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Prophetic Imagination

Last week we talked about using the spiritual gift of imagination to imagine ourselves: who we want to be and how we want to be remembered. This week I want to talk about using our imagination for the world… to invite us to the practice of prophetic imagination.

We know what imagination is, but what exactly is a prophet? In the words of Joan Chittister, “The prophet is the person who says no to everything that is not of God.” Put another way by Daniel Berrigan, “The prophet is one who speaks the truth to a culture of lies.”

In every time and in every country, the governments, the royal consciousness (as Walter Brueggemann puts it), the king or queen, whoever is in power, has a vested interest in staying in power and limiting the people’s imagination. They prefer that people believe that there is not another way, or a better way, of doing things. They prefer that people buy into certain consensual illusions (as Phyllis Tickle calls them). A consensual illusion is something that people are taught, enculturated, to believe is true, but isn’t. For example, in our age the consensual illusions might look like this: black people are not as smart as, not as worthy as, not as industrious as white people; LGBT people are sinners, are wrong, and abnormal; the trickle-down theory works; women are too emotional to be leaders.

The prophet says “no” to all of these things which are constructed by the dominant authorities. The prophet calls foul, and points out the lies.

There were plenty of prophets in Biblical times andthe Old Testament tells the stories of many of them who railed against either oppressive regimes, or people who had gone astray from God. But, interestingly, if we do a search of the Bible for the word “imagination” we find that imagination isn’t looked upon kindly. The Psalms talk about “evil imaginations.” And Isaiah and Ezekiel both talk about false prophets following their own imaginations, not God’s word.

In his book, Creativity, Matthew Fox says that the Jewish mystical text, the Kabbalah, talks about the fierce power of imagination, because truly, imagination can be used for either good or evil. Fox tells the story of a county in New Hampshire, a number of years ago, in which “the fundamentalists were elected the majority in the school board. Their first decree was to declare that henceforth no teacher in a public school was allowed to use the word ‘imagination’ in the classroom.” Obviously there was a great amount of fear operating in that scenario. When Fox inquired what the fundamentalists were afraid of, he was told that “Satan lives in the imagination.”

Well, ALL things – good and evil -  live in the imagination. To have a prophetic imagination is to say no to all the things that are not of God and to use our imaginations to not only speak truth to power.

To talk about prophetic imagination, I chose a familiar gospel story, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus was a master at using imagination to tell a story that got a point across in a bold way that left very little room for argument.

All the righteous Jews of Jesus' time could agree (at least in theory) that you should love God and love your neighbor as yourself. However, Jesus pushed the definition of neighbor much farther than was comfortable by making the Samaritan the hero of the story, the one who does what is right in God's eyes when the priest and devote Jew simply passed the beaten man by. As we know, the Samaritan was anathema to the Jew of Jesus’ time. They were the outsider, the unclean, the pagan. They were lesser than, marginalized, disliked… maybe even hated.

In this very simple, straightforward story, Jesus – without saying it – stands against the dominant culture and their disregard of another human being based on their prejudices and differences. The men who pass by are obviously representative of the dominant tradition. They are numb or indifferent to another’s pain and struggle. The story of the Samaritan says we must replace that numbness and indifference with compassion. We must not ignore the outsider, but embrace them and draw them into the circle of grace.

Jesus spoke the truth to a culture of lies. Lies about who is good and who is bad. In this simple imaginative story Jesus set forth a new vision for how people should live together – a vision of compassion and inclusion. The problem was (and is), that the dominant culture typically cannot tolerate compassion, the ability to stand with the marginalized. It disrupts the social order and threatens the power and privilege of those in control. Hence, the reason Jesus was killed.

Coming back to today… in her book, Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown (doula, women's rights activist and black feminist), wrote, “We are in an imagination battle. Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha McBride and so many others are dead because, in some white imagination, they were dangerous. And that imagination is so respected that those who kill, based on an imagined, radicalized fear of Black people, are rarely held accountable… Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of ability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”

Imagination is nothing less than liberation, liberating us from the forces that hold us in the status quo. And prophetic imagination is liberation for all people, all creation. It is for the sake of the world, for planetary health, for building bridges of peace, for equality and justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this intuitively when he preached his “I have a dream…” speech, echoing the prophets of old who used imagination to call the Israelites to a better world. 

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is prophetic imagination at its finest. The vision has been set forth by Jesus, by Martin Luther King, Jr., and by countless others over and over again. The world needs prophets with imagination to continue to envision a better future for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. As Native Americans say, we need to envision what is best for the people who will come seven generations after us and do that!

I have heard many times over the course of this pandemic that we just want the world to return to normal. I understand the sentiment, but I don’t believe it benefits us to imagine the best of our future to be our past. Think about it, we’ve learned a lot in the last year. We’ve learned to appreciate so many small things that we took for granted before. We’ve learned that living more simply isn’t that bad. We’ve learned that working from home is better for the environment. We’ve learned that racism is alive and well and there finally seems to be some movement to address it. We’ve learned that what Jesus once said is true: “Any realm (town or house) divided against itself will be ruined.” (Matthew 12:25)

We cannot go back. We should not try to go back. We must imagine a way forward and continue to work toward that vision for a better day. As one writer from India (Arundhati Roy) put it, this pandemic is “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” 

As Christians, as human beings, we are being called to a future not fully imagined… a future where the fullness of each human being can be realized… a future where love of neighbor is the norm, not the exception.

Love & Light!