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Sunday, February 12, 2017

On Being a Prophet in a Not-For-Prophet World: A Letter of Encouragement

On Being a Prophet in a Not-For-Prophet World:
A Letter of Encouragement to Those Who Work for Justice in the Age of Trump.
(the Rev. Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

On November 9, 2016, I woke up with a weariness in my bones that has not gone away.

It was, of course, the day after The Election.  

It was the day that was never supposed to happen. We had this, didn’t we? The opposition was so outrageous, so unimaginable, so deplorable, so unprecedented and un-presidential that it couldn’t possibly happen, right?  

Not if there was a God.

We were going to continue the march of progress we had made in the last eight years, weren’t we? Onward to making appointments to SCOTUS and overturning the Hyde Amendment and restoring the Voting Rights Act and making real our commitment that Black Lives Matter, and fixing the Affordable Care Act, and, oh yes, the first woman President of the United States of America.

The truth? It hasn’t yet been a month and I’m already exhausted. I’m already tired of being tired. And yet, I have to admit that I find myself strangely energized.  I’m living out the uncommon truth that “the flesh is weak but the spirit is strong.”

I didn’t know it before but I’m learning it every day: I’m ready for this.

I know many of you who are – and have been – committed to the work of justice feel much the same way I do. It’s a strange mix of exhaustion and excitement. Those of us who are also religious leaders have been carefully considering how it is we can maintain the prophetic tradition of leadership in these days where the smell and stench of bigotry and oppression hang in the air like the hazy fog that arises from a dark and dank, cold and musty swamp.

I’ve been sitting with – dwelling in – the words of Walter Brueggemann. In his book, “The Prophetic Imagination,” he writes,
“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.”
I ask myself how it is that I can do that? How can I be prophetic in a world that is not-for-prophet – even on a good day – but is now flat out antagonistic to those who “evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us”?

In other words, how can I provide the groundwork for an “alternative reality” to the outright lies and falsehoods and deceptions which masquerade as “alternative facts”? 

I have some initial, general thoughts which I hope will begin a conversation among religious leaders. I hope we will “breathe together” – to con-spire – and create out of this chaos a holy conspiracy of a new creation of religious prophetic thought and action. 

Here, briefly, are four barebones of prophetic religious leadership that have begun to take shape in my mind.

FIRST, YOU CRY:  The prophets were empathic. They wept for their people. They wept when their people were too numb from oppression to weep for themselves. They wept for the empire and kings that were anesthetized by greed and sloth and unable to hear the cries of the people. Prophets like Jeremiah laid the blame for the oppression of the people on the feet of the priests, saying, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace.” (Jer 6:14)

One of my seminary professors taught that we must do three things in order to provide prophetic leadership: Name the pain. Touch where it hurts. Offer hope. We must feel the pain of the people ourselves – the refugee, the immigrant, women, the disabled, LGBT people, the poor, those who are persecuted for their religious beliefs and creeds – the anawim or outcast who are beloved of God.

Empathy is the fertile ground from which prophetic leadership can grow.

REPENT!: The prophets were always all about repentance, or metanoia. This is not about some empty public show of breast-beating; neither is it about the age-old religious tact of inducing guilt. Rather, it is about facing reality and taking some responsibility in its creation so that one can turn it around. To repent, to experience metanoia, is to experience a spiritual conversion which results in changing one’s life.

As prophetic religious leaders, we need to analyze the election results and learn the lessons we need in order to move on and move forward. Religious leaders have a habit of getting stuck in repentance, falling into “paralysis by analysis”. The good news is that there is a movement in this country that will not have patience with immobility.
Religious leaders will need to be more nimble, more facile, more empathic and ready to provide spiritual roots so that this new movement can fly.

Religious leaders will need to experience repentance and spiritual conversion before we can create and lead change.

IMAGINATION. Prophetic imagination inspires people to see beyond the daunting, depressing images of their reality, beyond that which is merely probable and into that which was once thought impossible and now is seen as possible. This requires the risk of facing the truth, of engaging the experience of the pain of reality and rejecting the numbness offered by the empire. It also requires the additional risk of collaboration among all the various target groups, which breaks the bonds of ‘brokering’ by the oppressor. Brokering pits different groups against each other to fight for crumbs while the empire holds onto the whole pie.
Now, more than ever, prophetic religious leaders will need to help people recognize our differences while lifting up and celebrating the things we have in common. Prophets know that we are, in fact, stronger together, especially in terms of overcoming the empire which prefers that people bicker and fight with, and are anxious and fearful of each other. Prophetic religious leaders encourage different communities to engage with each other by engaging with religious leaders and communities that are different from them.

Religious imagination frees the mind and spirit to possibility, defying oppression.

HOPE! Contrary to some caricatures, prophets are, in fact, hopeful. They understand that each one of us, in our earthly bodies, contain a divine spark. They know that we are the embodiment of a God of promise, a God who calls people into covenant. That runs contrary to the narrative of the empire which promotes anxiety and fear, and fosters doom and gloomy images like “American carnage”.

Prophetic religious leaders offer hope which flies in the face of the dominant narrative, refusing to accept the reality which may have become the majority opinion. That presents an enormous political and existential risk to prophetic religious leaders because it is subversive, calling into question all the assertions made by the empire and daring to dream of and work for a new reality. The empire offers the ‘bread of anxiety,’ encouraging people to always be very afraid. Prophetic religious leaders offer hope which is the ‘bread for the journey’ into the promise of the future.  

Hope, as the poet said, is a thing with feathers. Without it, our dreams cannot take flight.

These are the barebones of prophetic religious leadership which, I think, will begin, in Brueggemann’s words to, “nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around

I’ve been thinking about that weariness in my bones. The prophet Ezekiel was brought by God into the Valley of Dry Bones and God breathed upon those bones and brought them to new life (Ezekiel 37:1-14). I believe that if we, as religious leaders from all faith backgrounds, creeds, beliefs and views enter into a holy conspiracy, these barebones can breathe new life into the ancient calling of prophetic religious leadership.

We need to weep together, repent and experience a conversion of our spiritual lives. We need to work together, modeling the beloved community of God. We need to take the risk and dare to hope even in – especially in – the face of anxiety and oppression. 

I believe we can, indeed, be prophets in a not-for-prophet world, leading people from the numbness of despair to the vision of the Beloved Community.

First, we cry. Then, we repent. We fire our imaginations. And, we take the risk of hope.

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