I’ve been reading Walter Brueggemann’s slim, challenging book The Prophetic Imagination for a project. (Okay, it’s for my own book, Changing the Script, which is forthcoming next year from Ig Publishing and based on Brueggemann’s work.)
It will surprise exactly no one who knows Brueggemann’s work to discover that he has a rather contrarian take on what it means to be a prophet. To his mind, prophets aren’t soothsayers, and they’re not simply confrontation artists like Amos. Rather, says Brueggemann,
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.
They do this by criticizing the dominant culture – that is, exposing the promises it has failed to keep – and by energizing their listeners to live into a new social reality. If they are successful, prophets have the power to speak that new reality into being at the place where God’s freedom and “the politics of human justice” come together. The result is an “alternative community” built around the wild, peripatetic, almost-Trickster God of the Old Testament.
It’s a fascinating yardstick with which to measure current faith-and-values stories. Here’s an easy one: the Catholic church in Britain has distanced itself from the remarks of a former priest who doesn’t see the harm in allowing same-sex couples to adopt. The bishops in England and Wales felt compelled to refute this seemingly obvious bit:
They said it was “inconsistent with Catholic teaching to plan or promote a notion of family from which (these elements) …. are deliberately excluded.”
Now surely this is a “consciousness and perception alternative” to that of the dominant culture, right? Gay rights advocates might argue otherwise, given the barriers remaining to marriage and parenting equality. But that’s the way the Catholic leadership likes to think of itself. Let’s concede the point for the sake of argument.
We might just as well, because that’s about all they’ve got. There’s no sensible critique of the promises of dominant culture. There’s no energizing the audience for a new social reality, only a dismal, rear-guard denial of what seems plain to anyone else.
Most important, there is nothing resembling a vision of God’s freedom here. It is “inconsistent with Catholic teaching”? Do the bishops seriously want to argue that because the church has taught us to color within certain lines, God will not call us outside them?
I don’t mean to be disrespectful. It’s just that rather than make a theological claim, the bishops have offered a statement of self-definition. That’s obviously their prerogative. We shouldn’t begrudge them the ability to enforce a little conformity in an organization they helped start and fund. But it is worth asking how they think they can speak sensibly, let alone prophetically, to a culture when they won’t take a gamble on discerning the will of the God they serve. To put it bluntly, are they a church, or are they a society for the preservation of traditional culture? The aims of each are obviously very different.
The point becomes even more clear when considering a recent piece by US News‘ Dan Gilgoff, who reports on the pro-active temper tantrum being thrown by so-called moderate Evangelicals on the subject of health care:
“I wouldn’t call it a litmus test, but this is a prototype moment for the possibility of finding common ground,” says the Rev. Joel Hunter, a prominent evangelical who is on Obama’s faith advisory council. “If there is a doubt in the pro-life community about public funding of abortion, that will sink the healthcare bill.”
“Moderate, pro-life evangelicals like me will be very unhappy if healthcare reform ends up becoming a vehicle for government subsidizing, or mandatory coverage, of abortion,” adds David Gushee, a Christian ethics professor at Mercer University who has consulted with the Obama White House on other issues.
Friends, this is Political Posturing 101. There is approximately 0.00% chance of a health care reform bill being passed with government funds going to abortions. Hunter and Gushee know that damn well. But that’s not going to stop them from decrying the possibility, the better to insert themselves as reliable brokers in the supposed hostilities between the religious Right and the secular Left.
Again, for our purposes, the interesting thing is what’s not here. Nurture, nourishment and evocation of an alternative consciousness and perception? No, just the assertion of political muscle. Criticizing the failed promises of the dominant culture? No, not unless you count “I’m going to cross my eyes and hold my breath until my face turns blue.” God’s freedom meeting human justice in a new social reality? Are you kidding me?
There’s not a word here about what is just or right, let alone how God operates in freedom in this situation. Although, there is a vision of a new social reality:
“I don’t have trust in the process,” says Hunter. “What’s much more appealing is a stipulation up front that neither requires nor bans insurance companies from covering abortion, as long as federal funds aren’t used.”
Now there’s some faith-forward thinking for you. The financial and physical health of millions is in the balance, and the important thing to get nailed down is keeping pro-life Evangelicals’ hands clean. Because God only knows what might happen if desperate, poverty-stricken women were allowed to use federal dollars to take control of their uteruses. I mean that quite literally, since no one appears to have asked him, preferring punditry to prophecy. And they wonder why nobody takes religion seriously anymore.