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Awakening a Prophetic Imagination

When last did you play with a child? I mean really let your sensible, careful, sometimes anxious, adult self, get drawn into their world, fuelled by wild imagination and the sense that anything is possible?

How did it feel? How did it leave you feeling?

I have a vivid memory of children at play that comes to mind as I sit down to write. A few of us adults had been huddled up inside my friend’s home one early summer evening, talking as adults often do, about serious issues… church conflicts, community problems, yearnings for change, God’s will for our lives, “the hopes and fears of all the years”. A couple of us wandered outside into the small back yard to breathe in the cool evening air. There we found a group of neighbourhood children huddled around a low table made of crates and a board. Not wanting to break the obvious spell they were under, we crept slowly towards the scene. In front of us was the most elaborate table feast set before the gathered communion. As they noticed our presence, one child started to explain what we were seeing. Leaves as plates, a variety of seeds of all shapes making up various pieces of cups and goblets and an abundance of delicacies; sticks and stones were breadrolls and knives, sand as salt and muddy water as wine. A rare windless Cape Town summer evening, a vision for a feast beyond the ordinary, limitless raw materials from the yard and outside neighbourhood streets, eyes to see, and many excited hearts and willing hands were the ingredients needed to create this new world – “something” out of “nothing”.

The concept of a Prophetic Imagination, a term crafted and unpacked by the U.S. based theologian Walter Brueggemann, has become significant to our praxis here at The Warehouse and with churches over the past five years.  As an academic, deeply troubled by the crisis of the church in his own context, Brueggemann helps us to understand the ruling Empire(s) of our time, and our positioning within this as people who say we follow God. He explores what it means to be exiles in a context of Empire and how we respond in ways that either assimilate to and uphold the ways of Empire and oppression (what he calls having a Royal consciousness) or ways that resist and subvert the forces of Empire and oppression and foster alternative communities (what he calls a Prophetic consciousness). Not simple stuff! But profoundly challenging and potentially transforming when put into conversation with the broad sweep of Christian scripture, a diligent, deep and informed reading of our collective histories, and a courageous hope for a different present and future.

How does the lens of this prophetic imagination move us out of the stuffy living room and our sometimes anxiety-provoking and circular adult conversations into the children’s banqueting back yard full of play, possibility, creativity and freedom? What can feed such an imagination? Many of us are finding that as we learn about this lens and apply it to our reading of scripture, our reading of our own histories, our reading of the world and the city around us, and our reading of ourselves, we become a little bit more brave in the face of the might of today’s Empires and the systems and institutions that maintain them (even if we seem to benefit from them).

Throughout the stories and books of the bible, we encounter characters and situations and stories where we get glimpses of this Prophetic consciousness as the people of God grapple with what it means to be a community with each other and for others. To me, these moments stand out when I see characters emerging as rather peculiar sidestream narratives alongside what seems to be happening in the mainstream. I think of Hagar, an enslaved and used woman, who is despised and sent away to die but hears the voice of God calling out to her in the wilderness and becomes known as “she who hears God”. I see a circle of relating between Naomi, Ruth and Boaz that seems entirely ‘other’ to the ways of the world around them, exemplifying a more inclusionary interpretation of the law. I hear Isaiah describe with perfect vision, a new heaven and a new earth with a kind of justice and righteousness that he seemed to have very little evidence of in his immediate context. I recognize the fulfillment of these strange communities and visions in the radical and totally alternative life, execution and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and in the communities that we learn with throughout the rest of what we call the New Testament – all set against the backdrop of Empire oppression.

Similarly, throughout history since the birth of the Jesus community, the prophetic consciousness has been sustained through the courage of many followers of the way of Jesus, often in the contexts of the most brutal oppression, systemic violence and dehumanization.  Here, in our own country South Africa, we walk in their footsteps with humility.

I see the same kind of courage across my city and the world today; people resisting the status quo of inequality, unchecked greed and political might and force, with lives poured out in acts and relationships of presence, courage and resistance.

I sometimes hear criticism of Christians who seem so busy with trying to change the world that they seem to have lost sight of the God of heaven. I see this a bit differently. I see people with such a clear vision of the God of heaven that they have the audacity to believe that God’s very way is possible in the here and now. I see people fuelled by a wild imagination of the world that God has always imagined for us. And like that little crowd of children gathered around an intricate banquet on an cool summer evening, I see people with a  vision for a feast beyond the ordinary, eyes to see, excited hearts, willing hands; the ingredients needed to co-create with God and each other, this new world  – “something” out of “nothing”.

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