Prophets are generally pains in the butt. That means that they generally have a hard time with credibility – people tend not to take them seriously. Prophetic, or counter-cultural or counter-governmental, messengers are considered to be “way out … unrealistic… utopian… dreamers.” Not the kind of people to be taken seriously. Simply, they’re weird. All too often, they’re also strident.
A thought: Maybe, the problem with prophets not being taken seriously arises not so much because they are weird – but because they are strident.
That, to a great extent, is the point of an essay in the Aug. 1/8, 2011 issue of The Nation. It’s by Richart Sennett and is titled “A Credible Left.” What Sennett has to say about “leftists” applies also to “prophets.” Nowadays, to be “on the left,” or to be liberal or progressive, is to be counter-cultural; that means prophetic.
Sennet’s main point, if I might simplify in my own words, is that for prophets (or progressives) to be credible and gain a hearing, they have to be “nicer” than they generally are.
Prophets (or liberals like myself) are people who are upset with the status quo. They see people suffering because of the actions of other people. They see huge disparities in wealth. They see people cut off – or being threatened to be cut off – from health care. That makes them angry. And angry people can very easily be strident – in your face.
Sennet’s advice is not to suppress the anger, but to cool the stridency. That means prophets will often have to shut up and listen; that means they will have to show respect for the people they profoundly disagree with. Prophets have to be truly present to the people they are confronting. Let me quote a paragraph that explains what Sennett means by presence:
“You become credible when others take you seriously even though they may not agree with you. To be taken seriously, you need to know when to keep silent and how to listen well; you are then extending respect and recognition to others. The philosopher Anne Phillips rightly insists on the importance of “presence” in politics, by which she means being someone an individual or group feels can conduct a discussion on equal terms. Presence is something an outsider has to earn by his or her behavior. Scoring points won’t alone admit you into other people’s lives; winning an argument over them will not include you in their thinking about how to live. Credibility, that is, lies more in the realm of receptiveness than assertiveness.”
Not winning arguments but engaging in conversations, not being assertive but receptive – these are not the virtues that generally characterize prophets. (They certainly don’t characterize the nightly talk shows on radio and TV.)
But these are the virtues, I suspect, that Jesus and Buddha would want to characterize the prophets who speak in their names and pass on their messages.
Certainly, to live and proclaim the Gospel and the Dharma in the United States of America at this present moment is to be called to announce a prophetic, counter-cultural message. But as both Buddha and Jesus made perfectly clear, to confront others does not exclude – indeed, it requires – loving them and showing them compassion. That means to respect them, honor them, listen to them as much as we disagree with them.
For any Christian or Buddhist, therefore, Sennett’s advice makes perfect sense: We will be credible prophets by “making receptiveness to others more important than assertiveness.”