Prophecy Without Contempt

Cathleen Kaveny, Harvard UP, 2016, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Moral differences (on issues such as abortion, capital punishment, immigration and civil rights) make it difficult to seek the common good. The western world has been influenced by the examples of its Jewish-Christian past where the Hebrew prophets were seen as pointing to the identifying and seeking to correct social evils. In our pluralistic society, the prophetic method employs ‘the fiery rhetoric of indictment.

        These Jeremiads (identifying Jeremiah’s fiery denunciations) have been a major influence on public discourses (Martin Luther King Jr who used prophetic rhetoric to facilitate reform and reconciliation rather than revenge.’ True prophets believe they must do as G-d commands and condemn the practices G-d tells them to condemn’ (p 8). But is it possible to incorporate a lively sense of humility into the practice of the jeremiad?”(p 9).

        'The greatest danger associated with the practice of prophetic indictment is arrogance [and Kaveny] uses Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address for insight about how to combine a strong commitment to combating social evil with a vivid sense of the inadequacy of one’s own grasp of divine plans for dealing with that evil. [Lincoln] offers a lesson on how modern day jeremiads might integrate self criticism into their thought and speech.’ (p 9). Kaveny does a fascinating study of Jonah as one reminder to those who issue prophetic indictments when they know so little about G-d’s plan….and that the biblical tradition offers ample room for the cultivation of humility and self criticism’ (p 10).

        Kaveny’s is a wonderful treatment that calls on jeremiahs to differentiate between ‘contempt’ and ‘condemn’ as we function in our pluralistic society. ‘The virtue of humility will become an increasingly important quality for those who want to deploy prophetic rhetoric successfully’ (p 421).

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