As I Was Saying

Reclaiming the Prophetic Imagination

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

On March 6, 1957, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Accra. He was in the city to celebrate the moment when the nation it was part of ceased to be the Gold Coast, a perverse projection of the British empire, and became independent Ghana. Three years later, the first Ghanaian president, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, addressed the United Nations. Reclaiming language first used in Accra by the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, [1] he proclaimed that “the wind blowing in Africa is not an ordinary wind, it is a raging hurricane . . . blowing through oppressed and downtrodden colonies.” Within a decade, that hurricane would sweep most of the continent clean of overt colonial control. 

But back to that night, to March 6, 1957.  That night at the Independence Day banquet, then Vice President Richard M. Nixon was seated next to someone he did not know.

As David Apter (2008, p. 6) reports:

“Turning to the latter, Nixon asked, ‘Well, how does it feel to be free?’

The reply was immediate: ‘Who's free? I’m from Alabama.’”

The Prophetic

I have been thinking a lot about Dr. King’s visit to Ghana, and about the necessity of the prophetic voice. I recently celebrated Ghana’s Independence Day in Accra, along with the 17 students who are part of Calvin College’s semester program here at the University of Ghana. It was nice to have a day off, and the atmosphere was festive. I have come to believe, however, that there is a deeper reason to celebrate Ghanaian independence, one particular to people of faith. As King argued in a sermon on the subject, Ghana’s independence, for all its flaws, “is the story of the Exodus, the story of the flight of the Hebrew people from the bondage of Egypt, through the wilderness and finally, to the Promised Land. It’s a beautiful story.” [2]

Ghana’s independence was a prophetic moment; which is to say that it was a moment that stands as a radical critique to empire, and a moment which energizes the imagination of the people of God. I am borrowing here from the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann (1978), who has written extensively about the prophetic voice and the prophetic imagination. The prophet speaks truth to power, bluntly if necessary, but also points to the hope we have in God’s ultimate renewal of all things. The prophet condemns the kingdom of death, while also helping imagine the kingdom of life. 

Both liberals and conservatives have tried to co-opt the prophetic. Perhaps you will think I am doing so, and perhaps I am, although I don’t think so. Brueggemann writes that this co-opting runs in two directions. Conservatives, he says, have a tendency to make prophets “fortune-tellers” concerned only with the coming of Christ (p. 2). This neglects the ways in which conservatives use “prophetic” language to condemn rather than protect marginalized groups, but he is largely correct. On the other side, Brueggemann argues that liberals have a tendency to reduce the prophetic to social action and “righteous indignation,” a “face-saving device for any excessive abrasiveness in the service of almost any cause” (p. 3). 

These tendencies to co-opt the prophetic mean we also have a tendency to co-opt the prophet, and in the U.S., King is the most obvious example of this. The conservative, future focused, tendency is on full display during Black History month, when the Facebook pages of white Americans are flooded with cherry-picked quotes, almost exclusively from “I have a Dream.”

“ . . . that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

“ . . . that . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Never mind that the first part of that last sentence is talking about Alabama’s “vicious racists.”  Conservatives want to claim the energizing imagination of the prophet while ignoring the radical critique. This future focus is so comprehensive that they sometimes don’t believe any change is possible. As Billy Graham said, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children."

On the other hand, in a recent As I Was Saying posting, Richard Mouw wrote what I take to be a denunciation of the tendency to denounce and criticize without presenting imaginative, energizing possibilities. I think Mouw mistakenly dismisses more than he perhaps means to, but his point is well taken. I know I have done this. 

An Exodus Story

King’s “I have a Dream” speech, by definition, tilts deliberately toward energizing imagination. He is painting a picture of what is possible through God. This has made it especially popular with conservatives, although I’m not quite sure when they pivoted from imagining the dream was impossible to imagining it was achieved a long time ago. King’s reflections on Ghana’s independence are a more fully formed prophetic word, both radical critique and energizing imagination.  

King engages in a brutally direct critique of empire:

“Ghana has something to say to us. It says to us first, that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed . . . if Nkrumah and the people of the Gold Coast had not stood up persistently revolting against the system, it would still be a colony of the British Empire. Freedom is never given to anybody. For the oppressor has you in domination because he plans to keep you there. . . . Privileged classes never give up their privileges without strong resistance” (p. 161).

At the same time, King uses Ghana’s independence to energize the imagination of the people of God: “Ghana tells us that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice. . . . That night when I saw that old flag coming down and the new flag coming up, I saw something else . . . it was an event with eternal meaning. . . . An old order of colonialism, of segregation, of discrimination is passing away now. And a new order of justice and freedom and good will is being born. . . . Somehow the forces of justice stand on the side of the universe, so that you can’t ultimately trample over God’s children and profit by it” (p. 164).

Our current historical moment, like those before it, demands the fully formed prophetic voice.  Speak the truth. Call it what it is. Imagine that it could be otherwise. And finally, as King reminds us, “know that as you struggle for justice, you do not struggle alone. But God struggles with you” (p. 166).

[1] In Accra, MacMillan said “The wind of change is blowing right through Africa” (p. 31). In a more well-known version of the speech presented in Cape Town, he said “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not…” (p. 163). 

[2] Those words are from a sermon King gave a month after his return from Ghana, on April 7, 1957, to the congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the same church where he had helped organize the bus boycott that had just ended in December.  It was titled “Birth of a New Nation.” 

About the Author

Joseph Kuilema is an assistant professor in the social work program at Calvin College.  He and his wife attend Sherman St. Christian Reformed Church.

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