We all need to stretch our capacity for imagination right now. In this seminal time an emphasis on a creative spirit is especially necessary, and we need to be able to imagine what we want to create.
Elise Boulding, feminist and Quaker futurist, used to lead workshops where she began by asking us to mark a future time, say fifty years out, and then walk it back to the present. The idea, of course, was to encourage us to ask how we change our lives now as a beginning toward a fulfillment of the future we had just envisioned. This was a relatively easy exercise for me because I often think about how I would create alternative social structures such as imaginative ways of dealing with crime, imprisonment, and healing from harm done, such as restorative justice practices.
To help me imagine my efforts at social justice I have especially appreciated what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “prophetic imagination” in his widely read 1978 book by that name. His work has been extremely important in my approach to social justice work, and to a large part, the way I frame my Saturday Evening Posts. Brueggemann defines prophetic imagination as the capacity “to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to that of the dominant culture grounded in a moral vision that aligns with God’s relentless call for compassion and justice." Prophetic justice begins by naming the present unjust structures, sometimes called “principalities and powers,” that are the dominant oppressors in our contemporary world. If we are willing and able todo the hard work of naming the problems, we can then begin applying our imagination to create alternatives and the means by which we might challenge and overcome them. For Brueggemann - and me - this means the practice of nonviolence, and the heart of nonviolent practice is imagination - imagining, creating and implementing a more humane, kind, and just way of life. The Jesus narrative presents such a model for imaginative use of surprising parables in his confrontations with oppressive hierarchies and social structures. He challenged through the lens of radical nonviolent love - and, yes, at a significant price, but ultimately nonviolence is the only way, as research about nonviolence has confirmed, to undo the systems of subjugation and violence that does not perpetuate even more violence.
Envisioning a better world is, of course, not new. In response to dramatically unsettled times such as ours now it is common for writers to give increased attention to the concept of utopias, and this seems true today. I have received just this month two of my monthly publications that featured articles on past and present efforts to create what are broadly envisioned as ideal societies. It seems apparent that when there is serious discontent and anxiety bordering on despair about the status of the world that we would want to escape either through creating a perfect world. Interestingly the alternative response to unsettled times, and the opposite of a utopia, are the often nihilistic, dystopian visions evidenced in various forms of current literature and film.
I don’t believe I am seeking a utopia as much as I am emphasizing the more hopeful, prophetic imagination option of a combination of naming and analyzing our present historical moment and then seeking to find ways to make it more just. In short, I want to affirm and “choose life” as in the text of Deuteronomy 30:19: " I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” Deep, hard-wired within us, even in the despairing, I believe there is an affirmation of life and love and the will to survive and a willingness to allow and support others in their quest for life affirmations.
I recognize for every inclination to imagine a hopeful, positive future these days, for many of us there is another voice that says we might not make it: we have abused the planet beyond repair, and the impetus for rapacious consumption and greed will likely do us all in. And I think these are important voices that I recognize as the prophetic part of the prophetic imagination: "Pay heed to the profound injustice."
Whether acknowledging and critiquing our history, whether personal, communal, or national, begins with the courage to admit how badly we have harmed others as a prerequisite for a truth and reconciliation process. One of my great imaginings is that some day humanity will be united in a commitment to multi-levels of truth and reconciliation as a means of healing personal and structural harm and building a more trusting and just community as a result. What if we lived in a world where we had the courage to face how we have hurt each other, and with remorse and acceptance for the harm done, agree to make restitution where needed and then aspire to never commit the same harm again?
But engaging in such a process makes us vulnerable and exposes us to loosing esteem and privileges. The current “critical race theory” controversy hinges on denying or rejecting that level of vulnerability, accountability and loss. Acknowledging the historical impact of foundational and institutional policies that condoned slavery and the genocidal treatment of indigenous people is very painful process, but it is a crucial part of our nations moral recovery. We can best find the courage for the truth and reconciliation process if we begin by also acknowledging there are God-given principles of morality that transcend our culture bound ones.
I encourage each of us to explore how “prophetic imagination” might serve each of us as well, in our personal life as well as our familial and political relations. Our imagination is a powerful tool that can and will help us cope with creating a more just and loving world.
Blessings and peace,