On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus broke out in lament for the prophets who preceded him. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you…”
In Luke’s gospel, this particular rant follows a warning from some of the religious leaders. They wanted Jesus to know Herod was after him. “We’re trying to help,” they might well have protested at Jesus’ angry reaction. But Jesus knew better.
He knew that most of us are happy to welcome prophets who announce the renewal of our fortunes or the demise of our enemies. The welcome is somewhat lessened when the prophetic gaze turns to our own corruption. Which is why prophets have a way of getting killed.
But you don’t have to kill a prophet to stifle their voice. You just have to wait till they’re gone… then memorialize them. Sanitize them. Spin their message into something more palatable. Which usually means overlooking oracles that were aimed at us, so we can claim the prophet’s legacy as our own.
It’s no wonder Jesus railed against those who built tombs for the prophets their ancestors had murdered.
Within hours of Nelson Mandela’s death, people were lining up to eulogize him, to claim a piece of his prophetic legacy. One US politician compared Mandela’s fight against apartheid to his own fight against the Affordable Care Act. (Never mind that Mandela made healthcare a universal right in South Africa.)
Others praised Mandela for leading a peaceful transition from apartheid—even though they once branded him a “terrorist” and gave their tacit support to the regime he sought to topple.
We like Mandela’s words of reconciliation and unity. But we shifted uncomfortably in our seats when he called poverty a “social evil” or when he railed against atrocities we’ve committed in our “war on terror.”
We’ve done the same to Martin Luther King, Jr., sanitizing America’s greatest prophetic voice.
These days, we celebrate King as a voice against segregation and discrimination, and rightly so. We happily quote the line about all God’s children joining hands, but how many of us have read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”?
How many of us have taken to heart some of his more radical ideas, like his call for civil disobedience in the face of economic injustice? Or his critique of capitalism? Or his denunciation of violence and war?
Those in power have ways of dealing with prophets like King. Memorialize them. Give them a national holiday. Eulogize them. Take the oath of office on one of their Bibles. And for God’s sake, don’t trouble yourself with what they might’ve said about us if they were alive today.
We love to claim the popular bits of King’s prophetic legacy as our own… and sweep the rest under the rug.
The church has not escaped this tendency to sanitize the prophetic voice. We feel it at Christmastime, surrounded by placid nativity scenes and plush Santas. We recite scriptures about “peace on earth.” But do we pause long enough to consider what that really means—or what it requires? Was it merely a vague expression of goodwill? Or was it something more incendiary—say, a direct challenge to Rome’s status as the guardian of peace on earth?
Christmas is the one time of year even most Protestants pay tribute to the Virgin Mary, but have we listened—really listened—to her song about reversing the fortunes of the rich and the hungry?
We repeat Isaiah’s proclamation that “unto us a child is born” and that the “government will be upon his shoulders.” But do we listen when he the policies of this child’s government, when he reveals what membership in his kingdom requires?
We mustn’t settle for the sanitized version of the prophets, ancient or modern. Their real message is harder for us to hear—but so much more important, too.