times and it is true today.
So it is a tough task, but one we are each called to – to be prophets, to speak truth to power, even when doing so may mean personal loss, perhaps tremendous personal loss. Accomplishing that task requires enormous courage and enormous faith.
Let us pray for the strength to respond to the call, for the grace to be the prophets our world so desperately needs.
 Susan Stabile is a spiritual director, Affiliate Senior Fellow of the St. John’s University Vincentian Center for Church and Society, a former adjunct member of St. Ignatius Retreat House, and the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law and Professor at the University of St. Thomas. She blogs at Creo en Dios!