Prophetic Imagination Critique

The Prophetic Imagination: A Libertarian Christian Review

Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination was the selection for the Libertarian Christian Institute’s first book club discussion. Register for future book club discussions here: https://libertarianchristians.com/bookclub/

Walter Brueggemann’s 1978 book The Prophetic Imagination is now a classic of Christian non-fiction. Its chief emphasis is that the role of the prophet is to imagine a world that those invested in the current systems of power could not. Or to cite Brueggemann:

“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

The Prophetic Imagination has influenced both the faithful waiting on the fulness of Christ’s kingdom as well as the less patient among us who think that some kind of makeshift utopia–usually progressive politically–might be achievable this side of the second coming.

Rules for Radicals

And indeed, there are lessons here for radicals. The status quo of today was often the radical vision of yesterday. While such a vision is seen as radical, it is therefore also seen as inherently unrealistic. An America free from King George? A communist Russia operating outside of the control of the Czar? Ridiculous. But then it happened: the idealistic became mundane, even inevitable. Unfortunately, it is also shown to be not all that it was cracked up to be.

There are two lessons here for libertarian Christians:

  1. We can make a world that is freer, more voluntary, less coercive, and more prosperous. Not only that, but Christians are encouraged to tap into our prophetic calling of promoting an alternative way of life instead of being domesticated to the purposes of corrupt power.
  2. Even the best of possible worlds prior to Christ’s return will not be perfect. That’s the kingdom we’re waiting on Christ to inaugurate, and we better not forget it.

While Brueggemann helpfully gives us some language that can be used to express these truths, The Prophetic Imagination also at times suffers from a farsightedness that is so forward looking that it’s unable to see the truth even when it’s right before our eyes.

A False, Marxist Dichotomy

For instance, Brueggemann’s vision is one which deals in unhelpful false dichotomies rooted in the ideology of Marxism. When we look at the world through the lens of bad oppressor/good oppressed, some things will look clearer, but other things will be obscured. When applied to the Bible, this dichotomy can become a reading in search of a text.

So, for example, Brueggemann insists upon an almost totalizing prophet versus king hermeneutic for reading the Bible: the prophet imagines a new and just world even though the king can only see–and only wants others to see–an unbreakable status quo extending infinitely into the horizon. Or, as Brueggemann writes:

“God knows, and his prophet knows with him, that it is end time. The king does not know, never knows, what time it is because the king wants to banish time and live in an uninterrupted eternal now.”

This dichotomy between prophetic imagination and the royal status quo can be seen in Scripture in a number of places, but is it as pervasive as Brueggeman claims? For instance, the prophet Nathan felt compelled to challenge King David for his unjust crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah; but he was not so opposed to the Davidic kingship that he was unable to speak forth God’s promise that David would one day have an Heir whose kingdom would last forever. Jesus is likewise known for challenging the dominant culture and the “royal consciousness” more than perhaps any other prophet. Yet even He encouraged fidelity to the kingdom of God and to Himself as King. In fact, His messianic profile is famously one of prophet, priest, and king coming together as one.

Brueggeman spies a tradition within the text of Scripture that reflects the “royal propaganda” of “the Jerusalem establishment” and gives “questions of order priority over questions of justice.” This mindset “brings with it certain costs [that] are paid by marginal people who do not figure in the ordering done by the king.” Leaving aside how this proposed contradiction within the text challenges the historic Christian view of biblical inspiration, we can also ask if it consistently applies to our lived experiences. So, for instance, does order always serve oppression? Ask a mom who lives in a high crime neighborhood what she thinks of the chaos and violence that consistently threaten the safety and well-being of her children. Would she prefer more order, or less?

Is Oppression Profitable?

Moving past the question of whether order is necessarily in tension with justice, we can posit another that Brueggemann assumes he knows the answer to: is every injustice in society profitable? Some are to be sure–American slave owners profited from the labor of their slaves even if slaves and non-slave owning whites were hurt by it. But who benefited from segregation? Who was helped by limiting the productive output of millions of creative, hardworking individuals for something as insignificant as the color of their skin? Sometimes societies create bad rules because enough of its collective members think it’s the right thing to do, not because some people want to oppress others.

Because he sees the world through this either/or, oppressor/oppressed framework, Brueggemann also engages in the kind of zero sum thinking that has become all too common in the populist age in which we live. His sentiment that “eating [very] well means food is taken off the plate of another” is just as at home in Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders as it would be in Karl Marx, but it’s blessedly untrue–the product of economic illiteracy and envy. In point of fact, there is not a limited supply of prosperity–or if there is, we haven’t found it yet. As Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy have noted in their excellent book Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know, the expansion of capitalist principles has meant a rapid, dramatic, and sudden reduction of extreme poverty as the world’s poor find themselves with more economic opportunities than ever before. The leftwing rejoinder to this reality is almost inevitably that while the poor may be richer, the wealthy have become even wealthier still. Brueggeman expresses this concern about income inequality with another of his simplistic dichotomies: “economics of equality versus economics of affluence.” But would we rather live in a world where centralized force can make us all equally poor, or a free world where all of us benefit but some benefit more than others? Are we actually concerned about prosperity for all, or do we just want to punish the rich at any cost?

This is not to say that God has no special concern for the least of these, or that we will escape His judgment if we do not share this concern. According to Matthew 25, God is present with those who suffer unjustly; and if we wish to curry God’s favor, we must stick up for and assist the oppressed. One of the most effective ways we’ve discovered to do this is through the classical liberal tradition of expanding the freedom of markets and creating simple rules that are fair for everyone.

But is this concern for helping the least of these adequately reflected in the spirit of our age, which uses intersecting identities of victimhood as a measure to evaluate inherent worthiness?

Living Out Our Prophetic Vision

Despite these serious flaws, Brueggemann does at least one very important thing with this book: he gives Christians permission to live as if the prophetic vision of the kingdom of God is true–to put away our swords and trust God even when we suffer violence and oppression:

“The formation of an alternative community with an alternative consciousness is so that the dominant community may be criticized and finally dismantled. But more than dismantling, the purpose of the alternative community is to enable a new human beginning to be made.”

In the work of Jesus, “that new future in which no one believed was born in staggering amazement, for it was correctly perceived as underived and extrapolated and therefore beyond human understanding (Phil 4:7) and human control. It is the task of every would-be prophet to present such underived and extrapolated newness. It is the claim of every would-be prophet that the newness is possible only because God is God, and God is faithful to the promised newness.”