“What the Church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition… it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice formulation and then it’s deathly. So we have to communicate to people, “If you want a God that is healthier than that you are going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame, which again is why the poetry is so important… Because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening.”
These are the words of Walter Brueggeman discussing the prophetic imagination and poetry in a 2011 interview with Krista Tippet in her nationally syndicated program On Being. Ever provocative and stirring, Brueggeman’s life and work underscore the importance of examining the metaphors that the prophets use to interpret their world with a forward gaze that is firmly rooted in their tradition. After Michelle Marvin’s excellent introduction to the prophetic tradition, I have decided to drill down into a single prophet, Ezekiel, and then ask some questions about contemporary prophets and their interruptions and vision for the future.
Two Visions, Two Acts
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, mark out two roads for the sword of the king of Babylon to come; both of them shall issue from the same land. And make a signpost, make it for a fork in the road leading to a city; mark out the road for the sword to come to Rabbah of the Ammonites or to Judah and to Jerusalem the fortified. For the king of Babylon stands at the parting of the way, at the fork in the two roads, to use divination; he shakes the arrows, he consults the teraphim, he inspects the liver. Into his right hand comes the lot for Jerusalem, to set battering rams, to call out for slaughter, for raising the battle cry, to set battering rams against the gates, to cast up ramps, to build siege towers. But to them it will seem like a false divination; they have sworn solemn oaths; but he brings their guilt to remembrance, bringing about their capture. (Ezekiel 21:18-23)
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. (Ezekiel 37:1-10)
These are beautiful, rich visual passages. Ezekiel would be an epic cinematographer with a deep command over the drama of the moment. We are invited, even through the distance of translation, into a world of vivid imagery and action. The latter term is the most important. As Brueggeman suggests, when Ezekiel paints pictures they begin to open in poetic motion.
The fork in the road in 21:18-23 is not only present it is drawn by the prophet. The words of prophecy do not merely prefigure, but in a sense call forth the reality of conquest and the fall of Judah. Future becomes present because past is prologue. The road comes from somewhere and goes somewhere. Ezekiel summons the memory of the oppression of the past as the builder of the long road of exile. Far from a prophecy of doom and destruction, Ezekiel invokes the long history of the very real social choices of the community to which this prophecy is addressed, the covenant faithlessness of Israel. Ezekiel teaches us that reading the signs of the times means seeing that God’s mercy is placed in stark relief with the community’s lack of faith and trust. The two paths are divergent and experience teaches that sometimes despite the evidence of God’s mercy we are set upon the path of exile.
The second act may be a more familiar story, and it represents another important element of the prophetic imagination – vision. Again the imagery is epic – an ancient battlefield plain strewn with bones, the memory of violence and death and the sadness of having broken the covenant (I’m surprised Peter Jackson hasn’t bought the rights yet). Ezekiel’s vision on the plain is re-creation story told in a very particular manner. God asks Ezekiel to preach, to speak God’s very word to the bones telling them of the promise of breath/Spirit/ruah, but not yet offering it. This re-embodies the bones. It is not until Ezekiel literally prophesies to God’s very Spirit, the ruah, promising God’s own life force within them that they come fully into life and being. Here, the poetry speaks to the vision of the God’s mercy within the covenant itself. God’s mercy re-embodies the community not only making it whole but bringing it to life.
Signs of the Times
One month ago today, Hillary Clinton was criticized for a flatly delivered line in Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, just five miles away from Ferguson. In telling a story about her mother in the midst of a mostly African-American congregation Clinton said, “All lives matter.” Tone deaf at best, the incident opened a conversation on how major political candidates in this country would handle the messaging, the sentiment, and the social movement known as #BlackLivesMatter. Just days ago, two other Democratic presidential hopefuls, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, were interrupted by an active, organized protest at the Netroots Nation conference, a gathering of progressive activists. Yet the phenomenon of interruption is not limited to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Last November shortly after the Obama administration announced additional executive actions to protect more undocumented citizens, a small number of student activists interrupted his speech in Chicago to express both their displeasure for aggressive enforcement measures and their resolve to see #Not1More deportation.
Interruption has long been a tool for social change. The work of prophecy itself speaks truth into comfortable power. As in Ezekiel, the interruption of these protests points to the signs of the times – black bodies under siege and a dramatic increase in deportations. Whether of a speech or a traffic pattern or the rhythms of daily life, the interruption is a sign that the power structure offers little mercy for those on the margins of American life. These interruptions should also be occasion for people of faith to question themselves: What kind of communities are we creating when our brothers and sisters in Christ can be massacred while reading the very words we unpack these weeks in our VBS? What is our reaction to these interruptions, these witnesses by our sisters and brothers whose very lives and families are on the line?
“the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude”
If you have ever worked for social change or been in a lobbying delegation or been to an action, then you know that you are doing that because something in the world is not right – a policy, an institution, a circumstance, whatever it may be. Contemporary social movements invite us to stand on the plain of dry bones and to imagine a world that is differently organized. It is a world that is not only constructed for the potential for human life (re-embodied), but one that actually encourages human flourishing (life itself). God’s mercy in the face of systemic oppression is the promise of right relationship.
#BlackLivesMatter and #Not1More and all of the interruptions that make up social change work engender, at their best, a kind of real solidarity. Are we listening and looking for openings to be in solidarity? Do we, as a Church, hear Alicia Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, when she proclaims, “we are asking you, our family, to stand with us in affirming Black lives. Not just all lives. Black lives. Please do not change the conversation by talking about how your life matters, too. It does, but we need less watered down unity and a more active solidarities with us, Black people, unwaveringly, in defense of our humanity. Our collective futures depend on it.”?[i]
What is at stake here is life itself. Ezekiel’s vision is that we can all come to know the complete surge of the Spirit, God’s mercy, in walking and singing and standing alongside of others in a moment and hopefully in a movement. It’s there, perhaps, that we will come to know for the time that we are together and engaged, at least, that God’s breath has entered, and we can live and stand on our feet.
John DeCostanza is the Director of University Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. He is an ecumenical Doctor of Ministry candidate and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, IL.