Saturday, April 21, 2012

Empire, Imagination, and God's Colorful Characters


(I am deeply indebted to Walter Brueggemann's breathtaking The Prophetic Imagination for guidance as we begin our journey with the prophets...)

I have a friend whose dear friend in an atheist.  They get along well, critically deconstructing things, and respecting each other in their beliefs despite their differences.  Except they’ve had a disagreement recently and suddenly it’s gotten tense. Because my friend feels like her atheist friend thinks she’s an idiot for having faith.  For believing in what she can’t see, for hoping when the evidence in front of her face tells her otherwise.  It’s foolish. It’s absurd. It looks utterly idiotic.
We are the ones who say God came and shared life with us, died and then came alive again.  We cling to this and say its true and it means something in a world where to talk this way sounds absurd.

Tonight begins the part of the Story where we begin talking about the prophets.  And they are crazy. They sound insane. They rant and rave and do strange things and they make no sense.
They are inconvenient, embarrassing interruptions to life ordinary, life rational.
And yet- when they criticize and they energize, they shake the fa├žade that keeps us all quiet and content and accepting the unacceptable.  Because the prophetic tradition knows it could be different, and that difference can be lived out.  The prophetic tradition calls us out of the numb imagination of the empire to embrace the imagination of God.  And to do such a thing, to be such a person is, indeed, wildly dubious, and looks an awful lot like madness.

Why did the people of God need the prophets?
How did it happen that the people of God lost the imagination of God?
How did it happen that the people of God, defined by this God of freedom who creates life out of nothing and who – all throughout the story – uses the impossible people and impossible situations to draw near to humanity-
how did it happen that this people of God- delivered out of generations of slavery by the hand of God, the empire of the Pharaoh is reduced to humiliation and disrepair as a whole new community comes out of nothing – a community shaped after the freedom of God –
how did it happen that the people of God forgot all this? That they succumbed to the status quo? That they allowed themselves to fall away from God, back into slavery again?


Remember we paused the story when Solomon built the temple? We saw the promise of God to meet them there, as God promises to meet us in one another and in our worship. 

But for all the wisdom Solomon imparted, for all the good that Solomon did, he also did a mighty bad thing.  During Solomon’s reign Israel, the people of God, became an empire.  Solomon’s had harems, organized taxes, conscripted slave labor, and even wrote down timeless (but static) truths in wisdom literature, and through the empire the freedom of God and the people was co-opted. 
God became boxed in and the people, in Solomon’s reign, adopted what Walter Brueggemann calls, “The royal consciousness” – that is, the consciousness of the empire.
The royal consciousness is numb to imagination.  Its emphasis is to build and maintain stability. A royal consciousness has no ability to imagine a future outside of what is presented in the present.  In all things it reinforces authority of the king.  And it keeps people accepting what may not be good for them, because that serves to keep order and ensure the longevity of the empire.  

Bruggemann says Solomon’s reign did three things:
1-    Solomon’s reign “countered the economics of equality with the economics of affluence.” 
Instead of a people shaped by God’s provision in the wilderness, gathering what they could eat for the day, all-in-this-together as a people before God, things shift to plans of surplus and accumulation, looking out for oneself and one’s interest, building wealth at the expense of others.

2-    Solomon’s reign “countered the politics of justice with the politics of oppression.”  
In the experience with Moses, the rule was:
“If your brother or sister becomes poor and cannot maintain themselves with you, you shall maintain them, as a stranger and a sojourner they shall live with you.  Take no interest from them or increase, but fear your God; that your brother or sister may live beside you…For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves.” Lev:25:35-42
But Solomon built this empire with forced labor.

3-    Finally, Bruggemann points out, “Solomon countered the religion of God’s freedom with the religion of God’s accessibility.” 
In the time of Moses- God was available, but on God’s terms.  God cared for the people but remained uncompromisingly free- I will show mercy to whom I show mercy, you cannot see my face and live.  There had always been this tension between God’s freedom and God’s accessibility – God will be who God will be, and also God who will be with and for us, available to us, but not ruled by us.  If Moses erred on the side of God’s freedom, Solomon obliterated this tension in favor of total accessibility - and now there is no sense that God is free and can “act apart from or even against the regime.” God is on call. God is boxed in.

And so the Egyptian reality of empire that the people were delivered from became their reality again under Solomon.

Brueggemann asserts, “Solomon traded the vision of freedom for the reality of security.  He had banished the neighbor for the sake of reducing everyone to servants. He had replaced covenanting with consuming, and all promises had been reduced to tradable commodities.”
This is the royal consciousness that permeates the people who were once freed from it, and have now again succumbed.

And so arises the needs for prophets.
The people of God needed those crazy outliers who were not immunized to imagination – those who could see the big picture and also outside of it, who could remember who God is and remind the people.

The Prophets call people back to the God who is free to act. God who is not defined by the empire or captive to it, not static but active, free to hear the cries of even slaves, free to create a new community of justice and compassion out of nothing, free to bring life out of death. 

The prophetic always seeks to nurture and evoke an alternative consciousness to the dominant culture.
A consciousness that CRITICIZES the present order of things, speaks for justice rather than stability.  It also ENERGIZES persons and communities by the promise of another time and situation toward which we can move- “to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that God has promised and will surely give.”

The Prophetic is necessarily absurd – it is outside definition of reason and order.  It stirs imagination through art and music, poetry and pathos - it alerts us to what is wrong around us by helping us imagine an alternative.  It looks at reality and does not shy away from sorrow and pain – both that of God’s and that of human beings, and so it involves grieving.

Brueggemann explains, “The real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right.  Only in the empire are we pressed and urged and invited to pretend that things are all right – either in the dean’s office or in our marriage or in the hospital room.  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 have a numbed communal imagination. We have a royal consciousness.
We may not be slaves, we may not be suffering under militant leadership, fearing for our lives, fighting against oppression or wondering where our next meal will come from.  But the empire is alive and well in our lives. 
We are satiated by consumerism, made to be comfortable, to not notice the disparity, to not rage against the machine, to ignore the voices of the marginalized, to accept the unacceptable as inevitable.
And we have lost the capacity- or even the desire- to imagine that it could be different.  Even asking the question of whether it is possible for things to be different reveals how deeply we have swallowed the lies of the empire.

And the royal consciousness has invaded the church as well.  Church isn’t where we encounter the living God, it’s where we send our children to learn to be better behaved, better citizens.  It’s where we silence questions instead of entertaining them, or hide grief instead of embracing it.  It’s where we feel we have to have everything together and hide the truth, instead of finding solidarity and hope in our shared brokenness and the grace God’s salvation.  It feeds our compulsive mania of busyness and work to earn our worth, instead of immersing us in Sabbath rest as a reminder that God love us completely outside of our work.  It’s where God is captured, summoned, on call instead of free, angry, joyful, passionate, doing things we don’t expect, bringing newness. 

Jay Emerson Johnson, in writing about this week’s story of nuns being scolded by the Vatican for being too radical, says, “Institutional Christianity’s besetting sin is not boldness but safety; not risk for the sake of life but the status quo for the sake of survival; not reckless creativity but staid conformity, and mostly for the sake of power and privilege.
So here’s a modest proposal for this Easter season. If even the most wonderful news of all time – the resurrection of Jesus – can slip through our fingers in the blink of an eye, then we might want to handle our doctrinal positions a bit more lightly. 
Here’s the more pointed version: If the Church can’t control the risen Christ, then maybe it shouldn’t try to control radical nuns who are actually living the Resurrection in their work of social justice and human flourishing.”

To embrace the imagination of God means to open ourselves to a reality greater than what we can see, a future not set in stone or laid out by the powers of the day, a hope that sustains us deeply, a promise from the God who is free to act and calls us into God’s freedom and action.  And we are to be the people who do that with one another and on behalf of the world.

In these next weeks we will talk about what it means to be a prophetic community, to both criticize and energize, to embrace and speak of true experiences of death and longing, and to anticipate – and participate in, newness, resurrection, and life.

And we will meet a few of the Old Testament prophets and hear a bit of their story. 

Tonight, the words we heard in Scripture were from the prophet is Hosea, calling the people back to God, pouring out God’s heart of love for the people, God’s anger and hurt, and God’s resolve to forgive.

Here’s what led to his role...
When Solomon dies, his son takes over, with vows to rule more harshly than his father, and some of the people revolt.  The 12 tribes of Israel split apart, ten of them rebel and form the Northern Kingdom, called Israel, (among which the largest tribe was Ephraim) – and two remain the Southern Kingdom, called Judah, - smaller, and with less money, it nevertheless has the Davidic line.  The Northern Kingdom is fraught with conflict, with coup after coup, and the people turn away from God to worship other gods, and murder, theft, and general dehumanization and disarray occurs.  It is, what has been called, “a dark and melancholic time” in Israel’s history. 
And when Hosea was prophet in the Northern Kingdom, in his own lifetime he saw the Northern Kingdom wiped out and taken over by Assyria. 
His message from God to a people who had all but forgotten about God and their own identity, was:  "I have been the Lord your God ever since the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior." (Hosea 13:4)

Without further ado, (through the eyes of Frederick Buechner), meet Hosea.

780-725 BC

 Gomer. She was always good company – a little heavy with the lipstick maybe, a little less than choosy about men and booze, a little loud, but great on a party and always good for a laugh.  Then the prophet Hosea came along wearing a sandwich board that read “The End is at Hand” on one side and “Watch Out” on the other.
The first time he asked her to marry him, she thought he was kidding.  The second time she knew he was serious but thought he was crazy.  The third time she said yes.  He wasn’t exactly a player, but he had a kind face, and he was generous, and he wasn’t all that crazier than anybody else. Besides, any fool could see he loved her.
Give or take a little, she even loved him back for a while, and they had three children whom Hosea named with odd names like Not-pitied-for-God-will-no-longer-pity-Israel-now-that-it’s-gone-to-the-dogs so that every time the roll was called at school, Hoseal would be scoring a prophetic bullseye in abstentia. But everybody could see that marriage wasn’t going to last, and it didn’t.
While Hosea was off hitting the sawdust trail, Gomer took to hitting as many night spots as she could squeeze into a night, and any resemblance between her next batch of children and Hosea was purely coincidental. It almost killed him, of course. Every time he raised a hand to her, he burst into tears.  Every time she raised one to him, he was the one who ended up apologizing.
He tried locking our out of the house a few times when she wasn’t in by five in the morning, but he always opened the door when she finally showed up and helped her get to bed is she couldn’t see straight enough to get there herself.  Then one day she didn’t show up at all.
He swore that this time he was through with her for keeps, but of course he wasn’t.  When he finally found her, she was lying passed out in a highly specialized establishment located above an adult bookstore, and he had to pay the management plenty to let her out of her contract.  She’d lost her front teeth and picked up some scars you had to see to believe, but Hosea had her back again and that seemed to be all that mattered.
He changed his sandwich board to read “God is love” on one side and “There is no end to it” on the other, and when he stood on the street corner belting out
How can I give you up, O Ephraim!
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
For I am God, and no human.
The Holy One in your midst.
                        (Hosea 11:8-9)
nobody can say how many converts he made, but one thing that’s for sure is that, including Gomer’s, there was seldom a dry eye in the house.
                                                                    (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, from Hosea 1-3, 11)

May we be shaken from our stupor, and gripped by the imagination of God that makes us both deeply honest, and shockingly hopeful for this world that God is making anew.

*        *           *          *            *         *             *          *         *

A prayer with the prophets

The empire says we matter if we buy, take, earn, and prove.
But you say we matter. So we can share, give, receive, and be real.
Help us listen to you, O God. Help us to live in you.

The empire calls us to compete, quarrel, tear down, and oppose.
But you call us. So we can release, forgive, mend, and welcome.
Help us follow you, O God. Help us to live in you.

The empire claims that wealth, power and strength make some of us gods.
But you claim us. So you let emptiness, weakness, and vulnerability make God one of us.
Help us to recognize you, O God. Help us to live in you.

The empire loves to feed fears.
But you love us. So what have we to fear?
Help us to trust in you, O God. Help us to live in you.

(Kara Root, 2012)


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. You've birthed a fresh interest in the prophets for me and made Hosea real. My eyes are also opened to the parallels between Canada and Solomon's empire and, in the OT's timeless way, affirms the discussions my friend and I have been having lately about the unfulfilled role of the Church.

Kara said...

You're welcome! It has birthed a fresh interest in the prophets for me too! Our community is having quite a wild and eye-opening ride through these folks these days... glad our conversations could feed your conversations!

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