Prophetic Person: Moral

If we are to understand prophetic task, we must begin with the prophet.  Personhood sets the trajectory for performance.  Character is always the basis of conduct.  Brueggemann recognizes this when he says that the prophetic voice is rooted in something deeper than itself. The messenger is the pipe through which the message flows.  So, we must begin with the personhood of the prophet.  If we bypass this, we will almost certainly misunderstand and malpractice the prophetic task.

I want to note that while I will describe the personhood of the prophet in four ways: moral, mystic, mediator, and messenger, they are essentially parts of one whole, each interacting with and energizing the others. We gain insight by looking at the aspects, but the prophetic person is one even as God is One.

We begin with the prophet as a moral person. For Brueggemann, the root of prophetic imagination is its morality. [1]  The prophet is a moral person who incarnates the message.  Incarnation gives the message credibility, and it also means the message is liveable.  Credibility and liveability make the message real.  The prophets speak and enact the message to make it clear: God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven–the very thing we say in the Lord’s prayer.  We cannot ignore reality, especially when it is Reality–that is, when it is of God.

Prophets are those who have integrated the message in themselves before communicating it to others.  Brueggemann says this is exactly what happened to him prior to, and following, writing the first edition of The Prophetic Imagination in 1978.  Between 1978 and 2001(second edition of the book) Brueggemann testifies to a process of formation in which his inperpretation of the prophetic imagination became increasingly incarnate in his own life. He does not hesitate to say that this integration enriched both his scholarship and his capacity to apply it to today–thus making the prophetic task contemporary and urgent, as it was for the original prophets [2]  Brueggeman became a prophet through his study of the prophets.

Years ago, Henri Nouwen described authentic ministry this way: the minister is someone before he or she attempts to do some thing. [3]  More recently, Richard Rohr has said essentially the sane thing, “Truth is a person.” [4]  The prophets knew this, and lived accordingly.  They stood as ensigns of the very truth they declared. [5]

Unfortunately, we have departed from this essential integrity/integration, creating a gap between our character and conduct.  We are reaping the whirlwind of scandal as a result–and doing so currently in the political, religious, and entertainment areas of life.  But as is always the case, personal and collective life is debased whenever performance (conduct) is separated from personhood (character)–when appearance eclipses authenticity.  “Looking good” is not the same as being good.  When we settle for “image” and ignore integrity, we pay a high and tragic price, individually and collectively.  Immorality is one of the perils of empire as Brueggemann defines it. We will explore this further later in this series.

The prophetic task can only be studied legitimately in the larger context of the prophetic person.  The prophet is a moral person, and only then can the message be genuinely holy.  An old adage says it well, “Who you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”  Personhood is the pivot that makes the message swing toward or away from God. The prophets knew this, and engaged in the prophetic task standing on the good foundation of morality.

[1] Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, loc 84.

[2] The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, loc  64. I can only say that as I have been reading his books chronologically, I can see the “prophetic energy” (his term) growing in what and how Brueggemann writes.  In a very real sense, he has become a prophet himself.

[3]  Sadly, I have lost the reference to Nouwen’s words.  If you happen to know the source, please email me (oboediresite@gmail.com). 

[4] Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know (Crossroad Publishing, 2015), loc 1439.

[5]  The prophets were not faultless, but the were blameless.  This is a critical distinction.  To be blameless means they were faithful, inside and out, to the task.  It does not mean they had no rough edges or made no mistakes.  To be blameless is to live so that no accusation of infidelity can prevail.  This is a covenant concept we will return to later–a theme that appears in the psalms (e.g. Psalm 15) and is echoed by the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 33:15). To lose this distinction runs the risk of making prophets “plaster saints” (Thomas Merton’s term)–“little saviors” (my term) who are driven by perfectionism and who fall prey to their own narcissism.

Posted in The Prophetic Task

On the Edge of the Inside

Years ago, Richard Rohr got my attention when he said we are called to live “on the edge of the inside.”  He calls this an alternative orthodoxy (that is, a genuine orthodoxy that is distinct from certain prevailing views in the status-quo society and in segments of the institutional church) that messages the Gospel in terms of the two great commandments and the radical advocacy of those who are oppressed for the lack of that love.  Rohr finds this location in his Franciscan tradition, and now seeks to apply the spirit and substance of it to 21st-century matters.

I do not know the extent to which Rohr may have been influenced by Brueggemann at this particular point [1], but I do know that Brueggemann is another voice pointing in a similar direction. In words akin to Rohr’s, Brueggemann wrote, “We are called to live between the voices of promise and seduction”–that is, between shalom and empire. [2] Even before that, in The Prophetic Imagination, he makes it clear that prophets live on the margins, creating the necessary distance from the center of empire and bringing the prophets into the sacred space of the anawim [3]–the ones Jesus called “the least of these” and “little flock.”

This is a subversive location (more on this later), and one that is necessary to generate the prophetic energy (Brueggemann’s word) to move us from “the kingdoms of this world” into the Kingdom of God.  Living too close to the center of empire keeps our souls “sold to the company store” (institution, association, organization, group); living too far away makes us revolutionaries who no longer see any value in current realities. Living on the edge of the inside gives us eyes to see and ears to hear, so that the de-constructive/re-constructive actions can occur together.

Living on the edge of the inside is risky for many reasons–one of which is that we lose friends in both the empire and in the anawim. [4] As Brueggemann notes repeatedly, the prophet is often a lonely person called to speak and act in the perilous territory of “the already and the not yet.”  Prophetic disorder, as Brueggemann also shows, challenges everyone, including the prophets themselves.

But living on the edge of the inside is exactly where we are called to be.  How to locate ourselves there and remain there is what this series aims to address. It is what I am calling “the prophetic task.” I will describe this task from four vantage points: the prophetic person, paradigm, process, and purpose.

[1] In his book, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008), 10–Rohr cites a direct affinity with Brueggemann with respect to the idea of “covenant love” which takes us into the presence of those who suffer and into the heart of God who suffers with us.  Rohr references Brueggemann’s book Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress Press, 2009), 215.  Rohr writes of this again in A Spring Within Us (CAC Publications, 2016), 214.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other Than Our Own (Westminster John Knox, 2017), 8.  This book is coordinated with the season of Lent, but it can be read with great value at any time.

[3] I have chosen the word anawim deliberately, both because it is the right Hebrew word to describe the forgotten and oppressed, but also to highlight early on in this series my indebtedness to Brennan Manning for opening my eyes decades ago to God’s heart for “the little ones.”  His book, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Multnomah, 1990) is all about us anawims. In 2001, I had the privilege of attending one of his retreats, the theme of which became his book, The Wisdom of Tenderness (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002)–a book that further developed the idea of anawim, and how we “little ones” are the recipients of God’s mercy in a world that is too often unmerciful.

[4] Gandhi experienced this, having enemies both in the British Empire and among radical Hindus who did not share his non-violent aporoach.  Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis were vilified by the white-racist establishment and also by the militant black-revolution groups, including later on, members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference they had helped to begin. 

Posted in The Prophetic Task

No Exemptions

Calling out empire is a pervasive and never-ending task because empire-making is what fallen-world individuals and groups do.  No longer guided by original righteousness (Genesis 1 & 2), we are gripped by original sin (Genesis 3 ff), manifested in innumerable expressions of personal (egotism) and collective (ethnocentrism) self-interest.

Because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), no one and no system is exempt from being calling out for its manifestations of empire. In ways that vary in kind and in degree, we are all subject to the contaminating influence of empire. To make this point, Brueggemann illustrates each of the main characteristics of empire in the reign of Solomon–characteristics which continue into the present day. [1]

By recognizing the existence of empire in Solomon’s reign, one that included many good things and one in which the spirit of wisdom was seen, we are prevented from falling into two extremes.

First, it prevents idolatry–that is, a too-high and unrealistic assessment of “the kingdoms of this world” that is only possible by omitting certain facts and creating a sanitized history and current narrative.  Idolatry creates illusion which destroys humility–the very quality which enables us to live in the world (or any sub-set of it) without selling  our souls to it.  Idolatry alleges that “the kingdom” is beyond critique and that to do so is a sign of disloyalty.  Idolatry makes its earthly leaders little “saviors”–something the ego thrives on.

Second, it prevents anarchy–such dismantlement/elimination of the current “kingdom” only leads to the replacement of it with another one subject to the same sin and decay as the one destroyed.  Anarchy arises from an arrogant self-righteousness that operates with a “purist mentality” where ends justify the means. When seen in religious contexts, anarchy forgets that Jesus himself said he did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill (restore and complete) it–to take it out of the hand of legalists (regulators) and put it back into the context of love (relationships) where it was meant to be all along.

Both idolatry and anarchy exist apart from love.  Idolatry violates the love of God, and anarchy violates the love if neighbor.  As we will see later in this series, the prophetic task is essentially about the re-construction of love through a restoration of the two great commandments–the very things lost in empire.

By using the reign of Solomon to illustrate the major characteristics of empire, Brueggemann is emphasizing the wholeness of the prophetic task (de-construction/re-construction), which is always at the heart of renewal and reform.  Prophets are non-dualists–both/and people, not either/or people. They simultaneously critique empire and generate the energy necessary for the overcoming of it. [2]

By forgetting the union of de-construction/ re- construction, we continue to fall prey to  idolatry on the one hand (“America first”) and anarchy on the other (“destroy the establishment”). Neither extreme saves the nation.  Neither extreme expresses the prophetic task.

[1] Brueggemann explores the Solomonic aspects of ’empire’ in detail in Chapter Two of his book, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition (Fortress Press, 2001).

[2] Brueggeman emphasis the both/and nature of the prophetic task in Chapter One of The Prophetic Imagination.

Posted in The Prophetic Task

Calling Out Empire

The prophetic task begins by calling out “the principalities and powers.”  One of the tasks of Christian social holiness is to identify and expose evil. It must always be carried out in light of an exhortation to righteousness; otherwise, prophetic ministry is only deconstructive.  Un-building without re-building is not the way of God.  [1] 

The word ‘redemption’ is a focal sign of that fact.  The “old order” must pass away, but it does so through the coming of the “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  The trajectory of prophetic ministry is always set by the starting point of original righteousness (Genesis 1 and 2) and by the vision (telos) of the peacable kingdom (shalom). 

The calling-out phase initiates the journey from darkness to light, but it is inevitably controversial and challenging.  Walter Brueggemann has been emphasizing this in his more-recent writings (e.g. ‘God, Neighbor, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of the Common Good’), but he has also noted it in his earlier writings as well (e.g. ‘The Prophetic Imagination’).  He uses the word ’empire’ to name the personal and corporate evil infecting our souls. [2]

We are living once again in a generation when “naming the demons” is a necessary precursor to exorcizing them. If you follow my writing, you have read previous posts in which I have tried to do that as clearly and responsibly as I can.  This post is another attempt.

President Trump’s address at the ultra-conservative  Values Voters Summit this past Friday was a moment which cannot be ignored.  Steve Bannon’s appearance there must also be included in this observation.  While it would be easy to expose the Summit for the anti-Christ sham that it is, I am writing this post for a different reason. [3]

My aim is to add my voice to those who are doing all they can to say that the time has passed for excusing the words and actions of the current administration (and its allies inside and outside the government) as expressions born of inexperience, ignorance, or ineptness–with whatever amount of narcissism you want to add to that assessment.  While these things may be in the mix, they are not the menu.

The menu is a strategic effort engineered by intelligent and intentional people–in the society, the government, and the church to enthrone white-supremacy/nationalism (predominantly white-male power) and to try to convince us that God is for it–a modern-day manifestation of ’empire’ as Brueggemann defines it.

Compared to others in this movement, Donald Trump may be a minor-leaguer, but his attitudes and actions (even before he became president) contribute to the white-nationalist agenda that is seeking to dominate our common life.  To keep defaulting to explanations which tilt the conversation toward dumbness, or even farther toward pathology, overlook the fact that the insanity we are seeing is born of cold, calculated, and ruthless design.  Some of nationalism’s most prominent spokespersons couch their effort in “war” language.

Newsweek’s willingness to name Donald Trump as the most dangerous man in the world (October 6th issue) is no diatribe, but rather an assessment made by behavioral experts who are willing to identify themselves in print and stand by their evaluations.  When responsible people sound an alarm, it is irresponsible for us to ignore it. 

The connection of dots is further corroborated by in-depth studies of nationalistic ideologies and movements, showing how they come into being and what philosophical, theological, and ethical pillars they exist and operate on (e.g.  Anatol Lieven’s ‘America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism,’ second edition, 2012).  Other nationalist groups in other parts of the world are espousing similar principles and engaging in comparable practices.

It is no longer possible (if it ever was) to go through the days of our lives attributing what we are seeing to accident or arrogance. We are witnessing “organized chaos,” and the many manifestations of it by determined people to enthrone egotism and ethnocentrism–the two major expressions of sin, original and ongoing, the main ingredients that give rise to ’empire’ in state or church.  A carefully crafted plan is playing out right before our eyes.  Comments over the weekend by Steve Bannon verify this, and show that the nationalists are no longer hesitant to say so.

Maya Angelou’s words ring true, “When people tell you who they are, believe them.”  The nationalists are themselves telling us who they are.  And they are engaged in a process to establish ’empire.’  This is why I find Brueggemann to be a prophet himself and a needed guide in knowing how to resist the nationalist agenda.

In making this claim, I must be clear to state that the prophetic call to righteousness (whether mine or those made by others) is not an attempt to justify President Obama’s administration, or any other one, for that matter.  This is the straw-man, knee-jerk reaction made by those who would have you believe that people like me are little other than “sore losers.”  Let me be clear–I am not writing this because certain candidates were not elected (or because certain ones have been elected the past few weeks), nor am I advocating an idealized return to any alleged “good old days.”

I am not looking to either major political party (or the growing number of sub-sets within them) for the solution to the downward spiral we are witnessing.  In fact, as Brueggemann notes, the socio-political-religious ’empire’ is itself the problem, and it resists reformation at every turn.  Those in power in church or state intend to remain in power.

My concerns rest on the conviction that many of our elected leaders and influential ideologues are taking us away from righteousness, not toward it–no matter how much they use the Bible and “God talk” to try to justify what they are saying and doing.   Sadly, visible and vocal Christian leaders, churches, colleges, universities, seminaries, and parachurch associations are endorsing ’empire’  through various attitudes and actions that demean and discriminate–which, Brueggemann says, is always the case.  ‘Empire’ always wraps itself  in a religious-liturgical garment, masquerading as light.

But rallies, rhetoric,  and showmanship cannot hide the fact that Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16 CEB).  We cannot survive on the waxed fruit the ‘imperialists’ are handing out.  They are doing harm, particularly to the weak, vulnerable, and marginalized.  And washing their waxed fruit down with the snake oil they are peddling will only hasten our demise.

[1]  One of Brueggemann’s latest book is focused on the reconstructive nature of the prophetic task: ‘Restoring the Foundations: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture.’

[2] Brueggemann’s term ’empire’ is what the Bible describes as “the principalities and powers” and “the kingdoms of this world.”  In his book, ‘God, Neighbor, Empire…’ cited above, he provides the four major characteristics of ’empire’ using examples from the Old Testament, but showing how imperialism has continuef right up to the present– (1) wealth is extracted from the vulnerable and put in the hands of the powerful, (2) everyone and everything is a commodity that can be bought and sold, traded, possessed,  consumed, and discarded, (3) violence is practiced on whatever scale is needed to insure the success and survival of the powerful, and (4) imperialists use religious language and liturgy to legitimize their actions, courting religious leaders for their endorsement.

[3]  On its website The Southern Poverty Law Center has provided an extensive look at the Forum and speaker’s at last week’s conference.  It is a chilling parade of bigotry and discrimination.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Prophetic Task: Introduction

I have made the decision to re-activate Oboedire in order to present a new series of blogs and archive them all in one place–something not possible on Facebook.  The theme is entitled, “The Prophetic Task,”‘and in it I intend to explore God’s call to resist and confront “the principalities and powers” which are at work today to establish “the kingdoms of this world” in place of the Kingdom of God.  I will compose these posts with the writings of Walter Brueggemann as my reference point.

Brueggemann is deeply influencing me these days.  His extensive study of the prophetic task is connecting dots in my theology, adding depth to my faith, and shaping my spiritual formation–particularly with respect to social holiness.

In addition to these personal benefits, Brueggemann is giving me renewed “eyes to see and ears to hear” the deformative attitudes and actions of ’empire’ (his one-word summary for the fallen-world system) and a fresh vocabulary for identifying ’empire’ and overcoming it–all in the larger context of God’s purposes: to restore and renew what has been lost.

I invite you to join me on the journey these posts will provide.  If you already subscribe to Oboedire, future posts will come to you automatically.  If you are not a subscriber, you can do so quickly and easily by going to the righthand sidebar and entering your email address into the subscription box.

Perhaps you know others who would like to be on this journey.  Invite them to subscribe as well.  May God help us all better to see and to embrace the prophetic task, with the intent described by the hymnwriter, “grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days….til we reach Thy Kingdom’s goal.” (Hymn: “God of Grace & God of Glory”)

Posted in The Prophetic Task

Many Thanks!

In everything, there has to be a last day–an ending.  I believe that time has come for Oboedire.  For the past 6.5 years, I have “delivered my soul” on an array of topics directly and indirectly connected to Spiritual Formation.

But so far as new posts are concerned, I have run the race, fought the fight, and finished the course–to borrow Paul’s words.  I began Oboedire with a sense of calling to take it up; I am ending it with a sense of calling to lay it down.

The site will remain available, so that you may return as you like to explore the archived writings, but the original purpose, to provide regular and themed writings related to spiritual formation has come to an end. It’s been a good run.

The impetus for this comes from my realization that there is a new generation of people through whom God is speaking.  You likely are already following those who speak best to you.  I too have my own “new voices” who help me see the ongoing unfolding of God’s revelation.  They are engaged today in ways I simply am not.  I have taken my turn; now it is theirs.

Beyond the present moment, the “great cloud of witnesses” is still there, encouraging us as we run the race set before us.  I end this round of Oboedire encouraging you (as I have before) to root your soul in Scripture and the devotional classics.  This is the good foundation for any spiritual life.

But most of all, stay in love with Jesus. The spiritual life is “beyond belief”–that is, beyond content, doctrines, and dogmas. All these are on the circumference, and they exist as means, not ends. Jesus is Lord! And now, at the right hand of the Father, he exists as the eternal Christ (Alpha and Omega) bringing the Mystery to its glorious culmination (John 1:1-18, Ephesians 1:3-14, Philippians 2:9-11, Colossians 1:15-20, Colossians 3:11, Hebrews1:1-3, 1John 1:1-4, Revelation 1:4-8, and Revelation 7:9).

Your relationship with God is “I-Thou” not “I-It.” Do not settle for things which were never meant to be ultimate. Do not sell your soul to any person or group. Abide in Christ and let him abide in you. The risen, cosmic Christ is your Life!

And with God’s grace enabling you to continue your journey, take everything old and new, and make love your aim.  Follow “the more excellent way.”  Incarnate the two great commandments, manifest the fruit of the Spirit, and help build the Beloved Community where everyone is included (1 John 3:11 and 4:7). Be kind and compassionate to everyone each day.

This expansive vision–the cultivation of an attentive spiritual formation that is both deep and wide–has influenced everything I have written here on Oboedire.  Some of you have been part of the experience from the beginning, others of you are more-recent companions.  Many thanks to you all for allowing me to be part of your lives. You are kind to have done so, and I pray that some of what I have shared has been helpful to you.

Now, may the One Who has begun a good work in you continue to bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

Posted in Site Updates

Nonviolence: We Shall Overcome

Nonviolent movements sing their way forward.  Not insignificantly, angels sang when Jesus was born.  In the civil rights movement,  no song better captures the essence of nonviolence than “We Shall Overcome.”  I end this series on nonviolence with the lyrics of this song…

1.
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day

CHORUS:
     Oh, deep in my heart
     I do believe
     We shall overcome some day

2.
We’ll walk hand in hand
We’ll walk hand in hand
We’ll walk hand in hand some day

CHORUS

3.
We shall all be free
We shall all be free
We shall all be free some day

CHORUS

4.
We are not afraid
We are not afraid
We are not afraid some day

CHORUS

5.
We are not alone
We are not alone
We are not alone some day

CHORUS

6.
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around some day

CHORUS

7.
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day

CHORUS

Interestingly, this song is closely connected with every Christmas Day and with what was going on at Bethlehem originally, where a baby was born as a sign that the ways of God “shall overcome some day.” It is in Christ where everything we have explored about nonviolence is incarnate, and where everything we have said about nonviolence is assured.

Posted in Nonviolence | 1 Comment