Commentary: Let’s remember the words of the prophets

All societies need their prophets and politicians.  To find a person who combines the qualities of both is quite rare.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was indeed a prophet and not a politician, although he certainly had a profound impact on the politicians of his day. Dr. King, by his leadership of a mass non-violent movement, made Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson better leaders in the struggle for civil rights than they might otherwise have been.  

It has been asserted that without President Johnson, all of Dr. King’s effort would have come to nothing. However, without Dr. King’s pressure and that of others, Lyndon Johnson would have gone much slower and succumbed to the strong forces of opposition from what was then the “Solid South.” Clearly, after passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Southern Democrats deserted the Democratic Party in droves and the South is now a reliable bastion of Republican support.

In my lifetime, the only politician who combined the qualities of prophet and politician was Robert F. Kennedy.  I can hear the howls of protest from various quarters. With RFK, you either loved or hated him. Of what Bobby do I speak?  Is it the politician who served as his brother’s keeper, a person of aggression and arrogance?  Or, is it the Bobby who emerged after Nov. 22, 1963?  Was there any difference?  Some say yes and some say no.

RFK the politician lived with the belief that once he got to the Chicago convention in 1968, then-Mayor Richard Daley would press to deliver him the nomination.  But, where the prophet?

That bloody spring of 1968 saw the tide begin to turn in the quest for civil rights.  The polls showed that whites who could understand the need to call off the dogs and firehoses in Birmingham had begun to say that blacks should be more patient in pursuing change.  Nonetheless, Robert Kennedy asked white America how it would feel if it found that God was black. He asked us to examine the plank in our eye that was racism.  Were these words of a politician reading the polls or of a Jeremiah pointing us in a different and better direction?

It is dangerous for us to confuse politicians and prophets in our zeal for our candidates.  Prophets are almost never on the ballot. But as any political endeavor falls far short of the kingdom of God, the goals of a politician can point in the direction of the kingdom.  Go this way.

In this campaign season, it would be good for us to remember the words of the prophet who told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless. What if God was a black youth; would his or her life matter?  What if God was an immigrant seeking refuge from the far more privileged?  What if God was a woman who saw herself defined daily as not worth as much as a man?

Robert Kennedy, Saint Francis of Assisi and Sir Thomas More are not on the ballot this year but somewhere they are pointing.  Go this way.

Tom Howarth is a resident of Front Royal