Hope must be told, in image, in figure, in poem, in vision. It must be told sideways, told as one who dwells with others in the abyss.
~ Walter Brueggemann, Disruptive Grace
When the prophet Micah gave voice to his astonishing vision of a future in which the nations would “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Mic 4:3), the likelihood of realizing that vision was arguably no more and no less than it is today. “It is only a poem,” says biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, “a vision, a hunch, a hope.” And yet such a hunch “on the lips of a bold poet is enough,” says Brueggemann.
It is enough, firstly, because God is faithful and God’s dreams for humanity will not be thwarted. But secondly, Micah’s vision is enough because the “many folk who show up for the poetry hunch the truth and wait to have it given voice.” In other words, God’s desire for peace also pulses deep within us, the hearers of the word. Yet to awaken such a dormant hope—a newness breaking into the world we no longer thought possible—the community needs an image, a song, a vision. “God’s future,” says Brueggemann, “rests on the lips of the hope-tellers.”
While the vision of the prophets is “only” poetry, it remains credible and revelatory because something deep within us vibrates when we hear it spoken. “Yes,” our hearts leap, “surely it is (or ought to be) so,” even when by all rational accounts the vision appears laughable. We can believe that the promise of “swords into plowshares” comes “from God” not because we trust blindly in the authority of the Bible but because the words—much like the Word of Life who is Jesus—strike near enough, like keystrokes on a piano, to what our hearts most deeply desire and believe to be true.
How long shall we remain mired in the abyss of war and its endless preparation? The days are coming, surely, when all hatreds and wars will cease and we shall refuse to train our sons and daughters for killing, when we dare to dismantle the idols of war.
When Heart Speaks to Heart – and When it Doesn’t
Perhaps above all, Micah’s vision resonates because is spoken not from heights far removed from the community but precisely from within the breach of our human vulnerabilities, fears, and imprisonment in structures of violence. So it is with the Psalms of lamentation, Mary’s Magnificat, the parables and enigmatic sayings of Jesus, and the “dream” of Martin Luther King, Jr.: all of these speak cor ad cor loquitur, from “heart to heart,” as between pilgrims traveling together on a perilous journey. As Brueggemann puts it, truth and hope-telling in the prophetic tradition is “told sideways, told as one who dwells with the others in the abyss.” Dr. King’s speeches and sermons took hold of the nation because they rose up from within the heart of the people and gave voice to America’s promise from down at street level.
But the reverse is also nakedly true: promises of hope spoken from far above the fray strike the ear as false, pie in the sky at best, condescending and manipulative at worst. “Oh, look at my African American over here,” said candidate Trump from the dais, pointing to a black man down below in the crowd. “Look at him. Are you the greatest?” And who can forget this beauty, spoken by the President during a ceremony marking his first Black History Month on the job: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
But really, how unique is the President in his ignorance? The great risk of Black History Month has always been that rather than celebrate the unlikeliest triumphs of hope over despair in the African American experience, of justice over denial, it encourages a tokenist approach to Black lives, past and present. Everyone from politicians to elementary-school teachers to liturgical music directors can trot out a few Great Figures like King and Rosa Parks and sing a few Negro spirituals and be done with it. The fact that “Kumbaya”—one of the most haunting of all the spirituals—is almost never sung anymore but has been reduced to a cynical punch line mocking the obvious naivete of hope, betrays a terrible (white) ignorance about the daunting price of faith and its miraculous realization in the lives of Black Americans.
In short, any politician or preacher who gives little thought to the concrete life-world of their audience is whistling in the wind, or, like our Emperor-President, simply wearing no clothes. Mozart’s Mass is beautiful but sometimes life down at street level calls for Stravinsky, Mary J. Blige, or B.B. King (whose plaintive “Christmas in Heaven” speaks as powerfully to me as any systematic treatise on incarnation). Indeed what the preacher might consider “prophetic” and “faithful” rings hollow when the faithful before whom he stands have scarcely been understood, known by name, or trusted. The authentic prophet, by contrast, speaks from within the heart of her people, in images and songs that rise up from the collective memory and hopes of the community that puts its ultimate trust in God. Have you forgotten the covenant, the promises made from days of old that you shall be God’s people?
Speaking of Joys and Hopes . . .
In the Catholic world where I dwell, Brueggemann’s observations about the “sideways” character of prophetic speech leads me to wonder whether a stubbornly clerical model of the liturgy and the ordained priesthood has not in practice become antithetical to biblical, prophetic faith. Can a clergy and a host of liturgical practices set apart from the laity—not least the English Mass translation itself, which lacks all poetry—“speak sideways” to rank and file Catholics and awaken hopes that lay dormant, like tiny mustard seeds, in our hearts?
Certainly I have known priests whose preaching is deeply attuned to the poetry, wonder, and risk that saturate the lives of the faithful. But why are such priests so rare? Are today’s seminarians being formed to listen and learn from their parishioners? Will they be able to hear and give voice to the Spirit’s movement in the lives of women, immigrants, children, peoples of color? Has Vatican II’s once-prophetic vision of a “priesthood of all believers” quietly gone the way of Limbo?
Some Catholics may object that Brueggemann, a Protestant for whom “the utterance is everything,” gives too much importance to the poetic word, spoken and received, in God’s ongoing “dialogic” relationship with the world, and too little, for example, to the Eucharist. I’m not so sure. After all, the Creation itself, as the Bible tells it, bursts forth from the utterance of God’s own Word into the breach. And what I recognize so often in myself, my students, and fellow parishioners is precisely “a desperate waiting” for someone, anyone, to give language to our collective longings for renewed life in the Spirit.
The enemy of Christian hope, as Brueggemann names it, is the lie “that there are no new gifts to be given,” no dreams, no new possibilities, only more of the same predetermined order of things—a future envisioned, in other words, not by God but by the Pentagon, the NRA, the makers of washing-machines, fracking equipment, smart phones, and weapons. Have we resigned ourselves to such a bleakly unimaginative picture of the future?
To paraphrase the latent yearnings of my students: Give us a vision of hope and healing that dares to reach beyond the insularity of the church itself (and politics) to embrace the joys and hopes of all people –not just white, heterosexual men– and of the suffering Earth. Dare us to imagine big, a future where peace is not dismissed as naive but is acted upon as if possible. Give us a vision worthy of the prophet Micah: They shall beat their swords into plowshares, / and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, / nor shall they train for war again. Unless the adults in the room first have the courage to imagine it, and speak the words into the abyss, our children will never dare to take the first step toward it.
So What Are We Waiting For?
A few days ago, Pope Francis once again called for all the nations of the world to work toward a total ban on nuclear weapons. I wonder how many dismissed the headline without a second thought. “There he goes again. That guy is crazy.” But for many others, I suspect, Francis’s “crying out in the wilderness” rings powerfully true because, like Martin Luther King, Jr., he speaks and has lived his whole life as a true pastor, as one “who dwells with the others in the abyss.”
As he does in so many other things, in calling for a ban on nuclear weapons Pope Francis is appealing, against cynicism and resignation, to that spirit of possibility and hope in all of us, and not just Catholics. What can I do, with my particular gifts and in my small corner of the world, to help Pope Francis succeed? What can we do as a church to recover the prophetic vocation to which Dr. King beckoned all those who call themselves Christians?
Many of us who find our home in the Church will no doubt continue to “show up” and wait for the poetry to return, or to break through now and then in unexpected (and unauthorized) places. Of course many others, not least many young people, have taken their dormant dreams for life, love, and joy, elsewhere. But where else shall we go? To whom else shall we turn?, the disciples asked Jesus.
Instead of waiting for our leaders to exercise their prophetic priesthood, perhaps we should pray that the spirit of possibility and courage that lay dormant in each of us might begin to dream and to speak aloud of a day when nations will study for war no more. As the spiritual goes, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” It’s a hard but beautiful lesson. Our children, who are already “reaping the whirlwind” of the choices we make, are watching and listening.