True prophets speak the truth no matter what the cost. The Word of God burns inside them until they have no choice but to speak and to act. Through stories, dreams, visions, God speaks through prophets that others may hear and hold onto the promise or heed the warning.
In the Bible, true prophets are a mixed breed. Some are royal advisers. Some are outlaws, opposing unjust rule. Some are simple farmers, or shepherds, like the prophet Amos. The credential for becoming a prophet is not wealth or intelligence or popularity. For each prophetic occasion, God hand-picks the prophet who will deliver the authentic message from God to the people. At times this was a message of hope, reminding the exiled community of God’s covenant promise. This message was encouraging, uplifting words like:
“Keep moving forward. God is with you.”
Other times it was a word of warning:
“Change your ways. God will reckon with your injustice.
Some say the prophetic age ended with the first apostles of Christ. Yet, I find prophetic figures in all ages. Prophets are persons of faith who speak truth to power. More than this, they act in ways that are rebellious, even illegal, to do what is good and right and holy. And in doing so, they foster a more humane world through the Spirit of Christ. Through their prophetic work, they inspire others to pick up the mantle and make the world more like the kingdom of God.
In the early 19th century, persons with mental illness were crammed into jails and asylums that more closely resembled Dante’s Inferno than anything on earth. Into this world came a woman named Dorothea Dix.
One day in March 1841, she volunteered to teach Sunday school to some women confined at the East Cambridge (Massachusetts) jail. Afterward, a jailer escorted her around the facility. As she gazed into the cells she heard a scream and demanded to see the source. The jailer reluctantly escorted her to a heavy locked door. He opened it and the chilly air inside blew a heavy stench into their faces. The scream had come from a group of huddling, half-naked ‘lunatics’ who had been encaged in the hovel for years — in the company of convicted violent criminals, as was still common. She asked the jailer how could this be. He comfortably (and, as things turned out, famously) assured the small lady that she should not bother herself; the insane could not feel heat or cold. (Ron Powers, No One Cares About Crazy People)
The diminutive Dix then knew her life’s purpose. She became a prophet for those with mental illness, speaking truth to powers that dehumanized vulnerable souls. For the next eighteen months, she toured jails and asylums throughout Massachusetts, barging past guards to interview patient-inmates and their keepers. She then joined forces with other reformers like Dr. Samuel Woodward, Horace Mann, and Samuel Gridley Howe “to inspire or shame the legislature into action.”
Those who carry on prophetic work come in all shapes and sizes, all ethnic groups and genders. They come from various faith backgrounds and perspectives. They have two key things in common. They proclaim words consistent with the Word of the Lord. And they act in such a way that the Way of God’s kingdom is revealed. They speak truth to ungodly power and obey the authority of the one true God.
Who do you see today playing a prophetic role in the realm of mental illness?
How can we better speak truth to ungodly powers who make decisions affecting persons with mental illness?
What can we do to obey the one true Creator of all humanity?