Prophetic Dissonance (Part 1): Telling National Myths from the Bottom Up

In 1980 Howard Zinn, a political scientist, published a book called The People’s History of the United States. This history book was meant to challenge most histories of the United States, by presenting the history of the country through the lens of the majority, that is to say, the masses of people at bottom of society. Zinn was not convinced that current history books were telling the story of the United States with the people in mind, but were rather telling history from the vantage point of the elite class with a slant towards upholding the prevailing national myths that we as Americans like to live by.

historyThese national myths have included Manifest Destiny (that the land belongs to whoever is strong enough to take it by force), the American Dream (that anyone can be anything they want to be with enough hard work), and America as the Christian Nation (that everyone in America affirms and practices Christian beliefs). Zinn challenged these myths by retelling the American story from the bottom up, from the viewpoint of Native Americans as the settlers crept West, consuming more land and resources; from the viewpoint of slaves, ripped from their homes and forced to work on massive plantations in unbearable conditions; the many waves of immigrants, as they traveled to America in search of jobs and land, rarely finding either; and the unions, who fought endlessly against violent monopolies and horrific working conditions. The point of telling history from these stories, according to Zinn, was to balance the national myths of America, and give us a lens of unheard voices in which to view and understand our history.

Needless to say, his book has remained controversial in these last forty years.

One of the reasons Zinn’s book remains controversial is that people do not like being reminded of past sins. People like to rest assured that their nation is somehow devoid of misdeeds and has always been noble in its pursuits. This is why most history books present the conquest of the West as Manifest Destiny, a glorious adventure in which the cowboys fight against the savages to keep peace on their farms. History is always written by the victors, and the victors always present their deeds through rose-colored glasses. When we read Zinn’s chapter on the conquest of the West through the perspective of the Native Americans, who were cheated countless times out of their tribal lands through mischievous government contracts and marauding land thieves, we begin to doubt whether it was actually Manifest Destiny, or more like the pillaging and genocide of an entire continent.

Zinn’s history of the United States is an act of dissonance, and is meant to challenge our way of thinking, and to shed new light on how we perceive our place in the world.

The prophetic voice in the Hebrew Bible sets out to do the same thing. Often the prophets are misunderstood, mainly because they get blended in with apocalyptic literature until the prophets = end times. When people think of the prophetic voice, they think of the strange visions in Daniel and Ezekiel, and walk away from the whole project before they go any further.

The prophets, however, are mostly concerned with the here and now. They are voices of dissonance within Israel, trying to call the people into a time of remembering their national identity, by challenging their actions and beliefs.

The prophets, looking around at the state of Israel, noted that Israel had forgotten their relationship with God and their relationship with their neighbor. Israel had forgotten their vocation, to be a blessing to the nations, and adopted a false national myth, that they were the chosen ones of God and had nothing to do with the nations. They forgot that they were a country of immigrants and refuges, and adopted the national myth that they alone were a pure nation who had sole control of, and access to, the true God. The prophetic voice challenged these false national myths. It challenged Israel’s false identity and false vocation, attempting to bring Israel back into right relationship.

You can imagine that, much like Zinn, the prophets were rather controversial.

Everyone hated the prophets. The priesthood hated the prophets, because they pointed out oppressive Temple practices, cult worship, and synchronization (the blending of religions). The kings hated the prophets, because they pointed out exhaustive tax systems, slave labor, and mismanagement of national interests. And the elite classes hated the prophets, because they pointed out imbalanced work expectations, the oppression of the poor and the foreign, and the lack of charity among the class systems.

The prophets were a radical group of visionaries who realized that Israel had forgotten itself, and sought to point out these contradictions, so that Israel could realign itself with God’s will.

To read the prophetic voice is to read a direct challenge to Israel’s view of itself.

What is interesting to note, is that dissonant voices are rarely heard, and nearly never preserved, let alone in holy texts. It is worth pondering that these prophets spoke out against Israel, challenged their beliefs, and yet their words were kept and passed on to new generations. What is more, their words were preserved in the sacred scriptures, preserved as a living challenge to the people of God, to remember their vocation and to seek love of God and neighbor above all laws.

And so, with that said, let us turn to several prophetic voices, to hear the challenges they offer.

Click here for Prophetic Dissonance (Part 2): Isaiah’s Vision and the Purity Code

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