Fireworks and Prophecy


It's Independence Day. Or rather, Independence Night, which means that fireworks are going off in my neighborhood endlessly, loudly, jarringly, and they will be doing so until well into the night. I won't be getting much sleep tonight. Might as well write in my blog instead.

It's good to know that this is the real meaning of the Fourth of July--a celebration of the right to tick your neighbors off and keep them awake until 3 AM.

But that's not what I am going to being writing about here. Instead, I want to start by talking about prophets.

So let's rewind a few days to Sunday, when I visited a small, progressive church for morning worship. The pastor, during her sermon, asked us to take pieces of paper and write down the answers to some questions. She then asked people to say what they wrote down.

The questions had to do with the subject of prophecy.

Ah, prophecy. We all know what that is, don't we? As any fundamentalist will tell you, prophecy consists of a series of secret, coded messages from God in the Bible about future events that the people receiving the prophecy at the time could not decode because it had nothing to do with them anyway, but which later generations were able to figure out. For example, Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection were said to fulfill various prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures. And of course the Bible also predicts our own future, particularly the rapture and various other details about the Second Coming.

Okay, so maybe that isn't really what prophecy is.

The pastor had returned from a seminar featuring such luminaries as Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. Borg's and Crossan's views on the prophetic responses to Empire and domination systems dovetailed nicely, as it happened, with the day's lectionary reading from the book of Kings about the prophets Elijah and Elisha. These two men with similar sounding names were early figures in a long prophetic tradition in the Jewish faith; and their presence in the lectionary for the week led to the question of what prophecy is all about.

I was keenly interested in this subject. In fact, I was champing at the bit. When the pastor asked for feedback, I kind of wanted to say something--but I kept silent when she asked the congregation for their views on what the word "prophet" meant to us. On my piece of paper I wrote things like "speaks truth to power" and "challenges the established authority". The reason I said nothing was that I was just a visitor, and didn't feel quite comfortable enough to participate in this discussion as an outsider to the congregation.

One thing that prophets are good at is calling attention to hypocrisy. When a people ostensibly hold certain values dear, but don't even pretend to live up to them, a prophet cries out in protest.

Betrayal of values--now this was something that the ancient Hebrew prophets had a lot to say about. Their civilization, after all, was founded by refugees from oppression in Egypt, and in response to what they had suffered, they strove to set up a system that attempted to carry out some form of social justice as they understood it. And yet, the pastor cited the point made by the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann that the Jewish people, after a few centuries, ultimately re-established Egypt in their own country.

The people of Israel had initially rejected the idea of a monarchy; furthermore, economic and social justice was pursued by such means as creating Sabbath Years and a Jubilee Year, both of which acted as checks against the accumulation of wealth and power. I don't know how much those particular economic practices were ever instituted in practice, but any that were implemented were eventually thrown by the wayside over time--as was the original objection to having a monarchy. So, in the face of this ultimate betrayal of the values of a liberated nation, the prophets emerged--participants in an evolving tradition of challenging the status quo.

I think about all of this because, well, today is July 4, and Americans, like the people of Israel before them, established a nation that was founded on high sounding ideals; but also like the ancient Biblical people, we don't do always a very good job of living up to them.

But how seriously did those who founded the nation really even believe in the ideals we associate them with? However much they may have said that they believed in self determination and human rights, it is apparent that they really only believed that it applied to white male property owners and slave holders. Moreover, they actually feared having too much democracy-- they didn't actually trust the rabble too much. Thus they created a system of government where, for example, the people did not directly elect their President or their Senators, and even the bicameral legislature was essentially a way of putting the brakes on popular rule by putting hurdles in the way of any more directly democratic law making process.

Which is another way of saying that they favored self-determination, but primarily for the privileged in society.

We can celebrate these historic individuals today because at least some strides were made in the ensuing years towards actually implementing the ideals that these founders formulated but otherwise so inadequately lived up to. They may not have fully believed their own rhetoric about equality and human rights, but they set up a framework by which we can ostensibly improve on at least some of what they failed to do. Slavery has been abolished--thanks to a bloody civil war--and women finally got the vote less than a century ago. We directly elect Senators now--although we still don't, as the election of 2000 tragically demonstrated, directly elect our Presidents. And that doesn't even begin to address social injustice as a violation of the precepts of democracy, equality, and human rights. I will only mention that we remain the only industrialized nation (that I am aware of) that doesn't have universal health care.

Things are looking rather bad these days with respect to those highly valued democratic ideals. We have a government, for example, that commits torture and spies on its citizens. An unnecessary war of occupation continues to take its toll. We behave like an Empire in the worst sense of the word. To be frank, though, this nation has had a long series of moments in history when it did not live up to its ostensible ideals. Right off the top of my head, I can think of McCarthyism, Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, the Palmer Raids of 1918, Lincoln's suspension of habeus corpus, the Trail of Tears, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. The good thing about American society is that there have always been dissidents who have prophetically pointed out that these stains on American history have violated its highest ideals. But there is also another question--why does our country celebrate these ideals so much and turn around and violate them? Is American patriotism all about mindless self-congratulation?

After church on Sunday, I ate lunch by myself at a nearby restaurant. To keep myself occupied, I read the Sunday New York Times over the meal, in which I found the article "Wrapped in the Star Spangled Toga", by Adam Goodheart. Goodheart writes that comparisons between the US Empire the Roman Empire go back to the very founding of the nation:

With few modern examples of successful republics to inspire America’s founders, ancient Rome provided an indispensable role model. Overlooked, however, is that the generation that fought the Revolution was not simply interested in creating a republic. From the beginning, many American patriots were out to build an empire.

In the summer of 1776, an edition of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” referred to “the rising empire of America” on its title page. In the same year, William Henry Drayton of South Carolina gave a speech in which he recalled that the once-mighty Roman Empire, which had lasted a millennium, had been supplanted by the British Empire — which, in his estimation, had lasted a mere decade or so. Now, he continued, “the Almighty ... has made choice of the present generation to erect the American Empire.”

The question was: could America’s republican aspirations flourish in harmony with its imperial ambitions? The two were not necessarily wholly incompatible. After all, Rome’s dominions had spanned the Mediterranean even while it was still ruled by a senate. And the United States did not need to look overseas for territories to conquer: an entire continent stretched westward.

So the founders decided they could have it both ways. Benjamin Franklin himself, during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, would refer to the nation he was helping create as both a “republic” and an “empire.” Franklin’s strongest endorsement of America’s God-given imperial destiny appears today on many conservative Web sites: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” As Mr. Murphy notes, that quotation also appeared on Dick and Lynne Cheney's 2003 Christmas card.

Are the ideals of democracy and justice compatible with the realities of Empire? Can the US be an Empire and still be truly democratic?

Throughout American history, we have frequently behaved like an Empire. There was that insidious doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which provided an ideological justification for land grabs by white settlers, who wanted lebensraum, and who stole the land from the Indians in order to get what they wanted. The Mexican War was another example of a major land grab; it inspired Henry David Thoreau to commit a small act of rebellion against it, and then write his most famous essay on the subject of civil disobedience. Thoreau was thus, in his own way, an American prophet who spoke truth to power. Meanwhile, the land grabs continued, as the US Empire later declared war against Spain, and conquered the sovereign islands of Hawaii.

The pastor at the Sunday service asked the congregation who today's prophets are. That's a good question.

It is a recurrent message in my blog that Jesus lived during the time of the Roman Empire and that he was killed by it, as people like Borg and Crossan have pointed out, because he sought the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that was in direct conflict with the exigencies of the Empire he lived in. I suppose I beat this point into the ground because I think it is such a significant matter. And the analogies between the current American Empire and the ancient Roman Empire are hard to miss, especially since the people who actually founded the American Empire over two centuries ago saw themselves as creating a kind of new Rome.

This world where Empires are the norm is the kind of "civilization" that Dominic Crossan critiques in his latest book, God & Empire. I believe that until we rid the world of the imperial mentality, we will continue to be far from bringing the the Realm of God to fruition.


Cynthia said...

Here's a modern prophet for you:

When the love of power is overcome by the power of love, we shall have peace. --Jimi Hendrix

Cynthia said...

And another one:

Robin Edgar said...

Here's another one. . .