Modern Prophets

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 Trintychurch ATLEgypt 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.

Walter and me


Reinhold Niebuhr Speaks to the Trump Age

I think Reinhold did anticipate Donald Trump, but not in a way of despair, by any means, although I know it’s easy to feel that way. Reinhold died slowly, unfortunately. He and Ursula were out in Stockbridge, living in their home there. He occupied a bed in the back and he went through two or three years of very gradually dying from all these strokes. But he did overlap with the presidency of Nixon. There was a time near the very end. The TV was on in the bedroom, and Nixon came on the TV. Reinhold raised himself up on his elbows, which was not easy at that time, and he looked at the TV and he said, “That…bastard!”

—story told by Gustav Niebuhr

Is a Niebuhr revival coming? Has it already begun? Was he ever really forgotten? Jimmy Carter seems to have been a fan. Barack Obama, before he became president, identified him as an influential person for his political philosophy, surprising journalist David Brooks with his quick and ready summary of the usefulness of Niebuhr’s ideas during an interview.

I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. (Obama, 2007)

Brooks recounts that he went on to give a perfect, twenty minute, summation of Niebuhr’s book, The Irony of American History.

Recently, I learned that former FBI directory James Comey had written his undergraduate thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr and that his reading of Moral Man and Immoral Society was a catalyst to public service. Some have rightly noticed the irony in this, given the fact that the FBI under Hoover had been looking for ways to tag Niebuhr as a communist for decades, especially after his criticisms of the Vietnam war.t1larg.reinhold.union

A new documentary film was released this year for PBS on the life and thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. Commentators on the film, and on Reinhold in general, have all made attempts to answer the question of how he might think about the Trump phenomenon if he were with us. Scott Paeth recently noted that Louis Brandeis, associate justice on the Supreme Court, wrote a letter to a despondent Niebuhr shortly after the election of Eisenhower. By nearly everyone’s standards, Paeth points out, Eisenhower wasn’t a terrible president. One can only imagine him flipping out over what we have now.

It’s a shame that some other characters have taken their place on the stage today but Reinhold’s role has not been filled. Jerry Falwell, Jr. is playing a grotesque caricature of Billy Graham. Trump is playing a version of Nixon. There is no ‘Niebuhr’ around. Some years ago, Stanley Hauerwas was christened “America’s best theologian”, yet Hauerwas’ project of silently creating alternative communities (i.e. churches), and his well-known pacifism, put him at odds with the gritty “Christian Realism” of Niebuhr. Perhaps a Niebuhr cannot exist in today’s world. For one thing, the world where public theologians (even ones re-descriptive and imaginative, not merely proclaimers) are listened to in any measure has vanished. So we are left to speculate with the ideas and metaphors he used in his own time. What would Niebuhr say about Christians who voted for him, and those who opposed him?

To the evangelical enablers who voted for him in overwhelming numbers (80% of white evangelicals by most polls), I think that his criticism of “personal Jesus” religiosity contained in his 1969 article “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court”  is just as pertinent now as it was then.

The Nixon-Graham doctrine assumes that a religious change of heart, such as occurs in an individual conversion, would cure men of all sin. Billy Graham has a favorite text: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” Graham applies this Pauline hope about conversion to the race problem and assures us that “If you live in Christ you become color blind.” The defect in this confidence in individual conversion is that it obscures the dual and social character of human selves and the individual and social character of their virtues and vices.

But before those of us who voted for Hillary or Bernie congratulate ourselves, there is another side to Niebuhr that reminds us of how we are always implicated, even if only by degrees, in what we criticize. I think that if Niebuhr were with us, he would also agree that we live in our bubbles of identity politics – bubbles where we can live free from sin, where anything we say about our opponents is justified. In his own time, in the height of the Cold War, he saw democracy itself as one such bubble, but one can easily substitute of number of ideologies.

Democracy may be challenged from without by the force of barbarism and the creed of cynicism. But its internal peril lies in the conflict of various schools and classes of idealists, who profess different ideals but exhibit a common conviction that their own ideals are perfect.  — The Children of Light, Children of Darkness, p.152

This duality explains why Reinhold has been claimed by opposing figures such as Michael Novak and Arthur Schlesinger (Jr.). He will continue to be a counterweight to the effusive, and frequently simplistic, optimism that often characterizes the American spirit whether in conservative or liberal form. He reminds us that the acknowledgement of sin calls for humility and modesty because even our righteousness is like a filthy rag.