Thursday, August 18, 2005

Walter Brueggemann, Meet Cindy Sheehan


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.

8 comments:

Jess said...

Nicely done. I think part of why the Left is so baffled by the success of this administration is because we don't quite comprehend the all-encompassing degree of arrogance permeating those in charge. We assume the best in people, and want our leaders to be real people, to feel what we feel. This king just doesn't get it. Royal numbness, indeed - to the point of "let them eat cake!"

TransparentEye said...

I was skeptical of your metaphor, because Cindy Sheehan is an imperfect messenger. But you've won me over. Yes, the prophets were peculiar people, and probably embarassing to their families.

I'll accept Sheehan as a prophet as long as I don't have to follow her teachings literally.

Dave said...

Touche Doug! The Prophet metaphor is perfect. Do you think anyone will hear this prophet crying in the wilderness?

The Royal consciousness to me is hubris wrapped up in self-interest. For them to admit a mistake is political suicide. Like any nation, we want our "Sovereign" to be infallible, since most sovereigns claim divine providence (as Bush does). If the peasants see that their sovereign is human like they are, then they might rise against him. I don't see the American public charging down Pennsylvania Ave with pitchforks, but they just might do some damage in November mid-term elections.

Anonymous said...

Michael from Lubbock, TX

Thanks for the metaphor. It's hard to go wrong with Brueggemann. Very insightful.

I have been reading Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. I suspect you would find the book useful.

Anonymous said...

Emily from Washington, D.C.

I first read this posting in August, and I just keep coming back to it. It is very insightful and very true. Even more relevant now, post-Katrina. It has also inspired me to read The Prophetic Imagination. Thank you.

The Emerson Avenger said...

Hi Dave,

The Prophet metaphor is indeed perfect. Do you think anyone will hear this prophet crying in the wilderness?

The not so Royal consciousness of certain top level UUA officials is hubris wrapped up in self-interest. For such UUs to admit a mistake is religious suicide. . .

Glenda B said...

I'm sure that you're all going to jump down my throat for even thinking this, but is there a possibilty that Cindy Sheehan never accepted her son's decision to join the military? I mean, it isn't like there was a draft. And now she beats up society (and the president) for unresolved issues between herself and her son?
Yes there's something broken here, but it's on many levels.

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