Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Prophetic Imagination and Habakkuk 1:1-4

You may have encountered these optical illusions before.  The images are usually accompanied by a question: "what do you see?"  If it is your first time viewing these images you typically see only one image: an old lady or a young woman, a rabbit or a duck, a vase or two silhouettes.  It is rare for one to see both at first glance.  Yet, once your eyes are opened to the alternative image it is next to impossible to shake or ignore.  Now that you have been introduced and exposed to a new possibility, your imagination is no longer limited but awakened.

This is the mind and conscience of a prophet. This is the imagination of Habakkuk, tucked away in the back of our Old Testament. Once you encounter these prophetic voices and their alternative perspectives, they are difficult to shake and next to impossible to ignore. Walter Bruggemann says it best:

"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." (The Prophetic Imagination, 3).
In other words, when the market screams "buy this, you must have that," prophets expose the idol of frivolous consumption. When video games, movies, nations, and empires promote violence without consequence and wars without end, the prophets scream reconciliation, peace, and enemy love.  When wealth and resources are possessed by small percentages, prophets declare "jubilee" and protest for economic justice. When bullies isolate, intimidate, threaten, and offend, prophets proclaim "befriend, embrace, and welcome the victim."  When the poor and hungry, both those safe distances away and right next door, long for daily bread and provision, prophets initiate prayers and fasts until all have enough.

The hearts and minds of prophets are so tuned-in to the heart and mind of God that when exposed to real manifestations of evil, injustice, pain, and suffering, prophets refuse to remain still and silent.  Said differently, the prophetic pathos is the divine pathos:

To us a single act of injustice- cheating in business, exploitation of the poor- is slight; to the prophets, a disaster.  To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them a catastrophe, a threat to the worldTo the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, 4).

Again, the prophetic lyrics and laments are far more than cynical observations and disenfranchised grievances.  Instead, the voices of the likes of Habakkuk generate from a deep and abiding relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The prophet has an imagination that refuses to settle for any reality not in rhythm with God's dreams for the world.  The prophet then calls on not only God's people, but also God in and of God's self, to incarnate in the world this alternative consciousness of liberation, peace, justice, and cosmic redemption. Said differently, prophets are more than predictors of the future or out-dated fortune tellers.  Instead, ancient and contemporary prophets are those who speak about God's future in desperate need of being manifested in the present.  In this vein, Jesus taught his disciples a rather poignant prophetic prayer, "Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

And prophets, as the mouthpieces of God, announce that the "on earth as it is in heaven" time is now.

Again, a warning: once you are exposed to the prophetic imagination, to include Habakkuk, your own imagination is awakened and your eyes are opened to a completely new perspective on the world and related affairs. This alternative perspective is difficult to shake and next to impossible to ignore. It may even invite you into a new way of being in and for the world...

So, who is Habakkuk?

Habakkuk is a prophet from the southern tribe of Judah who lived in the latter portions of the seventh century and earliest sixth century.  Therefore, the laments and grievances of this prophet generate from a context whereby the nation of Israel was recently recovering from exile and oppression sparked by one of history's most violent  peoples, the Assyrian empire.  While Israel experienced temporal deliverance, Judah to the south lived in anticipation of an invasion by yet another hostile empire: Babylon.  That is to say, violence is the context; injustice is the reality.  Suffering surrounds the prophet and his community on both sides of his experience. Habakkuk, whose name calls to mind words such as embrace, wrestle, or clasp, struggles with God's covenantal promises and beloved torah, which have little to no bearing on the world as the prophet sees it:

"Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails" (1:3-4).

And Habakkuk cries out emphatically:

"O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?  Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?" (1:2-3).

Where is God?  Why suffering? The prophet imagines something different and pleas for God to respond...

If you are thirsty for quick solutions and packaged statements to ease your soul, Habakkuk is not where you should turn.  Instead, the prophetic questions are allowed to fester in the pages of Scripture; they are durable claims that resonate with our own shared experience and global perspective.[1] 

How long shall middle school students be pushed around by bullies who seek to leverage themselves at another's expense?

How long must children in Uganda be kidnapped by oppressive dictators and turned into stoic young soldiers?

How long must we saturate our minds with video games and other forms of media that promote violence without consequence and turn human life into digital images able to be snuffed out and reset without concern?

How long must domestic abuse run rampant and uncontrolled, leaving so many frightened and ashamed?

Will justice never prevail?  When will God act and make the world new and right? 

Will salvation ever come?

Habakkuk refuses to ease into his prophetic discourse and chooses instead to provoke God from the very beginning.  You may have done the same.  You may be doing the same?

Again, Brueggemann captures the prophetic vocation:

"[The prophet] has only the hope that the ache of God could penetrate the numbness of history.  He engages not in scare or threat but only in a yearning that grows with and out of pain." (The Prophetic Imagination, 55)

As we begin an exploration of Habakkuk, it seems appropriate to ask:

Where has the world gone numb?
Where do we long for the ache of God to penetrate and transform our world and communities?
Where do we see evidence of violence, abuse, oppression, and suffering?
What would it look like to imagine something different?

At the forefront of many prophetic movements are artists who provoke honest questions and foster hope for change.  Artists have a knack for creating beauty out of just about anything.  Artists often challenge us to see alternative portraits of reality and then invite us to live into them. 

That said, as we quest to hear the cries of Habakkuk and make them our very own, we  become prophetic artists.  We are to paint raw and honest questions on top of real images of violence and injustice.  We must create alternative images over top illustrations of devastation and destruction.  We are called to write hope-filled prayers all around portraits of pain and despair. [2]

As we do so, may our prophetic imaginations be awakened.  Even more, may we leave have the courage to embody these alternative illustrations in our schools, cities, and neighborhoods. May we live into the prophetic hope that the numbness of our world will indeed be overcome by the ache of God who created and will one day redeem all.

[1] I adapted this statement from an excellent comment by Brueggemann in  Theology of the Old Testament, "While the book of Habakkuk is thus context-specific, its durable theological claim is a message of profound hope in a circumstance of profound despair" (244, italics mine).
[2] The youth ministry, when we engaged Habakkuk 1:1-4, painted and wrote prayers over top images of violence and suffering.  In so doing, we invited youth to tap into their prophetic imaginations that are incarnations of the ache of God.