Prophetic Grieving


As I’ve said, my understanding of the role of a prophet has been shaped by the insights of two theologians, Abraham Heschel, and Walter Breuggemann.

Walter Breuggemann is considered to be one of the most influential American Protestant Theologians and Biblical Scholars of the last several decade. He is an important figure in the progressive Christian movement in America, whose work often focuses on the Hebrew prophetic tradition and the socio-political imagination of the Church. He argues that the Church must provide a counter-narrative to the dominant forces of nationalism, militarism and consumerism.

Breuggemann believes God can ‘raise up prophets’ anywhere, anytime, in any country, tradition or religion. But he believes that prophets are more likely to emerge in communities that are oppressed and longing for liberation. For him, Moses is the prophetic prototype and Exodus is the prophetic paradigm. Moses spoke out, in sympathy with God, against the brutal reality of an imperial regime that had enslaved his people, in the hope of an alternative future, which did not yet exist, of a divinely constituted society of freed slaves.

Breuggeman says Moses embodied the psychodynamics that characterise the psyche of all prophets even to this very day – ‘grieving’ and ‘imagining’.

Over the years I have became increasingly sensitive to the world around me, and come to realise that all prophetic engagement must begin with ‘grieving’.

‘Though there is much to grieve over, not everyone ‘’mourns’’ the current state of the world. What we feel depends on what we see and hear, and what we see and hear depends on where we stand in the world. If we identify with the top 20% of the world’s population who are ‘‘well fed’’ and ‘‘laugh’’ (Luke 6.25), we will probably ‘‘rejoice with those who rejoice’’ (Rom. 12.15). It is only if we identify with the other 80% of the worlds’ population – especially the bottom 20%- who ‘‘go hungry’’ and ‘‘weep’’ themselves to sleep (Luke 6.25), that we will actually ‘mourn with those who mourn’’ (Rom.12.15).

‘The scripture suggests that God identifies with all people he has made in his image – both rich and poor alike (Gen.1.26-7); but God has a special place in his heart for the poor who are treated so heartlessly. (Prov.14.31) When God comes in Jesus, he makes it very clear where he stands. He says: ‘’whatever you do to one of the least’’ – one of those that most of you consider the least – the marginalized, distressed, disabled, and disadvantaged – you ‘’do it to me’’. (Matt. 25:40,45) God says that whenever you crush my people contempt-uously – I take it personally – it’s as if you are actually crushing me – and I grieve about it deeply. He says, ‘‘My people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me.’’(Jer.8:21-22).

‘As God’s people, we are called to love the world as God does. And given the state of the world, all those who love the world as God does, will ‘mourn’ horribly over the state of the world as God does. As we sympathize with God and empathize with our neighbours who are in pain – as we are expected to – we will inevitably be moved towards ‘‘compassion’’ – or ‘‘a deep sense of shared pain’’ (Luke10.27). When it comes to compassion, Jesus is our supreme example. ‘‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’’. (Matt.9.36)

‘There are three phases of ‘grieving’ associated with a ‘compassionate’ response to a world in pain.[1]

‘The first phase is ‘’wailing’’– agonizing with the pain – either as a ‘’victim’’ or ‘‘one who loves the victim’’. Jesus ‘‘wailed’’ with Mary over the death of her brother Lazarus. ‘‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied’. And ‘Jesus wept.’ (John 11.33-5).

‘The second phase is ’’lamenting’’– analyzing the pain, its tragic causes and catastrophic consequences – as in the psalms of lament. Jesus ‘‘lamented’’ over Jerusalem. ‘‘As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you’.”(Luke19.41-44)

‘The third phase is ‘’crying out loud’’ – criticizing the groups and organizations, which are the perpetrators of pain in our society – so the public are forced to confront the issues involved. Jesus ‘‘cried out loud’’ against the merchants in the temple. ‘’When it was time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market’!” (John 2.13-16)’

Jesus was painfully aware of the captivity of the political economy in which he lived. He recognized that this captivity was perpetuated by preoccupation with power, position, and property, at the expense of people’s lives. ‘What the world esteems,’ Jesus said, ‘is disgusting to God!’ (Luke 16:15). His critique was universal, but Jesus actually chose to confront this captivity at a national level, rather than an international level. Jesus was concerned more with the mechanisms of control perpetuated by his own people, than with the mechanisms of control perpetuated by others, for unless these domestic mechanisms of control were dealt with, the foreign yoke might be thrown off, but the captivity would continue. So Jesus confronted the people in his own country – the people of his own culture, tradition and religion – with their responsibility for their own captivity, and for their own liberation. ‘Don’t judge others,’ Jesus said. ‘Judge yourself’ (see Matt. 7:1–3). ‘How sad it is,’ he said to them, that ‘you neglect to do justice!’(see Luke 11:42). ‘What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?’(Matt. 16:26).

Prophetic grieving is not whinging or whining, but something more profound: ‘wailing’– agonizing with the pain, ‘lamenting’– analyzing the pain, its tragic causes and catastrophic consequences, ‘crying out loud – criticizing the groups and organizations, which are the perpetrators of pain in our society, and ‘facing the awful truth’ – reflecting on our complicity in our oppression.

Dave Andrews

[1] Dorothee Soelle Suffering Fortress Press Philadelphia 1975 p73

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