On the Edge of the Inside

Years ago, Richard Rohr got my attention when he said we are called to live “on the edge of the inside.”  He calls this an alternative orthodoxy (that is, a genuine orthodoxy that is distinct from certain prevailing views in the status-quo society and in segments of the institutional church) that messages the Gospel in terms of the two great commandments and the radical advocacy of those who are oppressed for the lack of that love.  Rohr finds this location in his Franciscan tradition, and now seeks to apply the spirit and substance of it to 21st-century matters.

I do not know the extent to which Rohr may have been influenced by Brueggemann at this particular point [1], but I do know that Brueggemann is another voice pointing in a similar direction. In words akin to Rohr’s, Brueggemann wrote, “We are called to live between the voices of promise and seduction”–that is, between shalom and empire. [2] Even before that, in The Prophetic Imagination, he makes it clear that prophets live on the margins, creating the necessary distance from the center of empire and bringing the prophets into the sacred space of the anawim [3]–the ones Jesus called “the least of these” and “little flock.”

This is a subversive location (more on this later), and one that is necessary to generate the prophetic energy (Brueggemann’s word) to move us from “the kingdoms of this world” into the Kingdom of God.  Living too close to the center of empire keeps our souls “sold to the company store” (institution, association, organization, group); living too far away makes us revolutionaries who no longer see any value in current realities. Living on the edge of the inside gives us eyes to see and ears to hear, so that the de-constructive/re-constructive actions can occur together.

Living on the edge of the inside is risky for many reasons–one of which is that we lose friends in both the empire and in the anawim. [4] As Brueggemann notes repeatedly, the prophet is often a lonely person called to speak and act in the perilous territory of “the already and the not yet.”  Prophetic disorder, as Brueggemann also shows, challenges everyone, including the prophets themselves.

But living on the edge of the inside is exactly where we are called to be.  How to locate ourselves there and remain there is what this series aims to address. It is what I am calling “the prophetic task.” I will describe this task from four vantage points: the prophetic person, paradigm, process, and purpose.

[1] In his book, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008), 10–Rohr cites a direct affinity with Brueggemann with respect to the idea of “covenant love” which takes us into the presence of those who suffer and into the heart of God who suffers with us.  Rohr references Brueggemann’s book Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress Press, 2009), 215.  Rohr writes of this again in A Spring Within Us (CAC Publications, 2016), 214.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other Than Our Own (Westminster John Knox, 2017), 8.  This book is coordinated with the season of Lent, but it can be read with great value at any time.

[3] I have chosen the word anawim deliberately, both because it is the right Hebrew word to describe the forgotten and oppressed, but also to highlight early on in this series my indebtedness to Brennan Manning for opening my eyes decades ago to God’s heart for “the little ones.”  His book, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Multnomah, 1990) is all about us anawims. In 2001, I had the privilege of attending one of his retreats, the theme of which became his book, The Wisdom of Tenderness (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002)–a book that further developed the idea of anawim, and how we “little ones” are the recipients of God’s mercy in a world that is too often unmerciful.

[4] Gandhi experienced this, having enemies both in the British Empire and among radical Hindus who did not share his non-violent aporoach.  Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis were vilified by the white-racist establishment and also by the militant black-revolution groups, including later on, members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference they had helped to begin. 

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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