‘It is not light that is needed, but fire’

‘It is not light that is needed, but fire’ March 11, 2021

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

— Frederick Douglass

If you went to seminary in the ’80s or ’90s, you read and heard a lot about the distinction between the “pastoral” and the “prophetic.” (This might still be true, but I haven’t taught or attended any seminary classes since the ’90s, so I can’t say.)

It’s a valid, insightful distinction, even if it was sometimes tediously overdrawn into a misleading binary, or sometimes used as a form of self-congratulatory flattery. The idea is that sometimes we are called to speak words of comfort and gentle guidance, but other times we are called to speak hard truth to power with unflinching candor. For Christian seminarians, of course, “called” there means “called by God,” but we can put that in non-sectarian terms and say that sometimes the situation calls for the former and sometimes circumstances call for the latter.

Think of the aphorism shared by preachers and journalists: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That’s sometimes (often deliberately) misunderstood to refer to any form of comfort, as though preachers and reporters were driving around the neighborhood, lobbing rocks at anyone they see relaxing on the porch after a long day’s work. But clearly the “comfort” referred to there is an unjust comfort — a complacent, complicit comfort with injustice.

I sit on a man’s back, choking him …” Tolstoy wrote, and it would be foolish to think that truth-telling did not require you to speak different truths to me and to that poor man. The most pertinent, most urgent truth I would need to hear would be that I needed to stop choking this man and get off his back. That is, broadly, what we mean by speaking “prophetically.” You might speak this truth angrily or you might try to gently coax me into accepting it, depending on whichever approach you think might be most effective for getting me to listen. “Prophetic” isn’t about tone. While it usually entails speaking harsh truths, it doesn’t necessarily require one to deliver them harshly.

As for that poor man I’m exploiting and harming, he clearly does not need to hear this same truth. “Stop choking him!” or “Choking people is wrong” or “Imagine how you would feel if someone were choking you?” are not messages he needs to hear at this time. Speaking the truth to him entails a different message and a different mode. He is “the afflicted,” and not “the comfortable,” so it becomes your job to “comfort the afflicted.” And that is, broadly, what we mean by speaking “pastorally.”

Again, the distinction is meaningful, but it’s not a stark binary. “Comfort” is only part of the truth we are called to offer this afflicted man. Other necessary truths that we would be called/required to say to this man would be “This is wrong” and “You don’t deserve this” and, thus, “You don’t have to put up with this,” and therefore also, “I’ve got your back.” And all of those truths would seem to fit more into the category of “prophetic” than of “pastoral.” The two modes often overlap quite a bit.

“A beggar on horseback lashes a beggar on foot,” Yeats sighed wearily. Speaking the truth to both entails comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, respectively. When the “Great Day” comes and “The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on,” well, then we are called to do the same.

The quote up top from Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” is a prophetic cry for prophetic speech and action. It comes amidst an argument in which Douglass considers and rejects the efficacy of any other approach, be it pastoral or professorial. The problem he is addressing — millions of people enslaved and robbed and tormented — is too urgent to waste any time on futile approaches based on misdiagnoses of the cause of that problem. So, in a rapid-fire tour de force, he rattles through those false diagnoses, concluding that the problem is not a matter of ignorance, or a failure of logic, but the consequence of a knowing, deliberate, willful moral choice.

Those making that evil choice do not lack for or require education, nor do they need better information to correct some misinformation by which they have been innocently misled. Nor would they benefit from a rational, logical argument to help them reason their way out of a choice that reason played no part in them making. What they need to hear — what they need to be told — is the blunt truth of the prophet whose words echo throughout Douglass’ speech: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed.” (“What to the Slave?” is the kind of thing often described as a “jeremiad,” but it’s almost all Isaiah. “Isaiad” should be a word. So should “Amosiad,” maybe, for an Isaiad that’s shorter, but with more insults sprinkled in.*)

“Stop choosing evil; choose good,” is a stark, simple truth but, Douglass concludes — and forces his listeners/readers to conclude — it was the most urgent truth that needed to be spoken and that needed to be heard. So what’s the best way to speak that truth so that it can and will be heard? Whatever works. Fire, thunder, invective, ridicule, satire, and rebuke are all on the table. So are gentler, more winsome forms of persuasion that may be less apparently confrontational, but only if they unambiguously still force the hearer to confront that stark truth.

But let’s not be abstract. We’re talking about the attempt to address QAnon as a “pastoral” problem. That is, I believe, a futile effort. QAnon-ism — like every other form of Satanic baby-killerism — is the product of moral choices. It is a crime, a sin — bearing false witness against thy neighbor, the boastful pride of life — that must be proclaimed and denounced. Their conscience must be roused.

If a member of a local church congregation has “professing themselves to be wise, become a fool” for the fantasy hoax of QAnon, this was not due to their ignorance, or due to their having been “led astray” by misinformation. Education and exposure to better information will not help them. Nor will the patient application of reason and logic. Nor will the unwavering expression of empathy, kindness, and patience.

These are all Good Things, mind you. And all of these Good Things — education, good information, reason, logic, empathy, kindness, and patience — will be of some benefit to anyone who encounters them. And it’s possible that, gradually and indirectly, the benefits of exposure to all of these will subtly alter the indirect contributing factors that made the Q-disciple the sort of person who was likelier to make the moral choice to devote their life to this harmful, hateful fantasy. But the direct cause of their problem was that moral choice.

And the only direct solution to their problem is for them to unmake that moral choice — to choose differently. “Repent.” That is the truth we need to tell them. That is the truth they need to hear. This is more of a job for prophets than for pastors.

Again, that’s not entirely a binary distinction. Confronting these folks with the truth that they must choose differently likely also requires us to enable them to hear that truth by also reassuring them that they can choose differently — that they are capable of doing so, and that doing so would be better for them. That “pastoral” message is probably necessary, but not sufficient. The “prophetic” demand for repentance always has room for the “pastoral” reminder that the consequences of repentance are not as grave as the consequences of not repenting, although, depending on how that reminder is phrased, it may itself seem more “prophetic” than “pastoral” (depending, I suppose, on how explicitly the “Or else” is stated). Like I said, there’s overlap and a lot of blurriness in those categories.

But let’s not allow for any blurriness in what it is that QAnon disciples need to be made to hear as the most urgent truth: Repent. Cease to do evil. Or else.

Anything less than that won’t work.

* Or maybe an Isaiad is a longer version of an Amosiad, with most of the personal invective removed. I’m not up on the latest scholarship as to which prophet borrowed from the other, but it sure seems like either the person who wrote Amos 5 had read Isaiah 1 or else the person who wrote Isaiah 1 had read Amos 5. (It’s also possible, of course, that both prophets were simply relaying nearly identical divine language because God is repeating Godself because, well, we mortals are constantly needing to be told the same thing.)

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