There’s a classic and famous Protestant idea known as “the priesthood of all believers.” It was originally articulated by Martin Luther five hundred years ago. He intended it as a critique of the Roman Catholic priestly hierarchy, which claimed that specialized intermediaries were necessary in order for people to have contact or communion with God. All Christians, according to Luther, had direct, immediate access to the Divine, through grace and faith. The institutional “middleman” was unnecessary. The notion of the “priesthood of all believers” amounted to a kind of democratization of faith, which has had a huge impact on western culture and religion.
My teacher, James Luther Adams, taking his cue from Luther’s idea and expanding upon it, proposed what he called “the prophethood of all believers.” Bearing in mind that ‘prophecy’ refers, not to futuristic fortune-telling, but to a serious vocation of justice-seeking and speaking truth to power, Adams insisted that all ‘believers’ were called to engage in prophetic ministry. He wanted to democratize the function of prophecy as Luther had democratized the priestly role. Everyone has within them the capacity and the responsibility to speak out against injustice and for beloved community. A prophet is not a special kind of person; prophecy is a special capacity that all persons can access and exercise.
Adams, a Unitarian Universalist theologian, was inspired by an obscure little episode in the book of Numbers, in the Hebrew Bible, where Joshua, the assistant of Moses, comes to complain that two ‘unauthorized’ prophets — Eldad and Medad — are speaking out in the camp. They were out of order, disrupting the status quo with their spontaneous and inspired behavior. Joshua was outraged and wanted a return to normalcy. “My lord Moses, stop them!” he exclaimed.
But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
Far from feeling threatened by a wider distribution of prophetic power, Moses earnestly prayed that everyone would feel so inspired.
I fully recognize that “prophet” and “prophecy” and “prophetic” are not words that most Unitarian Universalists use in common conversation, least of all with reference to themselves. Like much religious language, discourse about prophecy has been subject to much misunderstanding and abuse. But I think there is value and power in retrieving the true sense of this religious vocabulary. Whether or not you use the language of prophecy, I hope you understand that speaking out on behalf of justice is not an optional ‘extra’ to religious life, but an integral part of everyone’s moral life and responsibility.
Acting for justice is an integral part of our UU mission. The specific shape that such “prophetic” work takes in your life will vary from person to person, of course. In whatever direction you feel spiritually called and confirmed, may you find yourself challenged, fulfilled, and in the fellowship of good-hearted companions as we work together to build beloved community.
In good faith and fellowship,