The #MeToo Prophets

The #MeToo Prophets

“’Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God” (Isa. 40).

In 1972 Joyce Maynard had everything. After publishing articles in Seventeen Magazine she had her huge breakthrough. She became nationally famous overnight with a lengthy piece in the New York Times Magazine called “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life.”[1]

Suddenly mailbags full of fan letters were arriving at her Yale University dorm. One letter in particular stood out. It warned her that she would receive job offers, promises of book contracts, etc. and that people would try to exploit her. Later Joyce recognized the irony. The letter came from J.D. Salinger author of The Catcher in the Rye.

Although Salinger was fifty-three, Joyce dropped out after her freshman year and went to live with him for ten months. They were on vacation when he handed her a pair of hundred dollar bills and said something to the effect of, “get out of here, I never want to see you again.”[2]

And for twenty-five years Joyce kept silent. When she finally wrote about what happened, people wrote terrible things about her.[3] She had every reason to never say anything controversial in public again.[4] And that is the extraordinary thing. Joyce still does not hesitate to speak out, even when it involves saying the most painful things about herself.

She writes candidly about her shortcomings as a parent. She describes the process of adopting children from overseas, then being unable to care for them and finding them a new family. As a caregiver for her dying husband she writes openly about her own resentments and failures.[5]

When I asked Joyce why she feels compelled to put even the worst parts of herself on display, she says that she hopes to give strength to readers who struggle with the same feelings and experiences.

“You’re just a child,” Roy Moore is accused of saying to then 16 year old Beverly Young Nelson when he molested her in his car. “I am the district attorney of Etowah County, and if you tell anyone about this, no one will ever believe you.”[6] On Tuesday the people of Alabama by electing him to the United States Senate may prove Roy Moore was right.

I share these stories because we all need to change our mental picture of what a prophet is. The image of a gray-bearded man in flowing robes makes prophets seem so distant and disconnected from us. This view keeps the Bible and God away from our lives. It separates God from what is happening right now. So this morning I ask you, what is a prophet?

The Gospel of Mark does not open with a story about Jesus’ childhood, with angels, shepherds, evil kings or magi. It includes no genealogy. It says simply, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” (Mk. 1). In those days euangelion, the Greek word for gospel referred to any form of good news, most often a military triumph. An inscription of from that time hailed Caesar Augustus as “Son of God” and declared that his birthday was, “a beginning of good news for the world.”[7]

Christians changed the meaning of these words forever. We do not even remember that people used Jesus’ title “The Son of God,” for the emperor. Gospel instead of referring to battlefield victories became a form of “strategic storytelling” to open our eyes, to radically alter our experience of each other and the world.[8]

Mark is correct to say this is only “the beginning.” He does not pretend that this is finished or completed. This gospel is open to include you and your story, as you are transformed by God’s love in Jesus. The end of God’s story is not even in sight.[9]

In the Gospel of Mark John the Baptist stands in the tradition of the prophets Malachi and Isaiah. He is a messenger preparing the way. We understand it viscerally. [Sing] “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people.” This feeling of joy, this anticipation of what it will be like to return home, comes alive for us when we sing Handel’s Messiah.[10]

The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1913-1968) acted as a prophet in 1934 when he drafted The Barmen Declaration. At great peril a collection of theologians rejected the nazification of Christian churches in Germany. Later in his 9,000 page Church Dogmatics Barth describes God simply as, “the One who loves in freedom.”[11]

Barth believes, on the one hand and primarily, that God loves. The mere existence of the world shows how God creates fellowship and reaches out to us (274). For the sake of love, God shows us God’s own self. God acts with grace, mercy and patience (352).

On the other hand according to Barth, God is also perfectly free. God is not at our beck and call like some kind of cosmic convenience store clerk. This is why God sometimes seems hidden to us. This holiness, righteousness and wisdom also comes into conflict with the part of us that turns away from God.

There is another way to understand this. We experience God as love and freedom because of our ongoing choice to alienate ourselves from the Holy. If you are paying any attention to your relationships with other people you will recognize that we constantly need to bend our lives back in the direction of God. In this reality the prophet’s role is to call us home. John the Baptist calls this metanoia or repentance.

The prominent twentieth century Jewish rabbi and civil rights activist Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) describes prophets as, “the most disturbing people who ever lived.”[12] He points out that when we are immersed in the prophet’s words we experience a, “ceaseless shattering of indifference.”

The reason for this is that our very existence is at stake. Perhaps the prophet’s greatest fear is that, “a people may be dying without being aware of it.” We may be able to survive but somehow refuse, “to make use of [that] ability.”

According to Heschel,  He writes the prophet, “speaks from the perspective of God as perceived from the perspective of our own situation.”

My point is for us to consider how God might be inviting us to be a prophet in our own time and in our own way. How can we convey the Divine perspective in this situation?[13]

In the 1990’s my wife Heidi taught a course with Anita Hill who had also been terribly mistreated for sharing her stories about sexual misconduct during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings. After being so publicly shamed she was still struggling to return to a sense of wholeness. As her friends we tried to help her feel normal again. We didn’t talk about philosophy, politics or much theology for that matter. We just were there with her.

The monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) writes, “Can a [person] honestly give life meaning merely by adopting a certain set of explanations which pretend to tell [her] why the world began and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for the good life?… I have been summoned to explore a desert area of [the human] heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts.”[14]

We are being called into the area where explanations no longer suffice. We will progress only by really being with each other. A conversation only on the level of politics, philosophy or theology will not get us anywhere. In the times when I most needed help I found comfort in other people and in God. They may not have directly fixed my problems but their presence helped me to find my way again.

Jane Shaw and I have a friend named Margaret Miles who was the first woman to receive tenure at Harvard Divinity School. She found faculty meeting intensely frustrating as she tried to raise concerns about gender to the all-male faculty. Finally what gave her comfort was a friendship with the only African American professor, Preston Williams.

When the two felt frustrated by lack of progress, their companionship helped them to persevere. They even decided for a semester to switch roles so that Preston would ask questions about the treatment of women and Margaret argued on behalf of people of color.

This week we witnessed three resignations from Congress over issues having to do with sexual misconduct. The #MeToo prophets have shaken the halls of power in media, entertainment, business and government. In a matter of only weeks seeds planted years ago have borne fruit and the world of gender relations has been radically transformed. We are living through a historic moment. But as we make progress toward a more humane society, as the reign of God becomes realized, we must not forget the cost to people like Joyce, Beverly, John, Karl, Anita and Margaret.

We need to change our picture of what a prophet is. We are prophets. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus includes us, and our story. We may not be God’s microphone but we have a strategic story to tell that will shatter indifference. Join God’s disturbing people. Receive the invitation to be comforted. Answer God’s call to welcome others home. The end of God’s story is not in sight.

[1] Pella, the only female character in Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding, dropped out of Yale to marry a much older San Francisco architect. Harbach writes, “It was confusing to have leaped precociously ahead of her high-achieving, economically privileged peers by doing precisely what her low-achieving, economically unprivileged peers tended to do: getting married, staying home, keeping house. She had gotten so far ahead of the curve that the curve became a circle and now she was way behind.” These lines had a new meaning after getting to know the writer Joyce Maynard. Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding: A Novel (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011) 84-87.

[2] Grace Cathedral Forum, 29 October 2017. https://www.gracecathedral.org/events/joyce-maynard-the-best-of-us/

[3] Joyce Maynard, At Home in the World: A Memoir (NY: Picador, 1998).

[4] At an auction Peter Norton bought the letters Salinger had written to her and returned them to him. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Norton

[5] Joyce Maynard, The Best of Us: A Memoir (NY: Bloomsbury, 2017).

[6] Bari Weiss, “The Limits of ‘Believe All Women,’” The New York Times, 28 November 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/opinion/metoo-sexual-harassment-believe-women.html

[7] Matt and Liz Boulton, “Prince of Peace: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary on Advent Week Two.” Salt, December 2017. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2017/12/4/lectionary-commentary-advent-week-two

[8] Ibid.

[9] 2 Advent (12-4-11) B.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “God’s being consists in His being as the One who loves in freedom.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 The Doctrine of God tr. Parker, Johnston, Knight, Haire (NY: T&T Clarke, 1957) 352.

[12] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction (NY: Harper & Row, 1962) ix, x.

[13] In the beginning I mentioned Chad Harbach’s character Pella who through an affair fallen out of step with other people her age. He writes that her greatest fears where questions like, “Who are you? What do you do?… what do you want to do?” Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding: A Novel (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011) 84.

[14] Cited in Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003) 402.

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