Can a president be a prophet?

Can a president be a prophet?

My wife often gives me the look when I come out of the closet dressed for the day. The look means, “You can’t wear that with that.” And I get it. Some things do not go together, and the clash between them is unsettling. I think this is true for me in more ways than clothing. I believe our world is in need of prophetic voices, yet I find myself most often titled president of a university.  

So I was reading the Richard Rohr online devotional guide last week and his guest editor, John Dear, was writing about prophets. And he wrote, “Prophets cannot be at the center of any social structure. Rather, they are on the edge of the outside. They cannot be fully insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from the outside either. Throughout history, they have spoken truth to power, regardless of the ruler’s political persuasion. They are able to lovingly criticize their own group, recognizing their own complicity….”

A president is the ultimate insider, at the center of a social structure, and far from the outside edge. So…can a president be a prophet? 

The same writer suggests these 12 signs of a true prophet.

  1. A prophet is someone who listens attentively to the word of God, a contemplative, a mystic who hears God and takes God at God’s word, and then goes into the world to tell the world God’s message. So a prophet speaks God’s message fearlessly, publicly, without compromise, despite the times, whether fair or foul.
  2. The prophet is centered on God. The prophet does not do his or her own will or speak his or her own message.
  3. A prophet interprets the signs of the times. The prophet is concerned with the world, here and now, in the daily events of the whole human race, not just our little backyard or some ineffable hereafter. The prophet sees the big picture—war, starvation, poverty, corporate greed, nationalism, systemic violence, nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction. The prophet interprets these current realities through God’s eyes, not through the eyes of analysts or pundits or Pentagon press spokespeople.
  4. A prophet takes sides (the “bias toward the bottom” or the “preferential option for the poor”). A prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. . . . A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless.
  5. All the prophets of the Hebrew Bible are concerned with one main question: justice and peace. They call people to act justly and create a new world of social and economic justice, which will be the basis for a new world of peace.
  6. Prophets simultaneously announce and denounce.
  7. A prophet confronts the status quo. With the prophet, there is no sitting back. The powerful are challenged, empires resisted, systemic justices exposed. Prophets vigorously rock the leaky ship of the state and shake our somnolent complacency. . . .
  8. For the prophet, the secure life is usually denied. More often than not the prophet is in trouble. Consequently, the prophet ends up outcast, rejected, harassed, and marginalized—and, eventually, punished, threatened, targeted, bugged, followed, jailed, and sometimes killed.
  9. Prophets bring the incandescent word to the very heart of grudging religious institutions. There the prophet confronts the blindness and complacency of the religious leader—the bishops and priests who keep silent amid national crimes; the ministers who trace a cross over industries of death and rake blood money into churchly coffers. The institution that goes by the name of God often turns away the prophet of God.
  10. True prophets take no delight in calling down heavenly bolts. Rather, they bear an aura of compassion and gentleness. They are good and decent, kind and generous.
  11. Prophets are visionaries. In a culture of blindness, they offer insight. In a time of darkness, they light our path. When no one else can see, the prophet can. And what they see is a world imbued with God’s purposes: a world of justice and peace and security for all, a world where all of creation is safe and at rest. The prophet holds aloft the vision—it’s ours for the asking. The prophet makes it seem possible, saying “Let’s make it come true and we shall be blessed.”
  12. Finally, the prophet offers hope. Now and then, they might sound despairing, but only because they have a heightened awareness of the world’s darkest realities. These things overwhelm us; we would rather not hear. But hearing is our only hope. For behind the prophet’s unvarnished vision lies a hope we seldom understand—the knowledge that God is with us, that the kingdom of God is at hand. To realize that hope, we must trust ourselves to plumb the depths and trust God to see us through. (John Dear, Center for Action and Contemplation Meditations@cac.org)

I read this list and fall short in so many ways. I can hear my friends saying, “I know Amos and Micah. I’ve preached Amos and Micah. And you, sir, are no Amos or Micah.” And I would not protest this estimation. Yet I find myself refusing to believe that the leaders of our educational institutions (yes, us ultimate insiders) can refuse to be prophetic and, at the same time, hope for a better world.

Maybe this is why I talk to myself a lot. Most of the time it sounds like a prophet arguing with a president. I believe that the leaders of educational institutions are important voices for public critique, moral clarity, compassion for the weakest among us, and a just world. If we presidents just run the machinery of institutions and stay off everyone’s sensitivity radar, how will a new generation taste the kingdom of God?   

In the Old Testament, the prophet, priest, and king were three different people and each could play a separate role. Yet in the New Testament, Jesus fulfills all three simultaneously. And this prophet-priest-king Jesus among the flock becomes the pattern for Christian leaders in the church. As a pastor I tried to embrace all three roles: the healing/sacramental work of the priest, the justice-doing/resource-tending work of the king, and the culture-critiquing/hope-bearing work of the prophet. 

But in our culture, the president of a social structure (like a university) is viewed as a political figure whose every move is judged to be in alliance with powers other than the kingdom of God. And it is impossible to work in institutions and not be somehow complicit in the dark powers of the world. Sometimes a university president sees this and sometimes we are blind to ourselves. This work humbles me like nothing I’ve ever done before – to hold power that appears to be this-world political but then to exercise the same as an expression of the kingdom of God breaking into the world through critique and hope. 

After 12 years, I should have this figured out. But I don’t. Maybe the secret is to live in the tension between the two. Maybe I can wear that with that. Here’s hoping.

 

Comments

  1. David Williams says:

    Love it Dan, and love you! So good. Thank you for being a good president with a prophetic bent.

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