Reflections on Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination
by Robert Schmidt
Have you noticed the “numbness?” Citizens of the most powerful nation on earth are in a funk. No, don’t pay attention to the wordsmiths who make their living championing and bashing. Look rather at the bus riders, the shoppers, the teachers, and the clerks. Then look in the mirror. Awash with prosperity (forget for a moment, the poor) few people seem all that happy, let alone excited about the future.
And in the church we continue to go through the motions. What’s the use of any new idea or new crusade? Things are the way they are. Will there be a change in administration? Would it do any good? Church statistic graphs all seem heading downhill. Discouraged pastors look forward to retirement. Retired pastors wonder whether to go to church next Sunday.
The Royal Narrative
Why the “numbness” in Pharaoh’s Egypt, Jeroboam’s Israel, Zedekiah’s Judah, Trump’s America, and Harrison’s Missouri? “Numbness” comes from oppression, not just the physical oppression of infanticide, slavery, and losing one’s parish, but even more from the Royal Narrative that this is the way things are. It is a “Royal” Narrative because it comes from the top, has a purple hue, and is accepted, however reluctantly, by nearly everybody. The Royal Narrative provides predictability, security, and for many, reasonable comfort.
God, of course, is called upon to bless the Royal Narrative. From the Egyptian Isis to taming of the God of Israel, to American evangelicals (and the LCMS?) voting for Trump, the narrative has divine approval. Now slavery is justified, the military is praised, the rich get richer and the poor need to cope. Capitalism, however unjust, is the way of the world. Dependent on funds to pay for the “means of grace” the church blesses the rich and is hard pressed to criticize its supporters.
Breaking through the Numbness
Refugees and migrants may be the most defining event of our time. Not only are the numbers of refugees greater than ever but conditions in poor countries are causing more and more people to emigrate. Most significant is the effect this is having on the richer nations. It explains Great Britain’s exit from the European Union. Italy has had a change in government over the issue and Hungary has just criminalized anyone who helps refugees. The governments of Germany, Netherlands, France, and even Denmark are dealing with anti-immigrant politics. Now wrestling with illegal immigration, the United States finds itself stymied, seeking solutions.
As with gun violence, story after story leaves most of us somewhat numb. We can take sides on the issue, some will even demonstrate, but the nationalistic narrative continues. We need to protect our borders; how can we be a nation if people can just pour in? We need to protect our culture, our religion, our way of life, (our wealth?). All these are being threatened by people seeking a home in our nation.
But breaking through the numbness is the cry. It is the cry of a child in Syria after a bombing, the cry of a Honduran toddler separated from her mother, the cry of a immigrant girl forced into prostitution. Then we hear the echo of another cry, “The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of their slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning” (Ex. 2: 23, 24). The cry of the Israelites was the ultimate criticism of the mighty Egyptian government. Pharaoh would not, and could not, respond.
Supporting the Egyptian government were the pantheon of the gods of Egypt, Ra, Isis, Osiris, Horus, and all the rest. Governments need religion to legitimize their rule and say to the world, everything is all right; things will work out in the end. At the edges of religion there are a few protesters, a bit of criticism, and the loving helping hands of people who have been moved to action. But the Hananiahs in the churches are quick to point out that all of this is too complicated for the church’s to take a stand. After all, are we not to obey the powers that be? Don’t we pray for our President, our king, for our security, yes, and our prosperity?
The refugees and the immigrants keep coming bringing into sharp focus the devastating injustices of our world. Who undermined the elected government of Chile? Who supported the dictatorship and misrule of Mobutu in Zaire? Who helped to unseat President Zelaya in Honduras when he asked for a 60% increase in the wages of banana pickers? Who invaded Iraq and caused chaos in the Middle East for what Alan Greenspan said, “Everybody knew it was for oil”? Who causes the global warming and climate change that ravages the farmland of Africa? Who pushes for more exploitative trade with the poor nations to increase our profits and leave them hungry and ill?
Europe fights to keep out the refugees and migrants because they want to continue to be “Christian” nations. Christian. . ., when these nations were responsible for some to the most horrific wars the planet has ever experienced? Christian. . ., with all the symbols of the faith but with the empty cathedrals? Is Christ now simply the mask for the “no longer dormant” racism in Europe and the United States?
And what does increased money for the military do to stop the children from crying? The most powerful people in the world are reduced to spectators of human misery. The current narrative that massive weaponry is crucial for the security of the nation, yes, indeed the earth, shows itself to be hollow and uniformed. The questions being asked by thousands of refugees and migrants are pointed and profound. But they are not being answered by the governmental, statist, nationalist story line.
The Days are Coming
Even the stork in the heavens knows her times; and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the LORD. (Jeremiah 8:7) Even from a cursory glance at power politics, Amos and Jeremiah knew that city-states like Samaria and Jerusalem did not have a chance against a whole new world system beginning with empires of Assyria and Babylon. The world was changing in profound ways and the national narrative simply would no longer work. Coupled with the judgment of God against the vast inequalities between ivory couches and the trampled poor, anguish was waiting in the wings.
It is happening again. Corporations like Exxon, Amazon, and Wal-Mart are bigger than more than 150 nation-states. While laborers struggle to cross borders, billions of dollars and yen move between stock exchanges in nanoseconds. Chat rooms connect the privileged and cell phones inform the poor of where there might be a better life. Communications and commerce are binding the world closer and closer together. They are speaking Somali in Minneapolis, and Arabic in Königstein.
A vast shift is underway. As the Imperial systems of Persia, Greece, and Rome gave way to the Middle Ages, as nation-states replaced medieval Europe, so the current system of national states is being challenged by an emerging world society. Like all such transitions in the past the arrival of a whole new world system will be accompanied by fearful resistance by threatened cultures and the nation-states on which they depend to protect their values. Terrifying violence is in the wings. Amos and Jeremiah saw it coming. When Jewish nationalists resisted the wider world, represented by Rome, Jesus wept. Though Europe and America are awash with prosperity, there is a deep uneasiness about the future as if we can already feel the coming destruction.
Faced with a fearful future and distracted by minutia young people find little to attract them to churches. Just like God they hate the solemn assemblies, the new moons and the Sabbaths. These are such a burden and wearisome to their souls (Isaiah 1:9). The faithful wonder why their numbers are diminishing and why so few find their message relevant to the changing world. A small church struggles to stay alive and a pastor’s wife cries in the night. The Royal Narrative of God and country, once so bright, is now edged in black.
True prophets cry over the anguish and death. Tears are shed because no one is ready to listen. Worse is the knowledge of the impending devastation. Not only will it be the end of the Royal Narrative but also the end of millions in the coming conflicts. There is no exit, only lamentation. True prophets never rejoice over the fate of their opponents. Instead, they writhe in anguish over what is about to happen (Jer.4:19). Death is not only certain, but it is that vast equalizer which provides solidarity with all who suffer. But, it is only in death that a new life can be born.
Astonished and Amazed
From the family ripped apart at the border, from the drownings of migrants in the Mediterranean, from the endlessness of refugee camps, from the rubble of the next wars, God’s Kingdom is at hand. No, it is not “like” those of this world because it is much larger, infinitely more powerful. As the thousand year old Reich faded in twelve years so will “super powers” stumble and fall. Where are the idols of Assyria, Egypt, Britain and America? No longer shaped into images, now silver and gold are worshiped in their nakedness. Homage paid to the flags is as fragile as their cloth. Nations are invaded by strangers; cultures change every generation. But built on a rock the Kingdom of God is forever and continues for all. No guns guard its borders; all are welcome.
Above the might of the nations is the power of the Messiah who feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and welcomes the stranger.” A virgin conceives, lions lie down with lambs, the blind see, the hungry are filled, tanks to tractors, all have homes and work, the dead are raised. It is simply unbelievable, incredulous. Out of the ashes is born a new narrative, a new “Royal” narrative. Now Samuel’s critics are stilled as once again God will be King (1 Sam. 8:7). The Kingdom of God knows no national boundaries. There are no foreigners. Aliens are sisters and brothers.
As towns empty across the Midwest, in Saxony, and Sussex, pastors invite refugees from Syria, and Honduras, Sudan and Senegal, to settle, to labor on the farms, to process food. Bearing their cross the apostles work to integrate the refugees with the townsfolk. Before the churches close due to lack of support, the new St. Pauls equip elders from every group to minister, to teach, to baptize, to commune. And Lydia comes through with her support so St. Pauls can move on and begin again.
Bursting with energy young people stop playing games and lend a hand. Embracing the vision of God’s world encompassing Kingdom they leave the dead to bury their dead. They find the treasure in the field; they buy the pearl; they sow the seed. Oh, there will be hard ground, the thorns, the bad fish, the weeds in wheat, but they don’t ruin the story. The prayer goes on “Thy Kingdom Come” and it keeps on coming.
The numbness is gone; there is a new Spirit. Sons and daughters will preach the word. Young men will clearly see what is about to happen and old men shall have astonishing dreams (Acts 2:17). The new Royal Narrative remembers the surprise of grace, the miracle of manna, the generosity of Barnabas, and the labors of Paul. “The Word of the Lord grew” (Acts 19:20) and continues to grow in the lives of refugees and migrants who share how God has heard their cry and brought them to a better Kingdom.