But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: he locked John up in prison. (Luke 3:19-20 NIV)
There are two issues here: is speaking out against evil right and appropriate? and who has the right, or the mandate to do it?
John was a prophet. One of the tasks of prophets is to denounce evil. However, taking on such a role can have devastating consequences for the one who chooses it. For John it meant imprisonment and death. He was by no means unique in his time and nation, at least if we are to believe what Jesus said (see Matthew 23). Prophets were not a popular group. They had a habit of offending people in power, and those people seemingly did not hesitate to silence them by whatever means was necessary. John, a man described by the angel Gabriel before his birth as “great in the sight of the Lord,” (Luke 1:15) was one such man. In fact, Jesus once described John as the greatest man who had been born of a woman (Matthew 11:11). And much later on in the story of the early church, the gift of prophecy would be described by one of Jesus’ most famous followers, Paul the Apostle, as something to be eagerly desired (1 Corinthians 14:1).
But a pragmatist would argue that John was foolish to speak out against Herod when he did. A pragmatist would point to John’s powerful ministry and ask what good could become of him rebuking Herod. Surely John could have more positive effect on people and society if he remained silent about Herod’s life choices. What good could John do if he was dead? And surely John must have known that speaking out when he did could well produce that result. But he chose to speak out just the same. A pragmatist may well say the same thing about our interaction with the world. We observe things every day we believe to be wrong or unjust or untrue. Should we speak out against them, or should we remain silent? Someone once said that the only thing required for evil to triumph is that good people do and say nothing. But the pragmatist may well try to convince us otherwise. Acting and speaking is just too risky.
Prophecy involves more than speaking out against evil. Prophecy means communicating the mind and the words of God to the world. So it also involves communicating God’s love and good will toward the world. This is a much more popular aspect of prophecy, especially amongst those who need most to hear that they are loved and that God does care about them, namely those who recognise their own poverty and need. But the powerful people of the world are not often poor, not materially. And if they are spiritually poor they do not often recognise it or admit it. The message of hope to the poor and needy gives less comfort to the wealthy and powerful. Their position in society gives them more opportunity to oppress. They are therefore more often the brunt of denouncement by the prophets. What is more, they have the power to destroy the prophets who denounce them. Throughout history, they have not hesitated to do so.
It is not only the wealthy, the beautiful, the successful, the well educated, the strong, who possess power. Prophets themselves also possess power. When they speak, people listen. They have a responsibility to speak the truth, because of the power that they possess. The Bible has frightening things to say about false prophets – people who claim to speak God’s words but who really are just communicating their own wisdom, or the will of the power brokers of the day. The role of prophet is not one to be taken lightly. It confers great power, but power easily corrupts. Furthermore, the prophet’s power leads him or her into conflict with other people of power, as it did in John’s case. Such conflict can have deadly results.
Christians through the ages have continued to exercise the role of prophet in the church, for the edification of believers, but also in society, to warn of the effects of ignoring God and living life without him. We live in an age when ignoring God and living life according to human wisdom is the norm. We are called to speak God’s words and wisdom into that world.
Doctors are also people of power, and their role in society in some ways that of the prophet. But what do they say, whose words do they speak? In contemporary society they are expected to convey, not the wisdom or knowledge of God, but the best information available from the distillation of current scientific evidence. If science is silent on a matter, doctors should be silent too. There is some credit given to accumulated experience, which could also be called tradition, but this is seen as less and less reliable and questioned more and more often in medical circles. The gold standard of truth in medicine is the clinical trial. If a clinical trial does not exist we feel uncomfortable about the advice we give. However, since a large proportion of the problems we face daily are not solvable using the information gleaned from a clinical trial, doctors, like all people, fall back on their own experience or the experience of others they trust, and here the worldview, the values, the belief systems of the doctor take on an important role. Western medicine has developed largely from a Christian worldview. But this very same Christian worldview is increasingly questioned as a basis for the information we convey to our patients.
As Western society has changed, so has accepted wisdom changed. As fundamental Christian values have been questioned and rejected, so has the advice given by doctors changed. An alarming change in contemporary society is the growing belief that doctors should not have the right to freedom of speech and conscience, should not be allowed freedom of speech, simply because they exert too much power over people. Doctors today are increasingly seen as servants of the state, expected to speak and perform that which is scientifically or politically acceptable at any given time. This can produce a dilemma for Christian doctors because world views or belief systems that are at odds with contemporary secular wisdom, or not supported by currently accepted evidence (often because the research hasn’t been done, and the evidence does not exist), are not to be discussed or promoted within the medical context. Doctors must do what they are told to do and say what they are told to say. This is as much a dilemma for non-Christian doctors as it is for Christians. There is a growing body of opinion in “enlightened” Western society that says that if a person cannot keep quiet about their convictions then they should not become doctors.
The role of the doctor is very much like the role of the prophet. Indeed, it could almost be seen as the same role. Doctors are expected to communicate the wisdom and knowledge that has been distilled from the mysteries of science and medical tradition, in the same way that the prophet is expected to communicate the words and mind of God. Doctors who function in the real world, however, soon realise that many of the questions asked by ordinary patients who present to them cannot be answered purely with science and medical tradition. Christian doctors then resort to their values and beliefs – their worldview.
This is a huge debate and beyond the scope of this little reflection about John the Baptist, but it is worth thinking about, for doctors are people in whom society has invested power. People listen to what they say. Furthermore doctors are expected to speak out against evil, in a similar way to prophets. The evil they speak out against is usually the evil of unhealthy lifestyle – drugs, alcohol, overeating, inactivity, risk behaviour. But many doctors see it also as their role to speak out against the evil of world views which are at odds with there own. Modern medicine is underpinned by the worldview of scientific rationalism. Any practice that is perceived as not being consistent with that worldview is fair game for condemnation by the modern doctor, who is expected to be the prophet of this particular belief system. Naturopathy, chiropractic, not to mention a whole lot of other “health practices” are readily condemned.
Christian doctors will find themselves at odds with the prevailing worldview, both of the world around them – so called “political correctness” – and of the ethical conclusions of the scientific rationalism of their colleagues. Working out how to respond to these forces is difficult and there is no single way forward, for Christians are called to healthcare. If the role of prophet of God takes over in their work they will be crucified, as John the Baptist and later Jesus were crucified. They are then unable to perform the good works that they were called to do, especially if they work within state run systems. However, remaining silent in a world that repeatedly rejects and reviles God is not consistent with following Jesus.
The Bible says that we should eagerly desire the gift of prophecy, that we should seek the ability to communicate God’s words and wisdom to the world. The world says that we as doctors are to be prophets of the prevailing politically correct worldview. How we live in this paradigm is one of the major challenges we face as Christian doctors. We need to choose our battles carefully, but we need to be aware that being a prophet of God, whatever that means in the place we find ourselves, can be costly.