This week marks the first days of Lent, a liturgical season marked by repentance, prayer, and fasting to prepare our hearts for Resurrection Sunday. Here, Daniel Tidwell (MDiv ‘10), Alumni Programs Coordinator, writes about what repentance looks like for the prophetic voices who confront our world’s deepest wounds and aches.
In the tradition of Christian scriptures, prophets are those individuals who, compelled by their understanding of what is good for society, raise their voices and call out for deep change. They call for things like fasting, turning from evil to good, and trading religious behavior for acts of justice and mercy.
With a description like that, the prophet’s vocation can seem almost glamorous. Yet, when I look at those who do the work of prophets in our own society—crying out for justice—I see that there are deep costs to speaking difficult truths for the sake of social change. I am left asking, what does it look like to care for the souls of prophets? And what resources are there for prophets who cry out against the very systems within which they live?
What does it look like to care for the souls of prophets?
The liturgical season of Lent is a time given to collectively answering the prophetic call to repent and do the deep work of turning away from evil toward what is good. But I find myself wondering, what does repentance look like for the prophet herself?
Most often, prophets are compelled by a mystic’s connection to God, and through dramatic actions, miraculous interventions, or eloquent speech, prophets risk life and limb to convince crowds or kings to change the course of societies.
Prophets risk much to call for change based on their deep convictions about what is right and just and true. This is a difficult line to hold. It requires vision, commitment, and tenacity. It is not a vocation for the faint of heart.
Yet within the prophetic vocation is the person of the prophet—a person who, like anyone else, requires relational connection and belonging in community. And often, the prophet’s deep convictions about justice have been forged through fiery experiences of deep injustice.
In many versions of the Bible, translators insert the heading “Jonah’s Anger” before the beginning of the fourth chapter of this brief book about a troubled prophet and his difficult journey to call others to repentance. Wedged into this wild tale of a divinely appointed quest, a 3-day stay in the belly of a sea-beast, and a heathen city miraculously repenting, we find the figure of the prophet himself. Jonah, a human who has come through immense trauma, is committed to his work—proclaiming the warning of God’s wrath against the evil city of Nineveh.
But then the unthinkable happens. The people of Nineveh (and even the animals!) repent—they turn from doing wrong and begin to do right. And it is in this moment when we see that the prophet has become isolated and stuck. Lifting his voice to God, he declares it would be best if he could die.
What presents itself as anger cannot conceal a distress more closely linked with a deeper wound. The plant that grows in Jonah 4:6 is said to provide relief for his distress or grief. When the plant is destroyed and Jonah is scorched by the sun, we realize that the word translated “anger” that appears throughout the passage is itself a play on the word “burn.” In essence, anger burns when the vehicle for engaging grief is removed.
Anger burns when the vehicle for engaging grief is removed.
In this strange tale—wherein a giant fish provides transit and animals repent in sackcloth—a plant stands in as a way to engage the prophet’s grief, opening space for compassion instead of anger. This man’s life has not gone the direction he desired. He’s been thrown overboard; chewed up and spit out. Now, when his wild-eyed truth telling is finally met with a change of heart, he is cut loose from his one focus to face the ache within himself that is in need of compassion, and in his isolation, it is enough to make him want to die.
In our world, the prophetic vocation is alive and well—embodied in artists, activists, teachers, organizers, and many others who put their lives on the line to cry out against systems of injustice. And while we rarely see the kind of wholesale repentance that would make these voices obsolete, I wonder if the underlying grief of our prophets is still in need of care. So much of our energy can go toward changing policies and systems, that when laws are changed or wars ended, we can be blindsided by being left alone, holding our deep need for healing and repair.
When I stop to consider what the season of Lent might mean in terms of caring for our modern-day prophets, I think about repentance in terms of tending to the soul’s need alongside the pursuit of societal justice.
At the center of the Jonah story is an ancient song that the story was probably built around. In it, the author, in the voice of the prophet, cries out to God,
“I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.”
It is from this deep need to cry out from the deep place of despair that the prophet herself can enter healing. There is a need to be heard and met in the place of wounding that is often directly connected to the prophetic vocation. And it is out of healing, through voicing lament, that the prophet leads societies to turn toward justice, and engages in their own act of repentance.
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Online Collection; public domain.