The Prophetic Tradition

Modified on: December 5, 2020

“The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”—Walter Brueggeman

Illusion. Denial. Despair.

Prophets are not future-tellers. They are people who read the economic and political signs of their societies, and summon their communities to care for their most vulnerable members as the highest expression of their civic and spiritual ideals.

The Unitarian Universalist movement originates from the Western prophetic tradition. Our forbearers rejected theological conformity in favor of a spiritual freedom that empowered them to act in solidarity with all who are marginalized and oppressed. Older and deeper than any doctrine or belief, this is the root motivation that created and sustained the best in our Western religious and philosophical lineage:

  • In celebration of Passover (April 8-16, 2020), we tell the story of Exodus: how speaking the truth forms a prophetic people, who stand against a despot that would sacrifice a nation of laborers in service to his fragile ego.
  • In celebration of Easter (April 12, 2020), we see a band of grieving friends form a new economy of sharing—of material goods, and of love—that reversed the inequities of the Roman Empire.
  • In celebration of Ramadan (April 23-May 23, 2020), we witness warring tribes transform a violent religious economy in the Arabian Peninsula by uniting in a vision of justice.
  • And in thinkers like Rousseau, Voltaire, Paine, Emerson, Douglass, the Grimkés, Marx, Goldman, Arendt, Vonnegut, Neruda, King, Malcolm X, and Galeano, the prophetic tradition has fought tirelessly against the despair of tyrannical regimes down to the present day.

This is love beyond belief, intimately attuned to every age. Hymn 125 in our grey hymnal, “From the Crush of Wealth and Power”, expresses this prophetic spirit for the very moment we are living:

From the crush of wealth and power
something broken in us all
waits the spirit’s silent hour
pleading with a poignant call,
bind all my wounds again.

Ev’ry time our spirits languish
terrified to draw too near,
may we know each other’s anguish
and, with love that casts our fear,
bind all our wounds again.

To the illusion, the denial, and the despair of our own day, the prophetic church speaks a message in its words and, far more, in its deeds:

Truth. Grief. Hope.


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