Contrary to your favorite, millionaire televangelist, prophecy has nothing whatsoever to do with predicting the future. John Dominic Crossan illustrated the point by warning that you shouldn’t pitch your tent in the middle of I-10 because you might get run over by a truck. Now, if you do so, and you get run over by a truck, did he predict the future? Take it a step further, when you got run over by the truck was God punishing you, or was getting run over by a truck the natural consequence of pitching a tent in the middle of I-10.
Prophets are not soothsayers. They are social critics. They tell the truth to people who do not want to hear it, especially when it is ugly truth (and really, isn’t it often ugly)? Prophets provoke and challenge and yes, even warn that there may be serious consequences if there isn’t a change of course.
French born philosopher and historian Rene Girard, who died last fall at his home near Stanford University at the age of 91, was the father of a school of philosophy known as mimetic theory. Simply put, we learn what we want and what we want to do by imitating what we see others do. Pitching a tent in the middle of I-10 looks like a grand idea when we see others doing it.
Girard ties conflict to two or more people wanting what another has. Since rivalry often leads to violence, societies developed ways to channel or even make sacred their rivalries and tendency toward violence. Enter sacrificial religious systems. The conflict between us is placed on an arbitrary victim who is then removed brutally thus easing the tension in the system. The relief is temporary at best and the ritual must be repeated.
Frequently, the sacrificial victims were human children. Ancient Judaism, like most world religions was not immune from what Girard would come to call the “Scapegoat Mechanism,” and the ban on child sacrifice in Leviticus is taken as evidence that it may once have been the practice. Nonetheless, sacrifice is a bloody business.
Writing around seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, Micah was not shy about criticizing the way things were. The people had lost their grounding and the wealthy were exploiting the poor. It was like pitching a tent in the middle of I-10 and there was no way it was going to end well.
Micah also challenged the temple system of sacrifice that allowed the wealthy to make very showy burnt offerings while the poor were more or less excluded from worship. He invited the people to practice instead two things: mishpat and chesed. Neither one of them translates neatly into English but mishpat is more or less justice or right judgment (both translations conjure up our legal system which really diminishes the word). Chesed is more or less loving kindness or steadfast love.
The problem with the English is that is kind of romanticizes Micah 6:8 into the kind of thing you might find needlepointed on a dishtowel. “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” It’s kind of like when my friend would tell his 5 kids, “Fight nice.” Mishpat and Chesed are hard things. Much harder than buying a goat to be sacrificed at the temple, and that is the whole point. Micah railed against an easy spirituality that could be bought off for the right price. Those who walk humbly with God do mishpat and chesed, and they are pretty easy to spot.
Here is a quote from Nobel Prize Laureate and 2nd Secretary General of the United Nation Dag Hammarskjold from his book, “Markings.”
“It is not we who seek the Way, but the Way which seeks us. That is why you are faithful to it, even while you stand waiting, so long as you are prepared, and act the moment you are confronted by its demands.”