Unexpected modern prophets
Walter Breuggemann in Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks provides what was to me a revitalized understanding of the ministry of the Hebrew Scripture prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea. The easy popular understanding is that these prophets could foresee the future. This misunderstanding makes it difficult to see the full meaning of prophecy and those prophets. It is not that prophets foresee the future but that they see the current reality clearly, without the distortion that comes from ideological commitment.
The prophets call the urban [and temple] establishment to recognize that social reality is populated by neighbors and occupied by YHWH,…The neighbors among us wait to be treated by neighbors. The God who moves amid the poetic utterance will not be settled or domesticated or managed. Thus reality is always at risk. And how the powerful conduct themselves will determine the outcome. The acknowledgement of YHWH was the central agent will lead to well-being; but disregard of YHWH will lead to disaster and disorder. Respect for the neighbor will make for safety; but disregard of the neighbor will result in violence and dismay. pp. 22-23
Speaking out against an ideology of chosenness or exceptionalism, the prophets were looking at the reality on the ground where peasants around Jerusalem were being bled by the urban and temple elite of the city. They saw in this unjust manipulation a violation of both divine reality and human nature. They saw that it could not last but would end in disasters: economic, political, social and religious. Those who managed the pyramid that was this ancient culture could change these realities through decisions and policies which would accord with divine and human nature. If they did not but persisted in their abuse and in their delusions of invincibility, the inevitable destruction would be visited upon them. Thus prophets speak not about the future but about the way things are now and present a different view to “the powers that be.” This description also describes the ministry of Jesus some 800 years later.
According to Breuggemann, these prophets chose “reality” over “ideology” and “grief” over “denial.” Out of that coming to terms with loss in real terms, they were able to construct “hope” as over against the “despair” left to those whose focus on ideology can only lead to denial. In reflecting on this analysis, I realized that there have been American prophets whose words call us to consider how things really are and to set aside our ideology of “exceptionalism” in order to come to terms with our real challenges.
Robert Bellah published Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life in 1985. It identified two central values of the American experiment: individualism and communitarianism. The synergy between individual good and the common good were central to what became America. He described how one of these values had gained the ascendancy and threatened or could threaten the entire enterprise. Individualism without the countervailing power of the common good would threaten the whole.
In 2000 Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Reival of American Community. This painted a compelling picture of the ways in which the American sense of community was weakening and dissolving. The book is noted more for its analysis of the problem than for the solutions which are suggested.
Juliet B. Schur has written two books that look at the current American economy and find that it is not delivering the satisfaction in human terms that we want from our work. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. An overwhelming concern with individual wealth and welfare has led to overworking and overspending that has degraded for most people the value of simply making more money.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown in The Spirit-Level, as the subtitle says, more equal societies almost always do better than less equal ones. These two scholars take a look at the facts of economic status in developed countries and conclude that increasing inequality results in a more dangerous and less healthy society for everyone in the society. The focus on individual good without the balancing commitment to the common seems to result in benefits for some but even they turn out to be disadvantaged.
The “powers that be” who think they are winning in this current situation tend to deny these analyses and the inevitable consequences that arise from them.