By Lawrence W. Rodgers,
It is easy to judge one’s time on earth as the worst of times. It is a sort of primacy of one’s era, but humanity has seen many moments where it was on the verge of the worst of its capability. Any period one finds themselves in offers the same opportunity to confront evil or to hide one’s head in the sand. Today there is a need for a prophetic witness. However, should we juxtapose a prophetic witness with pastoral calling? The question needs to be addressed.
The problem with how the word prophetic is used so exclusively toward the rhetorical is it leaves out the practitioner’s moral witness and relegates the prophetic to the orators, academicians, politicians, columnists, philosophers, and street protesters.
The term prophetic is often always used to refer to the rhetorical. The problem with how the word prophetic is used so exclusively toward the rhetorical is it leaves out the practitioner’s moral witness and relegates the prophetic to the orators, academicians, politicians, columnists, philosophers, and street protesters. What about those individuals whose words are seen in their actions?
For instance consider Harriet Tubman who once said, “God’s time is always near. [God] set the North Star in the heavens; [God] gave me the strength in my limbs; [God] meant I should be free.” Hopefully, no one would have the audacity to say that Harriet Tubman’s actions were not prophetic. Similarly, who would have the gall to utter that Tubman’s efforts were not pastoral. Where does the prophetic end and the pastoral begin for Tubman? The prophetic and pastoral bleed together as colors do in a prism. Pastoral is a word which relates to shepherding. A shepherd must feed the flock, she or he must lead the flock, she or he must build the proper structures for the flock, she or he must protect the flock from rustlers, wolves, and the weather. If a rustler steals some sheep, the shepherd must go and advocate for the sheep and get them back. If a wolf comes to attack the sheep, the shepherd must use her or his staff to defend the sheep physically. Furthermore, the shepherd must ensure there is food for the sheep to eat, and a place for the sheep to keep warm in the winter.
When Mary McLeod Bethune recognized the dire need to educate black girls and she went into her limited funds to start a school for black girls was this not prophetic but also pastoral? When Ida B. Wells documented and exposed the massive amount of lynching taking place in America was she behaving prophetically or pastorally? Both!
The fact is that the dichotomy between pastoral and the prophetic leaves out clergy people like Vernon Jones who understood the fundamental need for food security for an emerging black community. The same vision that fuels Heber Brown, III of Baltimore, MD. as he labors with the Black Church Food Security Network. At first glance, one might say that growing vegetables is not prophetic. People who might jump to such a conclusion should caution that there is a danger in saying the loudest is always the most helpful. Consider the prophetic practitioner that is Yasmine Arrington the Founder and Executive Director of Scholarchips, an organization that helps the children of incarcerated individuals go to college. How about Kimberly Bryant the founder of BlackGirlsCode an organization committed to ensuring that black girls are not left illiterate in coding in the age of automation. All of the actions above are prophetic in deed. By no means do we want to diminish the work of the rhetorical agitators but society is only as useful as it’s builders. Furthermore, while philosophy might establish worldview, mores, and values of culture, what sustains the people is the work of the builder-practitioners. Therefore, growing vegetables in the midst of a food desert or serving fresh produce to a malnourished people is very prophetic in deed and not only in word. Also, keeping in mind people who do not control their food source are people who are vulnerable to destruction at the snap of a finger, it is indeed prophetic to call any valley of dry bones to life with inspiration, dictation, cultivation, and development. Helping children go to college who are often marginalized due to the problem of mass incarceration is very prophetic. In an era where automation is taking more and more jobs from the middle class and working classes teaching black girls to code is in deed a prophetic act.
This era needs people who understand that we need prophetic practitioners who balance the need for truth-telling with truth-living and truth-building.
The recognition of exemplars must go beyond just squeaky wheels we must also credit the engines the drivers under the hood of the vehicle of social progress who often go unappreciated and unnoticed, but they work nevertheless. So, what does the era need now? This era needs people who understand that we need prophetic practitioners who balance the need for truth-telling with truth-living and truth-building. We need people whose prophetic witness does not stop with their words but also is seen clearly in their actions.
Our ministries must be inclined towards both the pastoral and prophetic as I envision Tubman, Bethune, and Wells. Our ministries must care for people, advocate for people, and love people simultaneously. Jesus fed the crowd of five-thousand, but he also turned over the tables in the temple, both acts were pastoral and prophetic. Rhetoric is nothing without institutions and resources to solidify it. This means that in our ministries we are concerned with both speaking truth to power but building systems of protection and self-reliance, while also maintaining an honest voice which does not subjugate us to the will of those who wish to do ill to our community and God’s people.
Lawrence W. Rodgers is the pastor of the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore, MD. He has contributed articles to several sources including KineticsLive, Patheos’ R3(Race, Rhetoric, and Religion), Christian Century, The Afro and more. You can follow him @lwrdgrs or his website LawrenceRodgers.com.
Featured Photo Credit: Jacob Lawrence: Harriet Tubman Series
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