Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Prophetic Voice of Evangelical America

In the preface to his revised edition of The Prophetic Imagination (circa 2000), Walter Brueggemann sets out four prerequisites for a prophetic community. These are the elements he believes necessary for a community to produce a prophet or a prophetic voice: a long memory that is available and accessible to the community, a sense of real communal pain, an active practice of hope, and an effective mode of discourse. As I was reading, I couldn't help but realize our present Evangelical America, at least in the form we allow to speak for us, lacks all of these.

We tend to have a short memory. Our traditions stretch back 100 years, if we're lucky - less than 5% of Christian history. We've all-consumingly bought in to the immediacy of the consumer culture in which we're enmeshed. This shows up in our consumer and entrepreneurial approaches to corporate worship and purpose. We want to be the biggest, flashiest, most impressive thing; we want to be new. We have no memory and, even if we did, no means by which to access it. Conservative may be fine for us, traditional, even (in our own strange definition of traditional), but they must be packaged as new or next. We recycle fads and remain oblivious to context because we have to memory and no way to relive or interpret those memories which might be accessible.

Evangelical America is so thoroughly embedded in the dominant culture there is no possibility of pain. We are largely affluent and white. We are used to controlling the levers of power, be they political or economic. The fact that this may no longer be as true as it once way brings on a sense of false pain. This is not the kind of pain Brueggemann speaks about, a dehumanizing sort of identity loss that can speak for itself to all humanity. This contrived pain, in the form of "religious persecution," is manipulative and self-justifying, an obvious smoke-screen to the outside world. We have no pain, save that to our ego.

We have words of hope (heaven, escape), but those translate into a practice of fear and mourning. This hatred of the world is utterly hopeless. We cannot simply say, "things are bad, but one day we'll escape." This is not prophetic, it's a socially-accepted version of the doomsday cult. We cannot isolate ourselves from the world in expectation of an imminent cosmic evacuation. We see the world around us through a divisive lens, in which we're locked in a battle with "them" for control of our souls. There is no hope here. Even if we claim confidence in a bright future someday, it manifests itself in fear and uncertainty this day.

The way we speak leaves no room for error. The world is entirely black and white, right and wrong, with no room for overlap, no consideration of bias. Our communication is irrelational and depersonalizing, labeling challengers as enemies, worthy of nothing more than vitriol and marginalization. For us, the end justifies the means.

Evangelical America doesn't call the world to an alternative reality, quite the contrary, Evangelical America wants to eliminate the possibility of alternative reality. In this, you can replace "Evangelical America" with "totalitarian power," "unfettered capitalism," "socialism" or "militant Islam." The role of power, whatever kind of power (and saying these forces are after the same thing does not make them equal in value, simply in purpose), is to maintain power. A prophetic voice, a voice of true alternative, cannot speak from a position of power. It can't arise from power or be nurtured through power. It's simply not possible.

Evangelical America, along with the other examples - and many more, represent attempt to control the dominant narrative, not attempts to write a new one. They are not challenges to power, but attempts to co-opt power with a specific set of underlying morals. This will not produce real change, only superficial. The underlying problems remain; the dominant narrative continues.

Brueggemann's contention, then, is that until God's people (or any people) see the world and live in the world in fundamentally different ways it is not possible to live differently or speak prophetically.

If Evangelical America is to ever have a truly prophetic voice (and I'm still a believer that it can), we must build a community capable of nurturing a prophetic voice.

We have to reclaim our memory, both the good and the bad, and not just cling to a convenient narrative we've created to simplify our lives and allow us to fit in. We have to act in hope, re-membering with our lives and actions that all people are God's people, that there is no "us and them," that God loves this world and calls it good, that redemption is our future, not escape. Thus we must also speak redemptively, as if we really believe we're all in this together and peaceful coexistence is possible. We must seek to understand, listen, and love.

We must also embrace pain. I'm a relatively affluent white male. I'm not going to encounter real pain, even if I am entirely committed to living alternatively in the midst of the world (and I'm clearly not always committed). It's essential Evangelical America to stand with those who suffer pain. Even if it challenges our moral perspective, our comfort level, or our "common sense." We have to suffer with those who suffer, those who are left out of the system we've tried to hard to control. This means more than starting charities and volunteering with organizations (although that's a start). Our community must embrace what it means to suffer, we must move into the neighborhood, make ourselves dependent on those who suffer so it becomes our suffering.

Too often we take only those risks we can unwind. I am more than guilty of this. For us to truly have a prophetic voice, pain is essential. It is from pain that hope and a better vision for the future arises. Prisoners, addicts, women, racial minorities, the LGBT community - those who encounter difficulty and marginalization. Those stories must be our stories. That pain must be ours - again, not as tourists, but as people.

The world around us is comprised of people - all good, all broken - engaged in a variety of activities, helpful and hurtful, unifying and isolating, honoring and embarrassing, loving and neglectful. These people are no different than us. But until that sentiment is more than words, until it is backed up with a concrete reality, there will be no prophetic voice for Evangelical America.

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