Is Anyone Listening to the Prophets Anymore?

U.S. Catholic, August 1996 | Go to article overview

Is Anyone Listening to the Prophets Anymore?


Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. has spent his entire life associating with prophets--both biblical and modern day--and he's discovered that they all say the same thing:

"They're speaking to every segment of any culture. They're giving hope to those that are under the heel. They're making those, like ourselves--who are somewhat in possession--uneasy. And then, to authority, they're absolutely ruthless about the kind of power that crushes people and wages wars."

As a peace activist, Berrigan is known for his arrests for burning draft cards during the Vietnam War and pouring blood on missiles to protest nuclear-arms buildup. As a poet, writer, teacher, and theologian, he is known for challenging even the most established conventions.

Often called a prophet himself, Berrigan writes about the Old Testament prophets in his latest books Minor Prophets, Major Themes (Rose Hill Books, 1995) and the soon-to-be-released Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears (Fortress Press, September 1996).

How did you become inspired to write about the minor prophets?

This book has been about ten years in preparation. I was teaching a graduate course on the minor prophets at Villanova two years ago, and before that, for a decade I had been offering retreats and workshops around the country on the prophets.

The book also comes out of a Bible-study group called Kairos--a Greek word meaning the right time and the right moment--that has been going for 17 years. We are an ecumenical group of Jews and Christians who study the Bible together and who are interested in everything from homelessness to nuclear arms. And many of us get arrested together.

I also ventured to teach the prophets in a secular setting in Colorado to a class of undergrads. They had never really opened a Bible before. And that was quite a challenge, and very interesting. I presented the writings of the prophets as a great story and as resources in the struggle for justice. A lot of these kids were already doing very good things around their campus and in town, so it was kind of native ground.

So what things do the prophets tell us in terms of justice?

The common thread, and what makes the books of the prophets unique, is that there's no comparable document of that era--from the eighth to the fifth century before Christ. There's nothing like it in any other literature. As far as I've been able to understand, in most other cultures the anti-prophets were the only other prophets. They were just lackeys of the king, blessing his decisions. Whereas the Hebrew prophets were offering a very stern and forbidding judgment upon what was going on in the corridors of power.

What happened to those who spoke out against the authorities?

Tradition holds a very harsh outcome in regard to many of the prophets, both minor and major. Even if we don't know the facts, we know the tradition holds that they were murdered. Jeremiah was martyred in Egypt by his own people when he sought refuge there, and then the tradition about Isaiah says he was also martyred. It goes that way for the minor prophets, too, although with less certainty. But we can be fairly sure that they were kicked out if they weren't killed.

How effective were the prophets at reforming their worlds? It drives me nuts when I hear people say that we're not called to be effective, we're called to be faithful.

Well, I certainly wish that you become successful then. As for the prophets, the only one effective was the clown Jonah. He did a big thing in Ninevah--converting everybody, but the story is so absurd.

If you put the last chapters of Jonah next to the Acts of the Apostles and the account of what happened soon after Pentecost, Ninevah wins hands down. Everybody, even the beasts, went into mourning and fasting, and this whole enormous city, which never really existed on the scale described in the Book of Jonah, is converted just because this guy opens his mouth.

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