Prophetic Imagination for a Broken World

10 08 2009

Last week, Jordan and I got into a discussion about pacifism and non-violence as a viable strategy for social change.   “I think it’s a great idea, and I’m certainly not a violent person,” he said.  “But do you really think it’s practical to expect that we will never have wars?  Or would you really blame someone who uses force in self-defense?  What about World War II?  Would it have been better to just let Hitler be?”

I turned to my standard response: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and conspiracist who plotted to assassinate Hitler (and ultimately, was arrested and executed for his role in this failed attempt).  For him, it was a necessary choice between two evils: Bonhoeffer never thought that he could ever be “in the right” for killing anyone, even Hitler, but he could not let the injustices of the Nazist regime continue without doing something.

“He’s an extreme example,” I said.  “I think we accept violence all too often without even questioning it.  We use arguments like self-defense to justify anything, when there might be a better way.  We need a paradigm shift, that will allow us to at least believe in the possibility of non-violence.”

prophetic-imaginationReading chapter 3 of Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination got me to thinking: Of course violence is a part of our world.  Of course there is war and murder and domestic violence and bullying and genocide and hate crime.  Of course there are Hitlers.  Of course we co-opt the “self-defense” excuse when it serves our purpose.

After all, we live in a broken world.  We are saturated in our brokenness, to the point that we often do not even see it.  We delude ourselves into thinking we are whole and that we have everything we need.

In short, we believe the lies of the empire.  In several books I have read lately, I see a  trend arising, equating the American culture — of the American empire — with the “royal consciousness” that pervaded Israelite society.   Brueggemann writes:

“We are children of the royal consciousness.  All of us, in one way or another, have deep commitments to it.  So the first question is: How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulatea real historical newness in our situation? … We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.”

I would dare to believe that God’s way is always counter-cultural.  But when we have churches and pastors and books and websites that merely serve to prop up the culture … when the gospel is manipulated and contorted to proclaim the American dream … when people inside the church look and act just like people outside the church … surely, we must know, deep within us, that something has gone awry.

It’s like an addiction.  And the first step in breaking free, in finding healing, is acknowledging our brokenness.  That’s not all, of course.  Eventually there will be repentance: turning around and beginning again. But the first step — and the greatest act of imagination — requires us to challenge the notion that “all is well” and instead, cry out to our God.  This, Brueggemann says, was the message of Jeremiah, the gloom-and-doom prophet.  It wasn’t just pessimism that drove him, but a profound grief and sadness.  He proclaimed his own grief as well as God’s grief at his people’s brokenness, and then, at their stubbornness and apathy.

Imagination and acknowledgment are the first steps.  Then, from grief will come mercy; from death will come new life.

This is the story of redemption.