Book Review: The Prophetic Imagination at 40

Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination is perhaps the best-known of the seemingly countless books of a writing and publishing career that has seen him established as one of the most prolific of contemporary Old Testament theologians. In its second edition, The Prophetic Imagination has sold more than 1 million copies, but this year marks the 40th anniversary of its initial publication—which seems as good a reason as any to revisit this remarkable work. However, it is also a book that still speaks powerfully to the role of faith and imagination in responding to the cultural and political powers that so dominate our consciousness and actions.

.. The Prophetic Imagination is a survey of the deeper role of the prophetic voice found in the leadership, action, and teaching of the key protagonists in the biblical stories of Moses, Jeremiah, and Jesus. As Brueggemann describes it in his original preface, this small book is “an attempt to understand what the prophets were up to, if we can be freed from our usual stereotypes of foretellers or social protestors”

.. Brueggemann thus dismisses the two most common approaches to the prophetic voice among Bible readers, instead seeking a deeper reading than that often adopted in conversations about biblical justice. But this is not to ignore the practical implications of the message of the Bible’s prophets, rather it prompts a more profound response—and in that sense, more practical response—to the powers that perpetuate injustice and destroy imagination

Beginning with the story of Moses and his call to lead his people out of slavery and oppression in the land of Egypt, Brueggemann establishes a sketch of the powers that oppress all people and work to entrench and perpetuate that power. He describes this as a “royal consciousness” but one that is not only held by the ruling class but also presented to and insisted upon even among those it oppresses. As well as seeking to be all pervading, part of its mythology is the assumption of its inevitability, by which it seeks to preclude any alternative imagination or possibility. Thus, Moses’ call to the enslaved people was not merely to escape from Egypt and slavery but to begin to think that such freedom might even be possible. While this might seem less dramatic than a slaves’ revolt, this is actually the larger work: Moses’ “work is nothing less than an assault on the consciousness of the empire, aimed at nothing less than the dismantling of the empire both in its social practices and in its mythic pretensions” (page 9).

.. Brueggemann also uses the narrative of Moses’ confrontation with the oppressive powers of Egypt to emphasize the necessary link between faith and social justice. He does this by critiquing both extremes:

  1. first, that social radicalism by itself is a “cut flower without nourishment, without any sanctions deeper than human courage and good intentions” (page 8); but,
  2. second, that an unprophetic conservative faith offers a “God of well-being and good order” that too easily becomes “precisely the source of social oppression” (page 8).

.. Despite the seeming success of Moses’ project and the significant detail to which the biblical text goes to establish an alternative society among the newly freed Hebrew slaves in preparation for the establishment of a new nation, the perennial temptations of the royal consciousness is demonstrated by its re-emergence in the nation under the reign of Solomon. The lavishness of Solomon’s household, lifestyle, and building projects—including the Temple—contrast starkly with the oppression, forced labor, and poverty of the people. Although primarily enjoyed by only a privileged few, the growing affluence is built upon but also reinforces political oppression, and the “static religion” Moses confronted is employed to give a theological justification for the political and economic status quo. The king—and those who constitute the ruling class—comes to be regarded as having a unique access to and favor from the divine, and many religious leaders are willing to endorse this political theology as a way of incorporating themselves into the power structure.

.. This loop of power, oppression, and theological self-justification leads to a failure of imagination among both the powerful and the powerless. Focused so much on maintaining their power and privilege, the powerful are unable to conceive of the end of their power, as inevitable as that might be. But what had been unimaginable was becoming reality, which renders a double loss to those who have been comfortable in the collapsing order. As a way of surviving seemingly unalterable circumstances, the powerless were reduced to numbness, unable to feel the ongoing insults, injuries, and even death. Amid this numbness—and partially in answer to this status quo—comes the cry of the prophet Jeremiah, calling the people to grieve both the end of their empire and the losses that have been experienced by so many of its people.

.. While the temptation is to avoid the pain of grief, Jeremiah insists it is the only real and faithful response. As such, it is the prophets’ role to call people to the genuine experience of grief as a first step in the prophetic act of imagining other ways of being and living in the world. However, such grief brings the risk of despair. While grief is necessary, Brueggemann contrasts the lament of Jeremiah with the hope proclaimed by Second Isaiah “as a prophet of hope to kings in despair” (page 68). In the scriptural narrative, the prophetic role is responsive to the national circumstances. Amid attack, exile and ongoing subjugation—in the context of grief—hope becomes the primary task of prophetic imagination.

.. In the Christian reading of the Hebrew prophets, this hopeful imagination always points forward to Jesus as the coming Messiah. But when Brueggemann’s attention turns to Jesus, he also argues that the ministry of Jesus can also be read and understood in the context of the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He identifies the same progression of

  1. numbness and
  2. grief,
  3. despair and
  4. hope

played out in the ministry and ultimately in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus’ life and ministry unmask and critique the oppressive powers of his day. From His birth, His healing miracles, His teaching, and His acts of resurrection, there are many examples of Jesus working to undermine the sense of assumption and inevitability that must be overcome before the status quo can be challenged. While Jesus focused primarily on the oppressed with whom He identified in so many aspects of His life and experience, “there are never oppressed without oppressors” (page 84). In turn, He challenged each of the powers that maintained the political, economic, and religious oppression of the people. In place of numbness, Jesus practiced a compassion that was all-encompassing and “a radical form of criticism, for it announces that hurt is to be taken seriously, that hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness” (page 88).

But Jesus was not merely a social or political critic. He demonstrated the prophetic imagination to which the previous Hebrew prophets had pointed. Despite the context in which He and most of His hearers lived and suffered, He insisted on a new and different kind of kingdom that was, even then, growing among them. While Jesus’ ultimate critique—even judgment—of the oppressors came in the context and process of His death by crucifixion, He re-energized the possibilities of transformative hope by His resurrection. In Brueggemann’s language, “the resurrection can only be received and affirmed and celebrated as the new action of God, whose province is to create new futures for people and to let them be amazed in the midst of despair” (page 112). While this is radically new, for Brueggemann, it is best understood in the context of the promises and hopes of the prophets who came before, as “the ultimate act of prophetic energizing” (page 113) that made space for life and newness, wonder and possibility.

.. “It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing future alternatives to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one” (page 40). Using the biblical narratives and Hebrew prophets as models and mentors, as well as sources of teaching and inspiration, leaders in these communities are called to speak and act with prophetic imagination.

.. Prompted by one of his students, Brueggemann’s focus is sharpened in “A Postscript on Practice” in the second edition, bringing together specific examples of what prophetic imagination looks like in contemporary culture. Key to faithfully living out the call to prophetic imagination is resistance to the dominant culture, its assumptions, and its supposed inevitability. Prophetic imagination will insist on

  1. seeing,
  2. feeling, and
  3. responding differently

to people and society around us. And leaders with prophetic imagination will seek to build communities in which this imagination is shared, fostered, and lived out in ways that change society and culture.

 

The Most Powerful Reject in the World

Is there anyone who wants to hang with Donald Trump?

He’s not wanted.

Not at funerals, though the Bush family, to show class and respect for tradition, held their noses and made an exception.

Not in England, where they turned him into a big, hideous blimp.

Not by moderate Republicans, or at least the shrinking club with a tenuous claim to that label, who pushed him away during the midterms as they fought for their survival and clung to their last shreds of self-respect.

And not by a 36-year-old Republican operative who is by most accounts the apotheosis of vanity and ambition — and who just turned down one of the most powerful roles in any administration, a job that welds you to the president’s side and gives you nearly unrivaled access to his thoughts.

Nick Ayers didn’t see enough upside to the welding. He could do without those thoughts. He said no to becoming Trump’s next chief of staff, and this wasn’t just the latest twist in “As The White House Turns.”

It was, really, the whole story — of a president who burns quickly through whatever good will he has, a president who represents infinitely more peril than promise, a president toward whom a shockingly small and diminishing number of people in Washington feel any real affection, a president more tolerated than respected, though even the tolerance wanes.

.. He’s forever fixated on how wanted he is (“My crowds!” “My ratings!”), but what’s more striking is how unwanted he is. And that’s not merely a function of the crests and dips that every president encounters. It’s not really about popularity at all.

.. It’s about how he behaves — and the predictable harvest of all that nastiness. While other presidents sought to hone the art of persuasion, he revels in his talent for repulsion: how many people he attacks (he styles this as boldness); how many people he offends (he pretties this up as authenticity); how many people he sends into exile.

.. Careerists who would normally pine for top jobs with a president assess his temper, behold his tweets, recall the mortifications of Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson, and run for the hills. Trump sits at the most coveted desk in the world, but almost no one wants to pull up a chair.

.. What happened with Ayers, who is finishing a stint as Mike Pence’s chief of staff, speaks pointedly to the president’s diminished state. Bear in mind that Trump had already started telling people that Ayers would succeed John Kelly as chief of staff, so Ayers’s decision was doubly humiliating. Bear in mind who Ayers is: not just any political climber but someone whose every breath is focused on his enhanced glory, a trait frequently mentioned by Republicans who have watched his rise (and who sense in him more than a bit of Trump).

They still groan and titter about the blast email that he sent out, unsolicited, after he signed on to manage Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. It crowed about all the riches in the private sector that he was passing over. It hinted that his services had been sought by Pawlenty’s competitors: Sorry, guys. It assumed a broad, edge-of-seat audience for the minutiae of his mulling and maneuvering. In fact there were news stories that mockedthe self-aggrandizement of his announcement.

.. At most other times, under most other presidents, someone like Ayers would jump at chief of staff, no matter the job’s infamous rigors. It catapulted such political heavyweights as Dick Cheney, James Baker, Leon Panetta and Rahm Emanuel to greater recognition and relevance.

.. So Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump counted on Ayers’s interest and connived to shove Kelly out — he’ll leave by year’s end — so that they could shimmy Ayers in. They counted wrong. Ever clueless and oh so useless, they didn’t adequately factor in Trump’s toxicity, and the president now looks every bit as isolated as he is.

.. “Trump was left at the altar,”

.. Administration officials like Steven Mnuchin and Mick Mulvaney practically put out news releases to make clear that Trump shouldn’t ask them to be chief of staff. He has no Plan B, just B-list options like Matt Whitaker, the acting attorney general.

.. As leaders go, he has never been much of a magnet. He unequivocally romped in the Republican primaries, but since then? He got nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton did, a gap so remarkable that he had to claim a conspiracy of illegal voting to console himself. When he first filled his cabinet, he hardly had his pick of the litter.

Many top Republicans wanted no part of him. Some who did enter the administration agonized beforehand: Were they helping the country or indulging someone who didn’t deserve it?

When Barbara Bush died in April, it was clear to Trump that he shouldn’t travel to Texas to pay his respects. When John McCain died in August, Trump was told to skip the funeral.

The heads of countries that share America’s purported values (pre-Trump, at least) reproach and recoil from him. Prominent corporate leaders rebuke him, despite his administration’s business-friendly policies.

.. By one analysis of the midterms, the overall vote count for Democratic candidates for the House was 8.6 percentage points higher than for Republican candidates.

His wife takes public shots at him. Old friends tattle to prosecutors; new friends don’t exist. Talk about a twist: He sought the presidency, as so many others surely did, because it’s the ultimate validation. But it has given him his bitterest taste yet of rejection.

The F.B.I. Probe Ignored Testimonies from Former Classmates of Kavanaugh

During his first year at Yale, Appold lived in the basement of Lawrance Hall, one of the university’s freshman dormitories. He was in the same suite of bedrooms as Kavanaugh, sharing a common room. Appold said of Kavanaugh, “We didn’t hang out together, but there was no animosity between us either.” He said he believes that “there were two sides to Brett.” Those who have described the judge as studious and somewhat reserved or shy are correct, he said. He added, “That was true part of the time, but so are the other things that have been said about him. He drank a lot, and when he was drinking he could be aggressive, and belligerent. He wasn’t beating people up, but there was an edge and an obnoxiousness that I could see at the hearings. When I saw clips”—of Kavanaugh’s Senate testimony—“I remembered it immediately.”

.. Appold said that he learned about the alleged incident with Ramirez during thewinter of the 1983-84 school year. He recalled being told that, during a party in a first-floor common room in Lawrance Hall, Kavanaugh went over to Ramirez, who had been participating in a drinking game, “and opened his pants, and pulled out his penis, and tried to put it in her face.” But she waved him away. Appold recalled hearing that Ramirez said something like “It’s not a real penis.” He said that the remark made no sense to him at the time, and he understood it only after reading Ramirez’s allegation in The New Yorker and learning that people had been playing pranks with a fake plastic penis at the party.

In an interview with The New Yorker last month, Ramirez said, “I remember a penis being in front of my face,” and that “I knew that’s not what I wanted, even in that state of mind.” She recalled remarking, “That’s not a real penis,” and that other students were laughing at her confusion and taunting her; one encouraged her to “kiss it.”

Appold recalled being “shocked” when he was told of Kavanaugh’s alleged behavior. “The person who saw it was taken aback by what he had seen,” too, he said. Appold added, “It was a disturbing thing. I think everyone recognized that a line had been crossed here.”

Looking back, Appold said, “The thing I ask myself is, why didn’t anybody do anything about it? Why didn’t anybody report it?” But, he added, “The times were different then. Today I’m an educator, and if something like this happened, I’d know exactly where to go to the Title IX people. But back then there was no place to report these uncomfortable things—we tried to forget about them.” Kavanaugh has argued that, if he had behaved as Ramirez described, the whole campus would have talked about it, but Appold said that, to the contrary, “It was more, like, ‘Don’t talk about it.’ ”

.. After seeing Kavanaugh’s blanket denials of Ford and Ramirez’s allegations, and his assertions of his rectitude during his high-school and college years, Appold said, “I had concerns that there was a good chance he wasn’t telling the truth.” He was certain, he said, that “what he said about drinking was not accurate.”

.. Ramirez said that her main concern, after her F.B.I. interview, was that the agents who interviewed her might not be the same ones talking to people who could corroborate her account—she felt that continuity was important. But she had not anticipated that people she believed had relevant information wouldn’t even be interviewed. “Being told that these people haven’t even been contacted,” Ramirez said, “it’s very troubling to me.”

.. In addition to Appold, several other former Yale classmates said that they had reached out to the F.B.I. about Kavanaugh, but had not received a response. Stephen Kantrowitz, a former Yale classmate, said in a text message, “No one who lived in Lawrance Hall (so far as I know) has been contacted by the FBI What a charade.”

.. he described Kavanaugh as part of a clique of high-school athletes, most of whom were on the football team, who “routinely picked on” less physically fit or popular students. He said that he never witnessed Kavanaugh physically attacking another student, but he recalled him doing “nothing to stop the physical and verbal abuse.” Instead, he said, Kavanaugh “stood by and laughed at the victims.” Both Ford and Ramirez have said that they remembered Kavanaugh laughing during their ordeals. “It was so wrenching for me when I heard Dr. Ford mention how they were laughing,” the Georgetown Prep classmate said, in a phone interview. “That really, really struck a chord. I can hear him laughing when someone was picked on right now.”

.. In his statement, the classmate also said that he recalled, “on multiple occasions, Brett Kavanaugh counting on his fingers how many kegs they had over the weekend.” The amount that he heard Kavanaugh describe, he said in the statement, “seemed to be an extreme amount of beer drinking for someone to consume at any age, let alone someone in high school.” He said that he also recalled Kavanaugh participating in general conversations “where the football players were bragging about their sexual conquests over the prior weekend.”

.. His statement also challenges Kavanaugh’s assertion in last week’s hearing that he never denigrated a female student named Renate Schroeder

.. Kavanaugh and thirteen other Georgetown Prep boys described themselves in their high-school yearbook as “Renate Alumnius,” which other classmates have told the Times was a crude sexual boast. During his Senate hearing, Kavanaugh said that the reference was an endearment, saying, “She was a great friend of ours. We—a bunch of us went to dances with her. She hung out with us as a group.”

.. But the classmate who submitted the statement said that he heard Kavanaugh “talk about Renate many times,” and that “the impression I formed at the time from listening to these conversations where Brett Kavanaugh was present was that Renate was the girl that everyone passed around for sex.” The classmate said that “Brett Kavanaugh had made up a rhyme using the REE NATE pronunciation of Renate’s name” and sang it in the hallways on the way to class. He recalled the rhyme going, “REE NATE, REE NATE, if you want a date, can’t get one until late, and you wanna get laid, you can make it with REE NATE.” He said that while he might not be remembering the rhyme word for word, “the substance is 100 percent accurate.” He added, “I thought that this was sickening at the time I heard it, and it left an indelible mark in my memory.”

.. “I did nothing to deserve this. There is nothing affectionate or respectful in bragging about making sexual conquests that never happened. I am not a political person, but my reputation matters to me and to my family. I would not have signed the letter if I had known about the yearbook references and this affidavit. It is heartbreaking if these guys who acted like my friends in high school were saying these nasty, false things about me behind my back.”

.. Angela Walker, who was in Dolphin’s class at Stone Ridge, also submitted a declaration to the F.B.I. .. “It’s a terrible betrayal.” She noted, too, that the depiction of Dolphin reported in the classmate’s statement “is not the Renate that I knew—it’s not possible.” Walker’s declaration described attending a large house party with Georgetown Prep boys, where, she wrote, “A friend from Prep warned me not to go upstairs, where the bedrooms were, cautioning me that it could be dangerous.”

 

Canada relieved trade deal done, won’t forget Trump attacks

“The most important gain from this agreement is retaining our access to the U.S. market and Canadians understand that,” Freeland said.
But there is a widely shared belief that Canada made concessions and the U.S. did not.
“The concessions were all from Canada and Mexico,” MacKay said. “All of them. The only thing that the United States gave up was more demands.”

.. Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau, expressed relief that the deal is done but worried about the long-term relationship between the two countries.
“Canadians won’t forget Trump’s disgraceful treatment of Canada. Our economic partnership has been reaffirmed, but trust can’t be rebuilt with the stroke of a pen,” Paris tweeted.

.. Canada could have lost 60,000 jobs in a trade war and taken a 1 percentage percent hit to its GDP — a significant drop because Canada’s economy is projected to grow just 2 percent next year

.. Ontario’s auto industry faced the biggest threat, but the sector welcomed the new agreement. The deal requires that 40 to 45 percent of a car’s content be built where workers earn $16 an hour. That is meant to bring production back to the United States or Canada and away from Mexico, where auto workers earn on average just $4 to $5 an hour.

.. The agreement also potentially restricts Canada and Mexico from reaching a free trade agreement with China and other “non-market” countries. If Canada or Mexico signed a deal with China, the U.S. could terminate its trade agreement with Canada or Mexico on a six-month notice. That may pose a problem for Canada which is eager to diversify its trade.

“It’s bizarre,” Charest, the former Quebec premier, said. “I have never seen anything like that in a trade agreement.”
Daniel Ujczo, a trade attorney with the Dickinson Wright law firm, said Canada and Mexico also must give the U.S. notice before starting those trade discussions and updates of all proposals made during the negotiations.

“The clause achieves a key policy imperative for the US; namely, shutting China’s backdoor to North America through Canada and Mexico,” Ujczo said. “Japan and Europe, as well as the rest of the world, should be on notice that this may be the price of admission to a trade deal with the U.S.”

.. “I am a Canadian. I am polite and respectful. Even when I’m dealing with a hard business issue I don’t belittle people, I don’t insult them,” Rosen said. “As a Canadian, the whole approach that has been taken (by the U.S.) has been offensive and I don’t think Canadians will forget it.”

.. Trump’s mistreatment reinforces a worry among Canadians that their much larger neighbor is taking advantage of Canada, Heyman added.
Bothwell, the University of Toronto professor, warned of lingering damage to relations.
Trump treated it like a real estate deal when he was a shyster in Atlantic City,” Bothwell said.
“But this is nation to nation. And that’s different. And it’s connected to other things,” he added. “Trump really doesn’t grasp that and doesn’t care.”