The Prophethood of All Believers

A church that does not concern itself with the struggle in history for human decency and justice is not a prophetic church.  The prophetic church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional) with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it.  Only through the prophethood of all believers can we together mend our common ways.
James Luther Adams

I first came across the word “prophesy” as a child, in a music class at school where were preparing for the Nativity Play we’d put on just before Christmas.  It was a strange sort of word and seemed to have something to do with predicting the future.  Or, at least, that was the impression I got from the Bible.  I’ve since learned that whoever wrote the book known as Matthew’s Gospel was rather concerned with making sure that people knew that Jesus was indeed the promised savior, to the extent that the writer made sure that the words of Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah applied to Jesus.  (The most extreme example of this is found in Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday, where Jesus is described as stunt-riding two animals at the same time.)

That’s not really what the word “prophesy” means, though.  Rather, it means “to speak truth to power”.  To be sure, that speaking often results in something that sounds like a prediction of future events.  It’s certainly more dramatic for the prophet to not only say “What our society is doing is wrong and we should change our ways,” but to continue by saying “and if we don’t, terrible tragedy will befall us as punishment for our wrong-doing.”  Aside from fatalism, though, that’s not so much predicting the future as it is bringing attention to the fact that injustice has consequences.

Perhaps you’ve found yourself speaking truth to power — at least when pushed.

About ten years ago, when I was working for a university research group, I went through the long, difficult and expensive process of applying for a green card.  A large part of that, I realized, consisted of proving that I was a productive, contributing member of society, and the more evidence I could gather that my research had not only been published but also cited by others, the better. I was nearing the end of that process when a trade magazine wrote an article about some work I’d done. I’d originally published my results along with the graduate student who worked with me and the professor for whom we both worked, and it was the professor’s habit at the time to include an old colleague of his as a co-author on such research papers. This wasn’t because that colleague had contributed directly to the work at hand, but because the professor felt that he owed his friend credit for past collaborations. Such a practice was arguably unethical, and a number of people in the research group objected to it, but the professor was the boss, after all. So when it came to the trade magazine’s article, the magazine’s staff writer interviewed and quoted the professor and his colleague, and neither the graduate student nor myself were even mentioned. It was too late for this article to be included in my green card application packet, but I knew it would have been helpful for the graduate student when she was ready, so I confronted the professor. I took him to task for allowing his old colleague to steal what should have been the graduate student’s limelight, pointing out how important it was for her to get the credit she deserved, as opposed to wasting the opportunity by stroking the ego of someone who didn’t need (or deserve) the credit. The professor could have fired me on the spot, but he listened to my complaint — and even acknowledged his own misgivings on including his friend as a co-author, a habit that he said he would now end.

I’m not sure I could have stood up to authority in such a way if I hadn’t been a Unitarian Universalist.

Building on Christian reformer Martin Luther’s idea of the “priesthood of all believers”, such that every person has direct access to the holy and does not need a church hierarchy to act as intermediary, Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams proposed the “prophethood of all believers”, such that every person is called to speak truth to power, to dismantle structures of oppression, and to transform the world through love.  This, Adams knew, is what is required to grow the Beloved Community where suffering is held with compassion, injustice is resisted with courage and brokenness is soothed with the hope of renewal.  It’s why I believe in Unitarian Universalism, not just as a group of individuals doing the work of growing their own souls, but as an interdependent community speaking up for a world where everyone is valued and loved.  Let us be a prophetic church together.


About acmillard

Andrew serves as minister to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News, Virginia.
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