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.

 

Pigs All the Way Down

Kavanaugh and our rotten ruling class.

.. Despite Donald Trump’s populist posturing, there are few people more obsessed with Ivy League credentials. Kavanaugh’s nomination shows how sick the cultures that produce those credentials — and thus our ruling class — can be.
.. According to The New Yorker, Judge confided in an ex-girlfriend, Elizabeth Rasor, about an incident where he and other boys took turns having sex with a drunken woman. (Judge denies this.)
.. From Georgetown Prep, Kavanaugh went to Yale. There he joined the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, or DKE, which was, according to The Yale Daily News, “notorious for disrespecting women.” (Long after Kavanaugh graduated, the fraternity, once headed by George W. Bush, was banned from campus after video emerged of pledges chanting, “No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!”)
.. Kavanaugh was also a member of an all-male secret society called Truth and Courage, which had an obscene nickname affirming its dedication to womanizing.

.. It may not be fair to judge Kavanaugh by the company he kept. But it’s telling that these were the crucibles in which he and other members of our ostensible meritocracy forged their identities and connections.
.. “Is it believable that she was alone with a wolfy group of guys who thought it was funny to sexually torment a girl like Debbie? Yeah, definitely. Is it believable that Kavanaugh was one of them? Yes.”

.. There’s no equivalent culture in which girls reap social capital for misbehaving. You rarely see women in politics or law who flaunt college reputations as party girls; the women who make it are expected to show steely self-control. In the rarefied social world that produces so many of our putative leaders, a young man who frequently gets blackout drunk, as Kavanaugh reportedly did, is a fun guy. A young woman who does so is a mess.

.. Kavanaugh went on to become a protégé of appeals court judge Alex Kozinski, for whom he clerked in the early 1990s. Last year, Kozinski resigned after multiple accusations of sexual harassment by former female clerks and junior staffers; two said he showed them porn in his office. The judge’s lewd behavior was, by many accounts, an open secret.

.. “All the clerks and former clerks in Kozinski’s ambit knew and understood that you assumed the risk and accepted the responsibilities of secrecy,”

.. both of whom had a reputation as gatekeepers for students who hoped to land coveted clerkships with Kavanaugh. Sources told The Guardian that Chua instructed female applicants to exude a “model-like” femininity, a claim Chua denies. One prospective clerk said Rubenfeld advised her, “You should know that Judge Kavanaugh hires women with a certain look.”

.. As they realize that, their incandescent fury is remaking our politics. We’ll know things have changed when palling around with sexual abusers carries more stigma than being abused does.

 

The Coming War on Business

In a series of essays for conservative magazines like Chronicles, Francis hammered home three key insights.

The first was that globalization was screwing Middle America. The Cold War had just ended, capitalism seemed triumphant and the Clinton years seemed to be an era of broad prosperity. But Francis stressed that the service economy was ruining small farms and taking jobs from the working class.

  1. His second insight was that the Republican and conservative establishment did not understand what was happening. He railed against the pro-business “Economic Men” who thought G.D.P. growth could solve the nation’s problems, and the Washington Republicans, who he thought were infected with the values of the educated elites.
  2. Francis told Buchanan. “Go to New Hampshire and call yourself a patriot, a nationalist, an America Firster, but don’t even use the word ‘conservative.’ It doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
  3. .. His third insight was that politics was no longer about left versus right. Instead, a series of smaller conflicts — religious versus secular, nationalist versus globalist, white versus nonwhite — were all merging into a larger polarity, ruling class versus Middle America.

“Middle American groups are more and more coming to perceive their exploitation at the hands of the dominant elites. The exploitation works on several fronts —

  • economically, by hypertaxation and the design of a globalized economy dependent on exports and services in place of manufacturing;
  • culturally, by the managed destruction of Middle American norms and institutions; and
  • politically, by the regimentation of Middle Americans under the federal leviathan.”

appalled by pro-corporate Republican economic policies on the one hand and liberal cultural radicalism on the other. They swung to whichever party seemed most likely to resist the ruling class, but neither party really provided a solution.

The Buchanan campaign was the first run at what we now know as Trumpian populism.

.. “The ‘culture war’ for Buchanan is not Republican swaggering about family values and dirty movies but a battle over whether the nation itself can continue to exist under the onslaught of the militant secularism, acquisitive egoism, economic and political globalism, demographic inundation, and unchecked state centralism supported by the ruling class.”

.. Francis was a racist. His friends and allies counseled him not to express his racist views openly

.. in 1994 Francis told a conference, “The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.

.. When you look at today’s world through the prism of Francis’ work, a few things seem clear: Trump is not a one-time phenomenon; the populist tide has been rising for years. His base sticks with him through scandal because it’s not just about him; it’s a movement defined against the so-called ruling class.

.. Trump may not be the culmination, but merely a way station toward an even purer populism.

.. Trump is nominally pro-business. The next populism will probably take his ethnic nationalism and add an anti-corporate, anti-tech layer. Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple stand for everything Francis hated — economically, culturally, demographically and nationalistically.

.. As the tech behemoths intrude more deeply into daily life and our very minds, they will become a defining issue in American politics. It wouldn’t surprise me if a new demagogue emerged, one that is even more pure Francis.

Booked: When Slaveholders Controlled the Government, with Matthew Karp

Between 1789 and 1850, the United States had twelve presidents. Ten of them owned slaves; the only two that didn’t were both named “John Adams.” The United States was a pioneering democracy, but its democracy was shaped by the demands of a slaveholding elite that had immense—and often decisive—authority over its government. Princeton historian Matthew Karp explores the consequences of this arrangement in This Vast Southern Empire. He focuses on the influence Southerners wielded over foreign policy, but Karp’s inquiry opens up new perspectives on much more, including the dynamics of proslavery ideology, the world-making ambitions of Southern elites, and the origins of a Civil War that broke American democracy in two.

..What John C. Calhoun really wanted, as Richard Hofstadter wrote long ago, was not for Southerners to leave the Union but to dominate it, which they more or less did in the thirty years before the Civil War.

.. It’s true that in many antebellum political arguments, Southern leaders emphasized the limited powers of the federal government. But when slavery and states’ rights came into conflict, the abstract commitment to limited government vanished pretty quickly. The outstanding example is the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which overrode personal liberty laws in the northern states and required federal marshals to assist slaveholders in capturing runaway slaves.

.. On many important questions of foreign relations—the annexation of Texas, for instance—supposed small-government ideologues suddenly morphed into bold advocates of federal power. Proslavery Southerners also served as by far the most aggressive champions of U.S. military and naval expansion.

.. John C. Calhoun. He was the most incisive thinker the plantation elite had—Richard Hofstadter called him “the Marx of the master class”

.. But Calhoun was also a bold proslavery internationalist. He paid close attention to the politics of slavery and abolition in Europe and in Latin America, and he was very assiduous about directing U.S. power to sustain slavery in Cuba and Brazil.

.. Southern elites saw Britain as both a vital commercial partner and a potentially dangerous strategic enemy.

.. John Tyler believed that defending slavery against British abolitionism should be a top strategic priority for the United States. There were many dimensions to this effort, from naval expansion to Cuba diplomacy, but in some sense it culminated with the U.S. annexation of the Republic of Texas, which was in 1845 the fourth largest slaveholding society in the world.

.. the book is less about whether slavery was or was not “modern,” and more about the fact that leading slaveholders believed it was.

.. What slaveholders said, over and over again, was that “modern civilization” and African slavery were fundamentally compatible. Economically, they argued, slave labor was necessary to produce vital agricultural staples. And ideologically, slave labor fit in very well in a world increasingly dominated by free trade, expanding European empires, and hardening racist science.

.. In the book I look at two of the most famous Southern documents from early 1861—the Mississippi declaration of secession and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s “cornerstone address.” Both are very candid about the central importance of slavery, and in contemporary discussions they are often brandished as clear evidence that slavery, not state rights, drove Southerners to secede

.. Historians are so accustomed—as we should be—to viewing slaveholders at the top of a complex pyramid of class, racial, and gender hierarchies in Southern society, that for a long time, we forgot that they were also the nation’s most powerful political leaders, and the world’s most powerful slaveholding class. Only in the past fifteen years or so have historians begun to look more systematically at slaveholders as leading national and international actors, as well as Southern social elites. Done right, I think, these approaches don’t contradict each other—they complement each other.

.. when we look back at Davis and his ilk, we should not regard them as antiquarian curiosities, but as ambitious contenders for power in an uncertain mid-nineteenth century world.

.. in the very general sense that slaveholders were a small and self-conscious class, nationally powerful, internationally sophisticated, and totally confident in the future of their system—despite various warning signs all around the globe—their outlook is, in some ways, comparable to the outlook of today’s big capitalist class. And control of the American national state was—as it remains today—absolutely fundamental to the operation of ruling class power.

.. The key, though, is not only to isolate and weaken the gun lobby or fossil fuel industry, for instance, but to develop a popular and more comprehensive critique of the political-economic system—a twenty-first century version of the “Slave Power” argument. Slaveholders, after all, didn’t just represent a sector of the economy; they controlled the government. For all its weaknesses, I do think the Sanders campaign represented a major step forward in this larger project, and I’m probably unreasonably optimistic about the possibilities going forward.