Prophets Among Us

Colin Kaepernick and the Prophetic Witness of Peaceful Protest

By Alexis Waggoner | 9.25.2017

I taught a class on Prophetic Imagination in the Hebrew Scriptures this Sunday. When I teach on the prophets, I always ask: Are there prophets today? I point to people like Martin Luther King, Cornel West, Wendall Berry, Maya Angelou as those who performed or currently perform the task of truth-telling in our own time. Shortly after I left church Sunday, I was reminded of another, even more current, example of a prophet among us. Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest, and all the circumstances swirling around it, highlights the prophet’s experience, task, and treatment.

The Biblical prophets had one foot in the kingdom of God, one foot in the kingdom of culture. They drew on the wisdom and experience from both — holding culture accountable to their commitment to a just and loving God.

Colin is certainly exemplifying this, and in doing so lives into a culture of prophetic imagination going back to ancient Israel.

What do we mean by prophet? 

We often equate Biblical “prophecy” with “future-telling,” but that is actually not the case. What we see in the Hebrew scriptures is that a prophet may predict something which will happen in the future, but this is just a by-product. In these cases, the prophet’s task is to bring a message from God that people need to hear. To move people toward justice, toward truth, toward the message of redemption and renewal that scriptures spell out.

In understanding Biblical prophecy this way, it’s a two-way relationship: It’s a relationship with God wherein the prophet is discerning God’s voice and message of truth; and it's a relationship with the community to which the prophet is speaking such that the prophet speaks to a specific context and experience.

There’s another layer here too: If we further examine the work of the Biblical prophets, they generally speak to communities they are a part of — but from the margins, standing in tension with the predominant culture. Certainly this isn’t always the case. Prophetic work can be done by people who are removed from a community but still have that burning fire of prophetic truth to bring to a situation. However, I would argue that for the community to respond in true transformation to the prophetic message, there needs to be a level of relationship.

O troubler of Israel

Just look at two prophets who worked during the time of Ahab — a king in Israel “more wicked than all who were before him” (I Kings 16:30). According to the way the author tells the story, Ahab had been relying on the priests of Baal for wisdom and insight, but Israel is in the midst of a drought so Elijah appears on the scene to bring God’s truth to the situation: Stop relying on these other gods and recognize that God is the one that provides (I Kings 18). Elijah goes on to defeat the priests of Baal in a rather dramatic showdown. The drought ends, but Elijah flees for his life (I Kings 19:3).

Ahab repents and God forgives him, but a few chapters later he’s kind of back to his old ways. This time, he’s replaced the priests of Baal with “prophets” of God, but these prophets only tell him what he wants to hear (I Kings 22). Ahab must realize this because when he really wants to know what God has to say, he sends for Micaiah — a prophet of God apparently not in this royal prophetic contingent. After some prompting by Ahab to speak the true truth, Micaiah tells the king about the vision of judgement Micaiah has received from God. Ahab responds by cursing Micaiah for only ever prophesying bad news, and subsequently has him thrown in prison.

A message beyond the ordinary and reasonable

I love these stories because they get into the meat of Biblical prophecy and the role of the prophet in ancient Israel. The author reveals that both Elijah and Micaiah are part of the community of Israel, yet they speak from a position as one slightly removed from the situation and able to provide perspective. Clearly, too, they have a relationship with King Ahab —however strained — such that Ahab knows he can rely on them (for better or worse!) to speak God’s truth as they understand it.

They are speaking to a community, but from the periphery to a certain extent. They aren’t part of that court prophet retinue. Often, they were actually fleeing from, or scared of, or imprisoned by the king! But at the same time, Elijah and Micaiah were there when they were needed, with the expectation of truth-telling. They were clearly — from other examples in the text, and from reading between the lines a bit — living life in relationship with God so that when they are called on they can say what needs to be said.

Or — in the case of Colin Kaepernick — refuse to speak at such a time as this.

Biblical prophets as models for social justice and change

People typically have one of two responses when attempting to enact change. Either: become immersed in whatever situation you’re trying to change. In other words, if you want to change the government you should get involved in politics, public policy, or in other ways work within the system. Or: remove yourself from the situation in order to bring about change from the from the outside. Getting distance and perspective on a situation can bring new insight into what needs support and what needs resistance.

As I said, I think there are viable arguments for both these options. Change can certainly come through these methods. But if we look to the Biblical prophets, we’ll find they see things differently. It’s the two-way relationship between divine community and human community. It’s the “one foot in the kingdom of God, one foot in the kingdom of culture” way of living. It’s being a part of both communities, but maybe not really belonging in either place.

It’s knowing and experiencing the unique struggles, challenges, and blindspots of culture while giving yourself the space to faithfully understand what God might be trying to say to these circumstances.

With this understanding of what it means to prophetically enact change, I can’t help but see Colin as one of the most vocal prophets of this cultural moment — without even saying anything. He is bringing a message of justice, and love, and redemption to the public consciousness. He is being spurned and maligned and punished for it. Yet he is drawing other people into the awareness that something needs to change. And — ultimately — he is urging people to live into who they were created to be.

Energizing hope

Because the task of the prophet isn’t just to convict. In the Biblical tradition, it's also to wake people up to God’s ever-present, always-pursuing hope. Ahab was the worst king of Israel. But the text tells us how God kept coming after him, giving opportunities for repentance and restoration. And this is the message of divine love, isn’t it? We have this hope that we are constantly pursued until we “get it right.” This is the message the prophet moves people into: conviction, yes, but also hope and renewal.

I pray our hearts are open enough to hear Colin Kaepernick’s silent prophetic message.

As Marketing and Digital Education Director, Alexis Waggoner works closely with both Westar’s Marketing Committee and the Executive Director to advance the presence and value of Westar in our culture through social media and the use of digital media in public education. Alexis brings to Westar a unique blend of digital marketing and religious education experience. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. 

4 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Hi Alexis,

    Kaepernick, it seems to me, and those who have repeated his action, have spoken with both feet firmly in the kingdom of culture, a visual reminder of the constitutional equality of all persons. I don’t recall hearing or seeing a God-based rationale for their prophetic protest. Perhaps someone could correct that impression.

  2. Gene Stecher says:

    Dr. Galston,

    Why is there no place for comments under the Backwards and Forwards essay. I think this is the best and easiest to understand explanation of Form Criticism and Redaction criticism that I’ve ever seen. Some form of it should be circulated in receptive churches as way to help scholars and laypersons to speak to one another. I would also propose that something like this should be in the 4thR every issue.
    Perhaps there should be a column titled something like Unpacking Scholarship for the Lay Person.


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