Prophecy Without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square

Cathleen Kaveny (2016), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is one of the most significant books of the past decades, treating moral discourse with a live sense of pluralism.  The most pressing current issue, Kaveny points out, is to incorporate a lively sense of humility into the practice of the jeremiad (passionate condemnations of sinful behaviour). Is it possible to condemn without contempt?

She examines two documents that say ‘yes’, that avoid prophetic rhetoric to change condemnation into contempt (p 4); ‘citizens rightly call each to account for violations of our most fundamental commitments.  Contempt, however, is a different matter’ (p x).

Kaveny articulates two instances of jeremiads:  Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the Jewish prophetic book of Jonah, both characterized by humility, key element in effective treatment of the intersection of religion, morality public policy; Lincoln’s Adddress and Jonah evidence humility and self-criticism in prophetic speech, both qualities that became first victims of the 2016 American presidential campaigns (my aside).

The final chapter is especially illuminating.  ‘The rhetoric of prophetic indictment is meant to be radical, that is, to target fundamental violations of the nation’s basic social compact.  Second, the rhetorical style of the indictment is best modeled on the oracles against Israel and Judah….  The prophets stand with the people they condemn… to integrate humility without sacrificing a strong commitment to moral realism….  Humility will become an increasingly important quality to cultivate’ (p 420)… practical deliberation in a pluralistic society’ (p 423).

A must-read book.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.