Q What is your core message for church leaders today?
A That the public agenda is not an add-on for gospel faith, but it really is the core business of the Gospel. Most of us are hung up on private matters. So we put all of our energy into questions about sexuality and abortion and gays and all that kind of stuff — which is not unimportant, but those are not the core issues of scripture. The core issues of scripture are public, political and economic justice. Justice is central to Jesus’ ministry; it is central to the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament; and it is central to the Torah tradition that lies behind the prophetic tradition. But I think we have learned, for comfort’s sake, to misread the Bible.
Q Can you elaborate on how we misread the Bible?
A Most people think the Bible is about personal happiness, personal well-being, being with God when you die and being privately moral. But that’s not what the Bible is about. The prophets are moral teachers, but what they’re talking about is public morality. You can open the books of the prophets anywhere and you’ll find them talking about widows, orphans, immigrants and poor people. They talk about wages; they talk about unjust scales; they talk about the greed that skews the economy. They say that injustice will lead to destruction — it’s an unavoidable message. So it’s just amazing how, in our habitual reading, we have siphoned off the energy from those accent points into stuff that is less demanding and less costly.
Q That message would make some uncomfortable. Have you ever been called a socialist or a communist?
A Oh, it comes up all the time. My response to that is that it is completely unhelpful to be having a conversation about capitalism or socialism or communism. What we have to talk about is neighbourliness, and how we can develop economic practices and economic policies that are, in fact, neighbourly. I suspect that when we get down to specific cases, we’ll need a mix of what we call capitalism and what we call socialism. The accent of the Bible is consistently about neighbourliness as it gets expressed in political and economic matters, and the question is: How do we organize our money and our power for the good, for the neighbourhood — locally and expansively?
Q By expansively, do you mean extending neighbourliness globally?
A Of course. I think the prophetic vision is that the whole populated Earth is a neighbourhood. We are all in it together, and the whole ideology of privatism is the assumption that people with power and resources can create little oases of well-being that fence everybody else out. I suppose Donald Trump’s wall is an illustration of that. But that’s what we try to do all the time. We try to do it with health care, we do it with schools, we do it with housing, we do it with all of the economic questions as though somehow we can have a protected zone that does not have to be shared with everyone. What we have learned through the 20th century is that there are not enough guns, dogs and military power to protect privatized zones of well-being. It is simply not sustainable.
Q You have described keeping the Sabbath as a subversive act. What do you mean?
A I think that the regular practice of the Sabbath is a declaration that the rat race of greed does not define life. If you say to people, as I often do, that the first requirement in keeping Sabbath is to disconnect electronically, they don’t want to do it because our life is defined by being “on” 24/7. We’re afraid to miss out, to be left behind — and we think we can’t afford that. The truth of the matter is that our well-being depends on being left behind from some of the practices of greed.
Q I understand that one of your favourite texts is Isaiah 43:19, in which the prophet describes his vision of the “new thing” God is doing. What is your own new vision for our world?
A My vision would include a neighbourly economy in which all are given access to what is needed for a life of dignity, security and well-being. It includes a new humanism in which we value our own faith confession but make room to take seriously the faith confessions of others. It is open to a new internationalism in which nobody, including the United States, is permitted to be a bully. It means the re-characterization of all of our social relationships in ways that are healthy, generative and restorative. This is obviously a huge leap, but I think that’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about when he said, “I have a dream.”
Q This past March, you gave a lecture at the conference “Forward from Ferguson” held at Eden Seminary in St. Louis. What are your thoughts on race relations and justice?
A There’s no doubt that the justice question now means that we need a serious reform of the criminal justice system and the police system. All of that has been shaped in racist categories for so long, and we just cannot let it go on this way anymore. So we have a huge amount of work to do about that, and I think the impetus for that grows right out of the prophetic mandate for justice.
Q Practically speaking, where do we start?
A We need to mobilize voter power so that we get people in positions of public leadership that have some passion about these matters. But along with that kind of formal political work, what churches need to be doing is establishing long-term conversational patterns that reach across racial lines. We cannot just engage in do-good gestures; we’ve got to make the kind of time commitment that will let us genuinely listen to each other and hear each other’s stories. I don’t think there’s any substitute for that kind of personal interaction, the kind of interaction that lets us find out that people who may seem unlike us have narratives that are almost like our own.
Q You’ve published over 100 books. For readers newly introduced to your work and message, where would you have them start?
A I’d have them start with my early book The Prophetic Imagination [published in 1978]. In it, I really laid down the themes that have continued to govern my thinking. I think it is the most succinct statement of my primary preoccupation: to bring a lively imagination to our reading of scripture. We’ve been trained either as literalist fundamentalists or as historical critics. We have not been trained to bring imagination to scripture. By imagination I mean the capacity to entertain a shape and reality of the world beyond anything that we have yet experienced, one that is vouched for by the playfulness of the text. We have to come at the biblical text with a great deal of freedom in order to see where we will be led by God’s spirit: a place beyond where we stood when we started reading.
This interview has been condensed and edited. It first appeared in The United Church Observer’s December 2016 issue with the title “I think the prophetic vision is that the whole populated Earth is a neighbourhood.”