Prophesy for the Institution
"All institutions are inherently evil." So spoke the wild Baptist preacher Will Campbell.
However, the late Rev. Will didn’t say what to do with that reality. That wasn’t his job as a prophet. He didn’t offer a nuanced understanding of the human need for institutions, including ecclesiastical ones. To my knowledge, he didn’t write about how institutions give structure to ideals, including his own aspirations for justice, inclusion and the Beloved Community. That wasn’t his job either, or at least he didn't care to do it. That attitude made him a son of a bitch, a role he relished. And that was a job he did take on, for which I am grateful.
Yet should we expect more of prophets? I tire of the critique that doesn’t move to construction. I am more than weary of “prophetic” preachments about justice that are divorced from the creation of justice, which requires both the remaking of existing institutions and the birth of new ones.
I take it literally when the prophet says, “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12). I’m thinking: concrete. I’m thinking: buildings, homes, markets, the places and the exchanges that are the stuff of human beings being human. I’m thinking: the creativity that makes a city a city to live in and a street a path to walk on.
When the prophet has nothing to say about constructing or creating, is he or she really a prophet or just a critic? The prophet is called to tear down, even to overthrow. Yet the call is not complete without the building and the planting. The prophet’s very words generate while they liberate. The prophet’s speech creates another possibility, a reality that has detail, pattern, order, structure — yes, an institution. That’s because the utterance that is prophetic is proleptic, which Merriam-Webster defines as representing or assuming “a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.” The prophet sees “the new thing,” and it is a thing with substance, not merely an ideal.
To be more concrete, the prophet is able to call others to action because the prophet is already moving into action. To be even more concrete, the prophet is already living into this constructed reality because the prophet has already visualized its development and stepped into it — bricks and mortar, actual foundations; potholes filled, service gaps filled; no more empty storefronts and boarded-up houses but flourishing neighborhoods.
The prophet sees more because the prophet’s hands get there first. The prophet digs into the earth to plant trees and vegetables. The prophet buys a piece of land and touches its four corners, blessing the plot because the prophet knows it will be the place to build equity. The parcel itself will be prophetic, providing a genuine resistance to the supposed inevitability of gentrification and a genuine refusal to believe the lie that justice-loving people are powerless apart from preaching for justice.
We actually make justice. We make the institutions we live in. We have to. There is no other option for living. So we must tear down the institutions when they no longer serve life. And we must build new institutions to hold the life we desire.
Campbell may not have said what to do with the reality of the inherent evil of institutions — their natural tendency to mirror human nature at its worst — but he made a home and a community that welcomed the stranger, and he fashioned a church when necessary to get the state’s approval to get someone into prison in an official religious capacity in order to set the captive free. Campbell made a neighborhood. It was nothing but structured, nothing but constructed as a potluck and a porch are made.
So I can imagine a prophet saying to another prophet: Take away from me the noise of your preaching; I will not listen to the rhythm of your accusations and castigations. But let justice roll down. Let justice roll down like the conveyor belt on a factory floor where the workers earn living wages. Let it roll down like kids biking along an avenue where their parents now own the stores and the homes above the stores.
Let it roll down like a congregation finally leaving worship and moving from the sanctuary to the steps to the street to join the ever-flowing stream that is a farmers’ market, or a stock market, or a boulevard of dreams incarnated in institutions — in short, righteousness realized.