My parents' generation often reminisces about how amazing it was the first time they saw Star Wars or Jaws. The technology used in those films was groundbreaking, as it looked more realistic than anything previously shown on the silver screen. To me, those movies are aged with effects that aren't too impressive. However, I do remember the first time I saw Avatar. What an experience! The visuals and story truly captivated me.
Avatar tells the story of two groups, a human corporation that travels to a planet called Pandora to extract its resources, and the native Pandoran Na'vi tribe who fight to protect their land. Jake Sully, the main character, realizes the corporation's relentless intent to drive away the Na’vi after arriving on Pandora from earth. Jake sympathizes with these creatures and eventually joins their fight.
Of course, I identified with Jake when I first saw the movie. That's what stories are meant to do - to draw us in, to allow us to feel for the characters. At first, Jake was unaware of the corporation's malice, but after discovering their plan, he chose to do right, falling in love with the Na’vi, and giving up his assignment in order to protect Na'vi life. He stood up for the oppressed and sought justice - of course not without an epic Hollywood final battle scene.
But Avatar isn't the first story wherein we see a "Jake" character (someone who takes on the office of "prophet" against the powers that seem to be blind to their oppression, injustice and greed). Let’s look at another example.
One of the most famous stories in the Bible is the Exodus of Israel from slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37 - Exodus 15). Joseph, the great grandchild of Abraham, was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers. Despite this, Joseph became a mighty ruler in Egypt, giving his family special privileges from Pharaoh. But after a few generations, Israel became persecuted and ended up enslaved to Egypt and its rulers. They turned to God, crying out for Him to save them.
Through quite an extraordinary turn of events, a Hebrew baby, Moses, ended up in the care of Pharaoh's daughter, who raised him as an Egyptian. But after murdering a fellow Egyptian, Moses fled to the desert, only to return years later as a prophet to confront Pharaoh on behalf of God and convince him to release the Israelites from captivity.
After much reluctance, Pharaoh eventually let Israel go to wander through the wilderness until God led them to the land of Canaan. It was through the nation of Israel, a nation whom God called into being, that God planned to bless the whole world. And it was through the lineage of Abraham, Joseph, and many others, that Jesus Christ eventually was born.
All throughout the history of Israel, the prophet remained a vital office for the nation as a whole and its leaders in particular. Over and over again, Israel forgot about God, chose to follow other gods, became oppressors, and neglected the poor and outcast in their midsts. And over and over again, God sent prophets to these leaders to urge them to turn their hearts back to God. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Elijah, and John the Baptizer all spoke the hard truth to the powers that be, calling them to return to God.
Prophets had specific roles in the Bible. They told the people what God was doing in the world and tried to make them understand how they got off track. They reminded the people of God's longing to be in a covenant relationship with them and warned them what would happen if they didn't change. They also reminded the people what God expected from them as His chosen people. Here are some examples of what the prophets told Israel throughout their history:
“'Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,' says the Lord Almighty.” - Malachi 3:7
"Elijah went before the people and said, 'How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.'" - 1 Kings 18:21
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” - Micah 6:8
What people in power often forget is that with great power comes great responsibility (I can't believe I finally got to use that line). Leaders of communities, churches, organizations, companies, and nations have a tremendous amount of influence on people. Unfortunately, although many leaders try their best to do what they believe is right, it doesn't always line up with how God calls us to live.
I know that sounds a bit trite, but I'm not talking about a "holier than thou" sense of morality. The scripture is quite clear that God designed life to flourish in a particular way. When we choose to ignore that, for the sake of power, wealth, or influence, we can safely say that that isn't the way God calls us to live. And the signs are often obvious. People, and the rest of God's creation, are oppressed, marginalized, forgotten, and killed.
Let it be no surprise then, that the prophetic office is very much alive today. The call of the Christian is the same as it was for Jake and for Moses, although admittedly much more complex. Nothing is ever as black and white as we might like it to be. But wherever there are Christians, there are those who feel the call to speak truth to power and work for God's kingdom instead of their own.
We have seen a clear example of this in the United States over the past few months as certain policies have seen children forcibly taken away from their parents after fleeing to America in search of a better and safer life. Yes, they immigrated illegally, but manipulation was key in taking the children away, hoping that such consequences would deter others from crossing the border. We have even seen the Trump administration try their hand at biblical justification for these acts.
And all throughout, there have been Christian (and non-Christian) voices unabashedly calling out their own government, denouncing these acts as non-biblical, even evil, and urging their own country to read what the Bible actually says about how to treat foreigners, neighbours, and "the least of these." Leaders like Shane Claiborne, Rachel Held Evans, and Brian Zahnd, all followed the tradition of the prophets in giving their government a wake-up call and reminding them what faithfulness actually looks like.
So where does this leave us? First of all, those of us with power and influence need to remember just how easy it is to lose sight of justice, mercy, and goodness. Whatever our motives are, we may not be aware of the far-reaching consequences of our actions. But are we willing to listen to what God might be telling us through the prophets of our day? Are we willing to open our eyes to see what the rest of the world sees as obvious?
Second, all of us must remember the real possibility that God may be wanting to speak a prophetic word through us. When we see evil, oppression, marginalization, and violence, even in the name of God, we have to wrestle with the fact that God might be calling us to stand up and confront power. Sometimes that power claims to be Christian, but sometimes it doesn't. Again, it's not black and white, and it's definitely not easy.
But the stories that we read or hear never pretend like that part is easy. Jake had to turn his back on his fellow humans to protect the Na'vi. Moses had to confront his upbringing and the system that raised him, a Hebrew, as an Egyptian. It's a hard, harsh, and often lonely road. It's risky business speaking out, but we will most certainly find that it's even riskier not to.