On Friday, our next president will be sworn in.
The 2016 election ended the most bizarre, unsettling campaign season I’ve ever seen. Afterward I felt great relief, not because my candidate won (I couldn’t vote for either major candidate) but because it was finally over.
Thankfully, mercifully, happily over.
Then the protests and riots began—the most violent of them in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. The losers threw tantrums while the winners gloated.
My heart hasn’t stopped aching about the 2016 election season. However, what troubled me most was not the candidates, but the body of Christ. I consider 2016 to be the year the church lost its prophetic voice.
Both progressive and conservative Christians took their eyes off God’s simple requirement: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Each side seemed to have a sickening case of tunnel vision, condemning vile behaviors in the other candidate while overlooking equally vile behaviors in their own. God’s people could have called for justice and repentance without scrambling down into the mud with everyone else. But we didn’t. So we lost our prophetic voice.
What do I mean by prophetic voice?
Consider King David.
In 2 Samuel, David had just committed a string of terrible sins. First, he sleeps with the wife of Uriah, one of his top warriors. Then, when she gets pregnant, he craftily calls Uriah back from the battlefield for a little—ahem!—“R&R” with her, to hide who the father is; but Uriah won’t enter his own home because doing so would dishonor his fellow warriors, who are still fighting and can’t enjoy such luxuries. Thwarted, David resorts to premeditated murder. He commands his general to put Uriah on the front lines and then withdraw the troops, leaving Uriah to be killed.
The plan works; David gets away with both adultery and murder.
Until the prophet Nathan shows up to tell the king a story:
“There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him” (1 Samuel 12:1-4).
Hearing this tale of injustice, David rages: “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity” (12:5-6).
Only then does Nathan close the trap: “You are that man” (12:7).
This story can help us understand the prophetic voice, and also how we lost it.
The prophetic voice speaks truth to power. Nathan had to deliver a stinging rebuke to a king. Although David’s kingdom was ruled by God’s law (the Torah), in a monarchy the king is the arbiter of the law, and can essentially do whatever he wants. Though David was considered a man after God’s own heart, he did not hesitate to commit sin and then hide it.
I admit I can get pretty starry-eyed around “kings” (people who have wealth and fame – like when I used to do on-air interviews of musicians, politicians, and other celebrities at a Christian radio station). In fact, who doesn’t? For some reason, most of us want rich, famous people to think we are cool. However, if God so instructed, would I have the courage to speak God’s uncomfortable truth to power? Nathan did, even knowing it might cause his political downfall or possibly his physical death.
It took great courage for the prophet to deliver this rebuke to a king. But the prophetic voice must speak God’s truth to whomever God instructs, no matter how powerful and no matter what the potential consequence.
The prophetic voice must transcend our own political agenda. Nathan could have convinced himself that maybe he didn’t hear God correctly, or that David’s sin wasn’t all that bad. After all, David was doing some great things: establishing a beautiful capital in Jerusalem, bringing the ark of the covenant back home, and defeating some pretty bad enemies of Israel. He was a good king overall, so why care about his personal life? Why bother with his sins (or “mistakes”)? After all, bringing him down would d– evastate not only the palace and royal family, but the entire nation as well.
When my alma mater’s president posed next to then-candidate Donald Trump with a Playboy cover on the wall behind them, I cringed. I know he didn’t pick where he stood in Trump’s office, but that photo seemed representative of what was going on among Christians at that time: we were more than willing to overlook sin if it benefited our political agenda. Maybe Trump was our guy because he preached pro-life, so we didn’t care about his playboy lifestyle; or maybe Clinton was our gal because she preached benefits for all, so we didn’t care about her unethical practices; or maybe Sanders was our guy because he preached social justice, so we didn’t care that he doesn’t even really believe in God.
So we lost the moral high ground. Or, as Judge Judy says, we accused without clean hands. We found that we cannot call out the splinter in our opponent’s eye when we have a plank in our own.
The prophetic voice should lead to a repentant heart. Nathan approached David not just to spew vitriole or delegitimize his kingship, but to call David to repentance. And David immediately responded, “I have sinned against the Lord” (12:13). Psalm 51 beautifully expresses his repentance:
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain m
True, David was a true follower of God who cared deeply about God’s opinion, while many of today’s politicians and pundits aren’t. Still, we don’t even try to do what Nathan did: confront them directly and call them to account, led by God with the purpose of effecting repentance. Instead we confront them indirectly on social media, led by our own silly passion—pointlessly mocking them, repeating wild rumors about them, and insulting their followers. That’s the world’s methodology, and we are not being God’s prophetic voice when we imitate it. Our objective must be repentance—which, by the way, always includes our own.
I hope we’ll do the former. But we’ll have to look within. Will we try to speak God’s truth, in love, to everyone or just to those with whom we disagree? Will we seek justice for all, or only for those we personally deem oppressed? Will we pray for our president, not for him to grow a brain or roll over dead but to humbly repent, seek reconciliation, and lead our nation with wisdom and grace?
Nathan’s gentle, truthful approach softened David’s heart to hear God’s words. We too must maintain a gentle spirit of repentance for ourselves, our opposition, and our whole society. God’s kingdom must come first; no political party, preference, or agenda is more important.
To regain our prophetic voice, we must be brave, loving, and consistent, or else remain silent.
I am pretty sure silence is not an option.
We must do better.