Oil change

In the biblical narrative, priests and prophets are more chalk and cheese than birds of a feather. Priests are members of the establishment structure. They tend the flock, defend tradition, sustain the life of the community, sort out disputes, punish offenders, and maintain law and order.

Prophets are loners. Or better, they give voice to the alternative imagination of a sub-community within the mainstream. Prophetic speech is critical of the official language of power. Prophetic actions are deliberately out of step with the dominant political and religious arrangements. Both are designed to provoke.
In word and deed, prophets give ‘human utterance to holy word’, to use a phrase of Walter Brueggemann’s. By holy word Brueggemann means a word from God. The prophet’s speech does not arise from the endless easy-speak of the palace or temple or marketplace. Its source lies ‘beyond’ this world. Yet it has a knack of being directed into the heart of the political and economic life of the community. It makes imaginable an alternative social reality against the taken-for-granted world of dominant rule.

For this reason prophets don’t make old bones. Or if they do, it is often in uncomfortable circumstances. Those who call the shots are never happy with a voice that presumes to speak a truth beyond their control and against their interests. So the prophet’s ‘letters and papers’ often bear the post mark of prison or exile. Jeremiah and Paul in the ancient world, Bonhoeffer and Mandela in the modern.

Occasionally, prophets move to become priests, and priests move to become prophets. Moses the vagabond prophet became Moses the priest/leader of a nation. Saul the establishment Pharisee went the other way. After his Damascus road encounter, he became Paul the prophetic herald of a breakaway faith. Both actions had radical consequences.

The move of Peter Garrett (no relation) from radical activist to star Labor candidate for the up-and-coming election has the feel of a ‘prophet to priest’ transformation. For years, Garrett’s voice in word and song has come from the edge. He gave powerful utterance to the aspirations of a sub-group within the Australian community—a diverse, scattered, yet identifiable group—concerned with weapons of mass destruction and American bases on Australian soil; with ecological damage and organised greed on a global scale which makes it possible;  with the logging of old growth forests and the anguish of refugees. His has been a prophetic vision.

So what does it mean that this outsider’s voice now speaks from within mainstream political life? To idealists (Bob Brown for example) it is ‘a horrendous disappointment’, little short of a sell-out to the enemy. Certainly the taming of a radical and much needed alternative. To realists (now including Garrett himself) it is the sensible way forward. Brilliant lyrics from the sidelines can fire the imagination and stir the heart. But in the long run do they change the world in any lasting way? Struggling for an alternative vision within the confines of the Labor Caucus will no doubt mean compromise for the one-time prophet, and even defeat of long-held beliefs. But it may also mean mainstream Australian politics will be nudged a step or two towards a more just, open and compassionate society. To cynics, the move is nothing but a bare-faced effort to woo the one per cent of swinging left-wing voters in crucial marginal seats for a defeat of the present government. Once this is done, if it is done, it will be back to business as usual. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in all these judgments.

Whatever line we take, the Garrett move confronts us with an urgent question: how best can we work for needed social transformation in the present Australian circumstances? Must we choose between Midnight Oil and Caucus Oiler? Yes and no. I think our community has lost something in the Garrett choice. But I acknowledge his move is not without reason.

In the end each of us has to choose whether the prophetic or priestly role is the more important at this moment. For average citizens, at the very least it comes down to our vote when the election finally arrives. Is it better to go for the ‘prophetic’ Greens or a radical independent, or even vote informal, rather than support the dubious compromises of the major ‘priestly’ parties? Or following the Garrett move, do we take a calculated risk and throw our lot in with one of the groups that can become government in the hope that incremental improvement is better than no improvement at all?

One thing seems clear—to me at least—Australia needs a political oil change. The Garrett move poses a genuine challenge. 

Graeme Garrett works at St Mark’s National Theological Centre, Canberra.



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