“The Prophetic Tradition”
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
The First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
October 7, 2012
Even though it begins with “in the beginning” and ends with the end of the world, the Bible is not a single, unified story. At least not in the way that, for instance, novels tend to be one story. The Bible is many voices in conversation with one another. The Bible was written by multiple authors. Even if you believe that all those authors were inspired by God, as Jewish and Christian tradition holds, it’s also true that each of those authors had their own unique style and personality. Some write love poetry, others account for the generations, who begat whom begat whom. Each writer has his – or maybe, in some cases, her – own perspective, from their own background and experiences.
Sometimes the writers of the Bible seemed to contradict each other. We see this in Genesis, where there are two differing accounts of the creation of humankind.[i] The existence of multiple voices in the Bible has rather radical implications on the way we read it – yes, even for us Unitarian Universalists. Walter Brueggemann, the scholar of the Bible you heard from earlier, argues there are two competing narratives interwoven throughout the Bible.[ii] One is the narrative of empire, of accumulation. This narrative of empire tells the story of mighty kings like David and Solomon, who are said to be wise and brave and strong. Let’s bear in mind that their own official scribes, their own speechwriters as it were, may have had a hand in writing the Bible. Rulers almost always seek to justify themselves, and the rulers of Israel created a narrative that justified their rule.
So we have David the courageous and Solomon the wise. And maybe they were courageous and wise, we don’t know we weren’t. But did you know who created the great palaces of Solomon? According to the Bible itself, Solomon’s temple was built was thousands of slaves.[iii] Do you know what Solomon ate for dinner? According to the Bible, every day ten oxen, twenty cows, a hundred sheep, deer, gazelles, roebuck, and many birds were killed for his meals.[iv] Maybe he shared them. The text doesn’t say. We should be careful interpreting the Bible, it’s so easy to think it says what we want it to say. As Brueggemann reads it though – and I find his reading compelling – the text seems to be saying, “greed is good”. Solomon was clearly loved by God, says the text, because look at all the wealth he has. Consumption is glorified, and consumption comes through oppression, the slaughtering of one’s enemies, and enslavement. This is one of the places where the “Old Testament” gets the reputation that I so often hear – as a book of violence and an oppressive God.
And it would be easy to say “that’s just the way it was back then” – but this isn’t just ancient history, you understand. When we think about that wealth created by slave labor, another country’s history perhaps comes to mind. Historically, slavery built our current economic system, at least in part. And last I heard, war is still extremely profitable.
Along with consumerism and oppression, the third side of this unholy trinity is religion. A specific brand of religion that glorifies the empire and its rulers. This religion brings God near, names God, and claims God for one’s own. After he has built the Temple, we hear Solomon say, in the first book of Kings in the Bible, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness, but I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”[v] Solomon is claiming God for himself, saying that God lives at the very center of his empire. Thus, to pray to God is to affirm Solomon’s rule. And the role of God, in Bruegemann’s words, is to “maintain our standard of living”; God solves our problems for us, and manages society so that we are prosperous. You know how strong this religious outlook is in America. You can find it expressed in New Age to fundamentalism.
Now, the prophets: the prophets present an alternative voice. Or rather, many alternative voices: the prophetic books of the Bible were written over many centuries – stretching from the time of the Jewish kings until the exile, where the Jewish people were held in captivity in Babylon, and beyond to the time of the Persian empire. Four hundred years later, much of Jesus’ ministry clearly is in a prophetic vein.
So there are many voices that make up the prophetic tradition. It’s important to note that prophecy, in the Jewish and Christian tradition, is not the same as fortune-telling. These are not men and women taking clients to tell them about their individual futures (and there are women prophets in the Bible, by the way). While predicting the future was sometimes a part of what the prophets did, the Hebrew word for prophet, “navi”, meant someone who uses their mouth, a spokesperson. They were people who told truths, people who were audacious enough to speak for God.
They spoke about the future; they also spoke about the past. They presented a vision, not just of how things might be, but how things currently were.
In the alternate vision that the prophets preach, life is not an “onward and upward forever” of powerful empires. Many of them wrote during difficult times, times the Jewish people were powerless or enslaved, so it was obvious that life was not rosy. But the interpretation of this was very important. The prophets could have preached that life was hard, but God was just around the corner, looking to make the believers prosperous again. Think about our times in America, today – it’s so easy, so tempting to preach that God wants us to be successful, that we just need to get with the right program, drink the right tonic, use the right magic potion. Such remedies are always popular. They’re on every channel, preached at every demographic.
But the prophets – get this – they said God caused the devastation! That will make them popular, huh? God has no intention of always being on our side. And, furthermore, the prophets said to the people, God did this because you had forgotten God. Oh, you said you worshipped God, you built a temple, you performed all the necessary rituals. But the prophets said, you want to worship God, live the right way. Obey the commandments. Help the poor. You think building a grand temple, saying your prayers at night is worship? That’s just serving yourself. You’re trying to get God on your team. God could care less.
Here it yourself, the words of Isaiah 58, talking about the day of prayer, the fast day. He speaks:
“Look you serve your own interest on the fast day,
and oppress all your workers…
such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high…
Is not the fast I choose to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every prison? is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house…
Then you shall call, and the Lord answer, you shall cry for help, and He shall say, ‘Here I am.’”
If Isaiah was preaching today, he’d say, “so you say you have the ‘right’ religion? You see the believe the correct dogma, your mission statement is perfectly on point?’ Who cares. Look out the window. People are starving. The earth is sick, it’s going to fall apart in environmental devestation. Spare me your correct worship. Spare me your noble words of praise. Go out there and take care of my people, go liberate the people, go tend to the earth, or to hell with you.”
Strong words, I know. The prophets rattled the walls of decorum; they yelled out in anger. Frequently they compared Israel to a prostitute. Pretty misogynistic o today’s ears, I know, but just think: the glorious empire that David and Solomon had extolled in that same Bible, here’s Jeremiah and Hosea saying, it’s a harlot, it’s just trading stuff for money. That’s all it is.
So these prophets were certainly extreme – Jon Stewart had nothing on these guys and girls – but ultimately, for all their talk of devastation, they were trying to push the people to a vision of hope. The prophets preached that many people will go to God’s mountain, beat their swords into ploughshares, study war no more. The lion will lie down with the lamb, justice will be like a river and righteousness like a mighty stream.[vi] See they were frustrated because, like Dr. King who echoed those words centuries later, they could see the promised land, they knew there was another way to live. And they were trying to point us there.
And that right way to live? In covenant. In right relationship. They said, if you can see beyond the stuff, beyond the accumulation and consumerism, beyond the dog-eat-dog world, there’s a whole ‘nother world out there. “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” as Jesus put it. You want to gain life? First you have to lose it. You have to let go of life as a means of getting, of storing up, of trying to be great, and you have to allow yourself to be in harmony with the earth, to serve your sister and brother, to be a part of it all. When you lose your old life, a new life will come. Not in some heaven off in the clouds. Here. Now. [vii]
A new spirit in those dry bones, as Ezekiel put it[viii]: you’ll breathe in one day <>, look around, and say, “what was I thinking?” Hanging on, trying to get as much as I can. This is life. Letting go is life, not hanging on.
I could name you a thousand prophets throughout history, who have learned how to serve, to let go. You know many of the names: Gandhi, Mother Theresa, King, Olympia Brown, Henry David Thoreau. I’ll leave you with one: Clare Butterfield.[ix]
Clare’s a Unitarian Universalist who lives in Chicago. Since 1999 she’s led an organization called Faith in Place, which helps congregations from different faith traditions consider what their own faithful response should be to our ecology, and then helps these congregations achieve their environmental goals. As of April she’s worked with over 900 congregations – maybe it’s 1,000 now. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Zoroastrianism, Baha’i, and Unitarian Universalist. She’s eager to work with every congregation, of every possible outlook and philosophy, if they’re willing to talk to her. She’s done everything from urban community gardens to irrigation systems to designing church buildings to discussion groups and sustainability circles to educating the youth, and giving them hope.
She also, she freely admits, made a lot of mistakes and had plenty of stumbles along the way. She’s no stranger to failure. And besides which, as everyone working in the environmental field knows, it can feel a little like hanging on to an iceberg with paper clips. If you’ll pardon the metaphor. Everything, all that work, can just slip away.
But you know what gives this remarkable woman – this prophetic woman – hope to do her job? It’s interesting, she said she was inspired by learning about the nonviolent revolutions in Czechoslovakia and Poland, the Velvet Revolution and the Solidarity Movement. The people in these countries lived under the repressive regime of the old USSR. Life seemed almost hopeless, hope like a puff of smoke in the distance. They were waiting for one day they didn’t know would ever arrive.
And what they decided to do in Czechoslovakia and Poland (and I know this myself secondhand, by the way, from a dear friend of mine named Eva who lived through those times) what they decided to do, in Clare Butterfield’s words, was to “live as if the reality of what they wanted was already here.” As if the change had already come, as if were already free. They decided to live as free people, to embrace culture, to practice the democratic spirit, to be autonomous. They lived as if the new world was already here, even though it plainly wasn’t. They didn’t ignore their grief – they felt it all the time – but they let their grief lead them to a stubbornness, a strength they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
So Clare Butterfield, 5,000 miles away, in Chicago, thinks about those revolutions n Eastern Europe, and she considers the environmental movement, and she says, “you know, the world isn’t the way we want it to be. But let’s be the change we want to see, in Gandhi’s world. Let’s start living it right now.” In her words, at Faith in Place they “obstinately and naively imagine a reality in which people are kind to one another. And we’re sincerely curious about a different way of seeing things.” Butterfield goes on, “In a tiny way we’ve created that reality. How could I leave now? It’s way too much fun.”
There is another way of being in the world. We want to be aware of the past, to draw strength from the prophetic tradition that insisted there was another way than grab the gold, oppress the weak. And then we have to live the future, be the future, right now. We can do this. We can do it today. May we live hope in our lives, and call a good future into being, as naturally as we draw breath in our bodies. Breathe in frustration with what is, and sit with it, until we are ready to breathe out visionary hope.
May it be so,
[i] Genesis 1:26-27, Genesis 2:7-8
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination.
[iii] 1 Kings 9:15-21
[iv] 1 Kings 4:22.
[v] I Kings 8:12-13. This and the three previous references all cited first in Brueggemann, op. cit.
[vi] Various prophetic books of the Bible.
[vii] cf. Matthew 16:26-28. As I’ve said before, it’s critically important that the reader understand that Jesus uses the same word, psyche, for what appears in most English translation as two words, “life” and “soul”. The whole power of the passage is lost through this common mistranslation.
[viii] Ezekiel 37
[ix] From the wonderful Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists who are Changing the World by Michelle Bates Deakin. Very inspiring book.