Prophetic or Prudential Action?

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

At Acting Franciscan, Stephen Schneck writes:

Prophetic or prudential action? As an advocate and activist for faith-based social justice, I struggle more about means rather than ends. My formation in the religious, moral, and social teachings of our faith offers much clarity about ideals. What’s uncertain is the path for progress toward those ideals.

Sometimes this is a question of inside versus outside. Sometimes this is a question of pursuing incremental change versus radical change. Sometimes this is a question of the extent that ends can ever justify means. Ultimately, though, these questions boil down to how “prophetic” versus how prudential to be for making progress….

I here publicly confess that I seem constitutionally predisposed to suspect the prophetic and to favor the prudential. I’m inclined to think that the perfect is more often than not an enemy of the good. I wonder too often that those choosing prophetic action over prudential just want to dodge the hard, grey, and often boring work needed to make incremental progress within the system. It’s glamorous to shout through a megaphone outside the White House; yet, rolling up your sleeves behind the scenes to win a few small provisions for the homeless in a housing bill is real toil. How naïve, unhelpful, and holier-than-thou those who reject working within the system must be, I sometimes think. Yes, I also easily convince myself that the path of prudential action actually achieves measurable progress while prophetic action seldom does and can too often spark counterproductive reaction.

Sunday’s readings, though, bring me up short. They take my breath away. Unmistakably, the message is that the prophetic is imperative.

Prudential action can never be sufficient in itself. It risks getting lost in the trees and losing sight of the forest, confusing means as ends. Prudential action without the judgmental vision of prophecy can too easily settle, can too easily accommodate itself to the status quo, and can too easily become complicit and compromised in its deferral to the system, traditions, existing laws, and even to our natural desire to be liked and approved….

The readings make clear that prophetic vision cannot be simply set aside if progress is to be made. Progress requires keeping our “eyes on the prize,” as the Civil Rights Movement put it so well. Prudential action is in many cases – and perhaps most cases, more efficacious for progress, but the prudential must always be directed by the prophetic and in service to the prophetic.