Christians need to prophetically imagine

The absurdity of Jesus

The God of All Time re-introduces Godself to the world in the form of an infant, Jesus. Jesus lives in a quiet life of a Jewish boy and learns from the Pharisees to be a rabbi. When it’s time for his public ministry, he announces that he will die soon, at the hands of the religious and political authorities, yet he still says he’s the savior of the world, the Son of Man, the one that will bring heaven to earth, and reconcile all things unto himself. But he dies a criminal’s death. He is lynched. And he is lynched because of the world and for the sake of the world. It is an embarrassing solution to the problem, but what the absurdity of the cross gives us a chance to do is to model the same cruciform imagination as we work with God to bring heaven to earth.

It gives us a chance to imagine a new world not using any of the systems of the world. It allows us to reject the “practicality” that’s so often imposed on us by the powers. It allows us to let go of “assumptions” about what is possible.

The Cross itself has anthropological power. It changes us and changes the world. It doesn’t merely give us an example of imagination to follow, but I believe it changes our imagination. We can think of new ways of doing things all the time. Christianity is about moving with what the Spirit is doing next. Theology is literally about imagining God. Because we live in such a space of freedom, let’s exercise our minds to keep dreaming about what seems impossible and then use the power that God gives us to do that very impossible thing. Let’s exorcise our prophetic imagination, a term I’m borrowing from Walter Brueggemann.

Brueggemann says that our consumer culture is organized against history. And the prophet calls us back to history. This isn’t a call to traditionalism, necessarily, but a call to criticize the current era and energize believers to create a new way forward that appropriates our memory.

Brueggemann says that “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 around us.”

These compounding crises show us how much we can change

So often, when we think of big ideas: a carbon-free world, a world without police, a world where we share all things in common, or one where we have defeated racism, I think our imaginations hit some limitations. I think that’s because these systems have been in place for a long time (but they were “put” into place and didn’t just manifest on their own). But when there is an urgency to change something, we can obviously do it.

In mid-March our whole region shifted. We started social distancing and we stayed at home. We adapted to a life facilitated by video meetings, and in many places in the country we “flattened the curve.” Even though we lost over 100,000 people, it could have been much worse. Hospitals could have been overcrowded and the situation could have been dire. We aren’t out of the woods yet, but an amazing effort for humans to organize together and do something seemingly impossible.

And then during the pandemic, after the murder of George Floyd, the streets of the U.S. (and the whole world) filled with protesters insisting that Black Lives Matter and that something needed to be done about the systemic racism of law enforcement in the U.S. The people finally are saying, “enough is enough.” It is an amazing demonstration of human will and capacity.

I think that will and capacity is created in us and given to us by God. God empowers us to say another world is possible. Imagine what we can do when we discern together what God wants us to do, instead of just reacting to a crisis. What if we proactively dreamt of a better world? My prayer is that is what Christians lead the world to do. Let’s no longer be limited by what the powers tell us to be limited by. Let’s imagine a whole new place.

Heaven on earth

And yes, that means a world without poverty, racism, and violence, a world of people reconciled with God, with one another, and with the earth. If this sounds like heaven, that’s because God is empowering us to bring heaven to earth. For God, though, the way to do it, is to be on the side of those who seek to benefit most from a new world: the oppressed. And a new world will cost the dominators. The threat to the domination system that a new world presents is why it seems so impractical. The dominant told us that prophetically imagining was impractical, primarily because it was a threat to them.

That brings us again to the absurdity of the cross. God didn’t sanction the crucifixion of Jesus in order to save the world. Jesus lived a life that caused him to be assassinated by the state, and despite that, he saved the world. Jesus lived in a way that the dominators thought was impractical, unrealistic, and absurd. But what they really saw was their power getting undone, and so they killed him.

Jesus was met with the absurdity of following him regularly. The disciples did the unthinkable and dropped their nets, and their careers to follow him. And when Jesus asked the Rich Young Ruler to distribute all of his wealth in order to follow him, he walked away sad because he couldn’t let go of his money. And he probably thought it was impractical, but then the Church in Jerusalem showed us it wasn’t!

They hate your imagination, until they can domesticate it

The church was obviously a threat to the powers, until they co-opted and domesticated it. After it became an advantage for the powers to adopt Christianity, they certainly did and co-opted its very message. Constantine may well have said, “if you can’t beat them, recruit them for your military.”

But let’s not forget that Jesus was hated by the powers during his time, and he warned his disciples, if they hated him, they would hate them also. The sort of smug dismissal that radicals receive for their prophetic ideas is another kind of hate.

Martyrs throughout time have experienced this persecution. Civil-Rights Protests Have Never Been Popular. “As FiveThirtyEight notes, in 1966, 63 percent of Americans had a negative opinion of Martin Luther King. The popular hostility toward King extended to the very government he tried to embrace—King was bugged and harassed by the FBI until the end of his life. His assassination sprang from the deep hostility with which he was viewed, not by a fringe radical minority, but by the majority of the American citizenry.”

King was dismissed and killed, not unlike our Lord and Savior. But then heralded as an amazing Civil Rights leader, domesticated in the American canon, once again, not unlike our Lord and Savior.

I think that’s what a prophetic imagination does. It moves us to bring heaven to earth and it alerts the powers of our doing. I think it’s clear we are onto something when the president starts calling in the National Guard and the military to stop the movement. That’s the kind of attention prophets get.

Christians can help lead the imagining

But my call to you today is to dream big. We need dreamers in our churches, and in Circle of Hope. Don’t let the powers limit your imagination. If you can imagine a world without police, let’s make it happen. If you can think of a world free of racism, don’t allow your heart to harden. If you think it’s possible to rid ourselves of carbon emissions, let’s figure out how. If you believe a world without violence and war is possible, let’s partner to make it happen. God is with us and inspiring us to do seemingly impossible things. God is moving us toward bringing heaven on earth. God saved the world by dying, God is leading us to follow in similarly absurd, and seemingly impractical things.

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