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Some time ago on our way to church, we saw an enormous line of yellow buses parked near Uhuru Park and vast crowds making their way into Central Park to listen to a well-known Kenyan prophet.
Coincidentally, on this particular Sunday (8th July 2018) in many churches in the world the homilies being preached were on the role of prophets. 1 The particular preacher I heard on this topic, said – without casting allusions on the Kenyan prophet preaching in Central Park – that one should beware of prophets that are very popular, a warning of course that reflects solid biblical teaching.

As was evident from the huge crowd in Central Park, Kenyans appear to have a great desire to listen to a prophet. What does this desire reflect? Is it simply a yearning for something sensational, a wish to be entertained, or could it indeed be a hunger for the transcendent?

It so happens that the role of prophets in society has been much on my mind in the last month. The reason for this is a book that I have been reading on the well-known writer, Thomas Merton. For those who do not know Merton, this American author became popular in the last century especially through his autobiography, The seven story mountain2 In this book he describes his conversion to Christianity and his decision, just three years after that, to become a Trappist monk. Merton became known also through the books on spirituality that he penned while in the monastery. (There is ample information about him on the internet.)

The book that I have been reading, Passion for peace: the social essays, was published in 1995, nearly thirty years after the death of Merton (which occurred in 1968).

This lapse in time is significant in order to understand the reaction that many people had to Merton’s writings when – from 1962 onwards – he changed the subject matter of his writings significantly: from spirituality to reflections on war and peace. The editor of the book, William H. Shannon, has done an admirable job in explaining why some people were scandalized by this new trend in Merton’s writings. He makes clear, in his introduction to the book, why Merton made the switch to this new subject. The reason for the change in topic – and Merton’s agony that preceded it – tells us much, not only about Merton’s own spiritual journey, but also why his prophetic role was misunderstood by many, even in the church.

The story of this episode in Merton’s life has much to teach us about what it means to be a prophet in society. Fifty years after the death of this prophet, there are some things that we can learn from his particular story. One of them is that prophets will be misunderstood because they are normally ahead of their time and have a clearer view of what ails society.

The editor of the book draws our attention to the fact that in the early 1960s the church in North America was quite different from how it was in the 1990s. He says:

We live at a time when it is not an uncommon thing for Roman Catholics to protest against war and to lobby for peace… But in 1961 … things were much different … Roman Catholics by and large were a patriotic lot. I remember a bishop of that time who in a public talk echoed the words of Stephen Decatur, a naval officer who in the war of 1812 said, “Our country … may she always be in the right. But our country, right or wrong.” Thirty years ago a Roman Catholic bishop could get away with such a statement. Today [in the 1990s] such a crude nationalism on the part of a bishop would be intolerable.

When, in 1961 Merton started advocating for peace, the world was in the midst of the cold war and the nuclear arms race was ongoing on both sides of the iron curtain. In the U.S. people were discussing the need for setting up underground shelters in case of a nuclear attack by the U.S.S.R. In addition, the U.S. was involved in the war against Viet Nam. Therefore, for Merton to talk about the need for the abolition of war made people scratch their head and start asking: “What … has happened to Thomas Merton? …. What does [this kind of] writing have to do with his spirituality?”

What has happened to [Merton in 1961, says the editor] is that his solitude had issued into what all true solitude must eventually become: compassion. Finding God in his solitude, he found God’s people…. This sense of compassion bred in solitude … moved him to look once again at the world he thought he had left behind when he entered the monastery [in 1941].

Merton wrote to a friend [Daniel Berrigan]: “What is the contemplative life if one does not listen to God in it … if one becomes oblivious to the rights of men … and the truth of God in the world?”

What does this reflection on compassion as a result of contemplation teach us in Kenya? Though the word ‘contemplation’ is not used as much as spirituality and other talk about God in our country, unlike in Europe, ‘God talk’ is very common in Kenya and people readily admit that they pray and go to church regularly. But do our religious practices issue in listening? To God, and to the cry for justice by many of our citizens? Do they result in compassion for those on the margins of society? We may not be involved in an unpopular war – as was the case in the U.S. when Merton was writing – but there are many social ills in our country that ought not to be swept under the carpet.

The fact that Merton had to submit his writings to his superiors and was at times refused permission to write at all indicates that the religious leaders at that time might not have been open to the voice of prophets. Is there a danger of that in our country?

Who are the prophets in Kenya and how does one recognize them? For one, a real prophet is seldom popular. The Old Testament and Jesus himself make this very clear. Yet, true prophets cannot be silenced: passion for truth and a desire for justice in the land make it impossible for them to stop talking about what is wrong in society.

We should also recognize that our prophets may not necessarily be preachers or that they are only found in churches or among Christians. I look at some of our newspaper columnists as prophets. When someone like Sunny Bindra ends a Sunday Nation article (on the idolization of money) with the sentence: ”So keep on clapping for the spenders,
but know that [it] won’t end well,” to me he has taken on the role of a prophet. Bindra wrote his article on inordinate greed more than four years ago and what do we find today: the skyrocketing of corruption in many areas! If we had paid more heed to his warning against greed, would we have ended up in this lamentable situation?

Contemplation, whether in a monastery or outside of it, is a necessity if we wish to know ourselves and draw closer to God. But if contemplation does not issue in compassion for the unfortunate in society and a change to a lifestyle which exhibits solidarity with them, does it serve its purpose of bringing one closer to God?

What do you think?

  1. According to the Lectionary in Catholic and Anglican churches: 14th Sunday in Ordinary time. See Ez. 2 : 2.
  2. It was published in the U.K. under the title Elected silence.

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