Monday, June 18, 2012

Prophetic Preaching and American Exceptionalism



It is clear that one cannot hope to compete politically without mouthing one's assent to the principle of American Exceptionalism.  We have come to believe that there  is something "special" about this country.  We see ourselves as especially blessed by God, and ultimately we can do no wrong.  To "apologize" for past acts of injustice is seen as inappropriate and weak.  One presidential candidate has made it his mantra to condemn his opponent for making apologies for American actions.  No apologies necessary, for we are guiltless.  Never mind the facts -- that America long allowed for slavery, embraced a policy of genocide toward Native Americans, embraced Jim Crow.  We claimed to offer a haven for the poor and the lost, but our immigration policies are less than adequate to that claim.  Thus, preaching that embraces the prophetic imagination of the ancient prophets and of Jesus often finds deaf ears in this country.  Brueggemann writes in this regard:
In like manner, the “world in front to us” in contemporary US society has immense power, as it is carried variously by slogans, mantras, and various historical illusions. Thus variously the dominant imagination of the national security state trades on

           •   “A city set on a hill,”
           •   “Land of the free and home of the brave,”
           •   “Don’t tread on me,”
           •   “Leader of the free world,”
           •   “White man’s burden,” 
          •   “Manifest destiny.” 
All of these mantras, and many more that could be added, amount to a claim of exceptionalism that readily melds “God” into “country.” That melding, moreover, justifies macho violence in the  world on behalf of “democratic capitalism.” As any preacher will attest, the political-theological force of this imagination is immense and resists challenge, its devotees being acutely vigilant to spot any hint of challenge.   [Brueggemann, Walter (2011-12-15). The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word (p. 26). Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition.]
How do we proclaim Yahweh's Narrative when the alternative has proven resistant even to the Gospel.  What does it require of us?  Are we willing to say no to this message of exceptionalism?  

Brueggemann continues this conversation by noting:  

This judgment can be tested by asking any would-be prophetic preacher to identify the topics that cannot be mentioned in church. The list of them reflects the totalizing exceptionalism that is given religious sanction and that seeks to silence any question about that claim.  (p. 27).  

So, what topics are beyond the pale?

*Note, this series of reflections on Brueggemann's book are related to my attendance at the Rochester College sponsored:  "Streaming 2012 Conference" with Brueggemann and Richard Beck.   



11 comments:

Jeff said...

I am of the persuasion that any mingling of government and church corrupts said church, more than it influences policy towards the good; it sells what is priceless for what is fleeting.

While we must give unto Caesar what is his our true citizenship is to another Kingdom and we are merely sojourners passing through.

John said...

I am of the persuasion that we as Christians, are called to challenge te claims of the kingdom that is with the claims of the Kingdom which is the process of becoming.

Jeff said...

I agree John, but we ought to opperate from a place among the least of these, pleading with the hearts of the powerful -and, not from among them.

Robert Cornwall said...

Jeff, Thanks for the responses -- I thought I might push on the idea that we're mere sojourners. If we're merely sojourners passing through does that mean we don't have any responsibility for what happens in this life?

Brueggemann speaks of these two very different narratives. Although wew're to be proclaiming the narrative of YHWH, we seem rather invested in the Dominant narrative, which he calls military consumerism.

John said...

Mere sojourners? But I thought we prayed and were promised that the kingdom was coming to us?

But I also wanted to say that we work on behalf of the kingdom in whatever station in life we are blessed to find ourself in.....and wherever we are, we need to be sensitive as to which narrative we are living out, living into, and which narrative we are resisting.

Jeff said...

We are aliens in the sense that our customs and behaviors are those of another land -the Kingdom, both coming and here now inasmuch as being with Christ is our future reward as well as our present condition. Our very presence, if we live out that calling ought to challenge the world while being a people in whom Jesus lives ought to be about the fuller realization of the King's reign. Those are our obligations as we love God for his sake, and we love others for the sake of God as well and not due to some intrinsicality, our obligations toward the world cannot derive from the world nor its conditions in and of themselves, though as followers of an Incarnate God we must be engaged in the world and not simply cloistered from its harshest aspects.

John said...

"due to some intrinsicality". But do we not love our neighbor because to some degree they are the image and likeness of God? Is that not an intrinsicality?

You seem to suggest that our love of neighbor must come about as an act of obedience. Perhaps, but I think it is also acceptable if our love of one another results from other causes, no matter how mundane, whether from desire, compulsion, or intentional cultivation. It matters that we love, and that our love be wholesome and founded upon a desire for the welfare of the loved one. That our love coincidentally comply with Jesus' commandment is sufficient.

The real challenge is to love the unloveable.

Jeff said...

A couple of points to make sure we are discussing the same thing. I understand Scripture to mean more than sentimentality when it refers to "Love" -this is a weakness of our tongue, but that it is truly an active verb about how we treat others. Loving those who love us (or are in some other way perceived to be lovable to us) is not contrary to Scripture, but it is no credit to the Christian either.

Second, if by image of God found in man you mean that we have inherent worth -in of ourselves as an end in itself then, I would disagree. By image of God I understand that man is an Icon of God -whatever is found to be worthy in someone should point us to greater love and thanksgiving to our Creator. in that way we love others for the sake of God -also, inasmuch as Christ died for me while I was yet his enemy I must love others (even those as unlovable as an enemy) as he has loved me. So loving others for the sake of God is twofold those we find it easy to love 'in themselves' ought to lead us to a greater love of God, while our love of God ought to lead us to love those we may find difficult to love.

My concerns are that if I do not love my neighbor as I ought, that I should not place myself in the position of judging rather it is due to some defect in my perception of him, or that my neighbor is flawed and thereby find myself judging him; and that I also do not love beyond measure giving to something created what I owe only to God whom I am to love with all my being -so that any other love finds itself an expression of that and does not detract from it.

As for obedience do you see it as a task to do that which pleases the One you love or is it its own pleasure? yes, this is an exercise on me of God's sovereignty -but, is that a question of power meaning dominion or is it the power of a God who is Love to persuade even his most ardent enemy?

I would refer you to Sts. Augustine (on "Christian Doctrine" -it is short and as always well argued) and Bernard of Clairvaux ("On Four Loves") for better presentations of this idea that we are to love God for his own sake, and love our neighbor for the sake of God than I can give. Interestingly enough, it is a doctrine that seems to me to be universal among the mystics and not just Christian ones.

John said...

"Image and likeness of God" defies definition, and at the same time invites interpretation. For me it involves several components, including the idea that we bear the very breath of God within us. We are in fact offspring of God - not a mere creation (Jeremiah's pottery metaphor notwithstanding). "Image and likeness" also suggests to me that God's creatures, including humans, possess inherent worth, as an expression of God's creative endeavors, (not an icon of God, but a tangible manifestation of something God has willed into a free-standing existence).

And yet more. God loves us. Perhaps in the act of loving us God is merely acting from a divine compulsion - God is Love - God loves as an expression of God's nature. But I don't think so. My perception is that the very fact that we are loved by God is an expression of the fact that God has deemed us inherently worthy of love. In other words: God loves me so I must be lovable - I must be worthy of love, even if no one else loves me, even if I can't find it within my heart to love myself - because God chooses to love me. God's love for me establishes the fact beyond dispute that I am worthy of love - inherently so. And my neighbor is also worthy of such love, inherently so. Not as an icon of God, but because God has chosen to love my neighbor.

And not love as mere sentimentality or romance, but with charity (as in "faith, hope and charity") and with compassion.

I am also not so clear on your expression of the "greater love of God" notion. God is ineffable. A being an yet beyond being. So how do we love what is for all practical purposes an abstraction? It seems to me that the practical way of accomplishing this is to love God's physical manifestations, God's creation, and especially God's beloved. The surest way into a parent's heart is to express genuine love for her child. The surest way to express genuine love for God is to love God's creatures, and especially those creatures who God keeps closest to the heart. It may be a conceit, but I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that humans are among those whom God holds closest to the heart.

Hence, for me, loving other humans is an even more authentic and significant expression of the love of and for God, than loving the abstraction which we humans hold up as the God, the Ineffable Creator.

This last statement stands as a challenge to the traditional argument that love of neighbor is secondary to and derivative of the love we "owe only to God".

I am not seeking to divinize humanity, only to respect and honor that which God loves - that is, God's creation.

Nor am I critiquing God's ineffable nature. It is just that we humans are of the physical world, and we are bound and limited in our personal feelings and expressions by the physical limitations of this world. As such, we love in a very physical way. We can admire the essence of things, and we can discern beauty and purity in both the practical and the abstract. But we can only love with our whole being that which we can approach, that which we can touch, that to which we can express and that which can acknowledge and receive. The ineffable cannot do that - hence the Incarnation appeared, making possible that which was previously not possible - a physical proxy for the Creator God - a gift of a divine personhood capable of expressing and receiving human love.

But the Incarnation also teaches us, calling us to love one another as we have been loved, and calling for us to express our love and compassion to and on behalf of the least of these, because the least of these are in truth direct manifestations of the otherwise ineffable God.

To claim that we love the ineffable God with our whole being and yet at the same to fail to express compassionate love for the "least of these" is in truth evidence of the inadequacy or dis-ingenuity of our expression of love for the Divine.

Jeff said...

Or "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen." 1 John 4:20 (ESV)

That said I am a mystic, I was reading Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross as a teenager to make sense of my world -and this has left an indelible stamp upon me. Though, while I had food enough in the beginning to endure the journey I have also had my long dark nights -long enough anyway, not to confuse the presence of God with his gift of my sense of him. In my experience I have found God to be both transcendent and immanent.

To rejoice in the Gospel's "God is Love," and yet cry out with Isaiah "Woe is me!" (even more to wrap yourself in sack cloth and ashes when I hear my Savior cry out "why has Thou forsaken me?") My experience has been that I am most unworthy and yet I have a God who loves me -contemplating this, I find I have nothing left but praise for my God, whom I am to call my Father (and I am in awe again).

I do not know what to do with the modern sense of self-esteem; it seems to have no place here.

John said...

Jeff,

I am not sure what you mean by "modern sense of self-esteem".

While I can't empathize with your sense of unworthiness - inherent unworthiness has never been a component of my theology, I can accept that such has formed a part of your spiritual formation. But my spirituality has always taken the love of God as an affirmation of my worthiness - in essense since God said so, there is no longer any question. I embrace God's love rather than questioning it. And with that as a source of nurture, I seek opportunities to make God smile. Not acting in obedience but in response. As a child the very best moments in my life were those moments when when my parents would smile on me in pride.