I believe that the proper idiom for the prophet in cutting through the royal numbness and denial is the language of grief, the rhetoric that engages the community in mourning for a funeral they do not want to admit. ... I have been increasingly impressed with the capacity of the prophet to use the language of lament and the symbolic creation of a death scene as a way of bringing to reality what the king must see and will not. -- Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978)
Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside President Bush's vacation home is being interpreted in many divergent ways, but I'm coming to favor this one: A prophet is confronting a king. Walter Brueggemann's Carter-era model of the prophet/king relationship applies so well that it seems ... prophetic.
The key concept in Brueggemann's model is the royal consciousness, which is perhaps the best label I can think of for the attitude that pervades the Bush administration. The royal consciousness believes -- or at least says in public -- that everything is fine. The right people are in power and they are doing the right things. Everything is on track. Everybody should be happy. No mistakes have been made.
It isn't just that the King has made the right decisions: The King has done the only things possible. No realistic alternatives exist. People who imagine otherwise are fools -- dangerous fools, pathetic people unworthy of respect or even attention.
The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially numbness about death. It is the task of the prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering.
A society dominated by the royal consciousness becomes numb. It is obvious that things are wrong and people are suffering, but nothing can be done, so why even think about them? Why count the dead Iraqi civilians? Why count the workers who have given up on finding a job? Why measure the climate changes or count the species being extinguished? Why bother feeling compassion for the homeless, the millions without health insurance, or even those whose loved ones have died in the war? Nothing could have been different; nothing can be different in the future. Why indulge in pointless emotions?
Anything painful should be kept out of sight, in deference to those who do not wish to have pointless emotions. Coffins of the war dead should not be photographed. The president should not call attention to funerals. Who could be so presumptuous, so hateful, as to make him notice an individual death? On his vacation, no less. Would you want to deal with grieving mothers on your vacation? Of course not.
The task of the prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there.
The task of the Prophet is not to put forward a 15-point plan for reform. The Prophet does not come to replace the King and start a new administration. The job of the Prophet is simply to stop the royal consciousness in its tracks, to make it recognize that something is wrong. People are suffering. People are dying. Life out in the kingdom is not just bike rides and motorcades and helicopter flights to million-dollar fund-raising dinners.
Nothing can be done? That is not true. At the very least, we can grieve. And having grieved, we can dream. We can dream about peace, about maintaining the Earth's health and beauty, about caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and comforting those who have suffered losses. We can dream about asking forgiveness of those we have wronged. We can dream about making restitution. We can dream about going forth and sinning no more.
Perhaps the King is right. Perhaps none of that is possible. But we can dream of impossible things.
If we are to understand prophetic energizing, we must see that its characteristic idiom is hope and not optimism. ... Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. ... Clearly, only those who anguish will sing new songs. Without anguish the new song is likely to be strident and just more royal fakery.
Dreaming has to come before planning, not after. The royal consciousness maintains its hold by limiting our dreams to what we already know how to do. It will brook no foolish dreams, no impractical dreams, no dreams of things that do not already exist.
But after the Prophet has led us in grieving and led us in dreaming, then our creativity has something to work with and to work on. Optimism belongs to the known; it believes that our plan will work. Hope reaches to the unknown; it has faith that something new and previously unimagined may come to pass.
Cindy Sheehan doesn't bring an answer, she brings a question: Why did my son die?
She has not come to us as a saint, an angel, or some other holy and transcendent being. The prophets in their own era were nobodies. They were without honor. They were poor, dirty, uneducated. Undoubtedly their families were ashamed of them.
The prophets used cheap theatrics. It's easy to imagine the frustration of King Zedekiah when Jeremiah started wandering through Jerusalem with a yoke around his neck: That's not a plan! That's not a program! It's just a stunt!
Camping out in Crawford is a stunt too. That's what prophets do. They are not planners, technocrats, diplomats, or philosophers. They channel the grief of a numbed society. And they open the door to dreams of renewal.