Prophetic Imagination, The Greatest Prayer, and Mass Incarceration

By Charles Kiker

This is something of a response to and expansion of Alan Bean’s recent post, “Marcus Borg’s radical Christianity.” In this post Dr. Bean mentioned Walter Brueggemann and John Dominic Crossan in passing. I respond by expanding on the thought of those two scholars, and relate their perspectives to the issue of mass incarceration.

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is the author of The Prophetic Imagination. The second edition was copyrighted in 2001, so it does not qualify as a recent contribution. But it only recently came to my attention.

Brueggemann presents the Hebrew culture as represented by Moses as an alternative community to the royal, person negating culture of Egypt. The culture of Egypt was anti-freedom not only for humanity, but also for God. This counterculture to royalty and the perks of royalty persisted in Hebrew life for a couple of centuries or so before a new royalty, a counter-counterculture, took root under David and thrived under Solomon and his successors in both Hebrew kingdoms. The prophets beginning in the 8th century BCE, some of them at least, broke free from tradition to provide a new counter voice to the royal consciousness of privilege and power that had arisen in the Hebrew kingdoms.

Jeremiah was the prophet of pain; Deutero-Isaiah the prophet of hope. Pain is a necessary predecessor to hope, lament a predecessor to praise in the confrontation between the royal consciousness of privilege and power and the radical freedom of and in God.  I have this quote from Brueggemann written in the margin of my Bible at Psalm 23, “It is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously” (The Prophetic Imagination, p. 67). Brueggemann cautions that social policy is not necessarily in the purview of the prophet, and that anguish is more fitting than anger as prophetic attitude. This book cannot be satisfactorily reviewed in a blog-length post. One must read it for oneself.

John Dominic Crossan

John Dominic Crossan in The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer travels from Genesis to Revelation with many stops between in his exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. He provides a convincing contrast of the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world. God is Father/Householder in a just household where everyone has enough and no one has too much. God is God’s name, and God’s name is holy. The venue of God’s heavenly kingdom/will is earth. Crossan references the manna in the wilderness in his exposition of our daily bread.

In the final chapter, Crossan discusses the Bible as “The Strangest Book.” In this book, Crossan acknowledges, we find not only, from cover to cover, a God of nonviolent distributive justice and restorative righteousness but also a God of violent retributive justice and punitive righteousness. Crossan asks the question, “How is that to be—or is it to be—reconciled?” (p. 183).

It cannot be reconciled by claiming that one is the God of the Old Testament and the other of the New. Crossan opts, not for reconciling the two views but openly claiming the God of nonviolence as the God of Jesus Christ.  And that God is the God Crossan opts for. He notes that “. . . we are called Christ-ians and not Bible-ians” (p. 187). Just as with The Prophetic Imagination, one should read The Greatest Prayer for oneself.

As Alan Bean notes in his blog post, neither Brueggemann nor Crossan display any awareness of or interest in the problem of mass incarceration.

Brueggemann does say (p. 117) “The task of prophetic ministry is to evoke an alternative community that knows it is about different things in different ways.” Alan Bean in other posts has asked for intentional kingdom communities.

These two books can help us understand our primary sources for such alternative kingdom communities rooted and grounded in the kingdom of God. They can help us to understand that the alternative to the kingdom of God is a person-negating freedom-denying kingdom of this world. They can help us to communicate that mass incarceration runs counter to the alternative kingdom community.

Are such communities economically viable? Wrong question.

Are such communities possible? Imagine that!

Charles Kiker

Tulia, Texas

Retired minister and founding member of  Friends of Justice

One thought on “Prophetic Imagination, The Greatest Prayer, and Mass Incarceration

  1. I watched the final episode of the PBS documentary, “God in America,” last night. There was a segment with the Martin Luther King Jr. speech at the Lincoln Memorial inWashington, D. C. on August 28, 1963. I could see his movement from Jeremiah (anguish over the unfulfilled American promise for black Americans) to Deutero-Isaiah (radical prophetic imagination hope: “I Have a Dream.” Michelle Alexander with “The New Jim Crow” has set the table with anguish over mass incarceration. It is up to us to begin dreaming with prophetic imagination. We have the Biblical basis provided by the scholarly works of Borg, Brueggemann, Crossan and others. We have the authority of the United States Constitution. We have the recent historical precedent of Martin Luther King Jr. Let this not be a time of small things, but a day for expansive imagination. Let us dream big.

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