“remember what i told you/ if they hated me they will hate you…”
(from Sinéad O’Connor’s song “Black Boys on Mopeds”)
Last week I read the article Sinéad O’Connor wrote for the Washington Post about the latest revelations of sex abuse and rape of children by Catholic clergy. I consider her a modern day prophet, in the truly biblical sense of that word.
A prophet’s actions are often thought of as having to do with seeing into the future. That’s not necessarily the case. Most often in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, prophets are taking action and proclaiming a message that addresses present day, not future situations. Prophets were called to act when there was a need to remind people of their social obligations to the most vulnerable and oppressed in their community. They were called to act when the official religious leaders of the day had corrupted the true meaning of the faith and were more concerned with holding on to their power than with providing an example of how to love God and neighbor.
Prophets often performed symbolic, provocative acts as a way to get across their message. Isaiah publicly disrobed and walked barefoot through Jerusalem, Elisha showed a king how to shoot a bow and arrows and did a strange miracle involving an ax head, and Ezekiel cut his hair and beard in a strange pattern (to name just one of his many seemingly bizarre acts). Their actions were many times misunderstood and the messages that went along with their acts were often hard truths to hear. People reacted in a defensive and hostile manner, and the prophets were threatened with imprisonment and death. Elijah fled into the desert to escape being killed, and John the Baptist was captured from the desert and later beheaded. This kind of prophetic work looks very different from fortune telling or consulting oracles, and in many cases a lot more dangerous.
I think one reason prophets have come to be associated with being able to see the future is because it’s only much later that their actions are more fully understood. The warnings and protestations of the prophet were initially dismissed, but finally a situation got so bad that it could no longer be ignored. It’s then that people react with “if only we had listened back when…” and the prescience of the prophet is acknowledged.
It’s been almost 20 years since O’Connor performed on Saturday Night Live, singing a haunting rendition of Bob Marley’s song “War” and ending by tearing up a photo of then Pope John Paul II. It was a prophetic act. She changed the lyrics referring to racism to instead denounce “child abuse,” thereby charging the institutional Catholic Church with being the enemy in the war against this abuse. She was already well aware of the Catholic Church’s systemic abuse of children that had been taking place in Ireland for decades, if not longer. She chose to do this symbolic act to provoke awareness and action.
But people didn’t listen. A torn up photo became a greater scandal than the scandal of the rape and abuse of children. She was dismissed as being crazy, she was threatened with violence. She acted as a prophet, and was scorned in the same way prophets were in the past.
And now, all these years later, reports of abuse and betrayal of the most vulnerable continue to multiply, to the point where those who continue to defend the (in)actions of the Church are the ones dismissed as being out of touch with reality. I’m left wondering, what if people had listened to her?