Dreaming from the Prophetic Middle

Commentary
By Charles L. Howard 8-28-2017
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In a recent conversation with a beloved university chaplain friend from Boston, we discussed the difficulty of navigating politically diverse spaces like the educational institutions we serve at. My friend shared a notion that has benevolently haunted me ever since. In spaces where people are firmly planted on the political left and on the political right, “perhaps some of us,” he said, “are called to move to the prophetic middle.”

Fifty-four years ago today (Aug. 28), the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared in his baritone voice, which still hangs in the air all these years later, “I have a dream.” A forgotten aspect of King’s witness was his ability to move and bring about change from the prophetic middle.” The prophetic middle is not about being politically indecisive, indifferent, or even about being a political moderate, as King was none of those. In fact he was far more radical than the domesticated version of his life that is paraded about each January.

Rather, moving from the prophetic middle means to speak an unbound and unafraid truth to both the left and to the right. And perhaps most urgently for our current national state, the prophetic middle allows us to call a new vision forth – to dream.

So much of our current leadership, as well as our current commentators, are so beholden to party or ideology that they lose the importance of speaking truth, and just as importantly, speaking truth to power – particularly power on their own side.

But the gift that King brought was not just the speaking truth to power aspect of prophesy, but also the ability to dream and imagine something new — precisely because of his courageous willingness to journey to the prophetic middle. And in a nation that seems to have replaced the ability to imagine with, on the one hand a fear-based leadership and on the other perpetual resistance for survival’s sake, this aspect of the prophetic must be resurrected.

Figures like King, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and others could imagine and dream because they were free. King was not beholden to either party or either side. Perhaps the best example of this is his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He pivots toward the right and speaks prophetic truth about the evil of segregation to “alt-right”/white supremacist forefathers like George Wallace of Alabama or Ross Barnett of Mississippi. Yet, King also turns to the left and pushes the gradualist allies who also wanted desegregation, but were “calling for unity” and patience rather than responding to the “urgency of now.” He belonged to neither the right nor to the left. He was free to move in the prophetic middle, pushing both sides and looking over their heads to the future.

And here is the most beautiful thing of all – we can do the same.

Having room to dream is a privilege – no doubt. So much of the last several years have — to me — felt like I was simply trying to survive. Speaking out against police brutality, critiquing hate speech, hate action, hate policy. The psychological exhaustion of the moment steers all of my energy to just taking care of myself and those around me and pushing back on whatever daily fear-based hate comes across my screen. But we need to do more than just survive and more than just present a critical resistance. We must dream and present a divinely inspired vision of the “Beloved Community.” This is the best of our religious traditions – for me this is the best of the prophetic witness of the Bible.

And it’s the best of American History — those prophetic moments when individuals and communities have freely spoken truth to power and spoken a future to power, articulating what we might one day be.

This, I think is what is so discouraging for me and so many others now: The vitriolic, dreamless political gridlock is tiring. Heart-tiring. We have no dream of where we might one day go. The great traditions that draw from the Book of Proverbs read that:

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

We are perishing without a vision — without a dream.

Each January I whisper to myself that I wish elected officials who are so antithetical to his vision would keep King’s name out of their mouths. And yet, perhaps more than ever, they/we need to recall the prophetic witness of King and the prophetic tradition of our Scriptures and of our nation. I pray we will be benevolently haunted by the prophetic dreamer and perhaps make our way from the extreme walls of our parties and come and dance and wrestle and speak from prophetic middle. From there we can begin to see a way out of this national nightmare and move back toward the dream.

Charles L. Howard is University Chaplain for the University of Pennsylvania. 

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