Amid all the soaring rhetoric and unbridled enthusiasm of President Obama’s inauguration, I heard a comment that truly disheartened me. At one point, during a Martin Luther King event, someone stood up and declared that Obama has been ordained by God to lead us in such a time as this.
I know it’s hard to contain our enthusiasm about the guy. I have myself been tempted to convert a corner of my living room into a little Obama shrine, complete with graven images, a straw mat on which to prostrate myself, and perhaps a money-changing table thrown in for good measure.
But please, people, not again. We should have all learned our lesson by now about giving God’s authority to political leaders, even one that actually does seem to want to help out the suffering masses. This kind of thinking over the course of history, and especially over the last eight years, has brought us nothing but bitter heartache and compromised faith.
The problem here is that we continue to confuse two very different roles in society: Prophet vs. King. These roles have been put into focus this year, as we find ourselves at the confluence of an inauguration of a new, grand king and a holiday honoring one of our nation’s greatest prophets. There were a lot of well-meaning speeches this year comparing Mr. Obama with Rev. King, and those speeches never failed to express joy that Obama is the culmination and embodiment of King’s dream. There is certainly much truth to that.
But, although we may enjoy the view by stepping up to the precipice of that line of thought, we need to be careful not to step out into the chasm by expecting Obama to actually be Rev. King. We must remember that Rev. King occupied a very different role in society than Obama, and that the nature of those roles is to be in opposition to each other.
Biblically speaking, the purpose of a prophet is to stand outside the system and challenge the status quo. Prophets are the voice of the voiceless. They listen to God or to their society’s deepest values and then rebuke those who are not being faithful. That’s their job — to criticize and to demand that everyone shape up. That’s why they are often found in deserts with unruly hair, eating locusts. It’s why they sometimes hang from crosses or get shot in Memphis motels. Nobody in power wants to hear about it.
The purpose of a king is to provide order and stability. It is by nature a job that requires compromise among competing interests. It rewards effectiveness over faithfulness. If a king does not find a way to at least placate those with power, then he’s not going to be king for very long, especially in a modern-day democracy. Being a prophet may occasionally lead to your head served on a platter, but being king is no Sunday walk in the park, either.
Sure, sometimes prophets become kings. They start out as revolutionaries and sometimes those revolutions bring about positive change. But all too often, what they accomplish is to allow the previously disenfranchised to promptly subjugate the previously powerful. A prophet will eventually find that, as king, they must choose between their pure ideals and the realism of benefiting the greatest number of people using the least amount of pain. (That is, when they are not choosing between their pure ideals and big piles of gold.)
We have been treating Obama as a prophet, when he has been running to be king. We can’t measure kings by the degree to which they are faithful. We can’t judge them by their ability to eliminate disparity or prejudice, to defeat evil or to bring joy and happiness to all. Prophets can point toward these things as our goal, but delivering them is something else entirely.
No, we must measure the success of kings by decreases in suffering, by the movement of power from those who have it to those who do not. We must judge whether living standards are modestly better or more humane than when the king took power. Effectiveness sometimes requires marginal changes in the right direction or changes in momentum, rather than the arrival at a destination.
But the one mistake we simply cannot make is to declare our political leaders anointed by God for us to blindly follow. After all, that’s what they used to tell peasants, back before there were printing presses, public education and the accountability of cell phone cameras. Let’s not be peasants anymore. It doesn’t matter who St. Paul was trying to appease when he wrote Romans 13, declaring we must submit to governing authorities as established by God. Jesus criticized governing authorities plenty, and so should we.
Barack Obama is the brightest hope in our lifetime to be a king that will right wrongs, balance the scales and deliver justice. But kings tend to go off-task unless prophets keep them honest. The best thing we can do to help Mr. Obama reach his goals, and hopefully ours as well, is to take seriously the prophets of our age who challenge him to be faithful, and to not get too discouraged when he disappoints.