The prophets take a side.
In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann explains how the ancient Hebrew prophets diverged from the imperial courts of Pharaoh and the royal courts of the later Israelite kings. As well as imagining new ways for society to take shape, he says, the prophets took sides. They were partisan because their God and highest ideal was partisan.
[The God of the prophets] is the God who is alert to the realities, who does not flinch from taking sides, who sits in the divine council on the edge of his seat and is attentive to his special interests. It is the way of the unifying gods of the empire not to take sides and, by being tolerant, to cast eternal votes for the way things are…
Empire prefers reasoned voices who see it all, who understand both sides, and who regard polemics as unworthy of God and divisive of the public good… In an empire no god is for anyone. They are old gods who don’t care anymore and have tried everything once and have a committee studying all the other issues.” —Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
I chuckled at that last line. For more than a decade and a half, I’ve been studying how organizations talk about themselves and handle information, new ideas, and constituents, and I have never read a more succinct comment on the institutional drive to form committees.
While committees could be a way for these organizations to learn over time, they more often function as a way to stall discovery and change. Organizations use these structures to stand in place rather than search for new branches of the knowledge tree to explore. Shifts in framing and practice are minimal. And people can burn out tugging their groups forward or waiting for change.
It occurred to me, though, that even the capacity to become cynical, to have expectations that sour into disappointments, and to have a limited imagination for alternatives—these are all signs that many of us are more invested in our organizations and the current order than we realize.
“We do not believe that there will be newness but only that there will be merely a moving of the pieces into new patterns,” Brueggemman writes. Skepticism shrinks our sense of what could be different.
The prophets in religions and in the rest of civic society are pushing against that limited imagination every day. To resolve climate change, for example, we not only have to accept that the climate is changing, but we also have to accept that our culture’s normals—transportation options, urban design, housing sizes, energy supplies—must change too.
With poor people disproportionately impacted by rising sea levels and least likely to have cash for modifications, the prophets of our time will have to take a side: with those whose self-advocacy is not typically acknowledged.
Reformers who merely hope to tweak the status quo back into right order won’t be radical enough.