Be Kind to Prophets

A real prophet doesn’t just predict the future.  He or she predicts what will happen if we don’t come to our senses, repent of our sins, or practice social distancing.  Economists talk about self-fulfilling prophecies and self-negating prophecies.  For many of us, the most amusing self-fulfilling prophecy was by Johnny Carson many years ago on the Tonight Show when he predicted a toilet paper shortage.  People dashed out and stocked up, and his prophecy came true. Wall Street prophets exaggerate the swings in stock prices withtheir predictions, another common type of self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the most famous case of a self-negating prophecy was Jonah, who was sent to Ninevah to warn the people that if they did not mend their wicked ways, God would smite them.  Jonah didn’t want to go, but after seeing in the inside of a whale, he reluctantly delivered the message.  The people of Ninevah repented, and God spared them.  But Jonah took some heat from people who failed to pay attention to the if…then nature of his prophecy.  It is never easy to be that kind of prophet, whether you are predicting climate disaster, football championships, or medical nightmares.

The medical prophets predicted anywhere from 100,000 to over a million deaths in the United States form the corona virus.  Early indicators suggested they were right, because we were both unprepared and undisciplined. Warned in early January, we had some preparation time, much of which was wasted while we minimized the danger and failed to ramp up needed supplies.  But then a surprising thing happened.  Governors took on the leadership role, and their key response was creating and encouraging, sometimes mandating social distancing by shutting down schools, businesses and facilities, encouraging wearing masks and handwashing, and forbidding large gatherings.  While there were pockets of resistance, something like 90 percent of Americans were staying home and protecting themselves and others.  Overnight we were studying, working, exercising, attending worship and having gatherings of friends on the internet. The states and the people rose to the challenge.

Those were if…then forecasts.  If we didn’t ramp up our defenses, those scary big death forecasts might well have happened.  But we did act collectively, and it looks like the death rate is going to be much lower. So when this is all over and life returns to some kind of normal, please don’t shoot the messengers for what seemed like unduly alarming us.

Remember Jonah and Nineveh, and be thankful that we had enough good advice, good sense, and good state governments to keep the worst from happening.  And next time—because there will be a next time—we as a nation, not just a collection of states, need to be better prepared.

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