“Would God That All the Lord’s People Were Prophets”: Liberation Theology and Scholars as Prophets for the Oppressed
(Here is my SMPT presentation that I just presented. PDF here.)
“Would God That All the Lord’s People Were Prophets”:
Liberation Theology and Scholars as Prophets for the Oppressed
Loyd Ericson – Claremont Graduate University
Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, BYU
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 prophetic role as understood 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.
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.
In the preface to Mysterium Liberationis, a collection of essays on Latin American liberation theology, Jon Sobrino writes that the purpose of theology is to “give a voice to the voiceless, to combat lies and injustice, and to foster truth and community.” Growing out of the mid-twentieth century, liberation theology arose as a result of theologians in Latin America, primarily Catholic, asking what it is that Christ and Christianity had to do with the gross systemic poverty and injustice plaguing their countries. As Roberto Oliveros writes,
As we turn to the world of the Latin American popular masses and open our eyes to see those masses, we find ourselves face to face with the results of centuries of institutionalized injustice. Millions upon millions of persons are subjected to an inhuman, demeaning poverty. We run up against this unjust poverty with every step we take, and the collision deeply shakes the hearts of Christians of goodwill. . . .
[Like Moses and Egypt] . . . the brutal facts of the slavery and poverty of the Latin American masses has been decisive in our reflection upon reality in the light of the God of Jesus Christ. . . . In order to proclaim and live the Good News of the Reign of God, we must acquire a new consciousness of the being and the task of the church. . . .
What seminal experience and intuition has given the rise to the theology of liberation? Purely and simply, the daily experience of the unjust poverty in which millions of our fellow Latin Americans are obliged to live. In and from this experience emerges the shattering word of the God of Moses and of Jesus: this situation is not the will of that God.
Taking literally Jesus’s announcement that he is the anointed one to “bring good news to the poor, . . . to proclaim release to the captives . . . , [and] to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18)—as well as his declaration that the primary recipients of his good news were the poor, hungered, injusticed, and meek—liberation theology contends that the gross reality of poverty and oppression requires that we understand the Christian message through a hermeneutic of, what Gustavo Gutierrez termed, the “preferential option for the poor.” This means that all aspects of Christ, the Gospel, and Christianity need to be understood in how it addresses the plight of the poor—including Jesus’s life, the Cross, and resurrection, soteriology, ecclesiology, evangelization, scripture, sacraments and community. In approaching the question of sin, Ignacio Ellacuria writes:
We must ask in all seriousness what the sin of the world is today, or in what forms the sin of the world appears today; this sin is different from personal sins but is often conditioned by them and continues or prolongs them. . . .
If we look at the reality of the world as a whole from the perspective of faith, we see that the sin of the world is sharply expressed today in what must be called unjust poverty. Poverty and injustice appear today as the great negation of God’s will and as the annihilation of the desired presence of God among human beings.
If unjust poverty is the sin of the world, then Christ, who came to save us from the sins of the world, is foremost concerned with liberating captives (the poor) from unjust poverty. Salvation, thus, is salvation from temporal suffering and oppression.
Like Christ, sin, and salvation, prophecy (or what it means to be a prophet) must also be interpreted through this hermeneutic of poverty and oppression. According to Ellacuría, “Prophecy is understood [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 primarily consists of pointing out where our current situation fails to meet the divine standards of justice and equality. Thus, in light of the preferential option for the poor, the greatest contrast between the idealized Reign or Kingdom of God (what Ellacuria calls “Christian utopia”) and the current historical (or real) situation is seen in the plight of the economically oppressed. For Latter-day Saints, a similar contrast between God’s ideal Christian utopia and historic poverty is made explicit in LDS scripture where Enoch’s Zion utopia in the Book of Moses is such that “there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18) and the Nephite utopia in the Book of Mormon is a state in which “there were no rich and poor, bond and free” (4 Ne. 1:3). Simply put, prophecy declares that the reality of poverty marks a failure of humanity to realize the equality that God demands. (Compare this to D&C 49:20, which states that “it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.”)
It is with this understanding of prophecy that Gilberto da Silva Gorgulho, writes that “the most radical prophecy [in the Hebrew Bible] . . . is uttered as defense of the rural population and of the rights of the poor.” This radical prophecy is exemplified in nearly all of the writings of the Hebrew prophets, who placed liberation and salvation of the poor foremost in their prophesies. It was embodied through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And it is expected of Christians today who take up the Cross and prophesy and act in behalf of the poor and oppressed. Just as Joseph Smith taught that the spirit of prophecy was the testimony of Christ, liberation theology adds that a testimony of Christ is a testimony to help the poor, suffering, and oppressed. As such, prophecy plays a crucial role in liberation theology in both past scriptural events and current prophetic voices and action. It is for this reason that Gorgulho writes that followers of Christ are to be “people of prophets.” In an affirmation of continuing revelation from God—something that Latter-day Saints affirm—he notes that the Book of Revelation does not mark the end of prophecy and revelation—as understood by much of Christianity—but is instead 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.”
This prophetic role—as making explicit where our situation of poverty and suffering differs from the divine ideal—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.” While there was no “church” in the Hebrew Bible—and I think it is fair to say that there was no corporate “church” in the New Testament either—it is important to note that many of the prophets in scripture existed outside the leading priesthood equivalent of our contemporary Church hierarchy. In other words, despite their lack of priesthood stewardship, they were nevertheless divinely called to be prophets to the Israelites. For example, the Hebrew prophet Amos described his own prophetic calling as a lay person. He said, “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet's son; but I was an herdman, and a gatherer of sycomore fruit: And the LORD took me as I followed the flock, and the LORD said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel” (Amos 7:14-15). This is not to say that priest and prophet were mutually exclusive categories—for example, Ezekiel seems to have been a leading priest when he spoke as a prophet to the Israelites. Rather, what this does show is that in the Bible, the prophetic role is not strictly limited to the leading priesthood hierarchy, and includes, at times, women—such as Deborah, Miriam, Esther, and Anna in the New Testament.
Not only were many of these prophets not a part of the leading priesthood, but they were also often critical of the chief and high priests, lambasting them at times for corruption and for supporting the elite upper class’s oppression and neglecting of the poor. For example, Jeremiah (who was actually born into the priestly lineage) criticized those ordained to run the temple, declaring that they were turning the Temple into a den of thieves by supposing that their work in the temple justified their neglect of the poor and oppressed. Jeremiah tells them that they are under condemnation until they “truly act justly one with another, [and] do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Jer. 7:5-6). It should be noted however—and this is important—that in most cases, while they might have been critical of the leading priests, they recognized and did not critique the authority that these men held to perform the ordinances and rituals of the temple.
For Latter-day Saints the place for extra-hierarchical prophets is also affirmed in the Book of Mormon. In fact, the first prophet of the Book of Mormon, Lehi, was a contemporary of Jeremiah, but unlike the latter, was not descended from the priestly lineage. Later in the Book of Mormon, Abinadi—who was clearly not recognized as one of the leading priests of Lehi-Nephi—criticizes Noah and his priests for their abominations, which included amassing wealth by oppressing the poor. And yet after Abinadi’s death, it was one of Noah’s wicked priests, Alma, who after repenting of those sins, was still recognized as one with authority to baptize those who accepted Abinadi’s message, eventually taking on a role of both priest and prophet for all of the Nephites.
Another extra-hierarchical prophet in the Book of Mormon is Samuel the Lamanite. Unlike Abinadi, who spoke against a corrupt priesthood leadership, Samuel’s prophesying came when Nephi (the son of Helaman) was a righteous priest and leader who had, years earlier, been given the power to seal others to heaven. And yet, although the Nephites in Zarahemla had a righteous prophet-priest to lead them, a prophet clearly outside their recognized leadership—a Lamanite stranger even—was sent to prophecy against the Nephites.
While the recorded portion of Samuel’s prophesying does not make an explicit reference to the status of 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 begins with a criticism of their accumulation of wealth and treasures. This is pertinent in one regard, as it highlights the belief among liberation theologians that, while preference might be given to the poor, liberation theology—Christian liberation—is universal. Ellacuria writes,
In another sense, we are speaking of a universal liberation. It is an integral liberation expressed not only in terms of economic or political problems, but also a universal liberation. The poor must be liberated from their poverty, but the rich must also be liberated from their wealth; the oppressed must be liberated from their condition of domination, and the oppressors from their dominant condition. And so on.
Just as the poor must have means to live in order to be free, the addictions of wealth and power not only bind those who might have the means to help, but those addictions strengthen the structures and systems that are the source of poverty and oppression. As Ellacuria puts it: “Enticed by the allure of wealth, of wealthy persons and peoples, one loses the marks of one’s own identity. To seek one’s own identity in the imperfect appropriation of these foreign models leads to dependencies and mimicries that impede one’s own self-creation.”
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 preceding Samuel’s prophecy in Helaman 4 and 6, it becomes clear that the condemnation is directly tied to the plight of the poor and oppressed. Of the Nephites wealth, Mormon writes that the pride of “those . . . who professed to belong to the church of God” was due to the “exceeding riches” brought on by “their oppression to the poor, withholding their food from the hungry, withholding their clothing from the naked, and smiting their humble brethren upon the cheek” (Hel. 4:12). Mormon further notes that the Nephite leaders “did trample under their feet and smite and rend and turn their backs upon the poor and the meek, and the humble followers of God” (Hel 6:39).
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 and pointed out the failure of God’s children to reach for the Christian utopia of equality, the Nephites instead hailed as prophets those who supported their economic inequality and oppressive pride, showering them with gold, silver, clothing, and substance. According to Samuel:
If a prophet come among you [the Nephites] and declareth unto you the word of the Lord, which testifieth of your sins and iniquities, ye are angry with him, and cast him out and seek all manner of ways to destroy him; yea, you will say that he is a false prophet, and that he is a sinner, and of the devil, because he testifieth that your deeds are evil. But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth--and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet. Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give unto him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him. (Hel. 13:25-28)
Third, 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). According to Ellacuria, prophecy has a necessary relationship to Christian utopia, not just in the contrasts between the current historical situation and the idealized utopia, but also in that prophecy foretells the consequences of accepting and living, or denying and setting aside, the prophetic message. Prophecy comes with the promise of utopia: the promise that acceptance will enact the transformation from the present historical reality to a historicizing of Christian utopia, and the contrary promise that a failure of acceptance results in a deepening of the status quo. “Thus,” as Ellacuria puts it, “prophecy, which initiates this contrasting, is able to predict the future and go toward it—assuming indeed that there is the general vision of the Kingdom previously alluded to, which God’s revelation has been making known to humanity in various ways.” In Samuel’s prophecy we not only see his prophecies concerning the continued desire and attachment to riches bringing upon self-destruction, but in the narrative of the Book of Mormon we also see a fulfillment of his prophecies that accepting the Christian message can bring peace and historicized utopia and that denying that message results in self-destruction. Thus, Samuel’s prophecy, in the context of the Book of Mormon, both makes the prophetic claim and testifies of its truthfulness.
Fourth, as I pointed out earlier, Samuel was not the Nephites’ ordained hierarchical priesthood leader. In fact, it seems that no background information is 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. He is implicitly ordained by his father, is given the sealing power from God, and repeatedly assumes authority over the Nephites. In contemporary nomenclature we would say that Nephi had stewardship over the people of Zarahemla. This is perhaps why even though Nephi and Samuel gave similar prophetic messages to the Nephites, Samuel is violently rejected by the people of Zarahemla, and Nephi, though largely ignored, is able to continue with his role. Furthermore, when Samuel is finished prophesying he does not begin baptizing the Nephites, but instead it is to Nephi that the people go to receive this priesthood rite—(though one could argue that this is perhaps because Samuel was chased out of town).
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 extra-hierarchical prophets outside of the traditional priesthood who can speak to the Church and the world (and not for the Church), and bring to light the contrasts that exist between the Kingdom of God and our historical situation. Contrary to the contemporary view of many Latter-day Saints that prophecy can only be given for those for which a Church leader or parent has stewardship over (for example President Monson can receive revelation for the whole Church, a bishop can receive revelation for a ward, and a parent can receive revelation for her family), Joseph Smith taught that revelation and prophecy for all was available to all, but could only be given by commandment (or be binding upon members) by Joseph Smith. Initially directed to Oliver Cowdery, Doctrine and Covenants 28 declares:
[B]ehold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses. . . . And if thou [Oliver Cowdery] art led at any time by the Comforter to speak or teach, or at all times by the way of commandment unto the church, thou mayest do it. But thou shalt not write by way of commandment, but by wisdom. (D&C 28:2-5)
What this revelation shows is that the ability to be directed by God and prophecy to all is available to all, but such a prophecy cannot be made binding on the Church. In other words, it is possible for Jacob Baker to be directed by God to tell Latter-day Saints—or the world even—that they should sell all of their luxuries and donate that money to the poor, but what he cannot do is make obedience to this prophecy a requirement for membership to the Church or for a temple recommend, nor can he discipline Latter-day Saints for a failure to follow his claim. Put simply, extra-hierarchical prophecy is possible for all, but only those within the priesthood hierarchy can make it commandment for the Church.
As Sobrino notes, both the priest and the prophet—or the Church administrator and the spirituality/prophecy of liberation—are necessary. He writes,
Surely doctrine and administration continue to be necessary and important. But of themselves alone they will not be enough. . . . [T]he important thing is the emphasis on something called spirit [or prophecy] rather than only on theory and praxis—or, of course, only on doctrine and administration. . . . [F]or these and other, more specific, reasons—theology, too, has taken a serious interest in spirituality.
And just as Sheila Taylor pointed out yesterday, Sobrino adds: “A purely doctrinal theology . . . ha[s] become irrelevant.” Instead theology must needs be something that “wishes to take account of, and constitute a response to, concrete, historical church reality, with its real cries and real hopes.”  (I am reminded of a favorite quote of mine from Joseph Smith: “I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm yet deals justice to his neighbors and mercifully deals his substance to the poor, than the long, smooth-faced hypocrite.”)
This theology—or this prophecy—however, does not have to exclusively focus on the poor. While liberation theologians in Latin America have emphasized the poor in their theology, liberation theology and the prophetic role of contrasting the Kingdom of God and our current situation can and must extend beyond the economically oppressed. In pushing for a “broadening of the conception of ‘the poor,’” Clodovis Boff writes that
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. We cannot attend exclusively to the purely socioeconomic aspect of oppression—the aspect of poverty itself—however basic and determining it might be. We must also look at the other levels of social oppression: racial . . . , ethnic . . . , and sexual.
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 and 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, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity. (And I would even add where the land is environmentally threatened.) Thus doing theology and prophesying are one in the same, in that they “mean something real and palpable” in the life of the poor, discriminated, and oppressed.
Let me be clear when I say that one certainly need not be a philosopher, theologian, or scholar to play this prophetic role (as most prophets in the scriptures certainly were not). However, liberation theology has shown that philosophers, theologians, and scholars 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 theories and models provided by Rawls, Marx, Smith, Kant, Badiou—and the list goes on—to offer social critiques and promote resolutions. Theologians can mine the scriptures and authoritative revelations to provide theological bases 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 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 just over the last century, modern-day prophets such as Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Ghandi, Bishop Oscar Romero, and Mother Teresea stand out as extra-hierarchical (and extra-Mormon) prophets who have both revealed discriminating and oppressive contrasts between the Kingdom of God and our historical situation, and made important steps in helping the world come closer to a Christian utopia. 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 (or more recently Grant Hardy and Jim Faulconer), who have used their 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 Lavina Anderson, Margaret Toscano, and Claudia Bushman, 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. Instead of just being a people with a prophet, liberation theology has shown us that we can and must be “people of prophets.”
Last Sunday in general conference, Bishop H. David Burton prophetically spoke about our need to help those in need. He said,
No matter how many temples we build, no matter how large our membership grows, no matter how positively we are perceived in the eyes of the world—should we fail in this great core commandment to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees,” or turn our hearts from those who suffer and mourn, we are under condemnation and cannot please the Lord .
“Does philosophy and disciplined theological reflection have a place in a [prophetic] church?” Yes. As liberation theology has taught, we have a duty as philosophers and theologians to raise a prophetic voice in behalf of those who are seeking liberty from the bondages of poverty, discrimination, alienation, and oppression. As with Moses, when told that others were prophesying, we need not side with Joshua with the view of forbidding them. Instead we can and must join with Moses in declaring, “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Num. 11:26-29).
 Jon Sobrino, “Preface,” xi.
 Robert Oliveros, “History of Liberation Theology,” 4; emphasis added.
 Ignacio Ellacuria, “The Historicity of Christian Salvation,” 278.
 Ignacio Ellacuria, “Utopia and Prophecy in Latin America,” 292.
 Gilberto Da Silva Gorgulho, “Biblical Hermeneutics,” 137.
 Ibid., 146.
 John Dominic Crosson, God and Empire: Jesus Againt Rome, Then and Now (New York: HarperOne 2007), 74.
 Ellacuria, “The Historicity of Christian Salvation,” 285.
 Ellacuria, “Utopia and Prophecy in Latin America,” 311.
 Ellacuria, “Utopia and Prophecy in Latin America,” 292.
 Jon Sobrino, “Spirituality and the Following of Jesus,” 678-79.
 Clodovis Boff, “Epistemology and Method of the Theology of Liberation,” 77.