Theorizing Modernities article

Prophetic Dialectic

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s understanding of prophetic agency requires that we attend to any would-be prophet’s “temperament, concern, character, and individuality” (The Prophet, xxii). His point is that the prophet is no passive conduit. And Cathleen Kaveny proves well aware that, in a line or two, Heschel here confronts us with the fact that “prophetic indictment” is no instance of Hegel’s “night when all cows are black.” The prophet is always and already a responsible agent, however much he might invoke (or however listeners might impute) a higher and/or divinely sanctioned, exceptional mission. The prophet and her message are both earthbound, however much they might force her recipients to glance toward a declared higher good or cause, more just conditions, or to awaken to injustices and forms of evil that permeate the ground on which both prophet and his audiences stand. By Heschel’s lights, any message of indictment cries out to be parsed, weighed, and measured for its validity, its moral implications, and with some suspicion toward any putative exceptional status of the prophet (Jim Jones and David Koresh declared themselves prophets with messages bearing social and political implications). Prophetic indictment stands to be examined in virtue of the consistencies and tensions it generates among the values and ideals with which it is interwoven in the tradition itself (e.g. Martin King persistently tested instances of righteous anger and nonviolent militance for their consistency with the law of love). It might also be examined by standards external to the specific context, tradition, or “revealed” status from which the prophet may make his or her categorical denunciation (King likewise appealed to human rights norms to guide his later activism).

In my view, Heschel’s insight here problematizes the characterization of prophetic indictment as a likely conversation stopping deliverance from an ostensibly coercive moral authority. Heschel imputes no de facto power to the prophet to stand in unassailable judgment over her interlocutors. Inflected by Heschel’s account, as I see it, prophetic indictment is intrinsically accountable to moral deliberation, and to critical analysis. On this account, prophetic discourse in modern democratic contexts will be, at its best and perhaps of necessity, mixed discourse. To her credit, Kaveny carefully reflects upon precisely such possibilities of “mixed discourse.” I agree, and want to develop that possibility further.

Kaveny gives us exemplary models of prophetic indictment in Abraham Lincoln and Martin King. I find her cases for both compelling. It is crucial to keep in mind that neither emerged from a vacuum, and neither was essentially exceptional. Both also evolved in important ways. King cannot be held up as an unalloyed specimen. I think this fact does not compromise his example as a prophetic actor so much as it forces us to think more expansively of prophetic discourse.

Kaveny rightly points out that King’s work of prophetic indictment administered a kind of moral chemotherapy to specific communities, laws, cultural contexts, and forms of deliberation that were being eaten alive by the cancers of Jim Crow. And yet, the structural and cultural forms of violence King encountered in the final years of his life altered the way he conceived of, and exemplified, prophetic discourse. The realities of Chicago’s South Side—where desegregated lunch counters, toilets, and buses did very little to change the workaday realities of black, brown, and destitute people of all colors—forced King to recognize the unexceptional and necessary character of the prophetic indictment that would need to be administered there. He recognized that structural and cultural forms of violence in the North ran deeper, and operated even more insidiously, than the more visible Jim Crow laws of the South. They were not isolable like malignant tumors. They were dispersed manifestations of persistent poverty, marginalization, humiliation and internalized forms of self-abnegation. They could not be resolved by changing laws or altering the legal status of citizens.

These forms of structural violence produced (and, in fact, continue to produce today) conditions of moral crisis, and indeed, human catastrophe. But they are also highly routinized modes of crisis, and as oxymoronic as it might sound, normalized catastrophe. They are (tragically) not exceptional conditions urgently calling forth an exceptional mode of discourse (i.e. chemo-therapeutic). Rather, King increasingly found that they would require sustained prophetic vigilance—a kind of medicine that might treat a chronic sickness of Sisyphean misery, persistent vulnerability, and often, bare survival. As a result, King’s prophetic relentlessness did not abate in the wake of the glories of his “I Have a Dream” speech (1963), his Nobel Peace Prize (1964), and great victories of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts (1964/5). Indeed, it only increased and radicalized, even as it evolved. King was pushed in this direction, in part, through the deliberative give-and-take with the Black Power movement, and its uses of Frantz Fanon’s socio-theoretical analysis in particular (see Louis Lomax, “When ‘Nonviolence’ Meets ‘Black Power’”).

King’s mode of analysis and action in his later years suggests to me that prophetic indictment is not entirely exceptional in the way that the medical analogy of chemotherapy is. Nor is it essentially a counter-point to deliberation. In fact, some element of prophetic analysis will be necessary against the persisting realities of structural violence, and the cultural artifacts and understandings that cloak, camouflage, and conceal structural violence—which make it seem unavoidable, or “at least not wrong.” As King’s realization of this point increased, as with most prophets, he increasingly came to be treated as one without honor. Allies who had been eager to integrate lunch counters and public parks and to guarantee voting rights widely abandoned King when he turned his vocal resistance to the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism around the world, and began fighting for humane housing, quality education, guaranteed employment and livable incomes for all (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Two Americas,” Stanford University, 1967; Where Do We Go From Here?, 1968). King’s negativity rating skyrocketed by the Gallup poll of August 1966 (66% unfavorable overall; 72% unfavorable rating among white respondents). In comparable polls, such a high negativity rating has been surpassed only by that of Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

I wonder if so many of us today would be inclined to hold King up as an exemplary social critic and activist if we were working in the context of his final years. I wonder if we would valorize his legacy if we did not view it through the lens of five decades of hagiographic reconstruction (what Cornel West refers to as “the Santa Claus-ification of Martin Luther King, Jr.”). We might even ask if King himself would have been invited to the 50th Anniversary celebration of his “I Have a Dream” speech, held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 2013. That was headlined by luminaries like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Michael Dyson, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, and President Obama. Were he there, and spoke in any way consistently with the writings and speeches from his final years, we can surmise that King would have spoken of the illegality and immorality of U.S. drone strikes around the globe, the absence of accountability for Wall Street criminality, the New Jim Crow and prison-industrial complex, the progressive impoverishment of the U.S. middle class, and degrees of economic inequality suffered by poor and working people (disproportionately people of color) that recall the Gilded Age in the U.S. (but that are actually far more insidious).

King’s journey as prophet demonstrates that prophetic discourse must also entail socio-critical analysis, observational criticism, moral judgment, and deliberative accountability. In my view, it indicates that, in modern democratic contexts, virtuous prophetic discourse must be essentially mixed discourse. Genuine rhetoric of prophetic indictment will always be caught up in what Martin King (and many others) demonstrates to be a broader and extended prophetic dialectic. The push and pull, resisting and succumbing, entails moral judgment, deliberative considerations, and reflection (expansively construed), but also the journey and progress of the prophet him or herself. Such a dialectical dimension comes as no surprise. Lincoln’s exemplary prophetic intervention had required Frederick Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe—and indeed a social movement inflected by public interventions ranging from William Lloyd Garrison’s categorical denunciations, to the more measured (but no less categorical and indicting) leaves of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, among many others—to press, and push, and hold him accountable.

Any difference with Kaveny that my point might suggest is a matter of emphasis, rather than kind. I think that modern prophetic discourse, at its best, is intrinsically mixed discourse. This is only partially a mixture of indictment and deliberation. For I also think that indictment is but one of the rhetorical elements of which prophetic intervention must consist. Any would-be prophet in democratic public life must strive not to be simply a virtuous oncologist, but a virtuous pharmacologist. Such an account expands the purview of prophetic analysis and intervention exponentially. The prophet would verge upon imprudence and intemperance in those moments when he or she swerves toward purposes as extreme, absolute, and putatively pure as those that call for the last resort of chemotherapy. But if that’s the case, then a univocal analogy to chemotherapy—while apt—also risks becoming overly constraining. A prophetic toxicology (where the poisons of chemotherapy are deployed toward an overall good) and pharmacology (in which the full range of medicinal substances are blended, re-mixed, and applied as the circumstances require) weave together and intermingle. In my view, this is essential rather than exceptional.

As I read the tradition of prophetic discourse in American public life, it not only aids moral and political health by attacking an identifiable and isolable malignant growth through rhetorical indictment. Rather, part of prophetic virtue consists in the practical wisdom in the form of dialectical integration and deployment of the different moral, rhetorical, socio-analytical, and activist elements that are necessary in a given circumstance and point in time. It is precisely through such prophetic dialectic that Martin King fits Jeffrey Stout’s description of the virtuous prophetic social critic as “virtue in motion” (speaking of Michael Walzer’s prophetic model). We know such social critics not by whether or not the stand here or there (say, either the deliberative or the prophetic), but rather, “by the character of their movement from here to there” (e.g. their growth and evolution; their facility in the mixing of discourses for their prophetic purposes; navigating the dialectical push and pull). As Stout puts it, we identify exemplary prophetic social critics in virtue of their demonstrating “enough wisdom to recognize the temptations of each critical posture they assume and the ability to change position, courageously but temperately, as justice requires.”

Jason Springs
Jason A. Springs is professor of religion, ethics, and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. Springs is particularly interested in ethical, philosophical, and religious dimensions of restorative justice, attending specifically to its potential to intervene in racialized and class dimensions of the U.S. prison-industrial complex. He works on questions of structural and cultural violence, conceptions of religious toleration and the challenges posed by religious pluralism for transforming conflict, Islamophobia in Europe and North America, and democratic theories and practices. These concerns are oriented by his broader research interests in American Pragmatist thought. Springs’s most recent book, Resurrection in Back of the Yards: Restorative Justice and Lived Religion on Chicago’s South and West Sides (2024), examines the effectiveness of restorative justice initiatives in responding to structural forms of racism and injustice (e.g., the New Jim Crow). He is the author of Healthy Conflict in Contemporary American Society: From Enemy to Adversary (2018), Toward a Generous Orthodoxy: Prospects for Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology (2010), and coauthor (with Atalia Omer) of Religious Nationalism: A Reference Handbook (2013). His articles appear in Journal of Religious EthicsJournal of the American Academy of ReligionThe Journal of ReligionModern Theology, and Contemporary Pragmatism, among others. 

One thought on “Prophetic Dialectic

  1. Excellent article, thank you! Note the extraordinary difference in the way prophecy is understood by my father, Dr. King, Jeffrey Stout, Cornel West, et. al., compared to the German tradition of Gunkel, Duhm, Hölscher, von Rad, etc.

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