One of the central strands of Christian thinking is that of the ‘Prophetic Imagination’ (see W Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress Press 1978). The prophetic perspective centres on a distinction between the “Royal Consciousness” and the “alternative community”. Consider the experience of the Hebrew people in Egypt. The dominant classes established and promoted an ideology which allocated the Hebrews a particular role in that system – they were the slaves, and this denial of human freedom, this destruction of human nature, was a cause of tremendous pain and anguish – which the Lord hears. Brueggemann gives three elements of this Royal Consciousness, which he explicitly links to our modern life:
i) it is driven by an economics of affluence “in which we are so well off that pain is not noticed and we can eat our way around it” – we are fed sufficient soma to be tranquilised into acquiescence;
ii) the dominant politics are oppressive, “the cries of the marginal are not heard or are dismissed as the voices of kooks and traitors”; and
iii) the dominant religion is one of immanence – God made domestic and safe – “God is so present to us that his abrasiveness, his absence, his banishment are not noticed, and the problem is reduced to psychology”.
This is the situation in which Moses, the archetypal prophet, is called to serve the Hebrew people, and to lead them towards freedom in the promised land. This emphasis on freedom is crucial, as it is for a free life that the Hebrews have been released from Egypt. Brueggemann points out that at the centre of Moses’ ministry lies not a cry for social justice (criticism of the status quo – the ‘liberal’ idol) nor a reaffirmation of a familiar God (the idol of a comforting conservatism) but a radical call to become acquainted with the living God, who cannot be captured in our understandings but who is the only God who can set us free: “the point that prophetic imagination must ponder is that there is no freedom of God without the politics of justice and compassion, and there is no politics of justice and compassion without a religion of the freedom of God”.
Intimately woven in with this freedom of God is an acknowledgement of the pain of the oppressed, the pain which has been denied an outlet. Indeed, it is the explicit naming of this pain which generates the momentum for change, the avowal that something is wrong: “as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.”
So, rooted in this commitment of response to the living God, this acceptance of pain, the prophet Moses embarks upon the road of freedom, freedom for God’s people. This path begins with the imagination – setting the understanding of the people free so that they can discern that the Royal Consciousness, the status quo, is not permanent and given (is not God) and that it can be overthrown. Thus, as Brueggemann famously puts it, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture”. This involves some element of prediction about the future, but those predictions have interest only in so far as they stand as criticisms over against the present; they do not stand independently of that context and are open to revision (eg Jonah’s message to Nineveh).
This alternative understanding first criticises the existing social arrangements, principally through attacking the ‘gods’ of the system, and then energises the alternative community through a promise of a different place, the promised land which is the living God’s intention for his people. In other words, through being rooted in a right understanding of God’s freedom, a new social community comes into being to properly reflect that sense.
It is in this context that the ten plagues must be understood, for the plagues represent the contest between the gods of the status quo, the gods of Egypt, and the living God working through Moses. To begin with, the powers that be are able to meet and match the actions which YHWH takes. Nothing changes and the power of Egypt remains intact – yet with the third plague the establishment fails: “The Gods of Egypt could not! The Scientists of the regime could not! The imperial religion was dead! The politics of oppression had failed! That is the ultimate criticism that the assured and alleged power of the dominant culture is now shown to be fraudulent.” The powers have been named, and in being named, they have been dethroned. Now that the dominant system has been unmasked as temporary, that its claims to divine eternity have been exposed, its foundations begin to crumble. “By the middle of the plague cycle Israel has disengaged from the empire, cries no more to it, expects nothing of it, acknowledges it in no way, knows it cannot keep its promises, and knows that nothing is either owed to it or expected of it. That is the ultimate criticism that leads to dismantling.”
Finally, once this has happened, the prophet comes into his own through the articulation of the new possibilities, which energises the new community. This is the exercise of the prophetic imagination – the conceiving of something new within the world. For it is this articulation that holds back despair as the old order breaks down. “It is the task of the prophet to bring to expression the new realities against the more visible ones of the old order. Energising is closely linked to hope. We are energised not by that which we already possess but by that which is promised and about to be given”. This articulation necessitates the development of new images and new metaphors with which to describe the Royal Consciousness, thus bringing it into open conflict with the claims of the living God. Ultimately, the alternative community is sustained by the highest form of language, doxology, the practice of its worship, for “Doxology is the ultimate challenge to the language of managed reality and it alone is the universe of discourse in which energy is possible.” Only worship sustains the hope which sustains the community, on its journey through the wilderness towards the promised land.
The analogies to our present situation, are, I trust, reasonably clear. We live within a Pharaonic system of oil based consumerism, and we are taught that it cannot be challenged, for to do so is to threaten the prosperity on which we all depend. It seems to me that the task of the Christian in this situation is to renew our prophetic imagination and to speak words of praise and hope which enable the development of a community which reflects the freedom of a loving God.
Specifically, I think we must:
i) identify the Royal Consciousness in all its aspects, not just Peak Oil, although that will inevitably be central;
ii) articulate the pain of the marginalised and oppressed who have no present voice or witness;
iii) challenge the claims to power made on behalf of the Royal Consciousness, with a view to demonstrating their emptiness;
iv) labour with confident expectation towards the dismantling of the present structures;
v) develop new communities which break away from obeisance to the Royal Consciousness, and which offer the opportunity of free life in the image of the free God;
vi) articulate a vision of hope, a promised land, on the other side of Peak Oil, which will sustain us through the transition period in the wilderness; and
vii) trust in God.
That is what I intend to spend the coming months working on.