Prophetic Call to Neighborliness

Reality Amid Ideology, part 3

The prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, et al – spoke out against the injustices of the ruling elite.
“The vocation of the prophets, in the face of enthralling ideology, is to penetrate and expose that ideology by appeal to the reality of the lived world, a reality that steadfastly refused to conform to the claims of that ideology” (Brueggemann)
The prophets called out the urban elite for their “arrogance, pride, and self-indulgence”; for imagining themselves “the center of the universe and not accountable" to anyone for anything; for failing “to regard the weak, poor, and vulnerable as legitimate members of the community.” The prophets, to the great annoyance of the ruling class, pointed out that:
“The elite have manipulated the markets, paid low wages, foreclosed on homes, and managed the economy in their interest to the detriment of others.”
Sound familiar?

The elite have, in short, said the prophets, failed at both of the two central commandments: love God, and love neighbor. In making their critique, the prophets spoke poetry. Their imagery shocks and dismays in the interest of jolting the people back to reality. Hosea imagines Israel as
  • a silly dove that flits about,
  • a pancake half baked,
  • adulterers hot as a heated oven,
  • a wild ass wandering about,
  • a stone sinking in water.
Jeremiah imagines the elite as
  • depending on broken cisterns,
  • vines with degenerate fruit,
  • a camel in heat,
  • a bride who forgets her jewelry,
  • a prostitute on a street corner,
  • a desperate mother dying in labor,
  • the only bird that doesn’t know when to migrate,
  • poor people without a doctor,
  • a pile of corpses.
The prophets spoke of YHWH as
  • a whirlwind,
  • a lion,
  • a winnowing fork.
The kaleidoscope of images shows us our lives in many ways, for the more we “see our lives in many ways,” the more likely we are to “discover that the single way of chosenness is not a reliable certitude.”

Of course, “the ideologues thought that the prophets were crazy and traitors.” But the prophets’ imagination offered the only hope of popping the bubble of ideological deception.

Then in 587 BCE, the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, burned down the temple, and deported much of the population to slavery in Babylon. The deep crisis of this defeat and 70 years of Babylonian captivity -- until the Persian King Cyrus, having defeated Babylon, permitted the Judeans to return to Judah -- produced critical rethinking who they were and their relationship to YHWH, the personified representation of their covenantal promise to live by the values of their laws: hospitality, compassion, fairness.

It was during and after the Babylonian Captivity that the Torah, as we have it, was assembled, from sources some of which were much older. The deep reflection instigated by the Captivity was also the impetus for preserving and codifying the other books of the Tanakh (which consists of the same books as the Protestant Old Testament, in a somewhat different order).

Running through American ideology is a similar exceptionalism – a sense of being God’s chosen people. It goes back to John Winthrop, the Puritan governor in 17th century New England who told his fellow Puritans they were creating “a city set upon a hill.”

Abraham Lincoln, in an 1861 address to the New Jersey senate, brilliantly, in one brief phrase, both evoked and stepped back from America’s self-understanding as chosen people. Lincoln called us God’s “almost chosen people.” He said:
“I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people.”
That word “almost” opened critical distance between, on the on hand, true justice and righteousness and, on the other hand, the reality of the ways we fall short of realizing them. But by the time we get to Teddy Roosevelt, that “almost” was gone -- the gap of critical distance closed again. Roosevelt’s imperialism acquired the Philippines and reached into Korea, Japan, and China, driven by a sense of uniquely American Manifest Destiny, and the racist conviction that Asian peoples were inferior to what Roosevelt called our Anglo-Saxon, our Teutonic – he even sometimes said Aryan -- civilization.

The exceptionalist strand in US ideology has carried through. Thus, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on the Today Show in 1998:
“If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are an indispensable nation.”
A people that imagines itself God’s chosen is at risk of becoming arrogant. Exceptionalism fuels expansionism, racism, and violence. As Brueggemann said:
“The disregard of both God and neighbor permits a predatory society to seem normal and acceptable.”
When Brueggemann urges us not to disregard God, it might be helpful for us Unitarians to remember that God means covenant -- the covenantal relationship a people may hold to each other and to the values that guide their life together. God, as Solomon declared and the Israelites understood, abides in that dark inner chamber, the holiest of holies -- and what abides there is the covenant: the ark that holds the tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain. God is the covenant – a covenant to live by the principles and values handed down and constituting the historical identity of the people.

We Unitarians, too, have a covenant with something that is more powerful than you or I, something mysterious that calls us to our better selves, something that we all sometimes stray from, but that ever-beckons us back to a truer path -- something that defines us as a people. We have a covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – every being, I’d say. We have a covenant to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. The interdependence of existence, and inherent worth and dignity, are powerful. There is a quality of mystery and awe there – how could this be, this total interdependence, this inalienability from concern and respect? We sometimes fall away from our covenantal promise – and we do so in the same way the Ancient Israelites did. We fail to care for the vulnerable.

Love of God and love of neighbor are the same thing. Jesus was explicit on that point, and before him, Jeremiah said it. They are the same thing – love of God and care for the vulnerable are synonyms -- but it’s helpful to say it both ways. It's helpful to remember that that care, kindness, and compassion are, for us, rooted, after all, in a promise to uphold everyone’s worth and dignity because, mysteriously, it’s inherent – and a promise to respect the web of existence because, mysteriously, we’re an interdependent part of it.

The call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Reality Amid Ideology"
See also
Part 1: Some Brueggemann and Some Poems
Part 2: Imagination Shortage

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