Prophets, Kings, and Black Lives Matter

Prophets, Kings, and Black Lives Matter
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My hometown of Minneapolis was recently captivated by a now-familiar drama that played out on our streets. First, a black man (Jamar Clark) died at the hands of the police. Next, protesters led by the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets, and for 18 days and nights maintained a protest outside the 4th Precinct house. As the demonstration became an encampment, government officials became frustrated. They felt that they had met demands, held meetings, and maintained a dialogue with the protesters, yet the protests continued. In other cities, the same dynamic has played out.

The bafflement of those in charge is ancient. It is the frustration that kings have always expressed when confronted with prophets. Prophets refuse to go away until their moral voice is heard and understood. They don't want money or power, and they don't care if they are threatened or imprisoned. They want nothing less than a change in culture, and an acknowledgment of truth. They have never played by the rules of politics.

Consider King David and the prophet Nathan. David did a terrible, immoral thing: He impregnated Bathsheba and to hide his adultery he sent Bathsheba's husband to be killed at the front in a war against the Ammonites. The King is confronted by the prophet Nathan, who tells him a story about a rich man who entertains a poor guest by taking the guest's only lamb to cook for dinner. Hearing the story, David rails against anyone who would do such a thing, saying that they deserve death. Nathan then confronts him: "You are that man!"

Nathan, in our nation, is the men and women of Black Lives Matter. The very name is a statement of deep morality, a claim on human dignity. In city after city, they have not been satisfied with promises or grand jury investigations. As prophets do, they ask for a change in moral values: That we recognize the essential truth that racism exists, and is wrong.

Like the king in story after story, we do not want to hear what the prophet is telling us. There is a reason we don't want to hear it, too: We do not want to sacrifice the status quo, which makes us privileged and comfortable. Christians like myself know well the tale of Jesus as prophet, when he is approached by a rich young ruler. The wealthy man asks the prophet what he must do to enter heaven. Jesus wonders if he follows the Commandments, and the rich man says that he does. That is not the end of the encounter, though the young ruler (like the official who meets the initial demands of Black Lives Matter) probably hopes that it is. Jesus continues, and tells the man that he must sell all that he has and give it to the poor--he must sacrifice the privilege that defines him. The man is shocked, and leaves in grieving. It is the same frustration our political leaders feel now when Black Lives Matter insists on talking about giving up white privilege, even when initial demands have been met. Morality is not bargained for in mere things and actions. Prophets insist on a new way of seeing the world.

American history is full of prophet/king encounters. Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, despite his name, a prophet rather than a king, who refused to run for office. Prophets seek influence, not power, after all. The revolutionaries who began a war with King George were prophets, too, not satisfied with the King's attempts to assuage them with anything less than a new moral paradigm, freedom. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe wielded influence rather than power in presenting a truth that others did not want to see. President Lincoln, who heeded Douglass and Stowe, knew well what prophets were, as he often quoted Isaiah. He was rare in his wisdom; as a king, he saw the prophets for what they were.

It is the long view that reveals the truths prophets may bear. The rioters at Stonewall and the suffragettes were reviled in their time, but not in ours; prophets who carry forth a truth have a valuable ally in the lens of history and the passage of time.

Yes, prophets make us uncomfortable. They stand outside the gates and yell what we don't want to hear. They demand a sacrifice of privilege. But especially in this nation, formed by rabble-rousers with little beyond "These truths, which we hold to be self-evident," we should be open to prophecy and the power of a river deeper than our politics.

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