Friday, May 3, 2013

Old Voices and the Power of Newness (Reflections on Brueggemann's Prophetic Imagination, Part Deux)

This is the second half of a post that started over at Kelly Nikondeha's place on Wednesday. It is a personal reflection on Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination. This piece (and especially some of the language and terminology I use in it) might make more sense if you read that one first. Also, there are four other absolutely brilliant posts on her site (here, here, here, and here) that you should definitely check out as well.


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Those old voices don't always scream. Most of the time, they don’t have to. They whisper empty assurances and counterfeit hope into ears that are burning for songs of justice.

We hear what we want to hear, what we need to hear, what we think we hope to hear.

This is what makes the royal consciousness so insidious. It teaches us that meeting our own needs is paramount, and then teaches us what our needs are and meets them.

It is a closed system.

There is simply no room for external inputs. It is nothing if not beautifully and terribly efficient.

So we move throughout our lives oblivious to the privileges we enjoy being on the “right” side of Empire. The murmur of a thousand old voices drowns out the lonely cries for justice and lulls us into numbness saying,

“This is just the way it is.”

“Be grateful for what you have.”

“Everything is alright, as it should be.”

This is the Great Lie.

As Brueggemann puts it, “as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.” We don’t engage in serious criticism when we don’t see serious problems. We don’t grieve where there is no suffering. As long as the empire can keep us convinced that things are just fine, then the persistence of the imperial system – in the economic, political and religious spheres – is all but assured its survival.

And those old voices just keep whispering.

But once in a while, something happens. The closed system is disrupted and an external input finds its way in. Something or someone breaks in and forces us to confront the reality we’ve been shielded from our entire lives by the din of those old voices:

Things are very much not OK.

For me, this wasn’t just an intellectual or emotional realization. It wasn’t even a particularly religious experience. It was an existential one. My entire concept of reality was shaken to the core. I lost my grounding. My entire identity had been shaped by the whispers of the old voices. My truth had been dictated by the static wisdom of the royal consciousness. It’s main components – the politics of oppression, the economics of affluence, and the religion of immanence – were the three legs of the stool that I stood on to see the world around me. Suddenly they were all ripped out from underneath me, and I was in freefall.

The old voices taught me that feeling anything was wrong, but suddenly feeling nothing was replaced by feeling everything. When I dared to voice it, it was amazing how the timbre of those old voices changed. The hushed whispers became raised voices. The previously soothing tones suddenly became shrill and unforgiving. Nowhere is the terrifying efficiency of the royal consciousness as evident as when there is a hole in the fa├žade of certainty, exposing the sheer emptiness that lay behind it.

Brueggemann highlights the impetus for such this response: “…this regime could not tolerate promises, for they question the present oppressive ordering and threaten the very foundations of current self-serving.” Even the possibility of something other than what we have, here and now, is a threat to those old voices, and they know it instinctively. Questions of inequality and promises of justice and freedom are dangerous, and hope is a kind of weapon.

But questions aren’t enough. Grief isn't enough. Promises aren’t enough. Hope isn’t even enough.

When defining the critical task of the prophet, Brueggmann highlights what he sees as the crux of the prophetic imagination, “The royal consciousness leads people to despair about the power to move toward new life. It is the task of prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God.”

Newness. Redemption. Resurrection. The Beauty of the Kingdom of God from the ashes of empire.

This is where our hope ultimately lies, in the promise and power of newness and regeneration. If we don’t believe that there really can, here and now, be an alternative to what is and what always has been, then we’re still buying into the Great Lie. But if we truly believe, as Brueggeman says, that “It is the marvel of prophetic faith that both imperial religion and imperial politics could be broken,” then we become powerful symbols of that newness as we rest in the hope of a free and loving God. Our own dynamism becomes an affront to the static lethargy of the old way. This promise of newness, of something better, erodes the ability of the old voices to lie to us and tell us, “This is the best there is.”

“The royal consciousness means to overcome history and therefore by design the future loses its vitality and authority. The present ordering, and by derivation the present regime, claims to be the full and final ordering. That claim means there can be no future that either calls the present into question or promises a way out of it.”

But those old voices cannot contain a future bursting with the promise of redemption, so we sing boldly our songs of the hope of newness.

We let grief and passion motivate and energize us and we speak truth to the power of those old voices, but tearing down the old is not enough. “More than dismantling, the purpose of the alternative community is to enable a new human beginning to be made.” So we speak up and speak out, but we “speak neither in rage nor with cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion.”

I’m terrible at this. I like to think I’m learning, but I still get angry. I’m still constantly overwhelmed with grief. I feel helpless most days, and on the days I don’t feel helpless I feel at best ineffectual. But even when I’m at my darkest, I can still find the hope of newness. The pain of grief, while never pleasant, is a constant reminder that I’m not numb anymore, that transformation has happened and is happening in me, that this person that I am today is different because of that power of newness that comes from a God of extravagant love and utter freedom. I have done terrible things at the behest of the old voices, and those things will always inform who I am, but those things are not the end of the story.

The redemption of God could no more be bound by my past than the love of God could be held by the cross or the grave.

The transformation that comes from the violent in-breaking of this radical love and the dismantling of our identities and priorities that comes along with it is perhaps the most powerful symbol we could present to a culture that has forgotten how to hope.

That’s the power of newness. That’s our hope. But we have to walk in it.
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