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Both the rascals and the prophets can be the voice of God


“The Lord the God of their ancestors, sent persistently to them by his messengers … but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets. ...

“In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem. … Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up” (2 Chronicles 36:15-16 and 22-23).

One recent evening an acquaintance and I were talking about the ongoing sanctions in Iraq. I mentioned that 53 American bishops had come out against the sanctions, and that Bishop Thomas Gumbleton had visited Iraq.

“Gumbleton,” my acquaintance said. Sniffing dismissively, he added: “Detroit. He’s a liberal.” By using the dreaded L-word, my acquaintance clearly felt that he had settled the matter: Gumbleton had been categorized, labeled and pegged, and as such could safely be written off as someone who had nothing to say.

Climbing on my high horse, I said, “Yes, Gumbleton is a liberal. So what? He’s a man of God. I don’t write off conservative bishops because they’re conservative.”

Of course I wasn’t telling the whole truth. In my better moments, through a conscious act of the will, I might not dismiss a conservative voice out of hand, but who would I, no conservative, be inclined to pay more attention: Fabian Bruskewitz, the famously conservative bishop of Lincoln, Neb., or Thomas Gumbleton? After all, I know what the conservatives have to say, and I know that I do not agree with much of what is said. Why then should I have to pay attention to someone who doesn’t agree with me?

It’s almost trite to say that our church is polarized, but it’s true nonetheless. Sometimes it seems as though every issue, no matter how large or small, becomes a battleground between conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and progressives. Not that anyone is much listening to anyone else. Liberals, if they listen at all, listen with half an ear to conservatives, and put the worst possible interpretation on everything that is said. Likewise, conservatives think they’ve heard everything the liberals have to bray about. So why bother?

The problem with this approach is that if we stop listening to those who don’t share our convictions, we’re bound to miss something important. We might even miss God.

What’s that? Miss God? Why would God, with a host of compelling and attractive men and women to speak through, bother with someone who’s fractious and disagreeable? That’s a question I cannot answer. All I know is that God can, and does, speak through all kinds of people, even rascals, and even prophets - and who’s more disagreeable, more downright annoying, than a prophet?

Consider Cyrus, the emperor of Persia: the largest empire the world had yet seen and the ruin of Israel. No Israelite would expect anything but insult and heartache from Persia, and from Cyrus, whom the Israelites saw as an idol-worshipping pagan. Not only did Cyrus not worship the God of Israel, they were barely acquainted. And Cyrus’ predecessors were anything but godly men: They had captured and deported Jerusalem’s leading citizens, had laid waste to the city, had destroyed the Temple - the focal point of Israel’s worship - and had absconded with the Temple’s treasure of sacred vessels and liturgical artifacts. God? Speak through Cyrus? Don’t make jokes.

And yet God did speak through Cyrus. God instilled in Cyrus a spirit of justice, and used him as the instrument of Israel’s liberation. Without Cyrus, this pagan, Israel’s restoration would not have come.

Who knows whom the next prophet will be? Who knows the direction from which God’s voice will next come? None of us, which is why we can ill afford to ignore even those who disagree with us. God is to be found in all things, but we cannot find God in all things if we’ve already decided that God isn’t to be found in people we don’t care to listen to. Granted, it’s considerably easier not to listen. It’s easier to surround ourselves with people who have the same opinions we do. It’s easier to read only those publications that affirm our existing beliefs about the world. It’s hard to have to think about things, and consider them, and sort through them, but if we are to find God where God is, we have to do what works - not simply what’s easy. We have to listen.

Jesuit Fr. Dirk Dunfee is minister to the Jesuit community at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2000