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Prophetic Politics: an introduction

Could prophetic politics, with its unique emphases, allow us to envision another, possibly less dogmatic and more differentiated form of political theology? Could focusing on the schism between prophetic voice and political institutions reveal a different understanding of political theological concepts, beyond the realm of power and sovereignty?

Dedicated to the memory of John Pettegrew, this guest editorial introduces a special issue on Prophetic Politics in the journal.

“Prophetic politics” is the proclamation of a radical change expressed in religious language at a time of deep existential and political crisis. The term brings together two distinct fields: The first is the prophetic, a medium in all religions, usually represented by an individual who is said to be the mouthpiece of the divine. Whether pagan or monotheistic, male or female, ancient or modern, the prophet is always the teacher and the critic, instructing and scolding, never afraid to express his or her opinion, even when it puts her life at risk. The second field is that of politics. Based on the idea of the polis and the politea, it has stood, since Thomas Hobbes, for the relationship between the people and the sovereign within the body politic. Held together by unifying obligatory relationship, politics overcome the primal state of fear and war of “all against all” in “the state of nature.”

Prophetic politics marks moments of intersection when speaking truth to power. It does so by drawing legitimacy from a higher principle of power—be it truth or divine authority. In times of crisis, prophets are the ones who dare calling attention to societal ills and declaring a new path, as radical as it may be. Even if it perhaps seems like an anachronistic paradigm today, prophetic politics has not lost its revolutionary potential throughout its long and ongoing history of overcoming crises: from Jeremiah’s symbolic breaking of the vessels—that is, the breaking of the alliance between God and the people—to Muhammad’s open critique of the elites in Mecca, from the prophetic tone adopted by Martin Buber and A. Y. Heschel in their struggle against racism and nihilism during the 1920s, to Malcolm X’s and James Baldwin’s critique of capitalism and imperialism in the 1960s.

The historical trajectory of prophetic politics shows the prophetic word to be a rhetorical form that crosses boundaries of time and space, hierarchies, and identity. It operates not only in different religions—from ancient Greece and ancient Judea, to Christianity, Gnosticism, and since the seventh century in Islam—but also between communities. Take for example Jeremiah’s gesture of breaking of the vessels as it is taken and transformed by St. Paul to signal the rise of Christianity, or Muhammad’s mission as integrating all forms of monotheism under Islam. And in modern times, prophetic rhetoric has been taken to at once transgress and unite the languages of “Abrahamic” religions and communities against the dividing language of authoritarianism and colonialism.

The power of the dissenting word, as spoken by the prophets, lies in overstepping the borders drawn by rulers and their institutions as well those of the prophets themselves. Why is this transgression relevant? The history of Abrahamic religions shows how prophets frequently came to realize their role in society as a symptom of crisis. Not only reflecting as passive commentators, prophets became active agents who, by speaking out, pushed the crisis forward toward its radical culmination. In this sense, the prophet is a mediating figure who stands—even when passive herself—for change in general, or a principle of boundary crossing in particular. The prophet is the one who rejects any separation of religion from politics, and sovereign from community, conservative and reform camps, high and low cultures. Most importantly, prophetic politics changes the way we understand the past, present, and future: By re-narrating the past and the present, a new vision of the future emerges. Thus, prophets from Moses, Jesus, and Muhamad, to Martin Luther King Jr. called for a radically changed future from a reinterpretation of the past.


Specters of prophecy have haunted the very constitution of modern politics since the early modern period, often indirectly. They can be detected even where political theorists sought to break free from any religious symbol: Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) was not written in a vacuum but  responded to the radical preaching and death of the mystic and public orator Savonarola; Thomas Hobbes devoted no less than twenty chapters of the Leviathan (1550) to dismissing the possibility of authentic prophecy. Politics thus broke with prophetic rhetoric.[1] And yet, political movements drew much of their energy from specific interpretations of the prophetic tradition. Recharging them with modern notions and interests, they conceived their own present by using categories and concepts from this very tradition of prophetic rhetoric, which politics had supposedly discarded.  

The specter of prophecy can be seen, then, in its depiction and style: An anachronistic or retroactive reading, modified in later editing, has always been central for religious traditions and politics, and it lends prophetic politics its power and determines its history. Still, both early and later layers of the text keep the plea for change: During the early modern period, prophetic movements such as the Hussites or the Anabaptists rebelled against the authority of the church as well as of the emerging sovereign state. During the Enlightenment, prophets were conceived as teachers; Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Charles Baudelaire understood their role as critics of rationality and progress. Later, during the end of the nineteenth century, political prophets were seen as leaders who could realize and perform a Nietzschean reevaluation of values.[2] According to the founder of sociology, Max Weber, prophets are charismatic political pamphleteers and moral anarchists who follow a tradition of radical critique and dissent.[3]


From a stylistic perspective, prophetic politics is, first and foremost, a speech act: A person speaks up and acts through speaking. Yet, as simple as it may sound, speech acts mark a complex social and rhetorical process and should be interpreted within a wider dialogical framework. More concretely, a prophetic political speech act not only marks the embodiment of a political utterance but also emphasizes the context of such utterance: Who speaks and to whom are relevant questions to the understanding of the speech act. In the context of prophetic politics, the speaker and the audience always refer to the capacity or incapacity of the word as an agent of human action.

As far as the speaker is concerned, prophetic speech is delivered in the name of a higher authority. Stressing the legitimacy of authority implies that only those imbued with this legitimacy can speak. Or from a different angle: The prophet presents him- or herself as a messenger, a mouthpiece—someone who does not speak for themselves but as a medium for the word of God. More often than not, however, the prophet does not remain a passive medium but rather becomes inseparable from the message that he or she not so much delivers as embodies. The situation of the messenger is essentially a threefold God-prophet-people axis in which a message is communicated by God to the prophet and by the prophet to the people. The prophet does not merely repeat a message but must also translate it and deliver a response. Reflecting the unease of this position, biblical prophecy often switches between first and third person, or between divine instruction to the prophet and a prophetic message to the people, or between quoted and reported speech. The prophetic speech projects a unique sense of determination, for it does not follow a single logic or grammar but different and contradicting ones: The prophet receives the voice of God, translates and embodies it in order for all men to hear. The authoritative delivery thus requires its own unique staging. The divine voice exceeds the boundaries of speech, forcing the prophet to go beyond oratory and perform the message with symbolic actions and bodily engagement, such as walking under a yoke.


The rhetorical power of prophetic oratory builds on the prophet’s capacity to play with time. The prophetic word breaks from normative, linear, biological time in different ways, and the prophet’s speech is always time-sensitive. As Martin Buber explained in his Prophetic Faith (1940), the prophet not only delivers—often unwillingly—the word of God but does so at “the hour of decision” and with one eye always on the future. The individual destiny of the prophet is entangled with the destiny of the people. For “to be a nabi means to set the audience…for deliverance as something about to come.”[4] Indeed, Jeremiah is ordained as “a prophet unto the nations” and predicts destruction and exile as a result of past sins. It is this, he says, that is the condition for new beginnings. The explosive potential of his words for modern authors and thinkers was always linked with a predictive moral “Jeremiad,” an explicit plea for radical change. If thinkers and authors wrote about the prophet as the epitome of non-conformism—Leo Baeck sees him as “the great non-conformist in history, [the] great dissenter of history”—it was always with such temporal transgression in mind.[5]

How deep does the prophetic demand for change go? The temporal re-organization of known narratives implies a new path for mankind to overcome its biological condition. As François Hartog showed, prophecy activates the word by its appeal to the present and its own claim to realize “a recitation of performative time.” [Récit du temps performative].[6] In that respect, the monotheistic revolution could be seen as a rebellion against Pagan moderation and its reliance on natural order. In the three Abrahamic religions, prophecy, political dissent, and human finality define the relation to the divine, not nature. Christianity and Islam both built on the call to unite the social and political; both Jeremiah’s and St. Paul’s prophecies were grounded in the image of a new covenant and collective resurrection; the Quranic dualism of huduth (come to be, insertion into time), and qidam (without origin, untimely, eternal) introduced prophetic time as a call for a comprehensive socio-political change. When adapted into constitutional democracy in modern times, the Jeremiad proved to shape “a discourse that is at once thoroughly religious and thoroughly political.”[7] Martin Luther King Jr.’s Jeremiad compared normative (deliberative) change to an accelerated (prophetic) one when he compared the false hopes implicit in the industrial revolution to the genuine prophecy. James Baldwin identified: “in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.”[8] It is precisely the seemingly impossible task of breaking a system of exclusion—of race, gender, and discriminatory politics in general—that prepares a different ‘democracy to come.’

Political Theology

A recent revival of interest in political theology has contributed a great deal to the analysis and understanding of prophetic rhetoric, temporality, and politics. Political theology has been, for a long time, a topic of specialists in Medieval and early modern thought. Today, it is one of the most prominent fields studying the current state of political representation. This revival of interest in secularized theological concepts abundant in political culture was not devoid of inherent problems. Two aspects, in particular, have come to the fore: First, while political theology enables an innovative understanding of radical political forms, it is often delivered with supremacist undertones. For example, by employing only specifically Christian concepts, Christian political theology viewed the rest of the world from a privileged position, not shying away from criticizing the core values of so-called fundamentalist, non-Christian, movements. Second, the attraction to radical perspectives and the scepticism towards procedural solutions has frequently resulted in a political theology mainly concerned with its own version of secularized theological concepts, giving it a decidedly dogmatic face.

Prophetic politics engages with the core issues that trouble representatives of political theology: The relationship between sovereign and the people, tradition and change, religion and secularization, norm and exception. Let us pause and wonder: Could prophetic politics, with its unique emphases, allow us to envision another, possibly less dogmatic and more differentiated form of political theology? Could focusing on the schism between prophetic voice and political institutions reveal a different understanding of political theological concepts, beyond the realm of power and sovereignty? What about considering the concept of hope, or solidarity, and what about comfort? What if one thinks beyond concepts altogether and looks at other forms of speech such as poetry, prayer, or communion? Widening the focus would allow us to perceive the inherent limitations of the dominant model of political theology. In contrast to Carl Schmitt’s hierarchical interpretation of political theology—grounded in the secularization of theological concepts for the sake of a sovereign decision—prophetic politics helps us question the relationship between the religious and the political. Here, instead of sacralizing power and even when criticizing it, prophetic politics emphasizes relationships rather than singular identities or status; coincidence and uncertainty rather than decisionist processes; paradoxes rather than fundamentals.


This special issue concludes a series of workshops funded by the DFG (Deutsche Forschung Gemeinschaft). The three workshops, which took place in Berlin’s ZfL (Zentrum für Literatur und Kulturforschung) and New York’s Center for Jewish History from 2018 to 2019, gathered an international group of researchers interested in the intersection of history, religious studies, and literature and straddling the three traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The group focused on clear states of crisis in history and in politics: the biblical clashes between prophets, kings, and people, Medieval confrontations between the prophetic and the legal traditions, and modern confrontations between the prophetic tradition and the rise of authoritarian secularist regimes, which can be seen as forerunners of more contemporary clashes between political systems and reformatory prophetic rhetoric. Such rhetoric is clearly evident in the twentieth century, for example in Weimar Germany, the American Civil Rights movement, and in the recent confrontation between democracy and its rivals. A sober estimate of the field cannot be achieved by engaging only with biblical, Jewish, Christian and Muslim prophets, nor by limiting their political and public contexts. As stated above, our claim is that prophetic politics serves as a better trope to examine the complexity of the historical, political, and rhetorical circumstances within the field recognized as political theology. The emphasis of prophetic politics on counter-institutional rhetoric and sentiment lets a new form of theorization to emerge. 

[1] Cf. the classic account in Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

[2] On the Topos of Nietzshe as a prophet cf. Daniel Weidner, “Und ihr – ihr machtet schon ein Leier-Lied daraus‘. Nietzsche als Prophet”, Arcadia 47/2 (2012), 361–384.

[3] Herbert N. Schneidau, Sacred Discontent. The Bible and Western tradition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976).

[4] Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, trans. Carlyle Witton-Davies (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016), 3.

[5] Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism, trans. Victor Grubwieser and Leonard Peral (London: Macmillan and Co., 1936), 218.

[6] François Hartog, “L’apocalypse, une Philosophie de l’histoire,” in Esprit 405:6 (June, 2014), 27.

[7] Kaveny, Prophecy without Contempt, 4.

[8] James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”, in Collected Essays (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1998), 346.

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