Missio continues its conversation with Andy Crouch about his new book, Playing God (IVP, 2013), on the vocation of prophecy, zombie institutions, kenosis, and forgiveness. The first part of this interview can be found here.
TWI: Let’s talk about the vocation of prophecy. One integral aspect of how the Old Testament “handles” power was through the prophets and the vocation of the prophets. The prophets operated in different arenas—there were court prophets, wilderness prophets, and so on. But the primary way power was engaged and talked about was through naming, understanding, and unveiling what this power is, which is itself an act of power. How did that inform your vision in the book? What would you say about the vocation of prophecy, especially in the North American context?
AC: It’s an important point. Within biblical Israel, there are three principal roles of power—prophet, priest, and king. You don’t get to pick two; you really need all three. That might be a helpful model for our own time when we think about power. I find that people mostly want to pick two. For instance, some say, “We want prophets, and we want priests”—that is, a worshipping community held together by the sacraments— “but we don’t want kings”—no civil authority, no executive power. We just want the beloved community. But other communities want kings and priests, but no prophets. But you need all three.
The prophet’s role is not to let the power and the results of idolatry and injustice go unnamed. These things cloak themselves. They do not present themselves as, “Hey kids, let’s worship an idol.” It’s presented as reality. No one says, “Let’s go commit some injustice today”; it’s presented as a necessary and right, even just, thing to do.
There’s a hiddenness to these realities and to power in general. It’s like the wind; it’s hard to see it, which is one way that power is different than money. Money is the countable, fungible form of power. I can know how much I have and I can give it to you. But there are forms of power that I cannot know how much I have, and I cannot hand you the power I have. That makes power a slippery thing.
The prophet is to name what’s going on behalf of the true God and the image bearers of the true God. We absolutely need these people, but they are often hard to get along with. I don’t get along very well with full-time/24-7 prophets, personally.
TWI: It seems like being a prophet is a mantle that’s claimed very quickly in Christian circles today. It’s hip. But it seems like a degradation of the vocation and a misunderstanding of how that vocation operates in the structures of power. To be a little tongue-in-cheek, who will prophet the prophets? It’s supposed be a theological x-ray of the activities of a community. But a lot of people aren’t willing to be exposed to the radiation of prophetic tasks, to the wilderness settings of a prophetic vocation, or to its dangerous costs.
AC: It’s totally understandable that the prophets, both biblical and contemporary, get fed up with the kings. At the same time, just as there are good kings and bad kings in the Bible, I think there are better prophets and worse prophets. The better prophets are those like Nathan who say sincerely, “O King, live forever!” They genuinely want power to be stewarded well within the kingdom, but when they see a problem, they are not afraid to come and confront it.
Recall when Daniel has to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Nebuchadnezzar has rapaciously exploited the land of Israel, carrying away the best of its young people and destroying what’s left. So we see Daniel, serving this imperial, idolatrous, unjust figure, and yet when Daniel gets ready to interpret the dream, the Bible says he was troubled. He says, “Oh King, I pray that this does not apply to you.” Now a lesser prophet might have said, “Wait until you hear what you have coming to you!” But Daniel says, “I hope this doesn’t apply to you, but here is what it says.”
I get impatient with two things in our contemporary time. First, people who take on the mantle of prophet with a kind of scorn for the people who are doing their best to lead.
TWI: You mean, the cynical prophet—
AC: Yes, the cynical prophet, who does not realize that most people in these positions are sincerely trying to do and create good. Yes, they are blind about certain things; yes, they need the prophets, but there needs to be a willingness to be “for” those to whom we prophesy, instead of just trying to score points against them. That is a real danger.
The second thing that troubles me is when prophets don’t realize their own power and will critique anyone’s power but their own.
One moment really encapsulated this reality for me. I heard a talk at a conference by a celebrated prophetic figure of our time. He delivered a trenchant critique of money and the god of Mammon to an audience of about 3,000 pastors. His speech ended with a dramatic gesture where he converted his speaker’s fee—$3,000 if I remember correctly—into $1 bills, and then poured them out in front of the audience. He gave an altar call and told people to take a bill with them as they went. It was an incisive critique of Mammon but also, by implication, a critique of everyone in the room, an audience of mostly middle-class pastors. Frankly, this was not a crowd with a lot of access to Mammon; few of these pastors are paid $3,000 to speak anywhere, ever. If you can afford to blow $3,000 on an illustration, you have a tremendous amount of power and some kind of wealth.
What was missing, though, was any acknowledgment that the speaker himself was engaging in a profound display of power and the perilous risk involved in doing so. There was peril in taking that kind of righteous stance and implicating your audience in their unrighteousness, when in fact there could have been a great deal of unrighteousness in the power dynamics at work in the room.
We have to talk about this. We have to talk about what happens when someone hands you a little headset and gives you 30 minutes to talk. I don’t care how much money you have or give away—you have power for which you are accountable! You can’t get away from that accountability by setting yourself up to be a prophet about other people’s power. I don’t want to overplay that particular moment, but it crystallized just how much dishonesty there can be in the prophetic rhetoric that is so hip right now.
TWI: Let’s talk about zombie institutions, as you do in Playing God. We are mindful that we are talking together in a city where many people work in “the bureaucracy,” which in many people’s minds is a term virtually synonymous with “zombie institution.”
There’s a lot of talk these days about ars moriendi – the art of dying well, for an individual. What might an institutional ars moriendi look like? How can an institution die well? It seems like knowing what a good death looks like is a theme in your book, so that when an institution needs to die, it can provide a moment of flourishing for the larger community.
What might an institutional hospice look like? Can other institutions come in and help this institution’s death still contribute to life as it ends? And can institutions bear witness to one another, since much of what constitutes ars moriendi is bearing witness to a life ended well.
To put that bigger question in very personal terms, did your magazine [Re:generation Quarterly] die well?
AC: It could have been worse. It never quite made it to institutional status, which takes three generations. It only lasted 8 years.
But that is very interesting question. The way Re:generation ended could have been much worse. The reason that its ending was relatively healthy was that the powerful person who made the decision to close it also very generously used his power, privilege, and wealth to grant a dignified exit to those of us who had worked on it. He gave me time to figure out what I was going to do next without just throwing me out on the street, and so there was also time to wrap things up and say thank you and goodbye. His own personal resources were spent, in the one sense, on a very unproductive thing, when strictly speaking the most prudent thing would have been to just cut off his supply of cash and end it instantly. Instead, a certain amount of money and time and energy went into its ending, and he made that possible. He made the decision that it had to end—no room for dissent on that—but he also said, “Let’s make it a good ending.” So there was grief, disappointment, and loss, but not bitterness.
Even though I was very invested in it, I have no bitterness. I just have this sense of gratitude and grief, and I wish we could have figured out how it could have survived longer. But the same could be said for every human life. It is not going to end without sorrow, but it can end without bitterness.
Institutions fear death just like individuals fear death. But the difference between an institutional and an individual death is, of course, that institutions by definition are not supposed to die quickly. The whole point of institutions is to give us a way of extending shalom beyond our own natural lifetimes. It’s the structure in which something I do today can continue in some small way to bear fruit for a very long time.
Changing the metaphor, institutions are like a gyroscope, where there is a conservation of momentum to keep something true. Because it just keeps spinning, it’s very hard to deflect. All these are good properties of institutions, so I don’t think we should ever be eager for institutions to die. But it’s clear that two things happen. Gradually over time, the gyroscope starts to tilt, and it often starts to tilt towards self-preservation. Institutionalism is when an institution stops being about some external flourishing and just becomes about its own existence. Or, the ends that the institution once served no longer are needed. Once you have the technology of rubber tires on steel rims, you do not want cars running on wooden rims like horse carriages. The whole institution of building carriages had to become something much smaller, even if it did not go away completely.
So how would that be done in a healthy way? One thing is that the stewards of an institution in the hospice phase need to ask, “How do we send out the image bearers who have found dignity, agency, authority, and vulnerability in this institution to join other settings where they can flourish?” There is a responsibility to not just throw people out, but to ask what is transferable from this institution to others?
For example, I happen to believe, with many appropriate qualifications, that the globalization of trade is a good thing for human beings. It contributes to overall flourishing. But clearly what that means is that as some people in India and China are flourishing—I realize this is very complex, but let’s suppose that it is true on a whole that globalized trade does lead to flourishing in other places—it will also mean that certain kinds of jobs are going to leave my country. It seems to me it is absolutely essential as a matter of policy for us to provide ways for people to exit the industries that are affected by the opening up of trade in dignified ways. This must be intrinsic to creating these new institutions through global trade. So there must be attention paid to the exit into other work and other forms of image-bearing for people who have been employed in those places.
TWI: In some ways, it’s an institution’s final gift—an inheritance—because an institution has always hopefully built something, whether that is people, a place, artifacts, or a sense of time.
AC: One of the mistakes institutions make is to defer facing their failure to the point that they have no more resources to attend to the end. They just collapse rather than exit. For while it is not necessary for institutions to die, it is not categorically evil that institutions do die. Institutions do not have a right to life in the same way that people do. A human being’s death is a violation of what was meant for human beings, notwithstanding that we are all going to die. Every human death is a victory for an enemy who ultimately will have his work undone. But the death of institutions, though it is not necessary over the short run, if and when it comes, is not something for which heroic measures have to be deployed; as if we cannot allow this to happen.
TWI: Or that it would be worth sacrificing image bearers for the dying institution, which would then make it a moment of idolatry.
AC: Exactly. The great failure of leaders in zombie institutions is to not face up to what is happening with enough lead time that they can grant a dignified exit from the institution to the people who have been there. The 2008 financial crisis was an example of this. People that work in structured finance knew these mortgage-backed securities were impossible to value and entailed far more risk than anyone was willing to admit. Somebody once said that while the music was playing, you just had to keep dancing; no one would say, “Failure is coming.” So when failure comes, the shocks are so much graver and so much more destructive to all of these people who are doing nothing but trying to faithfully serve those institutions. And that is a really deep failure of leadership.
TWI: I completely agree that power is a gift, and that God’s good power is not the subversion of but the source and ground of the forms and manifestations of human power. But over the course of the book, it did not seem as if there was ever a moment where “giving away” one’s power might be the most faithful form of gift that power can take in that moment—that divesting one’s self of power is the best way to create space for flourishing.
I once read a story about an academic theology conference, and the panel was entirely white and male. An African American gentleman in the audience challenged the proceedings as exclusionary and homogenous. In response, one of the panelists stood up and replied, “Here, take my seat.” It may have been an awkward half-gesture, but it was a form of divestment of power, a sort of “liberation theology from above,” instead of just liberation theology from below.
It seems there are moments when best thing the person of power can do is say “I’m going to be silent.” That might be true as well when you receive forgiveness. This is only something that can be given to you by someone else, and it probably requires an act of kenosis on your own part. You have to stop talking. Maybe you have done work to get to this place, but the moment of forgiveness has a power that is completely disconnected from your own power.
AC: But there is also a kenosis in the forgiver, because that person is giving up the right to be right, the power of being right.
TWI: Right, so how does that relate with the discussion of power in your book?
AC: Two thoughts. I do talk about this in the book in my discussion about Sabbath and Sabbath practices, but not in the terms that you might have been looking for. Those practices include gleaning, the weekly Sabbath, sabbatical years, and ultimately the Jubilee. The model of each of these “steps of Sabbath,” involves the stoppage of work—and it’s work that you are able and have the right to do. The crops are growing on your property, and you could harvest it all, but you don’t. I would actually see that as a very close analogue to the scene you describe. When I am sitting on a panel, rather than maximizing my airtime, as a matter of Sabbath practice, I might actually completely cede that time to someone else and say, “This time is now for you.”
When our lives are built in a serious way around Sabbath, we are constantly practicing the setting aside of our power. We do this so that God can work, but also so that others image bearers can work. That isn’t as evident in the weekly Sabbath, but it is definitely apparent in gleaning. The whole point of gleaning is to give space for others—aliens and refugees, like Ruth and Naomi—to do good work. I may have grown the crops, but I give them a place to harvest it. I don’t just give them a charitable hand out. I give them room for image-bearing.
This becomes clearer in a modern context when you begin to think what happens when an academic takes a sabbatical year. My wife will be doing this next year, and so her academic department must hire another person to come and do work, possibly someone who has yet to secure a tenure-track job. By virtue of her stepping away, this person now has an opportunity to do what they have been called to do.
But it’s in the Jubilee year where you see real kenosis, where accumulated privilege is totally relinquished and people who have been allowed no room for image bearing and now are given room and given land.
I think that’s a pattern that we’re meant to live. So every day, I should be asking myself, “What should I not do today, so that someone else can do it, and especially someone who might not have the opportunity to do it?” Personally, for example, I try to be intentional about how I do this for women and underrepresented ethnic minorities. I have begun asking myself, “Who and what do I ‘retweet’? Do I only retweet people with similar levels of power as myself?” which is just a version, “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” I try to use what social power I have on Twitter to promote other voices who would get missed otherwise, whether because they are young or they are women writing in a male-dominated environment. That’s the kind of shalom-oriented practice of making room for more.
Still, the kenosis of Philippians 2 was not a routine event. It was a response to sin. In whatever way you look at salvation history, the cross was necessary not as a natural next step in the story, but as a drastic intervention in a world of idolatry and injustice. So I think we have to ask what shape Sabbath takes in our lives so we make room for others, but we also have to ask, what are the sacrificial moments of submission to the brokenness of the world. That, too, will be required in order to image Christ in the world and to participate in that redemption.
In my teenage years I was deeply influenced by Roland Joffé’s film, The Mission. Jeremy Irons plays a Jesuit priest who identifies with the Guarani people in an environment of tremendous injustice. At the end of the movie, he walks out into certain death, holding the sacrament; and the film fades to black, and Joffé puts up the end credit line: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it”—John 1:5. The movie raises the question as to whether that is true.
That story doesn’t neatly fit “he is stewarding his power for flourishing.” No, he has fought in this implacably unjust system that will not repent, and to be Christ in that place is to sacrifice oneself to God. It is not just my responsibility to placidly step away from work and not accept that assignment so you can take that assignment, or not accept a speaking gig so someone else can take it. There is this deeper Christian calling to ask what genuine peril am I to put myself in for the sake of bearing witness to truth.
Different people will answer that differently, and I am very hesitant to prescribe what the answer should be, because that can become so self-righteous and legalistic. Some of my friends have made much more risky decisions about where they will live in the world out of that sense of bearing witness. How do I assess the fact that I live in a suburb and that friends of mine live in a city with a lot of gang violence? The first step is to be very humble towards them and to constantly interrogate my own choices. That’s all to say that I think the cross is the sacrifice that had to be made because of how entrenched idolatry and injustice had become. So there is routine emptying, but there is also self-giving that is anything but routine.
TWI: Tell us what you mean by, “The trustees of an institution are those who have forgiven it.”
AC: There are a handful of sentences that have been uttered in my presence that have changed my life and this is one of them. Steve Hayner, now president of Columbia Theological Seminary, said it, and he was not talking about trustees in the legal sense. He was talking about people who can be entrusted with the stewardship of the institution at all levels, not just at the top.
The phrase implies two things. First, the true stewards of an institution are not those who ignore its brokenness but who have actually suffered its brokenness. He doesn’t say the trustees of an institution are those who prophetically identify its brokenness, which might be a legitimate role. He’s identifying people who have suffered because of ways institutions work. The truth is that anyone who seriously seeks to serve an institution will be hurt by it because, by the third generation, every institution will fail. It’s true of our families, or any organization that has lasted that long.
There is an especially cautionary word here for the task of church planting. Church planting can be dangerous because it can seem that “the first generation” is doing everything right, intentionally seeking to avoid the mistakes of “the old church.” But it’s likely that the first generation is setting in motion patterns that, three generations later, will seriously harm future heirs. That is true of any endeavor. Along with the shalom we might be creating, we are also setting up patterns of brokenness.
Second, true stewards, or trustees, who have been broken have not become bitter but have forgiven. They are able to exercise forbearance and forgiveness for the ways their institutions work. You cannot serve an institution until you have both experienced how messed up it is and made the decision out of love to bear with it.
TWI: That sounds a lot like marriage. If you are going to be faithful, you’ll have to forgive.
AC: I heard a church planter say once, “It’s not hard to find a way to share the sufferings of the world.” If you are a young, privileged person asking how you can imitate Christ, he said, it’s not hard: “just made a commitment to a person or a group of people, and keep it.” All you have to do to experience real suffering—not gratuitous, masochistic suffering, but the suffering that is a part of image-bearing in a broken world—is make a commitment.
I wish it were not true. I so want it not to be true, but fidelity and forgiveness go together. The essence of my marriage, as with any marriage, is forgiveness. People always ask married couples, “How did you meet?” The really interesting question to anyone who’s been married more than two years is, “How have you stayed married?”
TWI: A wise priest once told me that the first twenty-five years of marriage are the hardest.
AC: A friend of mine will introduce her husband by saying, “We’ve had eight wonderful years of marriage—and we’ve been married for fifteen years.” Forgiveness is the essence of any community.
Even in my forties, it’s sometimes deflating to realize that these kinds of commitments are not going to be about our amazing achievements together. I was just with a group of young people—folks in their 20s and 30s with a lot of privilege and a lot of power who, much to their credit, had chosen to participate in a mentoring weekend with older, wiser, and successful folks in their 60s and 70s. I was right in the middle in my 40s. The idea was to learn from folks who have been through life and who have had very successful careers, the kind of careers that these younger people were kind of primed for. One thing I picked up on was this unspoken but also spoken hope in the room was that by being mentored, we would learn how to avoid being broken. Like our marriages wouldn’t fail and our careers would just proceed as they were meant to, because we were wise enough to recognize that we needed advice and that we would some how get on the toll lane that allows us to avoid the traffic jams of life.
Even though the older couples there were these incredibly wise and deep people, none of them have made it through life unscathed. With complete transparency, they showed that was the case. But among the younger people there was this sense that we might be able to avoid all of that. And we just are not going to avoid it. Indeed, the attempt to avoid it will create the greatest danger to your relationships and to your work.
TWI: It’s like when we say that we will not make the mistakes of our parents with our own children, but then sure enough, we do.
AC: This is why towards the end of the book I talk about Joseph. At the beginning of his life, Joseph had dreams about becoming incredible powerful, and these actually came true, at least with a lens zoomed all the way out on his life. But when you zoom in, you encounter Joseph’s totally fractured relationship with his family, followed by his experience in Egypt of his own tremendous blindness of his own power and of Egypt’s broken society. Joseph’s crisis with Potiphar’s wife reveals that he does not understand his power. He is naïve to the dynamics between him and her, and it ruins him. In the dungeon he sees how unjust all of Egypt is. The cupbearer and baker are both there with him, and both have no good reason for being there. One gets his head cut off and the other goes back to work. The system is not functioning! There is no due process. It is only after all of these events, where Joseph has been broken by his broken family and by the broken system of Egypt, that he is ready to be a trustee.
What I wish I had discussed more in Playing God was a little coda to Joseph’s life we do not like to talk about. At the height of the famine, people from all over are coming to get grain out of the Egyptian storehouses. Joseph says to Pharaoh, “They can’t pay for it, but we can have them give their land to Pharaoh, and then we will give them grain.” So Pharaoh acquires the land rights to all of Egypt, making the people sharecroppers. The writer of Genesis says, “Thus Joseph enslaved the people of Egypt.” Joseph is the one who proposed the way for Pharaoh to consolidate his power in this idolatrous way by exploiting the vulnerability of the people.
For the writer of the Torah to say, “Thus Joseph enslaved the people,” is devastating. Look what Joseph has set up; he is setting up the events in the first chapters of Exodus. Generations later, this institution of slavery has become deeply entrenched. The Hebrews are now enslaved partially because of Joseph’s suggestion. So for all the good that Joseph does—and I wouldn’t take back any of the positive things I say about Joseph in that last chapter—this final word is so emblematic of what happens with institutions. He is a true trustee, but this one small proposal set into motion terrible injustice, and Joseph is the agent of it even in the midst of his stewardship.
Again, this is why entrepreneurial ventures like church planting are so fraught with danger, because we imagine that we are being trustees and yet we don’t realize that we are making small choices that, in the end, someone else will have to come along and forgive.
TWI: So a good exercise of power involves a very robust concept of memory. Even when talking about church planting, what you remember and recall when you plant the church will look very differently once you get three generations down the road.
AC: Especially if you have not forgiven.
TWI: This is interesting too because a lot of what the prophets are doing is calling Israel to remember, and a big portion of the vocation of the prophet is to remember the Jubilee because no one is doing it. That naming, a lot of the time, is remembering. It is an important task to consider how evangelicals can struggle sometimes with memory.
AC: It’s because we’re so American. The culture of evangelicalism is quite American.
TWI: To quote Stanley Hauerwas, Americans believe “they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.” Evangelicals don’t have many institutionalized forms of tradition, or guides for how to interact with traditions, the resources and places you can turn to that help you find what is good, helpful, and authoritative.
AC: There is a place in Deuteronomy where Israelites are told to recite, “My ancestor was a wondering Aramean,” and reciting that story is part of the Passover liturgy. Every year you are to rehearse this memory of where you came from, and to teach these things to your children. The parents are responsible for their children’s memory, and for the preservation of the memory.
TWI: Hence the place of the seder, and remembering that you are the ones who are leaving Egypt. In some ways, you need a memory not only for how faithfulness is to play out in the church, but also a memory of idolatry.
AC: Yes, which is why films like “12 Years a Slave” are prophetic. Part of me doesn’t want to see this movie. It sounds just truthfully brutal or brutally truthful. I would so much rather not think about that. Everything in me thinks, “This was one hundred and fifty years ago and I never owned slaves”—never mind that my great grandparents did. But it’s vital to keep alive a memory of what was possible in this land. It is a prophetic memory.
TWI: And therefore you have to own your story, the story you have been given and to know that it is still quite possible. Thank you, Andy Crouch.