On Prophets and Politics
We need a new social imagination
One of the oddest - and perhaps least remembered - stories of the English Reformation involves Elizabeth Barton (d.1534), a wildly popular prophetess and nun known as “The Holy Maid of Kent.”
When she was still a teenager, she had divine revelations in which she predicted the future. At first, most of her prophetic utterances were about healing and heresy — and many of the divinations came to pass. Most English Catholic authorities, including Thomas Wolsey and Sir Thomas More, supported her and found her popularity helpful in their quest to resist the spread of Protestantism among the masses. She proved herself a champion of the old religion in an age when a new, more radical faith was influencing the educated and upper-classes — and threatening the traditional order of Catholic society across England. Barton was, if nothing else, useful to defenders of the religious and political status quo.
But, in 1532, in response to Henry VIII’s slow break with Rome, Barton warned the king that if he divorced Catholic Queen Catherine and married Protestant Anne Boleyn, God would strike him dead within a year. She even described where he’d spend eternity in Hell. The king didn’t take kindly to this “year of death” prediction. Whatever his anger or fear at her words, sex and power would prove stronger motivations than prophetic threats.
Henry married Anne — and it wasn’t Henry who wound up dead. Instead, Elizabeth Barton was arrested and, in 1534, hanged. Her head was put on a spike at London Bridge, the only woman in English history who met such a fate.
She didn’t predict that.
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The history of Christianity is full of women who claim authority through divine revelation, embodying the role of prophet. Some are revered — and their work enshrined in devotional or mystical theology. Others are reviled — and wind up excommunicated, exiled, or executed. In some cases, like that of Elizabeth Barton, they were extremely popular figures in their own time, only to be largely forgotten by history.
We might dismiss Barton as a crank, as unbalanced, or as a troubled young woman. And she certainly didn’t correctly predict the future. But her divinations had a lasting effect — she undermined Anne Boleyn’s popularity so severely that when Henry eventually turned on her, Anne had no champions or friends in either court or the public. Elizabeth Barton didn’t cause Anne’s downfall, but she surely helped set the political stage that would lead to Anne’s own execution two years later.
Henry didn’t die. But a lot of other people did. Prophecy and politics mixed can be a deadly serious thing.
* * * * *
On a recent episode of Morning Joe, David French commented that prophecy was playing a large — and largely unnoticed — role in Christian nationalism and the midterm elections. He seemed to be referring to a video making the rounds on social media shared by Christopher Mathias of Huffington Post:
Julie Green, founder of an Iowa ministry, is the daughter of a Pentecostal pastor. She’s become an increasingly popular figure in MAGA and QAnon circles, most especially for her “Year of Death 2022” prophecies involving “deep state” figures including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And she is currently a headliner at Michael Flynn’s ReAwaken events (make sure to watch the FRONTLINE episode on Flynn) — a Christian nationalist tour rallying right-wing midterm voters across the nation.
Unlike fundamentalists and other conservative Christians, Pentecostals ordain women. Green is an associate pastor in her father’s church. However, Pentecostals are often still resistant to women’s leadership, making the women clergy in their midst reliant upon a special connection to the Holy Spirit and God’s authority to secure their place in community. While male pastors can lean into the authority inherent in being men, Pentecostal women must downplay gender in favor of supernatural gifts. Thus, Pentecostalism has been shaped by excessively enthusiastic — and often controversial — celebrity leaders like Amy Semple McPherson and Tammy Faye Bakker claiming God’s power as their own.
In recent weeks, there have been stories in Media Matters, Rolling Stone, and the Washington Post (some of these articles may be behind paywalls) about Green — mostly about how her “prophecies” have been wrong. Most of these pieces fall into the category of what I’d call “cultured despisers” shaming Pentecostals as gullible hicks and charlatans, more stupid than dangerous or influential. As one says, “Green’s prophecies are badly performed pro-Trump fantasies.”
Many of her prophecies are general, the sort of thing you could hear in almost any Pentecostal church. And few might have come to pass, depending on how you interpret them. But that doesn’t really matter.
Like her spiritual ancestor, Elizabeth Barton, whose most significant prophecies were proved dramatically wrong, her words ultimately don’t matter. Green keenly reads and reflects the larger environment in ways that amplify the hopes of those angry with political authorities — especially those who dare attack the old ways of faith treasured by people to whom the world seems to be spinning out of control.
In effect, Julie Green can prophesy all she likes — and any or all of it can be proved wrong — as long as she speaks for those who feel like they have no voice, expressing their inmost desires for a society reordered in their own image.
And the more elites mock her, the more they shame what her community considers divine authority, the more power her followers will grant her. In effect, the media proves her point.
* * * * *
It would be easy for liberal Christians like myself to dismiss all of this by calling Green a “false prophet” (the Bible has a lot to say about such people) or by insisting that prophecy isn’t about predicting the future (it isn’t soothsaying) but about speaking a powerful vision of God’s justice into the world.
But I’d like to suggest another way of thinking about prophecy and politics. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has pointed out that there has been an important shift in understanding biblical prophecy. These texts are theological “acts of imagination” in which “public speech generate(s) alternative worlds.”
He claimed that this awareness of prophetic word and text “could be seen as poetic scenarios of alternative social reality that might lead to direct confrontation with ‘presumed, taken-for-granted worlds’” (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 40th anniversary edition).
Put simply, prophecy is a public performance that undermines political powers and offers a vision of the world that challenges dominant realities.
Whether predictions come true or not isn’t the point. Prophecy undermines unjust authority and offers a meaningful alternative of God’s future.
In this way, Julie Green is, indeed, a prophet. Of a sort, at least. But I sure wouldn’t want to equate her with Jeremiah!
My quarrel isn’t that she claims God’s authority. It isn’t that she practices prophecy in the political arena. My quarrel is that she — and her followers — have misdiagnosed injustice and misunderstood the nature of God’s desire for the future.
The fundamental mistake of MAGA, Christian nationalists, and QAnon is in their understanding of the structure of reality. They are deeply committed to a pyramid-shaped society, designed by God based on divine hierarchies and roles. That order is believed to have been ordained at creation: men over women, light-skinned races over dark, true religion over false, deserved wealth and status over that which is “undeserved.”
According to them, “injustice” in contemporary culture is the violation of God’s social structure — women with power, nonbinary sexualities accepted (where do they fit?), people from the “wrong” races with political roles over white people, those “undeserving” of wealth and education “taking” the birthright of worthy beneficiaries, and heretics and infidels persecuting the pure faithful believers of God’s true church. God’s good pyramid has gone bad. The wrong people are at the top; the right people are being oppressed at the bottom.
MAGA is ultimately a vision of reality — the re-ordering of this sacred pyramid of God’s own design, and a quest for justice (interpreted as vengeance) against the enemies of God who upended it.
Julie Green’s words are prophecies — undermining those she deems unjust rulers and proclaiming a re-establishment of God’s orderly kingdom on earth. She is perfectly articulating — in a public performance of spiritual imagination — her structure of theological reality.
That’s why words like hers are powerful — and why people take this seriously. The social and economic pyramid under which we are all struggling is a freaking mess right now. They aren’t entirely wrong about the problem of pyramids.
But the problem is that they think the pyramids can be fixed if only they — the right people, God’s people — are once again at the top.
That is where they are wrong. The pyramid is the problem and it can never be fixed; it can never be just.
Thankfully, the pyramid isn’t the only structure through which we might imagine reality.
The alternative structure to the pyramid is that of the table. In biblical faiths, God sets a table in the wilderness, provides a table of provision, and welcomes all to a table of hospitality. The table is a gathering of all who seek a place, a peaceable life, and sustenance in gratitude, humility, and mutual service. It establishes dignity and equality.
In the Bible, pyramid-shaped social structures always come to a bad end. God — and God’s prophets — always proclaim, press toward, and perform the reality of a non-hierarchical, alternative social structure: the table.
The problem isn’t prophecy. It is how we imagine the shape of community — and how our social imagination shapes a vision of justice and the future.
* * * * *
Five hundred years ago, Elizabeth Barton ran afoul of a king who would do anything — kill and murder anyone — to maintain the pyramid of his own power, power he believed his divine right, ordered by God at the establishment of creation itself. Her prophecies were approved by those in authority until she questioned that social order, and claimed to speak for regular people who loved their church and their Queen. When she challenged the pyramid, she became a threat.
And that’s the real difference between the ancient prophetess and the contemporary MAGA prophets. They don’t want to undo pyramids of power — they want to replace a pyramid they don’t like with one of their own making all the while calling it God’s.
That’s the real danger. When prophecy is directed toward an inherently unfair and unjust social structure, then prophecy becomes false. Not because the act of prophecy is illegitimate, but because the object toward which it points is an idol.
If we don’t get this right — if we don’t protest pyramids and speak for the table — we might all come to a bad end.
IN MY BOOK GRATEFUL, I TALK ABOUT PYRAMIDS, TABLES, AND SOCIAL STRUCTURE. In NOVEMBER, the paid Cottage community is going explore GRATITUDE in a month-long series. Instead of doing an Advent calendar in December as we did last year (there will still be Advent posts — just not every day), we are going to take a four-week gratitude journey including reflections from my book Grateful, gratitude prompts, some video lessons, and poetry. There’ll also be a book giveaway — two copies of Grateful each week!
Together, we’ll remind each other of a world of gifts that call forth gratitude.
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In April 1865
Abraham Lincoln died.
In April 1968
Martin Luther King died.
Their purpose was to have
us say, some day:
— Eli Siegel, “Something Else Should Die: A Poem with Rhymes”
I am unjust, but I can strive for justice.
My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness.
I, the unloving, say life should be lovely.
I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.
Man is a curious brute — he pets his fancies —
Fighting mankind, to win sweet luxury.
So he will be, though law be clear as crystal,
Tho’ all men plan to live in harmony.
Come, let us vote against our human nature,
Crying to God in all the polling places
To heal our everlasting sinfulness
And make us sages with transfigured faces.
— Vachel Lindsay
SOUTHERN LIGHTS 2023 is back! Y’all come!
This coming January, Brian McLaren and I are hosting extraordinary guests including Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, theologian Reggie Williams, and Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio in a weekend festival of reimagining faith in words, for the world, and in context of the cosmos — poetry, theology, and science!
We’re also going to do live, on-stage podcasts with guest pod hosts Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Tripp Fuller — and great musics from the wonderful Ken Medema.
Please join us in Georgia at beautiful St. Simons Island or virtually online. CLICK HERE for info and registration!