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.

 

New York Life Insurance Sold Slave Insurance

Banks like JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo accepted Slaves as Collateral

Rachel Swarns of the New York Times joins us to discuss what she discovered when she followed the money trail of one of the nation’s top financial institutions all the back to the 19th century.
.. RACHEL: In 1847, Godfrey died in the Midlothian Coal Mines. We still don’t know exactly how he died, but in New York Life’s accounting of the deaths that happened, they simply described, “burned to death.


New York Life was good for its policy. And Nicholas Mills put in a claim and within months of Nicholas Mills’ claims— three months, actually— they paid up: $337. The folks at New York Life collected a lot of information, but not information that his family, today, might wanna know, or people looking at the institution of slavery might wanna know. They did not record his last name. They did not record where he was, or if he was, buried. Simply “burned to death” and “$337 payment.”

CHENJERAI: This payment to a Southern slave owner wasn’t coming from Charleston, or Richmond, it was coming from New York.
.. And slaves were often used by people who went to a bank, wanted to get a loan, and had to, as we often do today, show some property for collateral, and would say, “okay, I got these 20 guys here. This is my collateral.”

That was a very pernicious system because, if you think it through, what happens when that guy defaults? Well, we know what happens if you default on your car loan today. The bank will come take it. The same thing happened back then.

JACK: Wait a minute. There were slave repo men?

RACHEL: There were slave repo men.

It’s very simple. You default on your loan, you have given up some collateral, the banks then become the owners of that property. And so the banks became owners of human beings, of these enslaved people. They took them, repossessed them, and tried to sell them, because it’s just like in foreclosures, you know, they don’t wanna hold on to these distressed properties. You know, they’re not in the real estate business. Banks are not really in the slave owning business.

RACHEL: We are talking about, you know, there, there are contemporary banks that have this history, you know.

CHENJERAI: Could you, could you name them?

RACHEL: So some of the banks that were involved in this business, banks who accepted slaves as collateral were J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo.
.. CHENJERAI: So this how the descendants are responding? How are the insurance companies responding to this?

RACHEL: You know, no one really wants a call from a reporter saying, talking about…. their ties to slavery. It’s, it’s just not … A lot of people are looking-

JACK: Mm.

RACHEL: … for coverage from the New York Times. This is not an issue where anyone is happy about a connection.

This information about slave insurance and these records came out in the 2000s, when states and municipalities required companies to disclose their ties to this period of time. So, you know, there was some trying to say, “well this is old news, there’s no reason to delve into this.” In some ways, it’s no surprise that-
.. There was a lawsuit that was filed particularly against New York Life and other companies that was dismissed in 2004, after a judge ruled that the black plaintiffs had been unable to establish a direct link to the companies that they had sued, and that the statute of limitations had run out.

With the advance of genealogy and the digitization of records, it’s now possible, difficult, but possible, to trace these people, and their descendants to the present day.
.. JACK: And in terms of just Americans coming to grips with this history, how should we- how do we tell that story?


RACHEL: You know, I think, with a lot of these issues, you know, there is the moral question, right? And what do we do with that, as, as Americans? It is simply true that African Americans were not paid for labor, right? For a long time. (laughing).
.. Ta-Nehisi Coates obviously did that really provocative piece about reparations and arguing for reparations. And he actually was at a conference and he was talking about that debate in American society and saying… You know people were saying, “Well, what would it look like?” and he said, “You know, we can’t really talk about what reparations looks like if there is no consensus that there was a debt.”

And I think that’s where America is right now is trying to figure out is there a debt? And part of the work that I do, and the work that a lot of people are doing in this area and looking at these kinds of connections between slavery and today, is just illuminating those kinds of connections.

George Washington’s Fugitive Slave: Ona

A little-known story of how one woman stood up to one of the most powerful men in American history. Her story comes to us from Uncivil, a history podcast from Gimlet where they go back to the time our divisions turned into a war, and bring you stories left out of the official history.