Wednesday, December 01, 2010

“Would God That All the Lord’s People Were Prophets”: Liberation Theology and Scholars as Prophets for the Oppressed

The is a precis that I just submitted for next year's SMPT conference. It would be nice if it was accepted, as I would like some motivation to turn it into a larger paper. Hopefully it's not bad form to post a submited precis here.

“Would God That All the Lord’s People Were Prophets”:
Liberation Theology and Scholars as Prophets for the Oppressed


The call for papers for this conference poses the question: “Does philosophy and disciplined theological reflection have a place in a [prophetic] church?” In my paper I will turn this question around and argue that the very place for philosophy, theology, and other scholarly pursuits is in an active prophetic role—to be prophets to (not for) the Church and the world on behalf of the oppressed. This is a distinct prophetic role, in the tradition of liberation theology, that differs from that held by those sustained in the Church as prophets, seers, and revelators. While the latter is authoritative for the Church by virtue of priesthood hierarchical authority, the former has no ecclesiastical authority and is only normative insofar as one accepts the argumentation presented. Furthermore, this distinct prophetic role is always supplemental to and never superseding the authority of priesthood leaders—even when the former may be critical of the latter.

The paper will consist of five parts: a synopsis of liberation theology—primarily from the perspective of Latin American liberation theologians—and the role of prophets and prophecy in liberation theology; a look at extra-hierarchical prophets in the scriptures, with an emphasis on Samuel the Lamanite in the Book of Mormon; an expanded definition of this distinct prophetic role and its relationship to the authoritative prophets of the Church; an overview of modern-day extra-hierarchical prophets within and without the Church; and finally, a call for further prophetic voices from philosophers, theologians, and scholars in the Church.
According to Ignacio Ellacuria, “Prophecy is understood here [in liberation theology] to be the critical contrasting of the proclamation of the fullness of the Kingdom of God with a definitive historical situation.” In other words, prophecy consists of pointing out where our current situation fails to meet the divine standards of justice and equality. For most Latin American liberation theologians, this criticism was centered on what Gustavo Gutierrez termed the “preferential option for the poor.” For them, the greatest contrast between the idealized Kingdom of God (what Ellacuria calls a “Christian utopia”) and the current historical (real) situation is seen in the plight of the economically oppressed. (This contrast between the Kingdom of God and poverty is also emphasized in LDS scripture where in Zion “there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18) and in the Nephite utopia “there were no rich and poor, bond and free” (4 Ne. 1:3).) According to Gilberto da Silva Gorgulho, “the most radical prophecy [in the Bible] . . . is uttered as defense of the rural population and of the rights of the poor.” This prophetic preference for the liberation of the poor foreshadows the liberating atonement of Christ and continues in those who take on the cross and follow Christ. Gorgulho writes that followers of Christ are to be “people of prophets.” According to him, the Book of Revelation is loved by liberation theologians because it is “a book whose purpose is to encourage and maintain the prophetical praxis of the new people—this priestly, royal, prophetic people. The meaning of the life of the Church . . . proceeds from the need to ‘prophesy again’ (Rev. 10:11). It is in prophetical witness that this people finds its living liberty.”
Liberation theology and the prophetic role of contrasting the Kingdom of God and our current situation need not be limited to the economically oppressed however. In pushing for a “broadening of the conception of ‘the poor,’”Clodovis Boff writes, “Liberation theology is the theology of the liberation of the oppressed—the liberation of their whole person, body, and soul—and all the oppressed—the poor, the subjugated, those who suffer discrimination, and so on.” Just as the Book of Mormon teaches that the Lord “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remebereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew Gentile” (2 Ne. 26:33), the prophetic call of liberation theology is to bring to attention where our historical situation differs from these divine ideals—where others are discriminated against because of race, economics, gender, religion, and ethnicity (and I would even add where the land is environmentally oppressed).
This prophetic role is repeatedly found throughout all of the scriptures. According to John Dominic Crosson, “Biblical prophecy was not just about ‘speaking before,’ about ‘fore-telling’ the future, but about ‘speaking for’ God, especially as an indictment against those who failed to observe the covenant of distributive justice at the heart of Israel’s Torah.” For the purpose of this paper, I focus on Samuel the Lamanite in the Book of Mormon. While Samuel does not make an explicit reference to the poor, his preaching outlines several points pertinent to both liberation theology and a place for extra-hierarchical prophets today. First, Samuel’s condemnation of the Nephites centers on their accumulation of wealth and treasures. While alone, it might be interpreted as a mere condemnation of pride and dependency on riches, in the context of the scriptural (and especially Nephite) prophetic tradition and Mormon’s description of the historical situation immediately preceding Samuel’s prophecy (see Hel. 4:12 and 6:39) it becomes clear that the condemnation is directly tied to the plight of the poor and oppressed. Second, Samuel points out that the Nephites—those “who professed to belong to the church of God”—were inverting the prophetic role. Rather than understanding prophets as those who brought attention to the poor and oppressed, they hailed as prophets those who supported their economic inequality and oppressive pride, showering them with gold, silver, clothing, and substance. Third, just as prophecy for liberation theology is tied to an idealized Christian utopia, both fulfillments of Samuel’s key prophetic fore-tellings of Christ (concerning his birth and death) were followed by peace (3 Ne. 1:23) and utopia (4 Ne. 1:2-3). Fourth, and importantly for this paper, Samuel (like many other prophets in the scriptures) was not the Nephites’ ordained hierarchical priesthood leader. In fact, no background information is seemed to be known about Samuel at all, other than that he was a Lamanite and a foreigner. Instead it is Nephi the son of Helaman who is portrayed as the authoritative religious leader of the Nephites. It is Nephi who is implicitly ordained by his father and repeatedly assumes authority over the Nephites. And when Samuel is finished prophesying, it is to Nephi that the people go to be baptized.
The story of Samuel the Lamanite in the Book of Mormon shows that in Mormon theology (or at least in Mormon scripture) there is a place for prophets outside of the traditional hierarchy who can speak to the Church (and not for the Church) and the world, and bring to light the contrasts that exist between the Kingdom of God and our historical situation. While one certainly need not be a philosopher, theologian, or scholar to play this prophetic role (as most prophets in the scriptures certainly were not), liberation theology has shown that such persons can have certain skills, talents, and knowledge that enable them to be both acutely aware of the oppressive structures in the world and able to communicate these problems to others. Philosophers can use models provided by Rawls, Marx, Smith, Kant, and others to offer social critiques and promote resolutions. Theologians can mine the scriptures and authoritative revelations to provide theological basis for awareness, social change, and new revelation. Sociologists, historians, and students of gender, race, sexuality, violence, economics, science, and the environment can use their knowledge and talents to be prophets bringing to light the contrasts between Zion and our present situation. While not having authority to speak for the Church, in each of these, extra-hierarchical prophets are able to convey to the Church and to the world important revelations (re-veil-ations) that remove veils often hiding and obscuring oppressive and discriminatory structures. In doing so, they supplement (and perhaps even, at times, prompt) traditional prophets who authoritatively lead the Church.
In the last century, modern-day prophets such as Betty Frieden, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Ghandi, Bishop Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria, and Mother Teresea stand out as extra-hierarchical (and extra-Mormon) prophets who have revealed discriminating and oppressive contrasts between the Kingdom of God and our historical situation. Within Mormonism, there has also been extra-hierarchical prophets—modern day Samuel the Lamanites, standing on the wall and bringing the contrasts to light—who have used their talents to inject a prophetic voice into our awareness. Some of the many examples include Hugh Nibley, who used his understanding of scripture, history, and culture to highlight economic disparity and environmental degradation; Eugene England, who added a prominent voice for those who might suffer from war and violence; Armand Mauss and Lester Bush, who documented racial struggle and problems of the priesthood ban; and Claudi Bushman and others of Exponent II, who began to reveal the struggles of women in a predominantly patriarchal Church and culture.
Because of the hierarchical structure of the Church and the rhetorical tradition of referring to the president of the Church as “the Prophet,” Mormons often fall into the confusion of thinking that there can only be one prophet in the world at a time (forgetting that there are at least fifteen men sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators). A different extra-hierarchical understanding of prophets, as those who bring to light the oppressive and discriminating structures of the world, enables space for new prophetic voices to enter our theological and social discourse—a place for non-authoritative, but nevertheless divine, prophecies to extend beyond the traditional boundaries of “stewardship” and help build the Kingdom of God by revealing/unveiling structures that oppress and discriminate against God’s children. As with Moses, when told that others were prophesying, we need not side with Joshua with the view of forbidding them, but can join with Moses in declaring, “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Num. 11:26-29).


  1. Looks like a great topic!

  2. Liberation theology? You need to be careful, Glenn Beck will find you and expose you like he did with Dr Cone from Union Seminary. Beck interviewed Eric Metaxas, the biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Metaxas makes much of the fact on the views of Bonhoeffer on some of the Seminary teachers like Reinold Niebuhr.(who incidently is Obamas favourite theologian.) One wonders what kind of preaching Bonhoeffer would have been listening to while attending the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Ralph Clingan in Against Cheap Grace in a World Come of Age: An Intellectual Biography of Clayton Powell, 1865-1953.Seems to be a lot of liberation theology in his sermons. Bonhoeffer and Obama should have closed their ears.

  3. Very nice. I'm reminded of Elder Oaks' 'Fundamental To Our Faith', reprinted in part in the Jan 2011 Ensign, where he notes "the threefold sources of truth about man and the universe: science, the scriptures, and continuing revelation" - Wherein I view information from outside sources that informs the Church to be a 'revelatory' voice. Interesting also is the Church's recent emphasis on the Revelatory Nature of Councils, wherein any member of the council can be the voice of Truth and the Course of Action, it just needs to be ratified by the presiding authority to be binding.

    The Dichotomy of prophets 'to' the Church, and Prophets 'for' the Church is interesting, and definitely, I think, worth consideration.


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