Given some events of the past two weeks, I‘m taking a brief pause from “Revelation and the Post-Coronavirus Age,” to talk about a modern-day American prophet. We can identify this prophet when we read 1 Kings 17–18.
First Kings 17:1 is fascinating:
Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”
While the verse itself may not sound all that remarkable, in its Old Testament context it is extraordinary. In the rest of the Bible, prophets do not appear out of the blue with public declarations. Instead, they get some sort of introduction: think of Jeremiah’s call in Jer 1:1–10, or Jehoshaphat’s words about Micaiah in 1 Kgs 22:7–8. Prophets sometimes do suddenly appear so that they can give counsel (2 Sam 7:2; 24:11), but a stern message calls for the author to first establish the prophet’s credentials.
Not here, however. Elijah comes out of nowhere with a severe warning. He does not say specifically that if Ahab cleans up his act, Israel will be okay. But “if you do the right thing, then it will rain” is implied. Since later on in 1 Kgs 21:20-29 Ahab repents and God relents, we can be confident that if Ahab had only gotten his act together in 1 Kgs 17, God would have allowed the rain to fall.
Elijah’s threat is extremely serious. We may not grasp this right away, as for most Americans a lack of rain can never get beyond the category of “major nuisance.” Our most extreme droughts might make wells go dry and make food prices and water rates go up, and we might not be able to maintain our lawns and swimming pools. Some farmers might have problems, but even there, our government will help them out.
In Elijah’s day, however, droughts were among the most serious dangers. Most Israelites lived on family farms or worked for farmers. These was no government assistance, or central food storage. Everything that people had came from the farm, so one bad crop could lead to instant ruin, and three years with no rain meant mass starvation.
Therefore 1 Kgs 17:1 is a warning: if Ahab continues as a wicked leader (as in 1 Kgs 16:29-33) then the consequences will be dire.
While the Bible does not say how Ahab reacted, I imagine that the king tried to ignore Elijah. As I suggested at the start, Elijah did not have an impressive reputation or background. So while Ahab heard the warning, he no doubt tried to put it out of his mind.
But when the rain stopped, and the drought went from weeks to months to years, Ahab remembered Elijah’s warning to address the real problems of his society. Ahab brought trouble on himself by ignoring words that he did not want to hear.
Over the past two weeks we have faced several very disturbing events on which Christians must focus. First, videos have appeared showing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed black man in his custody until long after the man stops breathing, with three fellow officers looking on with approval.
Second, numerous protests immediately following that event turned ugly, suggesting that we are entering a period of heightened problems between police and minority communities, with more riots in view.
These things are distressing, but we were warned. God has given us Elijahs. Women and men, often without pedigree or reputation, have spoken God’s truth – peacefully, publicly, noticeably admonishing us to deal seriously with racism against blacks, including police mistreatment of blacks.
The Elijah that comes to mind today is the ex-football player Colin Kaepernick, beginning in the Fall of 2016. His prophecy was marked by silent protest, kneeling, facing down, as the national anthem was played before football games. When asked, he explained that he was taking this action specifically to protest the treatment of blacks by police across the USA. Shortly thereafter, other football players joined him, so that through 2018 dozens of football players (and a few professional athletes from other sports) were quietly kneeling before games. (Review the Wikipedia article.)
Kaepernick is an “ex“ football player, because his protest cost him his job. No NFL team would hire him after the end of the 2016 season.
I realize that many Christians feel strongly that Kaepernick was showing great disrespect to the American flag, a powerful symbol of American freedom and values, and, by extension, showing disrespect for Americans who fought and died for that flag (even though Kaepernick has stated directly that “disrespect” was never his intention). We do not want to minimize the feelings of people who love the flag, and what it stands for. But it is at this point that we Christians must decide whether our chief loyalty is to the USA, or to the God of the Bible. Christians have no option other than to treat with respect those who say “the USA does not deserve my standing at attention for the national anthem.” I appreciate that passages like Rom 13:1-7 teach us to respect our government and its leaders. But many Christians who cite this passage do not take into account the next three verses, Rom 13:8–10:
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”[a] and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Yes, Christians should respect our government and those who have sacrificed for our benefit. But our duty to love others as we love ourselves is even more important.
Obviously, Kaepernick and the others could have protested in other ways. Yet black Americans have been protesting their mistreatment for years, with little visible improvement. The difference between Kaepernick’s protests and others is that Kaepernick has been much more visible, just as Elijah was more visible to Ahab than other prophets. It is easy for most white people to ignore black-led protests about systematic injustice. But just as there was something about Elijah’s warning that Ahab could not forget, the TV cameras make it impossible not to notice kneeling athletes as the Star Spangled Banner is being sung.
Kaepernick and his fellow athletes gave us a warning: black folks and their friends are going to continue to complain for as long as there is systemic injustice in the USA. By and large, America treated these athletes the way Ahab treated Elijah: we ignored their complaints. While many of us had much to say about the protests, not enough of us were willing to respond to the message itself with dignity and urgency.
Today, America is reaping the results: grisly killings of blacks, followed by protests that turn into riots.
The killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, and others, along with the ensuing riots, were preventable. It would have been hard: more government agencies and law enforcement would have had to meet with and listen to black and minority leaders to identify needed changes in procedures around the country. But we needed to take these steps.
I think that we will muddle through this time of civil unrest. Even more, I’m cautiously optimistic that these horrific events are causing us to take a hard look at racism and law enforcement, to be sure that both individuals and systems administer the law justly, with appropriate respect for all.
And I pray that as new Elijah’s appear, Christians will be among the first to listen.