Prophetic Distance and the Perils of Picking a Winner
I like winning, but I've done a lot of losing in my life, especially when it comes to voting. I've got a pretty good track record of picking losers.
But recent history tells us that picking winners in presidential elections has its own dangers.
What happens if the presidential candidate you prefer wins this fall?
As a Christian and citizen, you owe the winning candidate -- whoever he is (we've only got "he's" left this time around) -- the gift of what my friend Jim Wallis calls "prophetic distance." That means two things.
First, you need to be near enough -- connected enough -- to fulfill the kinds of obligations you have as a citizen (suggested, for example, in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 or 1 Peter 2:13-17), and the kind of obligations you have as a follower of Jesus to every human being. Simply put, that means you need to do for the president what you would want others to do for you if you were in his shoes (or in his Pennsylvania Avenue address).
Practically, what does this mean? If you were president, you wouldn't want people to mock you or misrepresent you. You would want your words and actions to be interpreted intelligently and charitably -- not gullibly, but not cynically either. You would want others to tell the truth if they thought you were going wrong, just as you would want them to express their support if they thought you were doing good. You would want citizens to give you the support required to do your job well, which, while it doesn't require agreement, does require respect and civility.
Second, "prophetic distance" requires that you be not too near relationally, not too connected emotionally, not co-dependent or sycophantic -- distant enough to maintain the ability to speak the truth (as you see it) to power. If you lose that distance, you are in danger of becoming what some have called a "useful idiot" -- a yes-man/woman who has lost independence, objectivity, fairness, and the ability to differ.
So if you become a hostile adversary, lobbing verbal bombs from a tactical distance, it guarantees that you won't be listened to. And if you become a compliant yes-man, it guarantees you won't have anything to say that is worth listening to. In between those two extremes is the arena of prophetic distance.
This balance -- near enough, but not so near as to be co-opted; far enough, but not so far as to be ignored -- has eluded many. For example, I recently heard the great preacher/theologian/activist Ray Rivera retell the story of Amaziah, originally told in Amos 7:10. Amaziah was a priest who became the yes-man to King Jeroboam of Israel. The "patriotic" priest tried to pressure Amos to quiet down and join him in cozying up to the king, thus losing his prophetic distance, but Amos -- with characteristic flair -- refused. One also thinks of biblical heroes Nathan and Esther in this regard: Each (in vastly different ways) was close enough to the king to gain access and be heard, but each kept sufficient emotional distance to speak the truth (see 2 Samuel 12 and Esther 8).
Insecure and unwise leaders will seek to surround themselves with yes-men and yes-women. They will "cherry-pick intelligence" to tell them what they want to hear, and they'll marginalize all minority reports. In contrast, secure and wise leaders will always want independent voices around them -- voices who speak from a place of "prophetic distance" -- voices who have the courage to differ and whose loyalty to their nation and their president is always superseded by their loyalty to the truth. This is true of state and local leaders as well as national ones, and it's true of denominational and congregational leaders no less. May you and I be the kinds of leaders who listen to prophetic voices, and may we be the kind of prophetic voices to whom wise leaders can turn for wise input.
We will elect a president this fall. There will be a winner. But we will all be winners if that president is sure to have courageous and honest truth-speakers around him in the zone of prophetic distance.
Brian McLaren is an author and speaker and serves as Sojourners' board chair.