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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Prophetic Imagination
distributed 2/18/05 - ©2005

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Rev. Allyson Sawtell, of Denver, Colorado. Allyson's generous financial support helps make this publication possible. Her constant encouragement is a sustaining force in Peter Sawtell's ministry.

Last Monday, the National Council of Churches distributed an excellent open letter to churches in the US, God's Earth is Sacred. The document calls us to heed the full measure and magnitude of Earth's environmental crisis, and to respond in ways that are faithful and ethically grounded. It is a powerful statement that deserves wide circulation, and should be the basis for deep and prayerful reflection.

Something I heard yesterday, though, makes me worry that the Christian church in the US may be incapable of responding to that passionate and timely message.

I heard that a seminary class on religious education used God's Earth is Sacred as the focus of a group discussion and project. Two dozen aware, informed, committed people, training for careers in Christian ministry, read through the document. They were touched by the statements about the scope of environmental problems. They agreed with the theological declarations of sin, and of the need for repentance. They affirmed the eight norms for social and environmental responsibility.

And then, my informant tells me, then came the stumbling block. "What do we do?" was the question posed by the class exercise -- and no one could answer.

The document says, "the imperative first step is to repent of our sins, in the presence of God and one another." But repentance means change, and a turning away from sin, and it seems that the seminary students could not conceive of a way to live as Christians in the US that would embody the depth of repentance that is necessary.

The students could concur with all of the theology and all of the analysis, but they could not envision an option. They might as well have been asked to repent of breathing.

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Last night, I re-read a well-worn volume from my bookshelf, Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination. The imagination about which he writes is what was lacking in the seminary classroom. It is lacking in most of our churches, too.

Brueggemann takes it as a given that the church in the US "is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act." In such a setting, in a time when we have given in to "the royal consciousness", he lifts up prophetic ministry as the hope for transformation.

Part of the prophetic calling is bound up with a critique of the way things are. But Brueggemann asserts that an essential -- and often neglected -- piece of the prophetic is the ability to lift up the fact that things can be different than they are.

He asks a question that speaks directly to the experience of the seminary class: "quite concretely, how does one present and act out alternatives in a community of faith which on the whole does not understand that there are any alternatives, or is not prepared to embrace such if they come along?"

It is important to understand the depth of what Brueggemann means when he speaks of an "alternative". Knowing that we are all steeped in the culture that must be changed, he says, "We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable." "The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined."

Part of the student's inability to answer the "what can we do?" question goes to our inability to even imagine a society that is not inherently exploitative of the rest of creation, one that is not founded on unsustainable growth, one that is not driven by human privilege and power. If we cannot imagine that there is a "promised land" that is just and sustainable, then we will never be able to think about starting the exodus. And if our notion of faithful Christianity is tied to affluence and privilege, then we will never be able to image lives of sacrifice and acts of resistance, let alone begin to live that way.

The prophetic imagination entices us when it proclaims that it is possible for humans to live just and fulfilling lives without destroying the planet. The prophetic imagination is transformative when it allows us to believe that it is possible to live in sustainable, harmonious relationships with all of God's creation. The prophetic imagination is a threat to the royal consciousness when it offers us even the possibility of living and acting in ways that will replace the destructive empire with a better way of life.

The seminary students had not had a chance to study God's Earth is Sacred before the class. In a very limited class time, they were pushed quickly to the question of "what can we do?" Their paralysis speaks to a common situation, but does not need to define it.

What can we do? As clergy and church leaders, an essential part of what we must do is exercise our imagination. We must find ways to speak of God's shalom that express hope and joy, and that celebrate sustainability and justice as delightful possibilities. We must find ways to speak of faithful Christian life as different from the American dream. We don't need a blueprint with all of the details. We do need to be able to proclaim, not only that the current situation is wrong, but that another way is possible.

Only then will our repentance lead us into changed lives. And only then will we feel compelled to find a way to make that joyous vision real.

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"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
          -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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