What Does It Mean To Be Prophetic Today?

Kenyatta Gilbert talks with Walter Brueggemann about the prophetic call in 2018.

Kenyatta Gilbert, associate professor of homiletics at the Howard University School of Divinity: Professor Brueggemann, thank you for this opportunity to chat.

Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary: Well, I’m so glad to be with you and get to talk.

Gilbert: So, what is a prophet?

Brueggemann: Well, in terms of the Old Testament that I spent my time with, I think a prophet is someone that tries to articulate the world as though God were really active in the world. And, that means on the one hand, to identify those parts of our world order that are contradictory to God, but on the other hand, it means to talk about the will and purpose that God has for the world that will indeed come to fruition even in circumstances that we can’t imagine. So, what that gives you is both judgement and hope, and as you know very well, the prophetic books of the Old Testament are always that combination of judgement and hope, which I think, in Christian tradition, factors out as crucifixion and resurrection. And we don’t often get that, the hope side, of the prophetic word in our own usage. What about you?

Gilbert: A prophet is someone who sees that this is not all there is, but is willing to face the fact that we are in a predicament and it’s only as we co-participate with God, can we find ourselves moving in the direction of a beloved community. So, when I think about what it means to be prophetic, I’m thinking, well, you talk about being numb to this present reality, you talk about royal consciousness, alternative consciousness. What do those things mean to you? And how are you able to find this language?

Brueggemann: Well I think it means to identify with some clarity and boldness the kinds of political economic practices that contradict the purposes of God, and if they contradict the purposes of God, they will come to no good end. So, if you think about economic injustice or if you think about ecological abuse of the environment, it is the path of disaster. And in the Old Testament they traced the path of disaster and it seems to me that our work now is to trace the path of disaster in which we are engaged. The amazing thing about the prophets is that they were able to pivot after they had done that to talk with confidence that God is working out an alternative world of well-being and justice and peace and security in spite of the contradiction. So, they were in the ancient world, they were courageous, and the prophets that we can identify now have the same kind of courage.

Gilbert: I think you’re right. I think if we can establish some sense of clarity about who we believe that God is in this world of radical pluralism... is it our work to get everyone on the same page when we think about God?

Brueggemann: Well, I think as long as we try to talk in terms of labels or creed or mantras, we will never get on the same page, but I think if we talk about human possibility and human hurt and human pain and human suffering, then it doesn't matter whether we are Muslims or Christians or liberals or conservatives, the irreducible reality of human hurt is undeniable and then we have to talk about what are the causes of human hurt and what are the remedies of human hurt and then we get to politics and economics and I don’t think that's easy given the political pluralism, but I do think that the prophetic word on that basis can be fairly unambiguous. And, it’s no mystery about the kinds of economic practices that are causing human hurt and under President Trump, they basically have to do with deregulation which means unleashing greedy power. So, we could talk about that whether we're Christian or Muslim or liberal or conservative--that's how my mind works about it.

Gilbert: What I try to do is say to students, if you can declare something in the here and now about the human predicament, take seriously what is going on in our world, that we live in death-dealing circumstances that marginalize, victimize those persons who are already vulnerable and in America, you have such a dichotomy between the privileged and the disenfranchised that it's really pronounced to me where the predicaments are. But what is the proposition that would be the next thing? What is the proposition in light of divine intervention? If God is a God who intervenes on the human plane, what do we believe about that God reversing or addressing this?

Brueggemann: I think what we believe is that God energizes and empowers human agency and human agents, when they are empowered, can change this. So, what happens to well off people like me? We don’t want to exercise human agency; we like it the way it is and if we are terribly disadvantaged, one can be in such despair that you don't undertake any human agency. So, it seems to me that the point of preaching is to say that God’s hopes are to be performed through human agency and it seems to me that the promise of the gospel is that the powers and principalities will yield to human agency that is authorized and empowered by God. And, that’s a hard piece of news because on the one hand, we want to despair or on the other hand, we want to wait passively and have God do something for us.

Gilbert: Well, let me ask you this question because when I think about labels, social justice, prophetic hope, I just don’t know if there is sufficient clarity in the consciousness of the average Christian. We kind of throw those labels around and often there's a lot more confusion than clarity.

Brueggemann: I do not think that we have done a good job of teaching and I think we really need to be intentional teachers that clarify these categories. So, if we’re going to talk about prophetic consciousness, I don’t think that means some mystical apparatus. I think it means the capacity to imagine the world seen through the eyes of the Gospel God.

Gilbert: But do you believe that there are persons who come to this world who are special and specifically designated to do these kind of works or is it just the willingness to want to help persons imagine something better than this present reality

Brueggemann: Well I think it’s both and. Obviously, Martin Luther King was exceptional and he was dispatched by God in a peculiar way and I think the same thing is true about William Barber now, but that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. And, the same mandate is available to those of us who are less gifted and all that. We are entrusted with the same vision, with the same scriptural tradition, and with the same work to do. So, we cannot just turn it over to a few designated agents, I think. So, how do you think about special people and ordinary people in terms of prophetic practice?

Gilbert: Interestingly, I’m seeing it in Hip-Hop artists. I’m seeing artists like Lecrae, who’s a Christian Hip-Hop artist. It’s very controversial thing because he has long been a part of white evangelical...he's had a lot of white evangelical support to get his ministry on a national platform, but he’s now disenchanted with white evangelicals who have clearly voted for Trump by and large 80 percent and who, for whatever reason, have become very silent about some of the issues or the things that are perpetuating injustice and the ills that we're currently seeing today. Even his music is shifting where he’s merging prophetic criticism and hope. There are other artists who are not expressly Christian where you see these signs of the prophetic voice being exercised, but those voices are often muted because of materials and I’m very hopeful there are a number of ministers in my generation who pastor churches or who serve university congregations.

Brueggemann: So, when you think about prophetic hope, where does that take you?

Gilbert: My inclination is to think optimistically—optimism—but that’s not quite it. I think hope is born out of suffering. It is this kind of… trying to understand and articulate what we believe God expects of God’s human creation. Hope lies beyond...it’s not pie in the sky. It’s rooted in this courage that says, this is not all there is and we cannot settle for the goods of this world. And so, we're going to hope for a future that is beloved, where personhood is affirmed, where dignity is esteemed.

Brueggemann: I think that very many church people think that the now and the yet-to-come is like earth and heaven. And, that has to be corrected to say now and yet-to-come are this present socioeconomic, political system and a coming socioeconomic political system that will be congruent with God's reality. So, to get that model away from escape to heaven, it seems to me really important when we’re trying to do futuring. So, I think the prophetic promises about beating their swords into plow shears and their spears into pruning hooks, not about going to heaven, but it's about a new socioeconomic arrangement and I think that very many of the ancient prophetic promises are about the re-ordering of the earth and I think too much Christian hope has been escapism about going to heaven and being with my dead ones or something like that.

Gilbert: Wow, so you see this as God ultimately redeeming creation in the here and now.

Brueggemann: I do and I think that Jesus' parables are to that. The kingdom of heaven is like....well he didn't say it was like angels playing harps in heaven, but it's like having two sons, it’s like a servant that gets paid the same way, it's very this worldly imagery that he used to characterize, so I've been thinking that at least in the gospel of Luke, which is the most radical, that the phrase “Kingdom of God” really means a new economic arrangement and when he says, “Repent for the Kingdom is at hand,” he means reinvest in the new economy and things like that. How does that ring for you?

Gilbert: No, that’s actually enlightening because I come out of the evangelical tradition where it is heaven and hell. And, I always kind of felt some pushback from my own community in trying to help folks become this worldly, but not worldly, if you will. It’s… How do we transform this present environment such that you know these kinds of conversations can happen, and are we missing great opportunities? I think we are. I think we're distracted by technology: I think we’re distracted because of this incessant information, the media cycle is constantly bombarding us with things that say to us, well, you know, somebody else can handle it. There’s just so much to be done that why would we even make any effort?

Brueggemann: Which is why I think we have to stay very close to the story of Jesus because his vulnerable way of engagement was transformative so, as you know, when John asks him whether you’re the messiah, he says “Well, I don’t know, but did you notice that the blind see and the lame walk or the lepers are cleansed and the dead have their debts cancelled?” He said,” Something must be going on here.”

Gilbert: That’s good preaching.

Brueggemann: That’s right. What kind of counsel do you give people who are thinking about a prophetic vocation?

Gilbert: To first become silent. And try to drown out the noise around us such that one can hear a voice outside of their own voice and having heard from God about where to start, to begin to develop coalitions, friends, sharing similar passions about what they want to see in the world and in doing so, filling in gaps for one another. I am now a black middle-class person enjoying certain privileges that I did not enjoy when I was a child and that many persons who live on the underside of life do not enjoy—and perhaps never will. If I’m hopeful though, I can hope that persons will find other channels or other groups of people who will help them to name their own reality and in naming that reality, find ways to serve God, serve their fellow brother or sister, in ways that gives dignity to one’s own humanity.

Brueggemann: So, you would put the accent on collaboration and solidarity?

Gilbert: I think so. I think it takes the fear out of going it alone and being castigated by the masses and you know, I think there’s no preacher, no African-American preacher, that wants to be assassinated as King… And so, when you talk about being fearless, I think we can get more accomplished if there are others who inspire our courage.

Brueggemann: But that kind of courage doesn’t cancel out fear, does it? I mean you better be afraid.

Gilbert: Some holy fear! So, the persons that you find yourself in conversation with the most, what advice do you give them about being prophetic in these times?

Brueggemann: Well, I think we have to learn how to do social analysis better. We have to learn how to follow the money. We have to learn how to follow the money to see where it creates hurt. And white people at least, are not very good at social analysis, and do not want to be. And the other thing that I want to say to people in my tradition is, you’ve got to trust the biblical text. The biblical text is a huge truth speaker and a hope speaker. And, we can rely on it and I don't think we do very well at either one of those tasks.

Gilbert: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about the prophetic role?

Brueggemann: Well, among liberals where I live, I think people think being prophetic is just nagging people about social justice and you wear people out nagging them and what that misses on the one hand is social analysis. You’re just nagging about social justice if you don’t do social analysis, and the other side of it is that prophetic faith is elementally hopeful that something better is intended by God and will come to fruition. That generally is missed among liberals about being prophetic…I’m so glad to have met you and to get to talk with you.

Gilbert: Thank you, Professor Brueggemann. I likewise am very appreciative for this moment. I shall cherish it.

Brueggemann: Thank you.