Admittedly, I may have succumbed to copious consumption of comfort food, profuse pumpkin candle burning, and an inordinate intake of media. How did you get through?
Along with the election madness, I was simultaneously pushing through mounds of classwork for my master’s program, trying not to be distracted with news cycles and social media alerts. And midst the pile of weekly required reading was the classic text by Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination. And of all the weeks to read such words! Words still as relevant and provocative as ever. Words that I believe we desperately need to hear right now.
For certainly, we are living in a time of imperial totality, not unlike Old Testament Egypt. With the religion of static triumphalism manifested in much of the American church today and the politics of oppression and exploitation, we surely are in need of deliverance. If only we can fight through the enculturation and amnesia of our present state, perhaps we can remember and reclaim God’s new work of liberation found in the Exodus story. On one hand, we see the dismantling of the oppressive empire of Pharaoh; and on the other hand, the formation of a new community oriented around God’s freedom, justice and compassion.
And as I read Brueggemann’s words, his call to action resonates. In order to live into God’s vision of freedom, we must grieve and we must hope. And this week, as the newscasters drawled on and on and on, this felt appropriate. Left and right. Rich and poor. Rural and urban. Black, brown, and white. We are divided and polarized. We are incensed and outraged. We have demonized each other in lieu of the imperial gods of our enslavement.
Perhaps I was channeling the insanity of the moment, I can’t be sure. But I shouted at the television, “We must reclaim the narrative!”
Grief That Dismantles
For I felt grief. In spite of my candidate of choice pulling ahead. In spite of the ground-breaking, glass-shattering of Madame Vice President-Elect. I felt joy and relief for sure. I even shed some tears. But the grief remained. For while I welcome back sanity to the office of the president, I know many others don’t see it this way. And here we all are, part of the same family, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) Yet we are divided more than ever, and it hurts that we cannot hear one another. Even more, it hurts that we remain deeply committed to white supremacy in spite of horrific and enduring injustices. There was no landslide of repudiation for our black brothers and sisters. Our deep fragmentation remains.
For I’m afraid we have sold our souls to the American Dream of consumerism and individualism predicated on the violence of racism. Regardless of your politics, I think we can agree. Trump is not an aberration, but a mirror of a society given over to narcissism, greed, and the evils of white supremacy. We have been promised a counterfeit “freedom” that leads to death — that puts individual rights over the common good, that dehumanizes others in pursuit of power, and permits our consumption without regard for oppression and exploitation.
But “what good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
The mythic claims of the gods have been exposed — America is anything but great. We have worshipped the gods of empire, ease, success, and satiation, and we are now formed primarily as consumers and not creators, colonizers and not co-laborers. Numb people do not discern or fear death. We work and we shop. We click and we watch. We consume products, and in doing so, become the very products consumed. We are slaves to the machines we build for ourselves.
We have taken what is not ours. We have raped and pillaged, killed and maimed. We have violated, extracted, and depleted as if people, creatures, and resources are disposable. And now we wonder why there is fire in our streets and fire across our land with no air in which to breathe.
We must grieve and lament and tear our clothes like the prophets of old. We must weep and wail as a prophetic critique of the looming death all around us. People are in the streets. Hospitals are full. Graves are in mass. Families are at war. The world is on fire. So many suffering, oppressed and dying. The earth is groaning, heaving, and sighing.
“History consists primarily of speaking and being answered, crying and being heard. If that is true, it means there can be no history in the empire because the cries are never heard and the speaking is never answered. And if the task of prophecy is to empower people to engage in history, then it means evoking cries that expect answers, learning to address them where they will be taken seriously, and ceasing to look to the numbed and dull empire that never intended to answer in the first place.”(Brueggemann, p.13)
We must stop looking to the numbed and dull empire for answers that only a God who is truly free can answer. The radical new vision of liberation that Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated birthed an alternative community in which the oppressed were lifted up, the ostracized were embraced, the prisoners were set free, and the broken were healed. God’s good and just kingdom upends not only the religion of the day but dismantles the imperial politics of oppression and exploitation.
Hope That Energizes
This is where hope comes in. For Brueggemann insists that it is not only the prophetic critique of grief that brings liberation, but the prophetic energizing of hope to imagine an alternative reality. To be clear, there is plenty of reason for despair. In the midst of a global pandemic, it is hard not to feel a sense of powerlessness. The reigning consciousness militates against hope or any prospect of change on the horizon. There is no room for anything outside the dominant narrative of totality and permanence. Thus, despairing people do not anticipate or receive newness, nor do they believe they have to power to move toward new life. And yet hope persists in a God of resurrection in which “all things are possible.” This is why we must fiercely hold on to hope, to call upon the artists, the poets, and the dreamers to imagine an alternative reality of God’s good and just kingdom.
“Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.” (Brueggemann, p.65)
What if…our present reality is not the only reality? What if… this kingdom is not the only kingdom? What if…there is another way to live? What if…we are called to be creators, not consumers? What if…there is an alternative community of freedom, justice, and compassion?
I believe with all of my heart that there is hope — for the church, for our neighborhoods, and for society as a whole. God’s future is here and is unfolding in a people who turn away from the false gods of empire and who imagine and orient themselves around a new social reality that includes and liberates the most vulnerable and oppressed. God’s kingdom is demonstrated in authentic, incarnational communities that are embodying compassion and justice on the ground, creating a new social fabric in the neighborhood.
So midst the mind-numbing hopelessness of polarization, dehumanization, and fragmentation, I am holding stubbornly onto both grief and hope. For there is no relief in the empirical binaries of black and white extremes. Rather, there is a third way, another way. A way of love and mercy, repentance and forgiveness, compassion and justice.
To be sure, it is a way of disruption. It is disruptive to grieve and to offer prophetic critique when peace is maintained at all costs. It is subversive to hope midst the crushing clench of empire. And yet we are invited into a vision for the beloved community of God whose practices of lament, protest, and complaint give rise to fierce hope and imagination for a new social order —a prophetic demonstration of God’s revolutionary kingdom of resistance, restoration, and liberation.
So let us begin to imagine a new world for the poor, the persecuted, and the pure in heart — where the grieving will be comforted, the meek will inherit the earth, and those who hunger and thirst for justice will be filled. (Matthew 5:3–10)
"We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, My friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature." — Sonya Renee Taylor
by Jessica Ketola