Needed: A Modern-Day Prophet (Joshua Glasser and Michael D. Jones)
What makes a story timeless? Recent research suggests that every enduring story has a few common components. There needs to be a setting: agreed-upon facts or rules that provide context and set the scene. There must be a plot with a beginning, middle, and end, and a moral point that the audience finds compelling. Most of all, there have to be recognizable characters: a villain to cause trouble, a set of victims who suffer at the hands of the villain, and a hero (perhaps flawed in his or her own right) to step in and save the day.
These elements are not exclusive to fiction. Rather, stories are how we make sense of the world: our cultural experiences, the science we learned in school, and most especially, our understanding of politics. When political narrators stick to facts and figures, they usually come across as boring and out-of-touch (think about how the public perceived Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential Debates). On the other hand, when someone incorporates each of these elements, he or she can literally bring an audience to its feet.
Just such an occurrence happened recently at the UNC Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity’s annual conference in Chapel Hill. The Rev. William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP, delivered a keynote that had the audience buzzing for hours after he sat down. His speech’s opening passage was a particularly masterful example of storytelling at work.
The setting for this story was the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus Christ. Barber described the basic historical facts: that Roman society was vastly unequal, with the top one percent in society -- the villains-- able to buy not only goods and services but also political power, prestige, and exemptions from the oppressive laws that burdened the bottom ninety-nine percent: the victims. The story made clear that poverty was no accident, but rather was part of an intentional strategy to maintain dominance.
Biblical prophets such as Isaiah, and eventually Jesus Christ himself, stepped into this context and served as heroes to the poor: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and most of all, speaking truth to power when “priests and politicians failed to do their jobs”. They insisted that pro-poor policy not be a marginal concern but a central objective of the social and political system. For their efforts, Jesus and the prophets were despised, persecuted, and crucified by society’s power brokers and pundits—and we all know how this story ends.
Barber was not just telling this story for a nostalgic trot through historical Rome, of course. He clearly meant the story to be an allegory for our modern age. Though the names are different, the characters are timeless. America’s plutocrats, from Wall Street to the Koch Brothers, continue to use their wealth to buy political power, social prestige, and exemptions from rules that apply to everyone else. Indeed, then as now, our villains structure the laws of the land to make unethical exploitation of the poor perfectly legal. One need look no further than the recent lending practices—all legal—that led to the national collapse of the housing market and forced millions of people from their homes.
And the list goes on. Currently, plans circulate in the Congress to gut the public health system and shred the social safety net, leaving millions of poor and middle class citizens just one medical emergency away from financial calamity. Popular measures to ensure a fairer tax code and protect the poor never see the light of day in the halls of power, where voodoo economics has replaced our shared national commitment to social justice.
In short, the scene is set for a prophet to emerge. Such a truth-teller can expect just as much scorn and persecution as was directed at the prophets of old, but like the Biblical prophets, she or he will leave behind a legacy: a story that can and will be re-told down through the ages. So who will our modern-day prophet be?