Tag: Walter Brueggemann

A Voice In Ramah: Power, Protest, and Presence

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.

(Matthew 2:18)

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Magi_Journeying_(Les_rois_mages_en_voyage)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallThis passage from Matthew is a response to horrific injustice. King Herod, learning from the Wise Men that the King had been born, is unable to locate the specific child that represented a threat to his Power. So to play it safe, he draws a circle on his map around Bethlehem and uses the legitimate authority of his government to execute all boys under two within that circle.

It’s understandable that Christmas pageants end with the arrival of the Wise Men. It makes a nice conclusion to the story. Very Important People “traverse afar” to acknowledge the King and humble themselves before Him. Clearly, power bends in the face of the Incarnate God.

But that’s not the whole story. Power is also used to exterminate innocents. Undeserving others who happened to be born in the wrong neck of the woods. Who couldn’t have possibly have been born just six months earlier so that they’d be over two when that horrific order came down.

Thursday night we finished my “Spirituality, Faith, and Justice” class. The students recognized that power and our response to it was a central theme to all of our readings. (They also rightly pointed out that I probably intended that since I picked the books and ordered the readings.) By the end of all of our books, a quest for power had given way to something else. Michael Sandel was calling for a communitarian response to the common good. Christena Cleveland calls us to a broader circle of identity and a commitment to serve others in response to Christ’s model. David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw call us to practice Incarnational Pluralism, where we engage the communities in which we live to bear witness to the Kingdom.

Walter Brueggemann provides the best deconstruction of the role of power. He sees that Truth undermines power in remarkable and unpredictable ways; not of our acting but because God is already intervening in pursuit of Justice. Here are some passages from the last few pages of When Truth Speaks to Power:

I have no wish, mutatis mutandis, to draw too close an analogue to our own time or to overstate the totalizing aspects of the present American system. Except to notice that the present concentration of power and wealth among us, the collusion of much of the media, and the alliance of the courts make it possible to think that totalizing is ready at hand among us. Those of us who attend to and mean to adhere to the testimony of truth in the biblical tradition are left with the quite practical question concerning the performance of truth that concerns emancipation and transformation in a context that does not intend any emancipation from dominant ideology and that intends transformation only inside that system. The wonderment among us is that there are agents of truth who find daring, risky ways out beyond the totalism. Sometimes (many times?) the church colludes with the totalism and blesses it, to its own considerable benefit. But sometimes the church— in feeble or in daring ways, in conventional or in imaginative ways—has an alternative say….It is finally the God of all truth who breaks the grip of totalism, who confounds the imperial governor, and who makes all things new … here and there … now and then.

A society that has lost its way may indeed be ready for serious discipleship that informs citizenship. Such deep obedience to the truth that marks discipleship does not aim, in citizenship, to transpose the body politic into the church or into a theocracy. It aims rather to insist that the holy truth voices gifts and commands that matter in a society that depends too much on greed against neighbor, that practices too much denial about the crisis in the neighborhood, and that ends too much in despair.

It occurs to me that the situation of the church in our society, perhaps the church everywhere always, is entrusted with a truth that is inimical to present power arrangements. … The truth that is variously enacted by such agents is not an idea or a proposition. It is rather a habit of life that simply (!) refuses the totalizing claims of power.

Naturally, all of this thinking about issues of power leads me to reflect on Ferguson and Staten Island. How can grand juries fail to indict bad behavior? If we think about the totalizing aspects of power, it would be naive to expect an indictment. That would require the entities of power ruling against the agents of power. Sure, we can find cases where “bad apples” are isolated and removed, but that does little to disrupt the power involved.

The protests in the streets across the nation has been a fascinating display that people think “something is wrong”. But some of those protests have been designed to compete within power domains. Perhaps, they seem to suggest, if we disrupt shopping malls or traffic patterns, then change will come. But often that simply turns into an invitation for contesting power that plays into the hands of those who wield it most effectively and who have more structural resources upon which to draw.

So where does that leave us? If power is not the coin of the Kingdom, how do we nurture change and justice? Again, it’s worth reflecting on what happens in the midst of lament. As I’ve noted before, Brueggemann suggests that when the Israelite slaves cry out in their Egyptian oppression, God acts — even though they don’t ask God for deliverance. Our presence and participation in the pain of others is more of a testament to Truth than dozens of organizations or twitter hashtags.

God is also present in the suffering. In Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects on the perrennial question of theodicy: where is God in suffering? Her answer is remarkably simple: he is on the cross. He is incarnationally present in the midst of the pain.

One of my favorite parts of Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking comes as he’s discussing Job’s suffering. Buechner suggests that we often want explanations of how these bad things happen. Who is to blame? What is the point? He also suggests that God is simply present in the pain.

Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse’s mouth a complete theological justification of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn.

God doesn’t reveal his grand design. He reveals himself. He doesn’t show why things are as they are. He shows his face. And Job says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee” (Job 42:5). Even covered with sores and ashes, he looks oddly like a man who has asked for a crust and been given the whole loaf.

The Truth is that God’s Presence is there in the midst of the crowds in Ferguson and Staten Island and everywhere else. He has not abandoned the world. And we in the church, acting as the Body of Christ, are similarly present. We are vicariously suffering the loss of lives and the pain of incredulity that such things happen.

It’s worth looking back at the Jeremiah passage that Matthew quotes following the Slaughter of the Innocents. The very next verses, Jeremiah 31: 16-17 say that God is aware of the suffering and that things will soon be different.

The Lord proclaims:
Keep your voice from crying
    and your eyes from weeping,
    because your endurance will be rewarded,
        declares the Lord.
    They will return from the land of their enemy!
17 There’s hope for your future,
    declares the Lord.
        Your children will return home!

Maybe we need to include Herod in the Christmas pageants somehow. Maybe it would let us stay aware that we’re not about trusting in power, even when it’s ours to exercise. Maybe it’s worth reminding ourselves every year that Truth is playing on a very different level than simple Power.

I’ve often wanted a different ending to the second chapter of Matthew. The Wise Men are “warned in a dream” not to return to Herod. I kind of want them to go back and then refuse to tell where they find the Child. It would have cost them, but maybe would have saved those children.

But it’s not my story to write. It’s God’s. And as one of his ambassadors, maybe it’s enough for me to live in the tension and pain of loss. To suggest that there is another way. That one day, hopefully soon, we will all be returning home from the totalizing power of Empire into the reward of the Kingdom of God.

Incarnation and Cultural Engagement

When I wrote last month’s post on “pro-choice” evangelicals, some commenters on Facebook claimed I was arguing that Christians shouldn’t make moral choices but instead adopt an “anything goes” mentality to get along in pluralistic society. I tried to explain in comments and e-mails that I was arguing that we have had a tendency to oversimplify our rhetoric which makes moral positions harder to explain. The problem was not moral choice but how that choice gets characterized by listeners we are trying to influence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the dynamics of moral argument in a complex, diverse, post-modern, post-Christendom culture. It’s been one of the overarching themes of my blogging over the last six months. I’ve written before about the impact of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (which I’m using in my social science of religion class this semester). Hunter, who had written earlier pieces on Culture Wars (1992) now suggests that we evangelicals have been too concerned about leveraging power to create cultural change. In the newer book, he calls for what he labels Faithful Presence.

While discussing the difficulties of cultural engagement with a colleague this week, I was suddenly struck with an image from my childhood: Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. It became a way of explaining the problem with conflict-based cultural engagement that has characterized so much of the Culture War debates.

If you ever saw Disney’s Song of the South (known for introducing “Zippity-Do-Dah” to the American songbook), you know it’s way too close to a minstrel show. The happy slave Uncle Remus tells stories in broken dialect to the owner’s young son. The Tar Baby is characterized in the stories and by Disney animators as an insolent black child. But there is a lesson for us in the story valuable enough to make me repeat part of the tale (I found a version without the dialect). In the story, Brer Fox places a Tar Baby in the road as a way to trick Brer Rabbit. The Rabbit greets the Tar Baby who says nothing (being a bunch of Tar shaped like a person).

Brer_Rabbit_and_the_Tar_BabyBrer Rabbit frowned. This strange creature was not very polite. It was beginning to make him mad. “Ahem!” said Brer Rabbit loudly, wondering if the Tar Baby were deaf. “I said ‘HOW ARE YOU THIS MORNING?” The Tar Baby said nothing. Brer Fox curled up into a ball to hide his laugher. His plan was working perfectly! “Are you deaf or just rude?” demanded Brer Rabbit, losing his temper. “I can’t stand folks that are stuck up! You take off that hat and say ‘Howdy-do’ or I’m going to give you such a lickin’!” The Tar Baby just sat in the middle of the road looking as cute as a button and saying nothing at all. Brer Fox rolled over and over under the bushes, fit to bust because he didn’t dare laugh out loud. “I’ll learn ya!” Brer Rabbit yelled. He took a swing at the cute little Tar Baby and his paw got stuck in the tar. “Lemme go or I’ll hit you again,” shouted Brer Rabbit. The Tar Baby, she said nothing. “Fine! Be that way,” said Brer Rabbit, swinging at the Tar Baby with his free paw. Now both his paws were stuck in the tar, and Brer Fox danced with glee behind the bushes. “I’m gonna kick the stuffin’ out of you,” Brer Rabbit said and pounced on the Tar Baby with both feet. They sank deep into the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit was so furious he head-butted the cute little creature until he was completely covered with tar and unable to move.

Here’s my takeaway about Culture Warriors. The more one punches at the opposition, the more one gets ensnared in the debate. Regardless of what other good is done, including the desire to reach others for Christ, the tar remains. The culture warrior gets stuck in all the mess and seems unable to move in any way at all. And whatever he or she does, the tar remains behind. Just to name one example among many possible, even though Gordon College has attempted to explain the purpose of the Executive Order letter this summer, groups continue to separate from them (this week it was a school district). The tar is stickier than we imagine.

The difficulty, as Hunter tells us, is that power is a fickle weapon. It’s always dependent upon someone else exerting power from another side. Walter Brueggemann reminds us that power within empire always has a strong element of fear of scarcity. The power must be exercised to protect one against loss.

I was reviewing Brueggemann’s argument in class Thursday night. I had a chart on the board illustrating the connection between Empire, Pharaoh, and Pilate (see chapter one of Truth Speaks to Power). The center of my Empire column was Power. Then, using Brueggemann’s analysis, I contrasted that with the Kingdom of God. What Yahweh, Moses, Jesus all share is a different starting point — a negation of power. We explored what would be in the center of that column. Students suggested Love, Grace, Sacrifice.

I told them that my word in the center is Kenosis. It is the emptying act of the Incarnation that establishes all of Kingdom thinking. As the Philippians passages tell us, this is the concept that was in Christ’s mind that is also to be in ours.

KenosisIf we begin mirroring the Incarnation, we don’t strike out at others. We try instead to enter their space and see things from their perspective. By showing sacrificial love from within that authentic place, we have the opportunity to demonstrate Faithful Presence.

I had two friends illustrate exactly this form of incarnational living in the past few days. Both of them happened into it accidentally, but quickly discovered what it means to incarnate another’s place. My colleague Eric told a story of how he had gone running on a warm Michigan day and had tied up his slightly longish (yet fashionable) hair in what he calls a “snork-like” pony-tail. When completing his run, a car of young men come up behind him and gave a catcall (thinking they were dealing with a woman). In that quick moment before the men realized their mistake, Eric knew the evil of sexism. He had occupied that space with others.

My friend Karen was asked to be on a radio program to discuss Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. What she didn’t know was that the show was organized around calling out all whites for the evils of racism (which the host called “White Supremacy”). A white woman from Virginia got to try to identify with structural racism for a couple of hours. Having listened to the interview, I can say she did a great job under the circumstances. She wasn’t defensive and when she couldn’t fully identify with the host or a caller, she said so. She validated their experiences, fears, and concerns while being clear in her own place as a white Christian academic. That she spoke so consistently of the evils of structural racism and why it must be exposed was as incarnational as I think one could be under the circumstances.

On Friday, Alastair Roberts wrote a fabulous piece for Christ and Pop Culture. Titled “Evangelicalism’s Poor Form“, it analyzed some of the cultural challenges of evangelicals in the postmodern age. But it ended in a hopeful place; one that I think aligns well with an Incarnational Faithful Presence within the culture:

 Among this wisdom is the recognition that, treated in the right manner, the external forms of our faith need not distract from our core evangelical commitments but can serve and strengthen them, forming the people of God within them and establishing us in the skills with which we can improvise a Christian culture that is robust and deep. My hope is that, through a recovery of the importance of these formative “externals” of our culture, we will once more be able to cast our core evangelical and Christian convictions in the sharpest of reliefs, living out an evangelicalism in which our evangelical culture neither distracts nor detracts from our evangelical faith.

Truth and Power: Looking at Evangelical Crises

[I just submitted this piece for The Antioch Session, where it should appear next month.)

I’ve started many posts on my blog with a similar phrase: “there was an interesting debate going on in evangelical social media this week.” But lately, this sentiment comes off as trite. It feels like every day we’ve got multiple twitter fights going among evangelical groups: progressives calling folks out for being abusive, conservatives writing on false prophets, people being called heretics over pronoun usage, others confronted over misuse of scripture. Frankly, it’s hard to keep it all straight and figure out where it will all settle out. We cannot continue like this over the long haul. A more robust understanding of the diversity of Christ’s Church is a necessity.

I’ve been trying to explore the factors beneath all this animus. Why are boundaries so important that we’d throw around accusations of heresy? Why isn’t Paul’s body imagery in Corinthians our go-to text and guiding principle? And, to continue the theme of one of the recent twitter fights, what does Jesus tell us in terms of his engagement with diversity?

BrueggemannWhile continuing to ponder these questions, I read Walter Brueggemann’s Truth Speaks to Power (2013). I’ve always loved Brueggemann but this one was special. Probably because it tapped three images important to me: sociological processes, countercultural action, and the invisible kingdom.

As he does in most of his books, Brueggemann unpacks a familiar biblical narrative and then follows with a much more careful reading. The second reading pays attention to shifts in the narrative and the ways in which the text itself illustrates major conceptual shifts going on beneath the surface.

He opens the book with an examination of the Exodus story. Pharaoh has enslaved the people of Israel and has them working in impossible situations that grow worse by the day. Pharaoh is motivated be fear of scarcity in the midst of his abundance. He believes that the only way to protect his position is to maximize his power position. It is an essentially defensive move, although it creates great offense. The people cry out in the midst of their suffering they cry out and God hears, who then calls Moses to act on their behalf. (Brueggemann notes that the text doesn’t say that the people cried out to God, just that he heard their cries.) The balance of the story is the tension between Pharaoh’s dependence on the Power of Empire set against the Truth of pain and suffering. Brueggemann writes:

Power must now acknowledge truth. The truth that meets power here is the combination of attentive divine resolve and the bodily assertion of the slaves who suffer out loud. Pharaoh, the last to catch on, now knows that his exploitative power has no future. (35)

In reading this section, I was struck that some of the evangelical crises fall in the category of concern over scarcity. There is a dominant motif in some quarters that religious monopoly is fracturing. The fear of the potential loss creates a stance where people find it easier to exploit others. It’s what must be done to protect against “the coming cataclysm”.

Brueggemann’s message here is that God is paying attention. In the end, power is defeated because shalom is emerging.

The second section of the book looks at King Solomon. This is a particularly interesting section given the way we’ve adopted the image of the wise King who finds the baby’s mother and writes wise sayings. Mining the biblical narratives, Brueggemann identifies the problems with Solomon’s rise to power. He lists all the ways in which Solomon uses power to gain military might, economic wealth, political alliances, and women. In the heart of the story is the tension between following God and building Empire. In a remarkable passage, Brueggemann observes that passages describing the opulence of Solomon’s temple should be read ironically:

It is more likely, for that reason, that what may appear on the surface to be gloating over Solomon’s success should be taken ironically. Such irony was designed to expose the extravagant self-indulgence of the royal entourage that is quite inappropriate in the midst of peasant realism. Thus the reader may decide if the narrative of accumulation is to be read as congratulations or as ironic exposé. (58)

The Truth of Shalom calls us away from accumulation of power and things. Brueggemann boldly suggests that Jesus’ mention of “the fool” who built barns was a reference to Solomon (“consider the lilies of the field..”)

Here is the lesson for evangelical crises. We have been far too concerned with issues of power and counting folks as being “with us”. We have been tempted to adopt the rhetorical devices of power-maintenance that work in cable news for the truth of being God’s people. When we find ourselves defending turf or, heaven forbid, market dominance it’s a clear sign that we’re following in Solomon’s footsteps.

I’ll treat the third and fourth section of the book together since they pick up some similar themes. The third section is about Elisha, who shows up in the middle of the stories of kings and dynasties. He has no official power but through the mantle he inherits from Elijah he performs miracles and confronts power. Brueggemann suggests that it is the contrast between the Kings and the Prophet that is the heart of the story. The Prophet aligns with a deep truth that is stronger and more lasting than that of the powers that be. His work with children, widows, and foreigners stands in contrast to Empire building. Josiah the King is the exception to the normal King narratives. He finds an ancient scroll that calls him and his people to repentence. He tears his garments, repents, and seems to establish a new form of leadership based on obedience to the scripture. Unfortunately for Israel and Judah, subsequent kings did not follow Josiah’s lead.

Two takeaways from these sections. First, the perspective of truth comes more often from ordinary people called to speak than from leaders defending power. Not that every utterance from every blogger is treated equal, but those that ask honest questions and authentically search for Truth should be acknowledged and not attacked. Second, Josiah is not as much interested in defending scripture in the abstract as in doing what it says. Many others have written about the elevation of scripture as an abstraction to be defended instead of an avenue to discipleship (today’s Missio Alliance post by Mark Moore is a great illustration of this distinction.)

One final thought. The sections of scripture that Brueggemann writes about are not about foreign lands or secular governments. They involve the life of God’s people who are forming a new type of society. It’s become far too easy for today’s evangelicals to apply scriptural passages like 2 Chronicles 7:14 as a judgment on the secular nation-state. But the context of the scripture is really about God’s people who are to “humber themselves and turn from their wicked ways” in search of healing.

Maybe this is the tactic the evangelical church should try next.

The Need for Courageous Christian Leadership

Back on May 2nd, I had the joy of giving a reading from my book to faculty and students at Spring Arbor. It was a really wonderful experience and I deeply appreciate the support of colleagues and students alike. (In related news, I learned yesterday that I earned enough royalties in February for Jeralynne and I to go to Starbucks!).

Cowardly LionI talked about the general thrust of the book and then read passages from the chapter where I connect different components of the academic world to the travelers in The Wizard of Oz. In short, I argued that faculty members are like the Scarecrow (favoring brain), student development folks are like the Tin Man (favoring heart), the administration is like the Cowardly Lion (needing to overcome risk), and the students are all Dorothy (thinking their destination is more important than the journey).

This is certainly less than modest, but in preparing for my presentation I was struck with the importance of this paragraph about administrators.

First, courage requires a commitment to the success of the organization over the long run and not just the short run. In some ways, an administrator must be focused on the university your children will attend more than on the one you attend. The future must be anticipated if the past practices are not simply to be repeated year after year. In the absence of courage, administrators may be tempted to look back to the university your parents attended. Courage involves moving forward and never backward.

This passage has been echoing in my brain when I read about events at Bryan College and Cedarville University. It resonated when I read a retweet from Liberty University, where Eric Metaxas told graduates “God has invited you into a grand adventure, to be a soldier in his war against the forces of darkness.” It resonated in a conversation with one of my senior general education capstone students when she talked about the ways that this generation is different and pondered what the next 15 years would bring.

It echoed when a friend at a Christian University posted about a potential heresy trial at yet another Christian university exploring a faculty member’s view on creation. His institution has had its own share of struggles in dealing with issues of contemporary society in which the administration was understanding but still not forward-thinking.

Another friend, who is currently a Christian University president, responded with this remarkably honest statement:

As president of one of these “institutions”, my experience has been that the pull of institutional preservation is more subversive than I expected, more agenda-consuming, and is relentless. While the Borg may be right (resistance is futile, you will be assimilated), I have found God present in the work in kind ways. 

The “pull of institutional preservation” is what makes rewriting the covenant statement at Bryan seem like a good idea. If there are contemporary challenges seen in dialogue about Adam and Eve, the way to fix it is to make certain that which past generations expected. Simply remove the question from consideration. If Cedarville considers what to do with issues of gender, make life uncomfortable for female religion faculty and have the president preach on “Biblical Gender Roles”. In a world with increasing diversity and increasing complexity, recast the Christians’ task in dualistic spiritual warfare terms.

When Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man meet the Lion in the forest they are afraid of him. But only for a moment. They quickly understand that his strategy for survival was to pick on weaker creatures and keep them scared. But soon thereafter, their dominant emotion seems much closer to pity. The only hope was for him to join them on their trip to see the Wizard to find the courage he’s lacking.

The Cowardly Lion gets two songs in The Wizard of Oz. He has a short version of “If I Only Had..” but when they get to the Emerald City he gets to sing “If I Were King of the Forest“. In the midst of the song about courage, he describes how the small animals would show him deep respect and all creatures would know he was guided by compassion. Courage is part of character that allows one to lead (“what makes the muskrat guard his musk”). It allows a leader to step forward in faith, assured that they are not alone even when constituents write letters to trustees.

One of the consistent themes in the research on millennials is that they have little use for hypocrisy (the literature remarks on their “BS detectors”). I think this is related to the anti-institutionalism that shows up very clearly in survey research. They have less faith today in political institutions, economic institutions, family institutions, and religious institutions. This seems to be true to a much greater extent than previous generations.

Leaders stand at a pivotal point in this generational succession. A Christian University leader who can engage the current generation and look down the road toward the next will serve her institution well, develop key commitments in the current generation, and show the relevance of Christian education to the rising generation. One who lacks courage is far more likely to hold a hard line and create antagonism with the current generation, increasing the odds that the rising generation will fine the university irrelevant.

Bryan College ended the academic year facing the likely outcome of losing 20% of their faculty due to the actions of the president and trustees. Students responded last week with petitions, stood in protest in the final chapel of the year, and wrote to the trustees. Not just a few students but in numbers approach a third of the student body.

These students learned some valuable lessons this spring, important ones that will serve them in the future. How to deal with unpopular decisions. How to engage those in power in honest communication. These are issues that are at the heart of critical thinking and Christian engagement.

But they learned these lessons at a price. They learned that their beloved institution wasn’t to be trusted, that it wouldn’t listen. That in spite of rhetoric about family and community, in the end they didn’t matter.

I’m currently working my way through Walter Brueggemann’s Truth Speaks to Power. The first chapter is about the Exodus story and how Pharaoh organizes power against the slaves. It is their cries of pain and suffering that reaches God (not, as Brueggemann says, in a prayer but simply in their grief) so that he calls Moses forth for change. Moses becomes a courageous figure against the powers that be (even though he doubts his own skills). Christian Leaders who lack courage will fail to see how they pattern their actions after those of Pharaoh, even while seeking to do God’s work.

In the end, it is only courageous leadership that stands in the face of uncertainty. Power-based leadership doesn’t just lack courage, it’s ultimately ineffective.

As Princess Leia tells Governor Tarkin, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers“. Courage requires a loose grip and a willingness to engage. May God grant our Christian institutions more leaders with that kind of courage.