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Grief, Compassion, and Vision: Reflections on Brueggeman’s Prophetic Imagination

Also published in Auburn Seminary’s Mountain Top Series: Writing in 1979, Walter Brueggeman turned to the old and new testament to reflect on the role of a prophet in a society he observed of waning social movements and a rising cynicism. What he shares in the Prophetic Imagination is dueling imaginations, a god that takes sides, and a legacy of prophets fluent in the languages of grief and hope; criticism and alternatives; compassion and energy.  For those puzzling today at how to spark a new exodus from modern day Pharaoh’s reign, the thirty year old book offers inspiration and insight.

God Takes Sides

In what may be a controversial statement, Brueggeman makes clear that God is polemical. He notes that “people don’t get helpless themselves, they’re rendered helpless.”[i] And in that equation, the God of the bible takes sides. In fact, the Bible itself was not written for everyone, was not meant to be universal. Both God’s and the prophet’s words are addressed to the marginal.[ii] Most clearly written in the Beatitudes, the bible offers woes to the rich and blessings to the poor.[iii]

If it offers a critique of the full, then it also offers an energizing vision for those denied such fullness.[iv] Jesus’ birth, for example, marks the beginning of a new world but it also marks the end of King Herod’s reign.  In Exodus when it is written “and god will rule forever and ever” Brueggeman points out the unstated jab “and not Pharaoh.” Following God’s speaking to and siding with the marginalized, it is understood that a prophet is abrasive for those in power but a salve for those rubbed wrong by the old social order.[v]The future a prophet prescribes is energizing for those with an unbearable present[vi] but found to be threatening to those invested in how things are.[vii]

Royal Consciousness Has No Room for Alternatives

Why can’t the word of God be universally appealing? What limits the appeal of a prophetic voice to those marginalized?

Brueggeman looks to Pharaoh’s Egypt, Solomon’s kingdom, and the rule of the Pharisees and life of Jesus of Nazareth to expose the royal consciousness inherent in managing empire.  From the perspective of the ruler, Brueggeman offers, one must deny suffering and limit imagination. One must create an uncriticized present and no galvanizing future.[viii]

In order to achieve acceptance of what-is, kings deny the existence of suffering. Royal consciousness removes us from history and convinces us we are self-made. As such, we know longer seek to know ourselves. If we can deny our selves, we can deny our neighbors and our responsibility to know their condition.[ix]

In that state of enforced numbness, kings limit the ability to foresee any alternative future. Brueggeman says, “kings attach ‘forever’ to everything, making it unthinkable that our social institutions could collapse.”[x] How things are, are as they should be and as they only could be. Criticism is either destroyed or ignored and humanity is transformed into the pursuit of self-satisfaction.[xi]  The joy of freedom is replaced with the happiness of satiation.[xii]

With a consumer culture firmly established, value is based upon immediate use[xiii] and we forget the two things that make prophets so dangerous to rulers; our place in a community called to care[xiv] and that the end of the royal fantasy is in fact always nearing closer.[xv]

On the first page of the book, Brueggeman states, “communities rooted in memory and energized by hope are both a curiosity and a threat to their surrounding culture.”[xvi] This is the case because they hold a memory complete with the disconnection between empire and a vision of what is yet to be. When such memory becomes forward-looking, it motivates because we are not energized by what we have but by what is promised and not yet given.

Imagination is the Project of a Prophet

How then does a prophet inspire that motivation? How does a prophet cut through the impact of royal consciousness and penetrate what we have used to cope in order to offer new gifts that energize an alternative future?  Looking at Moses, Brueggeman suggests that the role of the prophet is more radical than social change, more radical than a focus on improving conditions.  He describes Moses’ primary task in leading the liberation of the Israelites from enslavement as the formation of a count­er-community and counter-consciousness.

Moses was not tasked with transforming the regime of Pharaoh. He was concerned with transforming the consciousness that undergirded and made that regime possible. He did not in the end seek societal betterment through regime repentance but regime dismantling in order to allow a new reality.[xvii]  In fact, the criticism of Pharaoh was most complete when it was absent of any expectation.  Moses moved from demanding of the Pharaoh “let my people go,” to leading the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt on their own accord.[xviii]

The transformation from enslavement to exodus and formation of a new society was based on Moses’ ability to effectively criticize the Pharaoh and offer the vision of an alternative way of being to  a community who had developed an identity uncoopted and uncontained by empire, one that embraces the discontinuity and genuinely breaks from imperial reality.[xix]

Even for those who buck against the reign of kings, such a task as accomplished by Moses is daunting because we ourselves are raised and shaped in the immediate pragmatism of royal consciousness. But Brueggeman counsels, when envisioning the future, don’t ask whether an alternative is viable or possible, ask if it is imaginable.[xx] Imagination comesbefore implementation. He challenges, “have we been robbed of our power and our courage to even think an alternative thought?” His challenge continues that once one breaks with a belief that imperial reality is the only one thinkable, one realized that we have become a people who can implement anything and imagine nearly nothing.[xxi]

Thus he reinforces his argument that the role of a prophet is more radical than just social change. A prophet’s role is to reignite the passion of a suffering people who have ceased to recognize their suffering.  Counteracting the numbness of empire requires re-ignition of humanity’s passion: the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die in order to recognize the connections that breed new worlds. To stoke such fires, the prophet must be fluent in the languages of both grief and hope.

Prophets Speak in both Grief and Hope

 As Brueggeman looked to relate the lessons of the Bible’s prophets to the time of his writing, he noticed that liberals and conservatives were both monolingual.  Liberals almost exclusively critiqued what was while, he argues, conservatives became more effective because they energized a base toward a vision of the future.  Brueggeman reminds us that we are not energized by what we already have but by what is promised and not yet given.  The role of a prophet is then to both critique and to energize. Prophets must be multi-lingual to speak to the completeness of human suffering and liberation.

Grief is the most Complete Critique.

 From the cries of the Israelites to Jesus’ own wails upon encountering the sorrow of Lazarus’ death, Brueggeman highlights active mourning and sorrow as essential to the process of critiquing what is and offering a vision of what could be.

At a most basic level, he offers that “tears break barriers like no harshness or anger. Tears are a way of solidarity in pain when no other form of solidarity remains.”[xxii] But more deeply he reasserts the partiality of God (quoting Matthew 5;4 “only those who mourn will be comforted.”[xxiii]) and describes the proper language of a prophet as that of grief; ‘the rhetoric that engages the community in mourning for a funeral they do not want to admit, their own.’[xxiv]

Looking at Jeremiah, Brueggeman notes the prophet grieves on two levels, first for the fear of an end of a people who he cares for and secondly for the fact that what is transparent to him is unseen by others, that the existence of their suffering is denied.[xxv]

Exactly because the suffering is denied, the prophet must engage a poetry geared to expressing a common ache that can penetrate the numbness of history.[xxvi] Such a poetry, Brueggeman argues, must engage three aspects

1)   The poetry of grief must offer symbols adequate to the horror and massiveness of the experiences that evoke numbness and denial. The symbols must overcome a pattern of cover-up and stonewalling. Such symbols are always available from a historical past that’s been forgotten. The prophet must reactivate them in people’s memories and conjure time-honored vehicles for redemptive honesty.[xxvii]

2)   The poetry of grief must bring to public expression the very fears and terrors that have been denied and suppressed.  The prophet must bring the community to the pain that its individuals so desperately want to share but are not permitted to.

3)   Finally, the poetry of grief must use metaphor in order to be touched by many. Metaphor allows people to access pain that analytical speech does not. The prophet speaks metaphorically but concretely, illuminating the “real deathliness that hovers over and gnaws within us.”[xxviii]

When a prophet’s work is done, the individual suffering that members of a community have been made to deny is made common again. In its commonality it emerges as a critique of the current order that has permitted such suffering to exist without remedy and can become the basis for an energizing vision of a new future. Brueggeman notes, “weeping is something kings rarely do without losing their thrones. Yet the loss of thrones is precisely what is called for in radical criticism.”[xxix] “After the unthinkable end comes unimaginable beginnings. An embrace of ending permits beginning.”[xxx]

Hope is Absurd Until One Recognizes Humanity’s Promise

Paired with the responsibility of the prophet to grieve in ways that inspire collective mourning, Brueggeman argues it is the responsibility of the prophet to also “engage people in the promise of newness.”[xxxi] Without such a promise, collective grief can become immobilized. “Depressed people do not want to act and despairing people think it does not matter.”[xxxii] He pushes that the prophet’s role is to drive people to a decision they do not want to make; whether to break with imperial reality and embark on the crafting of a new one.

Such an endeavor is only possible if one is first firmly rooted in the grieving process of a people. Brueggeman asserts the self-determination of the marginalized in writing, “it is precisely those who know the death most painfully who can speak the hope most vigorously.”[xxxiii] Expressions of hope without knowledge of the real conditions of a people become at best empty optimism.

How then does a prophet speak of hope in ways that invert history and transform funeral to a festival of newness that people in despair never anticipated as possible?[xxxiv]

Brueggeman again returns to the power of symbol, metaphor, and public expression. He observes that hope, when maintained privately, is an absurdity too embarrassing to mention because it is an expression of what we yearn for but has been denied us.[xxxv]  Thus a prophet must again make the individual sentiment a communal experience throughsymbols that make hope both possible and historical and through metaphors that concretely speak to a real newness that redefines the situation of a people who had nearly given up.[xxxvi]

Through the language of amazement, the prophet engages people in new discernments that give cause for celebration. Whereas Jeremiah brought the Israelites to a funeral of consuming grief, Brueggeman relies on 2nd Isaiah to demonstrate how they were then brought from despair to an enthronement celebration, to new buoyancy.[xxxvii]

Compassion is a Living Prophecy

By finishing with chapters focusing on the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, Brueggeman raises up an example of how the language of a prophet gets applied in practice.  He argues that Jesus was not especially dangerous to the standing social order because of any properties of divinity per se but because of how his ministry subverted the values and assumptions the imperial reality relied upon.  While his birth is symbolic because the Jesus of history was born marginal both geographically and religiously, his active ministry exemplified subversion through service.

Brueggeman highlights four aspects of Jesus’ ministry as what can be summarized as a questioning of the law.  Jesus forgave sin whereas the previous refusal to forgive constituted a means for social control over people who had no opportunity for redemption from the consequences of past violations.  Jesus not only healed, but did so on the Sabbath thus challenging the legitimacy of those who defined what was sacred.  He ate with society’s outcasts and thus challenged society’s morality through whom he chose to associate with. And finally in his critique of the temple, Jesus challenged power-holders’ claim of being especially chosen or favored by God.

In each case, Jesus’ actions were driven by the conviction that people’s hurt must be taken seriously and by his active concern with society’s numbness to that hurt. Brueggeman explains, “the one thing dominant culture cannot tolerate or co-opt is compassion, the ability to stand in solidarity with the victims of the present order. It can manage charity and good intentions but it has no way to resist solidarity with pain or grief.”[xxxviii]

Brueggeman defines compassion as “to let one’s innards embrace the feeling or situation of another.”[xxxix] When applied to society-at-large, he argues that compassion is expressed as solidarity and that “the only solidarity worth affirming is solidarity characterized by the same helplessness [the marginalized] know and experience.”[xl]

Thus Jesus was so dangerous not necessarily because of his status as the Son of God but because, like many slain revolutionaries, his life was an indictment of the current social order. His actions legitimized his words. He witnessed the suffering of the marginal, took it as his own experience, and spoke to its cause as well as its alternative.  “The capacity to hurt the hurt of marginal people means an end to all social arrangements that had nullified such pain by a remarkable depth of numbness.”[xli] Brueggeman argues that imperial consciousness depends on being able to go on with business as usual as if no one were hurting.” [xlii]

But suffering made audible produces hope and Jesus ministered to the suffering loudly. He shared their grief, offered powerful signs, spoke of alternatives, and predicted newness.[xliii] “He evidenced power to transform. His embrace of the death of his people are dying leads to a restored Lazarus, to healed people, to fed crowds, to a cared-for man, to an accepted son, and to good news for the harassed and helpless. The heavy  criticism of Jesus holds the offer and possibility of an alternative beginning.”[xliv]

Prophets Speak to the Space In Between

In just over one hundred pages Brueggeman impugns the power-holders as being counter-forces to both God’s and humanity’s freedom. He cast God into the trenches among the marginalized and illustrates how prophets and those seeking to stand in their legacy speak both to our deepest pain and our longest-held yearning.  He points to acceptance of consumer culture as an acceptance of a dying imperial humanity and suggests that the combination of grief and hope invite us to imagine futures beyond those horizons as defined by the king.

In his book, prophetic speech and vision realizes its true danger when demonstrated through living ministry, active compassion, and when held by a community who have come to adopt a counter-culture and uncooptable identity outside of imperial reality. Such an alternative community is the seed of a new human beginning.  The newness of that beginning takes place at the edge of the end of the old.

The role of a prophet is to urge that new beginning forward; from numbness to grief, from despair to hope; from amazement to new realities. Brueggeman finishes, the “prophetic word marks a disconnect between that which we cling to and that which we yearn for, what is and what will be.  Ministry happens in the space between clinging and yearning.”[xlv]

He concludes as he started, that the work of a prophet is about the consciousness that undergirds a regime not about the regime itself. While the parting of the Red Sea, resurrection of Lazarus, and other miracles of Jesus stand as extra-ordinary, Brueggeman finishes with a reflection on his own ministry, making the work of a prophet accessible to all and centering the role of the marginalized themselves at the center.  He closes, “prophetic ministry does not consist of spectacular acts of social crusading or of abrasive measures of indignation. Prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice.”[xlvi] And with that, he provides a text that should spark all of our imaginations.

[i] 87

[ii] 105

[iii] 103

[iv] 105

[v] 99

[vi] 106

[vii] 100-101, Brueggeman deftly compares the reactions to the coming of Jesus by the power-holders (hostility) to the reactions of the powerless (curiosity and amazement) to illustrate this point.

[viii] 31

[ix] 48

[x] 47

[xi] 41

[xii] 38

[xiii] 1

[xiv] 42

[xv] 50

[xvi] 1

[xvii] 28

[xviii] 22 “by the middle of the plague cycle Israel has disengaged from the empire, cries no more to it, expects nothing of it, acknowledges it in no way, knows it cannot keep its promises, and knows that nothing is either owed it or expected of it. That is the ultimate criticism which leads to dismantling.”

[xix] 27

[xx] 45

[xxi] 45

[xxii] 59

[xxiii] Matthew 5:4

[xxiv] 51

[xxv] 52

[xxvi] 59

[xxvii] 49

[xxviii] 50 “not a death of long life, death of alienation, loss of patrimony, of quest for satiation that never satisfies, ultimate consumerism of consuming each other.”

[xxix] 61

[xxx] 60

[xxxi] 63

[xxxii] 73

[xxxiv] 65, 75

[xxxv] 62

[xxxvi] 69

[xxxix] 86

[xl] 81

[xli] 88

[xlii] 88

[xliii] 90

[xliv] 91

[xlv] 103

[xlvi] 110