For decades, engaged Christians have espoused a prophetic politics that combines personal conversion and efforts to transform society. We have seen faith-based groups move from outreach-style charity or "service" to much more politically engaged forms of advocacy and organizing around social justice issues. The time has come for a new generation of prophets to rise up in America. These prophets will certainly be charitable and have a servant's heart, but they will be engaged in a new kind of prophetic work: empowering communities to develop their potential as public problem solvers. They will join with others to move beyond advocacy to the active work of building thriving, diverse communities, empowering institutions, and a society not defined by consumerism and upward mobility.
This prophetic work is informed by lessons from the biblical story of Nehemiah and from the freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The story of Nehemiah shows a skillful politician who gained permission from the king of Persia in 446 B.C. to return to Jerusalem in order to lead the Jews in rebuilding the city walls, after years of laying in ruin. Nehemiah's leadership was different than the model of Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt or Solomon dispensing wisdom. Nehemiah did not undertake the effort of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem by first setting forth a program on which everyone agreed. Nor did he formulate a detailed theory of wall-rebuilding. No doubt, he could have listed many reasons not to entrust the building efforts to the people themselves. After all, where were the "experts"? What could a delicate-handed goldsmith know of bricks and mortar? How could bands of women and children be as effective in construction as Persian engineers? Fortunately, Nehemiah had a deeper understanding of expertise, efficiency and the meaning of what he called "the good work."
Nehemiah understood that rebuilding the walls was no mere construction project, but required bringing people together to rebuild relationships, renew their commitment to God and in the process recover a sense of their great tradition, all in the service of renewing a common life together. Rather than pursuing the logical route of hiring laborers to rebuild the walls for the people, Nehemiah called the city's inhabitants to rebuild the walls for themselves. Rebuilding the walls became an act of civic restoration. As the rebuilding took place, the people regained a sense of their common purpose and created a shared life together across their differences. The power of this narrative is its ability to illustrate how working to create a common life together holds far more promise for civic renewal than does service or advocacy alone. It has proven compelling for a variety of community initiatives over the last generation.
The freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s, with parallels to Nehemiah, also shows how a struggle for social justice must include a schooling in what it means to work across difference to create a better world. Public histories tend to portray the freedom movement as great mobilizations or the work of famous celebrities like Martin Luther King Jr. But as Charles Euchner describes in his recent book, Nobody Turn Me Around (subtitled a "people's history of the 1963 March on Washington"), the leaders' civic messages channeled a movement culture which had incubated for years in organizing activities in local communities. In the first south-wide movement campaign, the Crusade for Citizenship in 20 cities in 1958, conceived by Ella Baker, and later the citizenship schools directed by Bernice Robinson and Dorothy Cotton, which taught community organizing skills, people developed a sense of what might be called political sobriety: the ability to put aside immediate impulses for the larger work of culture change. They learned how to keep long range goals in clear view. All this added up to a vast process of citizenship education. Millions of people learned to think and act as a "public," rebuilding the symbolic walls of American democracy, to advance the general welfare of blacks and whites alike. The movement awakened the nation after the somnolent, consumerist, privatized 1950s.
Today, we need a similar reawakening that refocuses attention away from the differences that keep our nation divided and away from the uprooted, individualist "anything goes" values of a celebrity consumerist culture. The privatized culture of the early 21st century feeds devaluation of the talents and intelligence of people without credentials, degrees and celebrity status, and it keeps the public focused on principled arguments between "experts." Private pursuits have taken the place of collective public creation.
The times call for a radically different politics, which values diverse talents and capacities of "regular people" and their ability to contribute to civic renewal. Such politics attends to the grounded, relational institutions which cultivate such talents, such as families, religious congregations, locally owned businesses and banks, ethnic groups and community oriented schools. These are neglected by progressives who focus on distributive justice delivered through the state.
Such prophetic work will require a vast citizenship education that teach the skills and deep habits of working across differences. As with the builders of the walls in ancient Jerusalem, this work requires a revitalization of abilities to see beyond what is to what can be, combining a public spirit with the work of culture change, rebuilding the moral and civic foundations. In this era marked by division, strife and uprooted pursuit of individual success, we need prophets of the possible who can move the rhetoric of "working together" to the reality of a more just, grounded and civic society.
Paul Markham is assistant professor and co-director of the Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility at Western Kentucky University; Harry C. Boyte is director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, now at Augsburg College, and a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.