Bruggemann describes “Prophetic Imagination” as first of all the expression of deep criticism of the present situation. This begins to dismantle the corrupt systems, all of which replicate the “royal” oppressions experienced by the Hebrews in Egypt. With the dismantling, there will be grief over the loss of the old and the suffering and death which all too often accompany the dismantling of empires and systems. (Actually, the number of successful, non-violent revolutions in the 1980's and 1990's is astounding – People Power in the Phillipines, Solidarity in Poland, the Velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, the fall of the Berlin wall, the evaporation of the Soviet Empire, the end of Apartheid and the election of Mandela in South Africa.)
With the dismantling and the grief and suffering, prophecy requires an energizing through amazement of the people with pieces of a new vision for what is possible.
A friend sent this blog on Facebook today: John Vest finds this question in Bruggemann “How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation?” His answer lies in the embrace of pathos and the willingness to engage the very real possibility of our own death.
John then lists statistics of decline in the PCUSA. (Some of these were the #10 big story of 2011 in the Presbyterian Outlook.) One that was missed explains a lot of pain among ministers: There are now 2,200 ministers seeking calls (jobs) and only 450 positions. Ten years ago it was about 1,200 ministers and 900 positions. The number of candidates for ministry remains at about 450. All this because only 44% of churches can now afford a full time minister. And that because half of all churches are now under 100 members.
Church leaders tell anecdotes of vitality given by the Holy Spirit in the church, and claim to see signs of God’s activity for a future (New Life!) for the church. But as John Vest reports, “there are also critical indications of death. Our declining numbers, aging congregations, diminished resources, and debilitating conflicts cannot be ignored any longer. We cannot move too quickly to obscure the grief of our situation with comfort or hope, as important as these are. We must embrace the pathos associated with admitting that what we are doing is not working. More bluntly, we must admit that we are dying in order to experience rebirth.”
I haven’t read anything by Brueggemann lately, but I think he is saying to us now: Occupy Church! Occupy Theology and Biblical Studies! A very recent paper by Tim Van Meter is entitled: “Occupy Academia: An Analysis of Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good and the Implications for the Empire of Academia.” Van Meter explores Brueggemann’s work and says: “perhaps a new definition of, and expectations for, academia can be built, one that focuses on the neighborhood of learning as an engine of societal change, versus an empire of academia as a means of subjugation and indentured servitude.”
So what is the next step for churches and students? I think it is to act. To “occupy,” if you will. One person, and then a few, need to stand up and shout – not “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” – but “The system of the church/school is broken. The old ways don’t work any more. The old structures aren’t working anymore. The old faith isn’t working anymore. Let’s talk about it. Let’s not ignore it.”
Occupy Church! Occupy Theology and Biblical Studies! Don’t let a meeting continue as before without challenging its underlying premises. Think parables. Think symbolic actions. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Protest Empires everywhere. Every discussion about buildings, budgets, and ecclesiastical paper, e.g., is not a discussion of what has happened and is happening and will happen if people don’t wake up and do something really different that is related to the reality of confused Christians, the dysfunctional family life of churches and the nation, and the gap between rich and poor.
The PCUSA has many resources, long ignored, for the current situation. Such as this sample from the Confession of 1967: “The members of the church are emissaries of peace and seek the good of all in cooperation with powers and authorities in politics, culture, and economics. But they have to fight against pretensions and injustices when these same powers endanger human welfare. Their strength is in their confidence that God’s purpose rather than human schemes will finally prevail.” (9.25)
My old boss and friend, Bob Funk, wrote: “The one who lays a violent hand on his or her tradition must beware of falling statuary.” Let’s be cunning, nuanced, and ironic. But let’s occupy. A great meme. The criticism which comes first is always easiest; the vision is more difficult. That shouldn't stop anyone; the vision comes as the statues are falling around us.