Prophetic Imagination: Americans Struggle with Conflicting Values

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I am reading Walter Brueggermann’s The Practice of Prophetic Imagination and thinking about the video that was released last night by the Tulsa, Oklahoma Police Department. Yet another unarmed black male, this time with his hands raised in the air, was shot to death by officers as he was apparently seeking their assistance for his immobilized vehicle. 

Brueggermann writes about prophecy in the Old Testament, and how it relates to our understanding of religion and social justice in today’s world. In his discussion on what he calls the “prophetic imagination,” which is the ability to interpret human events through eyes of faith, and the belief that even in our pain and sorrows God is calling us toward acts of justice and mercy, Brueggermann challenges his readers to take action — if not to specific issues then at least on the systemic conditions and values that underlie the injustice.

Brueggermann raises the question of choices, and contrasts the “dominant narrative,” a narrative that is backed by wealth, military power, policing, civil and often religious authority, against what he calls “the prophetic narrative.” Brueggermann describes the prophetic narrative as being the voice of God, which often comes from below: it comes through the powerless, the weak, and the oppressed. It is the voice of people whose concerns are often inconvenient for those who are in power.

Given the history of shootings of the type that the nation saw last night, and the continued muted response even from those in “faith-based” communities, it seems that many Christians in the United States have a high tolerance for “pre-emptive violence.” They justify this violence by an exaggerated, often irrational, fear of the people against whom their violence is directed.

If I see you as “other” then I will fear you. If I fear you then I can dehumanize you. If I dehumanize you, then I can justify killing you without consequences. That seems to be the way these cases go. Irrational or exaggerated fear becomes justification for “preemptive” violence.

The initial fear becomes justification for dehumanization and inhumane treatment. A few years ago Michael Brown was referred to, by the officer who shot him, as “it” and a “demon” and was left bleeding in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri without medical attention for four hours.

Twelve year old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun in Cleveland, was instantly shot and killed, and was not given medical attention by the officers who shot him because, they said, he looked “bigger” than a twelve year old.

Police referred to Terence Crutcher, in the video released last night in Tulsa, as a “thing” and a “bad looking dude” before they killed him.

Brueggemann argues that members of Judeo-Christian faith communities subscribe, at the same time, to the prophetic narrative and the dominant narrative. The prophetic narrative asserts the value of human life. The dominant narrative prioritizes an illusory and false sense of “security,” even to the point of finding excuses to disregard human life. The internal narrative goes something like this: “You don’t look like me. I fear you. I am justified in killing you for my protection.”

Brueggemann describes the difficulty in embracing the prophetic narrative because this entails surrendering the dominant narrative, which gives people a false sense of security.  “We are, for the most part, double-minded,” Brueggemann writes, “I suspect a profound tension between these narratives.”

The double-narrative that is held in the minds of even well-meaning members of Judeo-Christian communities creates tension and it presents those who want to deepen their faith with a choice: they can either take the risk of confronting their exaggerated fears, which is likely to entail some degree of insecurity, or they can cling to their irrational fears and justify acts of violence done in their name.

Prophetic preaching often involves bringing the tension between two conflicting narratives to the surface. To be aware of the tension between these two narratives is to confront one’s own coping mechanism, which relies on a continued state of denial.

The problem is that it is precisely in acknowledging the tension between these two narratives, which one embraces simultaneously, that is necessary in order to choose one over the other: to choose a culture of life over a climate of fear and death.

Brueggemann points out the difficulty of this task. “It is the hard work of prophetic preaching,” he writes, “… to make that tension [between the two narratives] explicit, available, and visible in order to permit informed, knowing choices.”

Brueggemann adds, “The reason it is such hard work is that the people with whom we do ministry, in their anxiety, have a huge stake in denial and keeping the tension hidden.”

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