02 July 2020

Walter Brueggemann's Prophetic Imagination

Written by 
“Charlottesville and the Truth About America,” Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, The Black Theology Project, Aug. 13, 2017. “Charlottesville and the Truth About America,” Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, The Black Theology Project, Aug. 13, 2017. https://btpbase.org/charlottesville-truth-america/

This comes on the heels of a substantive critique of America’s Christian nationalist movement. Now I offer one possible Christian response to it, one that I believe is particularly potent and relevant.

One of the most influential Old Testament scholars and theologians of our time, Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) has written nearly fifty books, hundreds of articles, and participated in dozens of wider cultural projects as a public intellectual. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC), he has preached and published many sermons and poetic prayers.

It would be easy to pigeon-hole Brueggemann as a “liberal Protestant” – after all, the UCC is one of several “mainline Protestant” denominations (include the Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and others). These are the churches that originally came from Europe and exercised enormous cultural and political influence in the US until about the mid-1960s (see this 2018 Vox interview about these white Protestants’ voting patterns). Since then, partly because these mostly upper middle-class Protestants were having fewer children, partly because each new generation was a bit less practicing, and mostly because of the rise of more conservative evangelical churches, their numbers have declined, though not necessarily their influence in the public sphere.

Brueggemann does not identify as a “liberal Protestant.” In fact, one of the themes that excited me in reading his classic work, The Prophetic Imagination (1978, now with a special 40th Anniversary Edition), was his deep appreciation for the whole church, all historical and theological distinctions aside. In particular, writing in an American context, he consistently challenges “liberals” and “conservatives” in the same breath.

I chose this book too because it feeds directly into my book project about human flourishing as a central theme of Christian mission. Then as I read it, I realized it plays two other functions: Brueggemann provides a wonderful counterpart to the Christian nationalism I just analyzed in my two-part piece, and he conveniently opens a window into the kind of racial justice Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about and embodied in his activism. So I first summarize his book as a lead-in to my brief introduction to Kelly Brown Douglas’ article on the issue of reparations.


Walter Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination

I don’t claim to do justice to this classic book (even though it’s only 119 pages) in just a few paragraphs. But I do hope to whet your appetite so that you will read it for yourself.

Let me also say from the outset that Brueggemann’s focus on the Bible’s prophets and their message is a theme that nicely opens up common ground for discussion and shared activism between Muslims and Christians. But that will have to be pursued elsewhere.

Prophets speak truth to power. Moses confronted Egypt’s Pharaoh for his enslavement of the Israelites. Jeremiah spent his whole life rebuking the kings of Judah and its religious leaders for their willful neglect of God’s commands. He foretold the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, lived to see it as an old man, and was finally dragged off to Egypt (where he died) by the puppet ruler who rebelled against Babylon. Finally, Jesus in his prophetic role leveled “radical criticism” at the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, and not just for their legalistic interpretation of the Mosaic law and the Temple worship system, but because the law had become a tool to protect their own economic and political power at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised.

At bottom, prophets call their people to inhabit God’s values and practices so that they truly live as “an alternative community” to the dominant culture of their day. Moses, in conversation with the God of freedom every step of the way, deals a blistering blow to Pharaoh’s empire, to its consciousness and culture, and to its mute, unchanging, and status-quo obliging gods. Prophetic criticism is both radical criticism and the energizing of hope: “From beginning to end the narrative shows, with no rush to conclude, how the religious claims of Egyptian gods are nullified by this Lord of freedom . . . how the politics of oppression is overcome by the practice of justice and compassion” (10).

As the plagues unfold, Israel gradually disengages from the empire, because she realizes for the first time that she owes nothing to it. That is “criticism which leads to dismantling” (13). Criticism continues to build, and importantly, it includes the cries of the Hebrew slaves. “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant” (Exodus 2:23). These cries of lament, please note, are not about resignation. Rather, they cry out for freedom, for leaving behind the numbness and dullness of the oppressive regime that enslaved them.

Out of this matrix of primal cries for freedom comes the energy of hope – in three dimensions:


    • Brueggemann notes that “energy comes from the embrace of the inscrutable darkness” (14). Yahweh brings Pharaoh’s empire to its knees by progressively hardening his heart. Israel doesn’t understand the darkness either, but her people are beginning to trust the God of the covenant and are finding new energy in sensing that his power is much greater “than the one who ostensibly rules the light” (15).
    • Exodus 11:7 reads, “But against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, not a dog shall growl; that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and Israel.” From then on, the Israelites were spared the plagues: “The God who will decide is not the comfortable god of the empire, so fat and well fed as to be neutral and inattentive. Rather, it is the God who is alert to the realities, who does not flinch from taking sides, who sits in the divine council on the edge of his seat and is attentive to his special interests” (15). God is for them! This reality is beginning to energize his people!
    • Pharaoh’s army is destroyed under the sea and Israel bursts into song – a song of praise, a doxology that sets bodies to dance and hearts to celebrate. Doxology is powerful, because it evokes an alternative reality in language: “The language of the empire is surely the language of managed realities, of production and schedule and market . . . Doxology is the ultimate challenge to the language of managed reality, and it alone is the universe of discourse in which energy is possible” (18).


Moses’ radical prophetic consciousness only lasted for about two hundred and fifty years, and much of that time was chaotic, with the Israelite tribes often the prey of their marauding neighbors and with their gods a constant temptation for them. Only a few judges were able to remind the people who there were and keep their enemies at bay. Then the prophet Samuel finally hears God say, “Anoint a king who will rule over them.” Yet it was plainly a divine concession to Israel’s hunger for stability and national pride. King Saul was certainly a mixed bag, but in David, the good seemed to prevail.

Then came Solomon, and Brueggeman’s second chapter, “Royal Consciousness: Countering the Counterculture,” is mostly about the decline that tragically starting with him:


    • a huge harem, to guarantee fertility;
    • a configuration of tax districts meant to dismantle the tribal ties and better control the population; a bureaucracy “which . . . served to institutionalize technical reason;
    • a standing army at the king’s beck and call;
    • a cult of wisdom, “an effort to rationalize reality”;
    • forced labor conscripted from the peasantry to carry out the king’s ambitious building projects” (24).


One scholar called the Jerusalem Temple complex the “‘paganization of Israel,’ that is, a return to the religious and political presuppositions of the pre-Mosaic imperial situation … a knowing embrace of pre-prophetic reality” (24-5).

With the affluence came exploitation and oppression of the majority of the population (the peasants). No more politics of justice and compassion. But too, this marks “the establishment of a controlled, static religion . . . in which the sovereignty of God is fully subordinated to the purpose of the king . . . Now God is fully accessible to the king who is his patron” (28, his emphasis). We call this "religious nationalism." Gone is the Lord of freedom who called his people out of Egypt! This is what Brueggemann calls “the royal consciousness” (which he today prefers to name “totalism,” using Robert Lifton’s expression).

Admittedly, it could have been otherwise, but human nature seems irresistibly drawn to the power of wealth and politics. Now God had to send prophets to remind people of the alternative community proclaimed and nurtured in the Mosaic law.

This is where the Hebrew Bible inserts the prophetic ministries of Jeremiah and Second Isaiah (who wrote Isaiah 40-66). They represent two sides of one coin – prophetic ministry as grief and prophetic ministry as amazement and hope. Jeremiah’s role is this: “The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death. It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering to death” (41). Jeremiah grieved throughout his long career on two levels: 1) he grieved the suffering of his people he saw coming so clearly (and they did not) – the mass killings and deportation, and Jerusalem’s destruction; 2) his own grief because no one listened to him for over four decades.

Royal consciousness also leads to a despair that banishes all hope. Second Isaiah emerges from the second generation of  Babylonian exiles and salutes God’s sovereign hand in Persian King Cyrus’ edict allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem. I have to admit that these chapters in Isaiah are some of my favorite in the whole Bible! Brueggemann is right: they burst at the seams in amazement at what God is doing and will do in the future. Second Isaiah penetrates the despair of the people brought low by announcing “God’s radical freedom.” The One who seemed to have been defeated and distant in the exile is now claiming his throne: “The poet brings Israel to an enthronement festival, even as Jeremiah had brought Israel to a funeral” (70). He is “reclaiming Israel’s imagination”:


How beautiful upon the mountains

            are the feet of him who brings good tidings . . .

            who publishes salvation,

            who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)


Now to Jesus . . . Just like the Second Isaiah whose joyous message “evoked a community not derived from the Babylonian reality,” “Jesus is able to articulate a future that is distinctly different from an unbearable present” (111). Those who latched on to that future could now sing and dance, and forgive those who would persecute them. Moreover, as Jesus stood in solidarity with the poor, the grieving, the oppressed (especially the indebted peasants of Galilee), they saw in him God’s power and authority as firmly exercised “for them”: “The authority of Jesus, his power to transform strangely, was found in his own poverty, hunger, and grieving over the death of his people.” In his triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week, Jesus weeps over the city, foreseeing the city's tragic destruction some forty years later at the hands of the Romans.

Less than a week later, “the slain Lamb . . . stood outside the royal domain and was punished for it” (113). As he had warned his disciples repeatedly, Jesus was crucified. But what about his resurrection?


“The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate energizing for the new future. The wrenching of Friday had left only the despair of Saturday (Luke 24:21), and the disciples had no reason to expect Sunday after that Friday. . . . The resurrection can only be received and affirmed and celebrated as the new action of God, whose province it is to create new futures for people and to let them be amazed in the midst of despair” (112).


Notice here how Brueggemann handles the resurrection. It’s “not to be understood in good liberal fashion as a spiritual development in the church [i.e., it didn’t happen literally]. Nor should it be too quickly handled as an oddity in the history of God or an isolated act of God’s power [as conservative are wont to treat it].” He goes on, “Rather, it is the ultimate act of prophetic energizing in which a new history is initiated. It is new history open to all but particularly received by the marginal victims of the old order” (113).

Let’s be clear: “The resurrection is a genuinely historical event in which the dead one rules.” In fact, the political implications are manifest: “[Jesus] is now the king who displaces the king. His resurrection is the end of the nonhistory taught in the royal school and a new history begins for those who stood outside of history. This new history gives persons new identities (Matt 28:19) and a new ethic (28:20), even as it begins on the seashore among the dead enslavers (Exodus 14:30)” (113).

As I sum up this main section, let me note that Brueggemann indicated at the very beginning that the dominant culture (Pharaoh’s oppressive empire, or America’s market-dominated, consumerist, and callous ignoring of its huge underclass culture) “is grossly uncritical,” and “wearied.” The prophetic task “is to hold together criticism and energizing” (4). But liberals and conservatives (this is about theology, not political parties) are equally inept at tackling this mission: “Liberals are good at criticism but often have no word of promise to speak; conservatives tend to future well and invite to alternative visions, but germane criticism by the prophet is often not forthcoming” (4).

In his 40th anniversary postscript (“In Retrospect – PI at 40”), Brueggemann looks back and points to what he now sees as his two best articles (out of hundreds). The first is “The Costly Loss of Lament.” Here looked at “the bourgeoisie church” immersed in “bourgeoisie political culture” [mainstream Protestantism with its still commanding political influence]. He explains:


“In civic culture, the loss of lament invites denial and so enhances the dominant social system as though it were beyond failure or critique. In the church, with such a loss, the gospel becomes one of unmitigated happiness where ‘never is heard a discouraging word. Many pastors, moreover, are paid to sustain exactly such a practice. But, of course, in prophetic realism (as with real life realism), such an illusion is unsustainable because there is much about which to lament, protest, and complain. The ‘costly loss’ is to sign on for the illusion of well-being, or a ‘Theology of Glory’ to the disregard of a summoning ‘Theology of the Cross’” (130).


Here is the other article he feels was most important: “The Liturgy of Abundance and the Myth of Scarcity.” It turns out that “scarcity” is part of a strategy to justify injustice: “A regime that operates with a claim of scarcity can legitimate hoarding, accumulation, and eventually monopoly to the disregard of others, even when such strategies evoke and legitimate the violence of the strong against the weak” (131). Psalms 104 and 145, by contrast, sing the praises of a God who packs abundance into his creation and who generously shares it with everyone. In our American context, then, “the endless frantic acquisitiveness evoked by market ideology (our specific form of totalism) serves to counter the claims of faith in a way that has real life parallels” (131).

That struggle between the prophetic imagination and totalism has never been so starkly urgent as it is now in the presidency of Donald Trump, Brueggemann declares (writing in December 2017):


His mantra “Make America Great Again” is a heavy-handed ideology with a validation of racists accents and an uncritical embrace of the exceptionalism of ‘the American Dream.’ President Trump, however, did not create this ideology, which is very old in the lore of Euro-American exceptionalism, operative already in the early Puritanism of Cotton Mather. The outcome of that unapologetic ideology is the monetizing of all social relationships, the commoditization of all social possibilities, and the endless production of dispensable persons who have no legitimate membership in the totalism. One may quibble about detail, but the main thrust of the market ideology among us is beyond dispute” (131, emphasis his).


Kelly Brown Douglas and reparations

I end this post with an example of what Brueggeman’s prophetic imagination could look like concretely. Next to me is the latest issue of Sojourners (July 2020) with on its cover a haunting artistic rendering of two young black slaves, man and woman, with excerpts from a slave’s bill of sale inscribed on their skin. Anxiety is written all over their eyes and posture. Above them is the title to the lead article, “A Christian Case for Reparations,” by Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas.

Douglas, an African American woman (see above picture), is an Episcopal priest, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, and holds an endowed chair in Theology at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. A recent book of hers is Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. The opening paragraph of her current Sojourners article is worth quoting in full:


“To the best of our historical knowledge, in August 1619 a ship named the White Lion landed at a coastal port near Point Comfort, Virginia, carrying 20 to 30 captive Africans to be sold into slavery. This landing symbolizes the construction of race as a defining and indelible feature of America’s core identity. It stamped black bodies with the ineradicable identity of subhuman chattel. As such, it signaled the white supremacist foundation upon which America’s capitalistic democracy, with all its sociopolitical systems and structures, would be built.”


There is no doubt that the legacy of slavery still weighs heavily over African Americans in the form of “poverty, mass incarceration, and substandard schools.” She quotes Nikole Hannah-Jones in the sweeping New York Times 1619 Project: “there has never ‘been a genuine effort to redress the wrongs of slavery and the century of racial apartheid that followed,’” although writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 article in The Atlantic (“A Case for Reparations”) eloquently brought the topic back into the national limelight.

This issue is worth pondering now more than ever from a theological perspective in the wake of massive protests calling for racial justice and the glaring disparities that have made people of color much more vulnerable to the coronavirus, argues Douglas. The fact that Princeton Theological Seminary and a few other seminaries have set up endowed funds to give scholarships to descendants of slaves and support black ministries is a good start. But, she adds, “inasmuch as faith is about partnering with God to mend an unjust earth, and thus to move us toward a more just future, then faith communities are accountable to that future.” In that light, reparations should not just seek to redress past harms but they should aim to build “a future where all human beings . . . are free to live into the fullness of their sacred creation.”

Hence, any form reparations might take should include these four elements:


    • Anamnestic truth-telling: faith communities should confront “the ways in which the past remains alive in the present,” and for instance, how “ecclesial and institutional systems, structures, and cultural norms reflect white supremacist narratives, ideologies and constructs – then intentionally working to dismantle them.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, it requires “an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts,” to make sure they will no longer haunt us. This paragraph in his long, 2014 article on The Case for Reparations expresses well what Douglas is after here:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling 'patriotism' while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

    • Fostering moral identity: that is to intentionally denounce white supremacy, to refuse to benefit any longer of white privilege, but following Jesus who emptied himself of all divine privileges in order to bear on the cross the sins of all and especially the suffering of all human victims of oppression. There has to be lament and repentance before energizing and hope can appear.
    • Proleptic participation, or acting as if the future is now: as Martin Luther King Jr. once put it, churches may not remain “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
    • To repair means first dismantling structures of injustice: journalist Adele Banks reported on a landmark study led by sociologists Michael Emerson (U. of Illinois-Chicago) and Glenn Bracey (Villanova). They found that in response to the question “Do you think our country has a race problem?” 78 percent of “practicing black Christians” answered “yes,” and only 38 percent of “practicing white Christians answered “yes.” When it comes to “systemic racism,” white evangelicals are much more likely to acknowledge personal prejudice than unjust structures:


“When respondents were asked whether systemic racism or individual prejudices were the bigger problem in the country today, two-thirds of African Americans pointed to systemic racism while the same proportion of whites blamed individual prejudices. Among evangelicals, 7 in 10 (72%) faulted individual prejudices, 12% said systemic racism and the rest answered ‘I don’t know.’”


A question on this survey nicely wraps up this post. We’ve seen how Brueggemann’s “prophetic imagination” always dismantled the dominant structures and ideologies of the day. In this question about biblical interpretation, it becomes crystal clear how a demographic that most benefits from the sociopolitical status quo naturally reads the Bible from that perspective. In Acts 6:1-7 we read that after the explosive growth of the early church after Pentecost, the Greek-speaking Jews who had come to the festival from Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) began to complain that their widows had been neglected in the daily distribution of food. This prompted a discussion among church leaders and they instituted the office of deacons, or people tasked with charitable duties.

The question prompt summarized the passage “as a description of early Christians reacting to complaints of an ethnic minority group and empowering leaders of that group to address the problem.” It then offered this interpretation: “Therefore, it is good to listen to the complaints of ethnic minority groups and empower leaders within those minority groups to correct injustice.” The question finally asked, Do you agree or disagree with this interpretation? In this case and in two other passages with similar implications, “the majority of people of color strongly agreed with the interpretation. Less than one-third of whites came to the same conclusion.”

Brueggemann is right. As Christians, and in our context, European Americans in particular, we seriously need to pay attention to the prophetic imagination in our scriptures.