The basis of spiritual community is truth; the basis of emotional community is desire. The essence of spiritual community is light.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
“The red letters are the words of Jesus.”
Told to me by my mother as a child
When I was a young child, our church had a contest. The first child to memorize the 23rd Psalm won a Bible. I will not go into all the competitive details, but when I finally received my Bible, I noticed that some of the letters in the New Testament were red. “Mommy, why are these letters red?” I asked my mother. “Well,” she replied, “those words are the words of Jesus.” I have dedicated much of my adult life trying to figure out what the words of Jesus mean. No matter whether they are related to the “historical Jesus” or not, the words of Scripture speak words of wisdom, faith and love and nowhere is this more powerfully expressed than in the “words of Jesus” and his predecessors, the prophets. But these words can be compromised and in our post-truth era there seem to be those who like the Royal Courts of the prophetic period have made these words serve their own ends. They thereby nullify the prophetic voice of Scripture forcing the “thus speaks God” of the prophetic message to serve mammon. The result is that many Christians now serve a golden calf and identify a man, Donald Trump, as their Moses, their Christ. This man, who speaks lies, whose behaviors are filled with treachery and whose strategies bespeak division and hatred, it is this man they claim as their prophet and his ways as the ways of God. They seem to adore his words as if they were the words of Jesus. But lies will never proclaim truth; hatred will never become the voice of love; war is never the way of peace. Can this man, then, be a prophet? Where is the prophetic voice in a post-truth era??
To this end, I have been re-reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. In this work, Brueggemann pits the “prophetic imagination” against what he calls “royal consciousness.” He writes:
I have long been struck by the prophetic notion that it is not the powerful who guide us into moral and spiritual existence, but the weak and the marginalized ones.
“To the imperial world of Pharaoh and Solomon, the prophetic alternative is a bad joke either to be squelched by force or ignored in satiation. But we are a haunted people because we believe the bad joke is rooted in the character of God himself, a God who is not the reflection of Pharaoh or of Solomon. He is a God with a name of his own, which cannot be uttered by anyone but him. He is not the reflection of any, for he has his own person and retains that all to himself. He is a God uncredentialed in the empire, unknown in the courts, unwelcome in the temple. And his history begins in his attentiveness to the cries of the marginal ones” (Brueggemann, Walter. Prophetic Imagination: Revised Edition [p. 36]. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition; emphasis is my addiction).
I have long been struck by the prophetic notion that it is not the powerful who guide us into moral and spiritual existence, but the weak and the marginalized ones. The “face of the other,” as Emmanuel Levinas puts it, places before us the prophetic imagination calling us to moral and redemptive behaviors. Indeed, it is the “least of these” that forms the core of Jesus’ message of salvation.
Given this, I began to wonder what Walter Brueggemann might have thought about Donald Trump and his huge following of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians. I didn’t find anything that Brueggemann wrote about Trump, but I did run across an interesting article by “Red-Letter Christians,” the moniker adopted by Evangelical Christians now losing faith in the Evangelicals who have so ardently supported Donald Trump. Following the election of Trump and the blind and sycophantic support of Trump by Evangelical leaders, Don Golden wonders why someone whose campaign was based upon white privilege, xenophobic slogans grounded in White Nationalism and whose pledges to oppress marginalized groups here and around the world are promises reinforced by his support of dictators like Rodrigo Duterte, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, how could someone like this capture the imaginations of Evangelical leaders and 81% of the Evangelical vote that helped put Trump into office? According to Golden, this is not just an attack upon America, it is a betrayal of the words of Jesus and the Gospel he preached. These evangelicals, Golden writes, are the “reasons why some evangelicals in America are looking for a new label that expresses their biblical faith without the distorting compromise or toxicity. More and more of us who still hold to evangelical theologies no longer want to call ourselves evangelical and have adopted, instead, the name Red Letter Christians” (https://www.redletterchristians.org/red-letter-christians-v-donald-trumps-evangelicals/).
In other words, while the prophetic message cannot be reduced to ethics, the prophetic voice demands obedience to the “thus speaks God” meted out not by the rich and powerful but by the poor, the weak, the dispossessed.
Golden’s advocacy for the “least of these” aligns his words with the words of Brueggemann although the two of them are ideologically worlds apart. They are, however, kindred spirits bound together by what Brueggemann calls “the prophetic imagination.” The force of the prophetic message is not one that exonerates the powerful and their oppressive tactics (the royal consciousness). Rather, the word of God is spoken prophetically when it speaks on behalf of the marginalized populations whose hope is that one day their voices will be heard, their value affirmed, and their dreams of dignity realized. This is the prophetic dream and such is the work of the prophetic imagination, but in the mouths of many, this dream is domesticated and managed by a timeline favoring the rich and powerful The Royal Consciousness, as Brueggemann calls it, silences the prophetic imagination by making it a message of and for only those who have conformed to the Royal formulary of faith, a loyalty that promises the conformists (the Orthodox) will not be left behind. From Golden’s point of view, the Royal Consciousness is represented by the Republican party whose religion is proclaimed by the Evangelicals and their leaders. Again, Golden writes:
The inevitable moral and political collapse of the American right is [facilitated], in large part, by compromised Evangelicalism and the congregations it misleads into voting against the teachings of Jesus in the red letters. Theologies that require mental assent but leave our ethics and our politics untouched have left Evangelicalism serving as the court religion for the Republican Party.
While the prophetic imagination and ethics do not share a one-to-one correlation, the prophetic imagination implies an ethic based upon “the least of these,” championing the voices of the marginalized, and led by what Emmanuel Levinas calls “the face of the Other.” In other words, while the prophetic message cannot be reduced to ethics, the prophetic voice demands obedience to the “thus speaks God” meted out not by the rich and powerful but by the poor, the weak, the dispossessed.
Who among Christians would deny this? On the face of it, I do not think many would, but my conviction is being tested by the Evangelical furor that Trump’s election created, and while his defeat by President Biden may have quieted some voices, the Evangelical support of the “Big Lie” is as puzzling as is their continued support of Trump. What is going on here?
Following Brueggemann, I have outlined two tropes that form powerful narratives out of which national, religious and personal identities grow. Both narratives retain elements of nation, religion and self. The thought of Ruth Braunstein (2018) and her work on narrative identity is helpful at this point. According to Braunstein, political, national, and religious narratives are powerful metanarratives that come together in a particular focus we call an individual. The synthesis of these narratives into a person Braunstein calls “stories of peoplehood.” She notes that these stories are comprised of a “public narrative” and an individual or “ontological narrative.” The former is comprised of historical events while the latter is comprised of personal experience. A person’s values and their loyalties are forged in the back-and-forth created by these two narratives.
According to Braunstein, political, national, and religious narratives are powerful metanarratives that come together in a particular focus we call an individual.
The Royal Court narrative is a narrative comprised of a strong governmental structure supported by a strong monoconfessinal religious presence. The authority of both is derived from the relationship between the two, a relationship noted for its transactionalism. That is, their strength comes from having each other’s back. If the Court deems a particular group an enemy of the state, the religious body ordains the decision and then is rewarded by the Court. All who are loyal to this marriage win the protection from what the Court and its religious leaders call worldly evils that would otherwise belie them. As A.L. Berger (2018) points out, this type of narrative is an invitation to autocrats, on the one hand, and religious extremism on the other. Together, they develop a story that weaves a narrative of us (good) vs. them (bad), assails pluralism, demands loyalty to the Court’s political structure, the religious body’s dogma and a social order built on the values demanded by the religious body and upheld by the Court. In such a scenario, the people are more akin to subjects and rarely are they perceived as equals.
At an ontological level, the people who comprise the rank and file of this Court are not bad people. They do not wish each other harm, but they are intolerant of those who are different from themselves as defined by the Court and its religion. They care for their families, are generous to their friends and profess to love their neighbor. They desire to be good people, but because of their loyalty to the Royal Court, they cherish a value structure that is dangerous to democracy and a threat to the prophetic narrative. Why?
In Russia, a high degree of intolerance and the demand for loyalty has laid the foundation for the destruction of democracy.
One could point to what has happened in Russia under the leadership of Trump’s friend, Vladimir Putin and the Greek Orthodox Church. According to Jekatyenna Dunajeva and Karrie J. Koesel (2017), this marriage exemplifies the dangers to democracy that such an alliance creates. According to Dunajeva and Koesel, the alliance between Putin and Greek Orthodoxy has provided spiritual and moral authority that justifies relegating the non-Orthodox religions to a suspicious status heavily monitored by the State and marginalizing the members of non-Orthodox churches as being enemies of the state. In Russia, such a high degree of intolerance and the demand for loyalty has laid the foundation for the destruction of democracy.
In the United States, the analogy, as Golden pointed out, would be to the marriage of the Republican Party to the monoconfessionalism of the Religious Right and Fundamentalism. In Trump’s words, such an alliance would “make America great again,” but at what cost? The consequence of this alliance is the triumphalism of white privilege, the xenophobic dream of racism, loyalty to a political order intolerant of difference, and an ideological hatred of those who live at the margins of society. Just as in Putin’s Russia, it would be difficult for democracy to survive under such conditions.
The consequence of this alliance is the triumphalism of white privilege, the xenophobic dream of racism, loyalty to a political order intolerant of difference, and an ideological hatred of those who live at the margins of society. Just as in Putin’s Russia, it would be difficult for democracy to survive under such conditions.
Over and against this is what Brueggemann calls the “prophetic imagination.” The purpose of this narrative is to enliven the minds of people that they might live in the light of the nameless God. The practice of such faith is to speak prophetically against the intolerance and myopic ideology of the Royal Court. This faith lives on the margins and does not identify with one religion, nor does it advocate for a political structure, not even democracy. It finds its history in the wandering Aramean, Abram, and the diaspora of the Hebrews, but Judaism is not its home, nor does Judaism define the prophetic imagination. Its words are spoken by the Hebrew prophets but are also heard in the words of Jesus, Muhammed, the Buddha and notables such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martine Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Desmond Tutu, and many, many more. From the margins of society, the voice of the “I am” is heard and bluntly addresses the demands of the Royal Court affirming justice and an egalitarian form of community without compromise. This is a message filled with hope, but because the prophetic message focuses on the process of change rather than clearly defining an end game (political structure) it easily creates a feeling of homelessness that threatens the insecurities of many. As such, it is a much more open-ended narrative than that of the Royal Court and hence, it is found most often among the marginalized of society.
From a political perspective, this open-ended narrative is problematic. People long for security. They want their political leaders to provide answers and give them formulas that if followed, will make things better. Knowing where the lines are drawn brings comfort because they know who is on their side and who is an enemy. Security is found in this information and comfort is won by the one who tells them how their enemies will be destroyed. The Prophetic Narrative, however, is hard pressed to define an enemy. Even those of the Royal Court are not defined as an enemy but as those who have been led astray by a longing for security and avarice. Whereas the Royal narrative defines difference as a problem, the Prophetic narrative embraces difference as opportunity. For the Royal narrative, marginalized ones are to be shunned; for the Prophetic narrative, the marginalized are to be embraced for it is in the midst of these that the nameless God is heard.
Still, as Braunstein points out, open-ended narratives committed to difference need to engage in political structuring so that they more readily form as a story of peoplehood out of which one’s identity is formed. To bring some sort of identity to open-ended and diverse narratives such as the Prophetic narrative, Braunstein relies upon what she calls “the moral perfection narrative.” Despite her unfortunate use of the term “perfection,” this is a narrative that suggests morality is a result of embracing diversity. Ethics is not a matter of right; it is found in a willingness to be wrong fueled by the conviction that if acknowledged, mistakes can become valuable teachers. Mistakes are the domain of those who put forward an effort to make things more just while being guided by the nameless God who speaks from the margins of society. The suffering that inequality brings becomes the enemy to be overcome by developing a community based upon egalitarianism and the recognition that respect is something that happens when people listen to those who are different from themselves. Out of this dialogue grows the notion of morality.
According to Braunstein, the moral perfection model is a model of identity that Americans should embrace and out of which their identity should grow. From my perspective, I would argue that the open-endedness of the Prophetic narrative is such a narrative and provides people with the story of peoplehood needed to develop an identity around which democracy thrives.
Following Brueggemann, the Royal narrative is one of extreme nationalism and the religion it embraces is the one that ordains the xenophobia and avarice the Royal Court uses to exercise its power. It governs on behalf of only those who are loyal to its mandates, strategies and political and religious dogma. On the other hand, there is the Prophetic narrative that is grounded in the open-endedness of the prophetic imagination. Fueling this imagination is the nameless God who is the possession of no religion, and whose voice speaks from and on behalf of the Other, the marginalized of society. It is here that the “thus speaks God” of the prophets is heard, prophets that can hail from all parts of the world and whose philosophy and theology is as diverse as the narrative is open-ended. In this, the end is not a religious nation, but a social environment organized around stories of peoplehood forged on respect, equality, and an honest search for understanding. Here an identity is built upon which democracy thrives, an identity framed by the prophetic imagination that embraces diversity and respect for differing ideas that only a multicultural society can develop. May such an identity become an American identity. Amen.
Berger, A. L. (2018). Religious fundamentalism and political extremism. Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 53(4), 608-615.13-16
Braunstein, Ruth (2018). A (More) Perfect Union? Religion, Politics, and Competing Stories of America.” Sociology of Religion 79(2), 172-195, doi: 10.1093/socrel/sry013.
Brueggemann, Walter. (2001). Prophetic Imagination. Revised Edition . Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Dunajeva, Jekatyenna & Koesel, Karrie J. (2017). “Us Versus Them”: The Politics of Religion in Contemporary Russia. The Review of Faith & International Affairs 15(1), 56-67.
Golden, Donald. (2017)). “Red Letter Christians v. Donald Trump’s Evangelicals.” Red Letter Christians. Red Letter Christians v. Donald Trump’s Evangelicals – Red Letter Christians. Retrieved January 23, 2021.