I believe in ghosts. As a young boy, I visited my father’s village of Ofu, Manu’a in American Samoa, which is known throughout the Samoan islands for its ‘aitu (spirits). One day, after an eventful afternoon of shooting pigeons (faga-lupe) with my cousins, we lost track of time and began our walk — more like a hike — back home later than expected. These walks home were intentionally timed to avoid traveling in total darkness during nights without a strong moonlight to guide our pathway.
The sun set on us on this particular walk, and I found myself straggling behind the group. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned back to find nothing but total darkness; in those days, there were no paved roads or streetlights. As I felt my stomach tighten, I simply shrugged off the tap and convinced myself that it was a bird or some freakishly huge insect typical of the Samoan islands brushing up against my shoulder. But as I turned back around, my cousins were nowhere in sight, and as the chilling realization of my being alone in total darkness on an island known for its spirits set in, I heard laughter and moaning behind me.
In a state of total hysteria, I ran as fast as I could without looking back to entertain the echoes of laughter that seemed to follow me, growing louder and more cynical in nature the faster I ran. Finally, I reached my grandfather’s house, only to learn that my cousins had been home for nearly an hour, and my father had left with an uncle to find me. Eventually, dad and uncle returned, and I explained that I had simply veered off unintentionally and gotten lost. I never mentioned the cause of my hysteria. It was well over 25 years until I mentioned it at all — to anyone.
Most spirits have good intentions; they come to forewarn and protect us from dangers like natural disasters or coming village wars.
I often wonder what keeps us from turning around and looking the origins of our angst and despair in the face. What is it that keeps us in denial of such profound moments of revelation and truth? An elder of that same village recently explained that most spirits have good intentions; they come to forewarn and protect us from dangers like natural disasters or coming village wars. Sadly, the spirits’ good intentions are often misconstrued as evil or harmful. Some spirits are ancestors who have messages for the living; they have something to say! I’m reminded of the scene in the film “The Sixth Sense” when the little boy reveals to Bruce Willis’ character: “I see dead people!” Like the spirits in the film, I believe that apparitions from beyond wander the world of the living, longing to be seen.
The hard truth is that the heroes of social change we commemorate yearly are never fully appreciated in life.
Prophets of social change also speak to us from beyond when we utter their words. The spirit of prophecy can be felt through the sermons we compose and preach to the masses. Their memories become our memories as those words are uttered in solidarity with the disenfranchised or even when our bodies are used to resist in protest. We resurrect these prophetic legacies; venerating these prophets in death despite the reality that many, in life, were often victims of ridicule and crucified for the truths they proclaimed. The hard truth is that the heroes of social change we commemorate yearly are never fully appreciated in life.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the iconic Civil Rights leader, was crucified not only by white supremacists but also by his own people and circle of peers who condemned him politically the moment his prophecy shifted beyond issues of race and segregation to address the ravages of war and economic disparities for people of color and poor white Americans. It is widely assumed that King would still be alive today had this not been the case.
However, prophets in the struggle for justice and peace are often stubborn. They become possessed with subverting the hegemonic forces that perpetuate evil in the world that they become mediums of something beyond our earthly understanding. For those prophets past like Dr. King, the will of God, which is the right of all people to live decent lives as citizens of the “beloved community”, leave them with no other option but struggle; that is to struggle to gain more for the collective good, even if it means sacrificing one’s own life.
Prophets face persecution from both friend and foe. In America the history of this country has proven that no prophet is safe.
Those who choose to be prophetic in the world gain little and sacrifice much. According to the standards of the world, prophets often fail. Their efforts to forewarn and reveal the divine will are snubbed in their own lifetimes. Prophets face persecution from both friend and foe. In America the history of this country has proven that no prophet is safe. From King and Malcolm X who paid for America’s sins with their lives, to Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton who were vilified for their peaceful activism, those who seek to uplift the downtrodden, preach racial equality, advocate for peace, and fight to eradicate the social ills of the world willingly walk “the way of suffering” (via Dolorosa). To be prophetic in the world is to abandon ones relative safety and enter the lion’s den, sometimes completely alone.
The ghosts of prophets past haunt the American empire today, constantly tapping her shoulders to look back and listen more fervently to the silent, shrieking cry for justice from beyond. I write these words because I find liberation in these apparitions of my ancestors. They — the Kings and Malcolms, Ghandis and Mandelas, Bonhoeffers and Romeros, and the martyrs of my Samoa like Tupua Tanmasese Lealofi III who died at the hands of colonial terrorists — are the ancestors I summon from beyond because unjust human and ecological suffering, to paraphrase Gustavo Gutierrez, continues to be a heartrending and insatiable journey. Surrendering oneself to the will of God and others is an act of submission. Subsequently, it is also a process of surrendering to those through whom God has spoken to the world in the past.
Their spirits remind us of the stifling conditions and injustices they endured, while also inspiring us to create newness and hope.
I believe in ghosts. And indeed my boyhood experience early on is a definite contributing factor. But I also think, and feel deeply in the bones that protect the living organs of my aging body that the way prophetic witness expresses hope in the midst of despair and death is an affirmation of paranormal activism. Regardless of whether or not we are conscious of that activity, we are possessed by these prophetic witnesses from beyond. Most of us, unbeknownst, willfully give our bodies to these possessions because they, our ancestors, and freedom fighters of yesterday keep us in check. Their spirits remind us of the stifling conditions and injustices they endured, while also inspiring us to create newness and hope.
By reminding us of their historical circumstances, our social justice ancestors equip us with the wisdom needed to refrain from normalizing the ever-new forms in which past injustices exist today. These apparitions of social justice reform — wherever their roots may have initially been planted — are all our ancestors because the roots of justice they planted penetrate and help us recognize the racial, social, and economic divides established by the imperial powers that be.
Our ancestors will continue to visit from beyond! They never rest because it is in their prophetic nature. Even death cannot silence prophecy. It cries out from death’s wilderness to those who choose to hear. Their cries from beyond are a chasm in time, a rupture in the chaos that surrounds us. Though it is true that prophets die and eventually return to the earth, the visions of hope and prophetic words they leave behind have infinite potential for real social change. Today’s generation of conscious activists and agents for social justice who call out “Black Lives Matter”, “#MeToo”, or “Water is Life”, carry on the prophetic tradition of “I am a Man”, “Women’s Lib”, or “Samoa mo Samoa” (Samoans for Samoans) of yesterday. And like the prophets of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements, today’s prophets are the ones who instinctively glance back to receive and discern. They know upon whose shoulders they stand and are thus empowered to move forward, ever closer into the lion’s den armed with the legacy of their social justice ancestors.
Contrary to traditional understandings, it must be said that prophecy is not restricted to those with holy titles bestowed upon them by some institutional righteous select. It is oftentimes the peasant; the stranger from southern Judah preaching in the north like Amos; the “ugly little black boy” from Harlem like James Baldwin; the former slave abolitionist and women’s rights activist named Sojourner Truth; or even the thuggish son of a Black Panther like Tupac Shakur. Prophets are often marginalized believers, who, despite their circumstances, still believe in a good and benevolent God. They are the ones who speak in God’s place when wickedness and injustice become cloaked in political, religious and corporate power structures. It is this commitment to the poor and disenfranchised of the world that initiates prophetic talk.
In my youth, there were many things I did not understand. I was not yet ready to see what was following me on that dark and lonely pathway years ago. I was a boy. Was it the ancestors of my Samoa? Did they have something to say? What if I had turned and looked him/ her/they in the face and listened? I think about Jeremiah’s commissioning as the Lord replied to him: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (1:5, NIV). Jeremiah’s divine commissioning is a commissioning of all who share in God’s vision for creation. It is a commissioning of saints and sinners alike to speak a roaring “yes” to God’s love and a definitive “no” to those who stand in opposition.
When the world has given you so much to despise and so little to love, prophecy and prophets are the ones who act on God’s behalf to change the narrative otherwise, to give hope where misery abounds.
All boys eventually grow up and see the world anew. I have seen good people suffocate under the thick smog of injustice and greed. I have seen God’s creation desecrated by worshippers of mammon and idols. I have seen indigenous communities and cultures wiped off the face of the earth. And I have seen the powerful break the backs and crush the spirits of the powerless under the façade of good government and religious institutions. When the world has given you so much to despise and so little to love, prophecy and prophets are the ones who act on God’s behalf to change the narrative otherwise, to give hope where misery abounds. God reveals to prophets in unforeseen ways. They are poets, artists, preachers, politicians, writers, farmers, teachers, feminists, and activists. And yes, they are ghosts, spirits, and apparitions of our prophetic ancestor cloud of witnesses.
I cannot promise that it will be a prophetic visitor from the past next time you feel that tap, hear that whisper, or see that shadow. Yet for those of us who believe in the afterlife and who have hope that there is redemption for the oppressed of this world, I believe that our prophets from beyond the grave continue to be active in our struggle to create a new world. A world where the ebb and flow of life can proceed without the dark ripples of immorality and corruption. As long as there is injustice, white supremacy and racism, economic and class inequality, the ravaging of God’s creation, and the oppression of God’s people globally, the prophetic voice will not be silenced. Death has no command over the cloud of witnesses! They will continue their divine calling, and their voices will be heard, in this life, and the next. Soifua (Peace Be)!