On the weekend at our members’ conference we considered the life and words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (his life is much more compelling than his words) and reflected upon the relationship between silence, prayer, faith and acts of ‘civil disobedience’ via the imagination. We talked about the fact that our imaginations are being dominated by a socially engineered consumer culture that’s OCD about being in charge of this ’empire of the imagination’ from whence it’s dollars come. Inevitably you feel a certain sense of disgust with yourself and your country and even your own organisation when you think about these things.
But it’s dangerous to engage in self-righteous rants that—as one of our old mates Frank Doolan reminded us—do nothing more than feed our poets’ egos. Isn’t that a big slice of what the popular entertainment industry is about after all: a sop of red meat thrown to the masses to vent their rage on like dogs while the emperor laughs?
The fact is that we (the millions of mortgage-carroted, pre-coronary donkeys of Australia) backed ourselves into this corner a long time ago and have no way ahead other than an honest confession of our failure to inspire our children with a vision of faith, hope and love and of a family and a home that is an oasis of new life and grace. How can we expect to take each other seriously—and especially our leaders (religious or otherwise)—when we still talk as if the Australian economy, politics, sporting achievements and education system: our version of ‘power and knowledge’ really can ‘tame the terror and eliminate the darkness’?* And worse, when we—who have already been living in so-called ‘radical community’ in Cornerstone for example, and who should know better—have also sometimes allowed ourselves to be mesmerised by the imagination of Babylon and tried to copy it—’for the Lord’ of course.
Thinking on all this over the weekend helped me to understand why one scholar said of ancient Israel that it, ‘came within a whisker of being able to imagine its future only in the terms permitted and sanctioned by Babylon.’ It could be that 21st century Australia has gone beyond that ‘whisker’ and can now only ‘imagine its future … in the terms permitted and sanctioned’ by a bunch of bored executives sitting somewhere on a yacht. Which in real terms translates into your imagination being taken captive by the local shopping mall. If we persist in serving up this kind of meaning-myth to our teenagers we should not be surprised when they want to top themselves.
As we talked and prayed on the weekend, we were reminded by Bonhoeffer (who had to confront a much more stark ‘Babylon’: in the shape of the Nazis) that a good starting point is a deliberate act of silence, of passive surrender to the quietness of what has been called ‘the dreadful and captivating mystery of God’s presence’, during which we allow the divine Word to act, to awaken our imagination from the banal spell of our shop- keeper god. As Lewis once remarked, ‘Stone walls cannot a prison make half so secure as rigmarole.’ This is why prayer has been described as ‘rebellion against the status quo’. Walter Brueggemann goes on to say that ‘the return from exile begins with an emotional act of civil disobedience.’** Perhaps today could be a good day for you to also engage in an emotional act of civil disobedience.
*Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002
** Brueggemann W. Conversations Among Exiles: This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 2-9, 1997, pp. 630-632.)