This is a long overdue follow-up post to my two previous musings on Loving and Condemning In Particular. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about imagination, the prophetic tradition, and a way forward through the political mess that is America and, make no mistake, Canada.1 What does it mean to be a prophet in our day and age? This is one of the questions I’m working through. I believe that people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu were two examples of recent prophetic voices. I can imagine the objections to this. Actually, I don’t need to imagine, I’ve heard them several times after sermons. And yet, the objections usually prove problematic as well. They are often laced with assumptions that play themselves out in secular political mindsets.
So what does a prophet do? Walter Brueggemann talks about the dual role of the prophet in terms of criticizing and energizing. There are many scholars who would use different words but are essentially after the same thing. First, criticizing.
What does a prophet criticize? To oversimplify, let’s say that a prophet criticizes the powers which hold some people in their oppressive grip. Sometimes the oppression is obvious (though not always at first). Many of us would think of slavery or the way that African Americans were treated during the civil rights era. Of course, few of us would think of the things that hold people in oppression in our own time and context. I have a friend who once wrote, “this country [America] was and is still built on racism.” Some don’t have a problem with the “was,” but many have a problem with the “is” in my friend’s statement.2 It is easier to see oppression as something in the past than it is to see it as a current reality – especially from a position of power. But this is a part of the problem. The “powers” want us to be numb to current reality. How do they do this? One way is to build to build a strong counter-narrative to distract us. Some reading this paragraph will think that I am playing into the “liberal agenda.” I don’t wish to be either liberal or conservative. More on that in a moment.
What about energizing? A prophet does more than simply criticize, a prophet energizes. But who does a prophet energize? A prophet energizes the community who is oppressed (and those who wish to help them). The prophet, no matter how hard the powers push, will not let a people remain numb to the truth. Instead, the prophet energizes and activates the people to imagine a new future. A prophet insists that God is a God of hopeful and imaginative possibility.
So who are the prophets of our day? Many claim certain voices to be their prophets. I see, for example, people on the political right claiming certain voices as prophetic. These voices both criticize and energize. Their criticizing (of the left) and energizing (of the right) are problematic, though. The same applies, of course, to the left. They criticize the right and energize the left. What both fail to recognize is that they are different sides of the same coin and that they are pawns of the system. When this happens, the oppressed remain unenergized. This is where the word AND becomes crucial. A true prophet will realize that while left and right operate with different strategies, they are both playing the same game. To use a sports analogy – a rarity for me – one team is using a full court press and the other man-to-man defense, but both are playing basketball. A biblical prophet insists that there is another game to play. A prophet, then, can, and must, criticize both the left and the right. The “and” is vital. A prophet, therefore, will not be defined by a political agenda. A prophet can, therefore, be both against abortion and for stricter gun laws (to use an example to the current American political mood). When we are left to choose sides and show allegiances, we are still held within the grip of the game the powers have employed to their advantage. Those in power are very well aware of this. There is, however, a third way.
If a prophet criticizes both the left and the right, she also energizes both. But she energizes them towards a different reality, and not further into the same old game. Living in America for much of the past twenty years, I am convinced that the conservative agenda has failed. I must quickly add, however, that being back in Canada I am also convinced that in my own nation the liberal agenda has failed. There is another option. I’m certain that there are some reading this that think I am being unrealistic. This too, is how the powers control us – by convincing us that there is no other way. I refuse to play this game. I believe that the Kingdom of God is that option. The Kingdom of God, however, will not play to the tune of the right or the left. It not only has its own tune, but it also has its own genre. The Kingdom of God doesn’t merely seek to bring reform to earthly political systems, it seeks to create a counter-community. Don’t get me wrong, such a community will bring reform to political systems, but it will do so by criticizing both sides when they get it wrong, or affirming both sides when they get it right. When the AND gets removed, so does the prophetic.
(I understand the danger here that it is completely possible for those claiming to be representatives of the Kingdom of God can themselves become an oppressive voice. I believe that a prophetic community must be a cross-shaped community, and one that bares the cross themselves and NEVER inflicts it upon another. This cross-shaped community must also be a global community, called into accountability by those who see the world differently from themselves).
1 We used to be able to remove ourselves from this critique. Sadly, I don’t think we are as far from our neighbors as we would like to think. Same trash, different angle.
2 Unfortunately, many also still cannot admit to the was either.