Thursday, October 15, 2009

Imagine That

Walter Brueggeman (BREW-ga-mon), in The Prophetic Imagination, points out that the defining characteristic of the biblical prophets is not the ability to predict the future—and the way it is commonly understood today that wasn’t a characteristic of biblical prophecy at all—nor acting as the social conscience for ancient Israel, though they certainly did play this role.  The defining characteristic of biblical prophecy is the ability to imagine an alternative future to the one being played out according the accepted thinking of the day. 
Instead of “alternative future” I really wanted to write “alternative reality” but I was afraid that that would sound too heady, too philosophical, even too science-fictionesque.  But alternative reality really is better.  The prophet sees what is but doesn’t accept that this is what must be; further, the prophet is able to imagine a what-could-be and to vividly convey that image so that others can see it as well.  Furthermore, while the protectors of conventional thinking dismiss the prophet’s vision as an idealistic fantasy that will never work in the “real world,” the prophet sees his vision not only as what could be, but as what must be, and actively works to bring it to pass.
The prophet and those who follow him form a sub-community within the dominant community, and this sub-community has certain characteristics:
1.      A common past that is kept alive through stories and song;
2.      A shared injustice that is readily and publicly acknowledged and is confessed to be unbearable over the long haul;
3.      A hope that is not just longed-for but actively pursued that unkept promises will be met; and
4.      A means of communication that is distinctive, imaginative, and deeply cherished.
Think of the civil rights movement of fifty years ago.  There was the memory of the slave experience passed down through generations and embodied in story and song; there was the injustice of Jim Crow, the pain of chronic poverty and abuse, and the unwillingness to accept that this would always be; a shared hope, best embodied by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, that claimed that the promises of our founding documents must be kept; and a form of discourse distinctive to the African-American community and deeply cherished by it—Black preaching, of course.  (MLK’s “I Have a Dream” is more sermon than it is speech.)
If this sounds strange and unfamiliar, then that is an indication that we have moved outside of the tradition of the biblical prophets, and that is dangerous because it was within this stream that Jesus most identified himself.  Of all the roles assigned to him by his contemporaries—rabbi, priest, king, prophet—this is the one that Jesus embraced.  He came preaching an alternative reality with an alternative future, which he called the Kingdom of God, a vision of not only how things can be but how things must be on earth.  And we have reduced his teaching to “what happens when I die.”  Jesus’ teaching didn’t ignore that aspect of life, but it wasn’t his sole or even prominent focus.
Christians don’t talk about the Kingdom of God much anymore.  They talk a lot about heaven and hell, but not the Kingdom of God.  I regularly ask groups, “What did Jesus talk about more than anything else,” and never does anyone say, ‘The Kingdom of God” (unless they have already heard me do this).  Yet it is what Jesus spoke of more than anything else.  In fact, it’s really all he ever spoke about.  Even when talking about heaven and hell, it was in the context of speaking about the Kingdom of God.
We better get this right if we are going to continue to claim to be followers of Jesus.
”Celebration of Hope” is about pursuing the Kingdom of God, Jesus alternative vision for the world.  In our society, we believe that no child should go hungry, poorly clothed, or uneducated.  Those are not issues for most of us, but when we learn that right in our own neighborhood there are children to whom society is not keeping its promises, we feel compelled to act.
This is not some little thing that we are doing.  It is the thing that we are supposed to be pursuing.

1 comment:

  1. He also came demonstrating this alternative reality with every miracle He manifested, or so I believe. And He mentioned that the Kingdom of God had already come--for those who could 'see' it. You are right. It is the thing.

    Thanks, Larry, for the reminder.