Soundings July 30: Prophetic Imagination and the Current American Governance Crisis

An acquaintance likes to describe the Old Testament Hebrew prophet Amos as the “truck driver” of the Bible’s seers, as he was straightforward, plain-spoken and fierce about his values and views. Those included, accurately, a belief that the northern kingdom of Israel would be destroyed. He was active as a prophet for only perhaps five years of his life (circa 750 BC) and was a vigorous critic of the Israelite rulers of that time. Amos unpopularly called for social justice for the rich and poor alike and did so in the name of a moral order that, in his view, existed prior to, and transcended any human regime.[1]

Members of lectionary-based Christian denominations in the United States heard a reading from the Book of Amos on July 15 that shared the story of his banishment by King Jeroboam II for his temerity in challenging the regnant political regime:

Amaziah, priest of Bethel, said to Amos, ‘Off with you visionary, flee to the land of Judah. There earn your bread by prophesying, but never again prophesy in Bethel. For it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.’[2]

Amos responded characteristically by suggesting he was not special, but a regular fellow who could not help but speak the truth:

Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets, I was a shepherd and dresser of sycamores.’[3]

Amos is an exemplar of the role of prophetic imagination and leadership in politics. He was a bold individual who was courageous enough to speak truth to power, irrespective of the consequences of his actions, embodying the definition of prophetic imagination. His punishment for doing so was severe, but that did not deter him in his course or prevent him from sharing the truth as he understood it. Here is how Walter Brueggemann has described the vocation practiced by Amos and other Biblical prophets: 

The task of prophetic ministry [and, by extension, such leadership] is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.[4]

Amos and this form of leadership came to mind when I was in Amsterdam recently and visited the “Secret Annexe,” where Anne Frank and her family and some friends hid from the Nazis for two years until they were discovered, arrested and deported to death camps, in which all but one perished. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, survived and published his daughter’s diary, written during the family’s seclusion, after the war. That text has become iconic and has been read by millions around the world during the ensuing decades.[5] Doubtless, it has so emerged not only as a result of Anne Frank’s obvious humanity, talent and integrity, but also because her reflections and her brief life stand as testimony to the costs of humankind’s bottomless capacity for unfounded and inane hatred and cruelty. The Nazis sent Anne and her sister Margo and thousands of Jewish Dutch children (and youth from other occupied nations as well) to death camps to die of starvation or disease, or to be murdered on the grounds of Hitler’s monstrous lies about Jews as responsible agents for the economic and social woes Germany experienced following World War I. Indeed, a central question that has haunted historians of Nazism as well as citizens of that nation since World War II has been why so many Germans proved so willing to believe Hitler’s patently nonsensical claims scapegoating the Jews and conjuring a superior “Aryan race.”  This matter is all the more grave today, as we now know that many Germans were well aware of the “Final Solution” and the Death Camps and chose not to challenge them.

Anne Frank’s too brief life and the potential she represented constitute a continuing prophetic reminder to humanity of the depths of depravity to which their species has too often descended and of the banality on which it has chosen to do so. Anne and her family and friends, along with other individuals murdered by the Nazis, including Etty Hillesum, of Amsterdam, and Hèléne Berr, of Paris, have achieved widespread recognition as symbols of the costs of hate.[6] Their fates stand as a continuing warning of what can occur when animosity blinds individuals and bloodlust fueled by contempt underpins political rule, rather than a cooler deliberation or prudential consideration of conditions.

This is all relevant in light of Donald Trump’s recent behavior at the NATO summit and following his closed two-hour meeting with Russian dictator and President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland on July 16. At the first, Trump argued, without any evidence, that Germany, one of this nation’s most stalwart allies since World War II, is “totally controlled by Russia.” At a Group of 7 (G7) Summit just weeks before, Trump contended that the other major U.S. allies—France, Canada, Germany and Italy, among others—should be seen as threats to the United States. He also stated that Russia should be readmitted to the G7 group of democratic nations, despite its invasion of Ukraine, documented assassinations of foreign nationals and its own citizens and its forced and illegal annexation of Crimea.

At a press conference with Putin, following their meeting, Trump repudiated the findings of the American intelligence establishment and the U.S. Senate that Russia meddled in the 2016 American election, choosing to believe Putin’s denial instead. He went still further, suggesting that he might permit Russian investigators to interview a former U.S. diplomat concerning his tenure in that role. This last made a mockery of diplomatic immunity and was widely seen as inexplicable and worse. Trump’s willingness to disavow his own government’s findings in favor of accepting the claims of a tyrant, was broadly noted and condemned; even by a smattering of elected GOP leaders. These individuals have rarely challenged even Trump’s most outrageous behavior during his tenure.

But while these arguably traitorous stances have been roundly criticized, they have not yet been the target of official Republican Party repudiation or indeed, of condemnation by the GOP’s rank and file. If polling is to be believed, Republican voters are supporting Trump in his embrace of a violent dictator and disavowal of his nation’s institutions and interests. This latest political and moral outrage builds on Trump’s increasingly overt willingness:

  • To support a virulent racism and mythical white racial superiority while concocting lies about immigrants and refugees as well as “cities on fire” and “lazy folks,” aimed at “justifying” that stance;
  • To lie continuously concerning scenarios that do not exist, such as Germany’s supposed servitude to Russia or our principal allies as threats taking undue advantage of our partnership;
  • To lie egregiously concerning the import and impacts of his administration’s policies including, trade, environmental and tax choices—with, perversely, many of those decisions affecting those supporting Trump supporters more adversely than any other groups in society;
  • To assail U.S. democratic values and institutions, including freedom of the press and of speech as well as of voting on a nearly continuous basis by seeking to delegitimize the role of all of these except to the extent that those exercising them sycophantically support the President, whatever he may claim and irrespective of whether his assertions bear any relationship to reality.

Even as, incredibly, the nation debates whether its chief executive should be considered treasonous, these trends suggest that Trump is following the well-worn path of countless demagogues before him by mobilizing adherents on the basis of false and cruel scapegoating claims and ever more hostile and dehumanizing diatribes aimed at specific groups. However absurd and hackneyed, it is clear that many within the President’s political party are now in the thrall of his contentions. It is similarly evident that many other elected GOP officials support Trump in fear of losing power should they call him out and his supporters choose to punish them at the ballot box. Still others back Trump because they are enjoying the short-term fruits of increased income or profits borne of the administration’s trade, tax or environmental choices, whose long-term consequences look set to be calamitous for the nation.

While this situation may beggar the imagination and find one shaking one’s head in anger and incredulity, it is hardly novel in human history, as World War II demonstrated. It now seems unlikely that millions of GOP partisans will soon repudiate Trump’s false, fear-filled and nightmarish vision of the nation and world. Nonetheless, it is essential that modern day Amoses step forth with clear vision and fearlessness to declare that the central values and core purposes underpinning the United States regime are now under assault by a man without shame who is willing to exploit human capacity for prejudice to maintain power and secure self-aggrandizement. While this path to unbridled cruelty and hatred is not new, it is clear Trump will tread it for as long as he is permitted to do so by the American citizenry. It is likewise plain that unlike Amos, Trump embraces no moral or justice claims beyond his own unalloyed and inexhaustible quest for idolization. In this propensity, he is the antithesis of a democratic leader. Indeed, no friend of freedom would seek to delegitimate his nation’s values and institutions to garner or attain power, a warning Amos voiced centuries ago. In this predilection, Trump is an eerily familiar and alarming character.

The long-time conservative political columnist George Will, outraged by just these trends championed by the president, concluded a recent commentary by wondering if anything other than power mongering may be animating Trump:

And, yes, he only perfunctorily pretends to have priorities beyond personal aggrandizement. But just as astronomers inferred, from anomalies in the orbits of the planet Uranus, the existence of Neptune before actually seeing it, Mueller might infer, and then find, still-hidden sources of the behavior of this sad, embarrassing wreck of a man.[7]

Will has the situation, and perhaps the outcome of the ongoing Mueller investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to the Russians, just right. Meanwhile, friends of freedom and self-governance may hope that elected leaders, citizens, civil servants and journalists continue to practice prophetic leadership in attempts to warn the nation of what is befalling it and to stir the consciences of those willing to permit that turn, whatever their rationalizations. One may hope that many other Americans will exercise their right to vote and urge others to do so as well to stop the moral outrage now afoot in this nation.  The implications of not doing so and failing collectively to address this blight on our governance meaningfully are simply too ugly to contemplate.

 

References

[1]Kelley, Page. Amos: Prophet of Social Justice.  Ada, MI: Baker Books, 1973.

[2] The New American Bible, South Bend, Indiana: Greenlawn Press, 1991, Amos:7:12-15, p.957.

[3] The New American Bible, South Bend, Indiana: Greenlawn Press, 1991, Amos: 7:12-15, p.957.

[4] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1978, p.13.

[5] Frank, Anne. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.

[6] Hillesum, Etty. Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996; Berr, Hélène. The Journal of Hélène Berr. New York: Weinstein Books (Hachette Book Group), 2009.  

[7] Will, George. “This Sad, Embarrassing Wreck of a Man,” The Washington Post, July 17, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/this-sad-embarrassing-wreck-of-a-man/2018/07/17/d06de8ea-89e8-11e8-a345-a1bf7847b375_story.html?utm_term=.f6a7f57bd21e Accessed July 20, 2018.