Nellie Bly was born in Pittsburgh, one of 15 children. As a young woman, she saw a newspaper article saying that women were only good for bringing up children and doing housework. She wrote a strong letter to the editor complaining about the letter, who was so impressed with the quality of her writing that he commissioned her first article, which she wrote about divorce and how the laws affected women particularly badly, and the need for reform. From there, she did a series of articles about the conditions in factories for women and children, and worked undercover to write an exposé. This caused a big stir, until eventually the factory owners threatened the newspaper with withdrawing their advertising, and she was moved onto writing about fashion. This did not suit her at all, so she went to Mexico as a journalist for six months, but she had to flee when she upset the corrupt dictatorship in her writing.
Forced back into writing about theatre, she left Pittsburgh and went to New York, where eventually she talked herself into a job with Joseph Pulitzer, the famous newspaper editor, and her first assignment was to get herself committed to a mental hospital for ten days. She wrote a stinging expose of the appalling conditions for the patients there, and the abuse that they suffered, leading to major changes.
Bob Ebeling was a rocket scientist. It takes a lot of specialists to build a space rocket, and Bob was one of the team that worked on one particular piece of rubber. They knew what it did, what conditions it would work under, how it worked, what could cause it go wrong, just about everything that you could know. Except whether it would work when it was cold. But of course, space rockets take off from near the equator, where it’s warm – so no problem, cold isn’t an issue. Until it is, of course. So Bob had been working to raise awareness of the risk of not knowing how the cold affected the rubber, including writing a memo entitled ‘Help!’ to get people to read it. This particular rocket was one of the booster rockets on the Space Shuttle, and in 1986, NASA had delayed one particular launch several times, and in the end scheduled it for a January morning. When Bob and his team heard the weather forecast, they did everything they could to stop the launch. They rang NASA, but they weren’t listened to, and Bob told his wife that night that he feared disaster. 73 seconds into the flight the next morning, watched live on TV by millions around the world, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded when that piece of rubber failed.
Two stories, two people. And, I would argue, two modern prophets. We tend to have a cliched view of the prophets in the Old Testament as people who could tell the future – foretelling what would happen. But that’s not how they saw their role.
So what does Prophetic Leadership look like? And how does it work? Keith Lamdin, in his book on Leadership Styles, makes the point that ‘it completely undermines the rather popular idea that you know you are a leader because when you look over your shoulder you notice people following you. Prophet leaders may well look over their shoulder and find that all their followers have deserted them.’
Why is this? Well, most of the time, most of us aren’t trying to be irritating or annoying – it’s just a natural gift that seems to come with being human. But the prophets were professional irritants – genuinely annoying.
Because, like Nellie Bly and Bob Ebeling, they were people who were truth tellers, outsiders who spoke truth to power. Nathan, who had to rebuke David for arranging the death of a rival, Amos who spoke out against the corruption and inequality in Israel, Jeremiah who pointed out the risk of trusting in the wrong political power rather than God. Isaiah, who realised that war and violence was not what God wanted for his people.
They used weird and wonderful methods. Ezekiel lay on his side for a year. Isaiah wandered around without any clothes on for three years, and Jeremiah was sent to the King and the Priests with a pair of rotten underpants. Why? Because their message was unpopular, so they needed shocking methods to be heard. And it didn’t often end well for them – exiled, imprisoned, executed. The consequence of being just a bit too irritating.
And we see that tradition carried forward into the New Testament – John the Baptist, wearing camel hair clothes and eating locusts and wild honey, executed for challenging the king. Jesus, executed for showing that God’s Kingdom was a kingdom of self-sacrifical love that drew in outsiders and challenged the powerful, not about militaristic nationalist conquest.
We see people doing the same thing throughout history. People who have stood up to power, challenged injustice, and worked to build God’s kingdom here. The suffragists, chaining themselves to railings and throwing themselves in front of horse races. Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered by the San Salvadorean government for challenging them. Environmental campaigners blocking road junctions and sailing across the Atlantic to avoid flying. Whistleblowers exposing corporate and governmental wrongdoing.
The prophets, then, are truth speakers, challenging those in power, acting as irritants. Almost by definition they have to be outsiders. Bob Ebeling was working in the industry, but he was in a different company, on the other side of the country to the people making the decisions in NASA. Nellie Bly was a woman and was only 18 – who was she to speak up?
We need these different voices. We need the courage to be these truth tellers when we see injustice. It can be so hard. Some people seem to have the natural calling for it. But there are times when we all need to speak up, in whatever way works for us – I’m not recommending rotten underpants.
But Prophetic Leadership has another side to it. Not only does it challenge the status quo, threaten those in power, and try to overturn the established way of the world. But it is fundamentally hopeful as well – there’s no point being prophetic if nothing can ever change. Fundamentally, prophetic leadership is about hope – the hope that God created the world to be better than it is. The hope that there is good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed.
And so we should value and celebrate the role of the prophets, the irritants, the annoying ones, because as annoying as they can be, they also offer us hope.
Adapted from a sermon preached for Knowsley Civic Service, December 2019.