Walter Brueggemann was back in the Atlanta area this past month for a talk entitled “The Prophetic Imagination in the 21st Century”. The talk built upon one of his acclaimed books, The Prophetic Imagination (1978, 2001). The basic idea of the book was that the formation of what he called a pattern of life and thought represented in “the alternative community of Moses” was opposed to the “royal consciousness” represented by the Jewish kings, particularly David and Solomon. In an important sense, these kingdoms became just like Egypt under Pharaoh. Royal consciousness is characterized by oppression, affluence, and a religion of immanence rather than justice, economic equality, and the free transcendence of God. The prophetic tradition looked to criticize this consciousness and recover a different way of living. It is the center of the Old Testament for Christians because Jesus, in his preaching about the kingdom of God, was its heir.
In the lecture I attended, Brueggemann no longer spoke of “royal consciousness”. Instead, he used the phrases, “the totality” and “totalism”, borrowed from the psychohistorian Robert Lifton. This shift signifies both a wider applicability of his earlier work beyond Old Testament studies and the congruence of his insights with other thinkers. In Lifton’s work, “totalism” refers specifically to the brainwashing capacity of language when used to stifle critical thinking. In a study on the use of these manipulative techniques in China, he summarizes:
The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.
Brueggemann says that we do not necessarily need to live under an openly oppressive state system to experience the negative effects of a totalism. Any monopoly of meaning and imagination, any merging of the theological and political beyond any dissent would qualify. He asks whether we are not under the influence of a totalism in our current American experience. Our unexamined assumptions about American exceptionalism and its corresponding militarism, our inability to imagine a different economic world or a way to treat the earth as a partner rather than an object, the tribalism that cannot make room for others, the militarization of sports and the police, a rigged economic system that funnels wealth upward to the most wealthy making virtual slaves of many, and limitless consumerism as a way of life, all serve to lull us into acceptance of a vision of the world in subtle ways. The first task is to identify the totalism that everyone is contained in.
The second step is to transfer energy and commitment away from this totality toward the kingdom of God, a new world of well-being, neighborliness, and jubilee. We need social analysis that can see the truth of the system (usually a path of money), alternative and subversive rhetoric, and people who are able to stay with the conversation even when it is hard. I am reminded, as I write this, of a quote by Pope Francis this past January.
The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language.
Francis and Brueggemann have the same insight: it is often the uncredentialed work of prophetic ministry, real human agents who have been interrupted by the truth, not programs, that are ultimately needed.
After the lecture, someone asked him who he thought best exemplified this in his own lifetime. The figures that came immediately to mind were Dan Berrigan, Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Lerner, William Stringfellow, Desmond Tutu, William Barber, Jim Wallis, Wendell Berry, and Bill McKibbon. He was careful to add the caveat that these are simply recognizable names and that there are countless numbers of ordinary people who function as prophets in their sphere of influence. Few of these modern prophets “recited their poem and then ran for their life”, but they have in common with the older prophets of the biblical ages an ability to imagine and articulate that “it could be otherwise”, while simultaneously acknowledging that “God has a real capacity for agency”, that it is not finally up to us to make good on God’s promises.