The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Truth Ignores Power
A few weeks ago, I had the delightful opportunity to attend a series of lectures by Dr. Walter Brueggemann. I found hope in a startling idea that he developed, and I remember its relevance this week. In the midst of both world events and the church season of Advent, we need to hear a fresh word about Old Testament prophets.
Walter's three sessions at a Denver church looked at three prophetic approaches to truth and power. He started off with the familiar one: the prophet speaks truth to power. The example was Moses confronting the Pharaoh. He ended with a rare one: the power structures express truth. We heard about King Josiah initiating widespread reforms.
The middle session is the one that I keep thinking about this week. He talked about a style of prophetic transformation where truth ignores power. Walter used Elijah and Elisha as examples. Those prophets considered the carriers of their society's official power to be essentially irrelevant. The "powerful" kings and authorities are not where God will be at work.
That's an important message for us to hear this week, because the powerful of our world are showing their own irrelevance, and today's prophets are speaking up in other places. It is good to know that our faith tradition has dealt with this kind of situation before, and that we can learn from those surprising models.
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There are two vivid settings this week that reveal irrelevant power.
The most obvious is the political circus going on in Washington, DC, where a self-imposed fiscal crisis presents more of a challenge than our "leaders" can handle. The issues before them are important, but the posturing and the lack of serious conversation reveals the inability of the US political system to deal with hard and conflictual matters. The news media brings us breathless updates every hour about the unchanging situation. After a long election season that avoided many essential issues (including climate change) the politicians are doing a fine job of showing their own ineptitude.
The irrelevance of power, though, is most blindingly obvious this week at the UN climate conference wrapping up in Doha, Qatar. The mainstream media in the US hasn't bothered to cover the conference, because it isn't expected to accomplish anything of importance. The failure of the world's nations to confront the climate crisis is tragic and horrifying, but not surprising.
That is a big change from three years ago. In 2009, you'll recall, the climate conference was held in Copenhagen. There was a new US President who seemed to take the crisis of climate change seriously, and who brought a political style that was willing to engage other nations. Strong grassroots organizing around the world -- especially with 350.org and Avaaz -- had raised awareness and brought a loud prophetic voice to demand action from the negotiators. There was real anticipation that the global movement would be effective in speaking truth to power, and that bold new initiatives would emerge from "Hopenhagen." But it didn't turn out that way.
The negotiations in succeeding years have been equally disappointing. The prophets have recognized that the UN's high-level official conference is incapable of doing what needs to be done. In the grassroots movement seeking action on climate change, I see precisely the shift of approach that Brueggemann described with Elijah and Elisha. The prophets ignore the powerful, and seek to do the work of justice and transformation in other areas.
This fall, the excellent organizers at 350.org haven't been gearing us up for protests in Doha. Rather, Bill McKibben has just finished a tour of university campuses, calling on college students to demand that their schools divest from fossil fuel companies in their investment portfolios.
The official delegates from the world's nations at the formal United Nations conference are irrelevant. The prophets -- and, yes, I do see Bill McKibben as a prophet -- have discerned that it isn't worth the time and energy to deal with systems that won't change. It isn't even worth talking about those gatherings of the powerful, anymore. Instead, the prophets among us are creating new places where change is happening, and where we can be effective in taking moral stands.
We can say that God is at work in the world this month. Truth is being spoken, lives are being changed, and institutions are being nudged in new directions. But the prophetic initiative isn't in Doha. It was in packed auditoriums all across the US, and it continues on college campuses.
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Walter Brueggemann walked us through the biblical books of First and Second Kings, a narrative that tells the history of Israel and Judah. He pointed out that one quarter of those books deals with the escapades of the two prophets, and that the kings disappear in "Kings".
Over and over again, Elijah and Elisha don't bother to confront the kings. They disregard them. They go about their work without acknowledging the official leaders. The prophets are leaders of a subversive movement, bringing about liberation and transformation. They bring shalom -- life and well-being -- outside of the established structures.
And, Brueggemann reminded us, John the Baptist and Jesus did the same thing. The gospel narratives do tell us who the official rulers were, but John and Jesus didn't go to confront them with demands. They spoke truth and brought shalom around the edges, and the powerful found that transformational message to be absolutely frightening.
In Advent, we remember the prophets, and we tell the story of John, and we proclaim that the realm of God is breaking into the world. Those stories have more relevance for us when we see that, often, the prophets didn't bother with the kings and the priests and the folk who write the laws. Over and over again, the realm of God crops up outside the circles of official power.
I find good news and hope in the varieties of prophetic action. Sometimes we do well to speak truth to power, and to make demands for change. And sometimes we just bring about the change in other ways, leaving "the powerful" alone.
Here in the US, and all around the world, cities have strong plans of action to reduce their carbon emissions, businesses are launching environmentally helpful products and services, universities are changing their investment strategies, "grow local" movements are creating new forms of resilient agriculture, and young adults are buying less cars. Change is happening, in spite of the inability of national governments to act.
God is at work in the world. God's realm of shalom is breaking in around the edges. There is much more to be done, of course, but I rejoice in the long prophetic heritage where truth ignores power on the way to achieving transformational change.
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