By James Amadon | November 23, 2015
Walter Brueggemann is one of those rare authors who transcends reductive labels (liberal/conservative, mainline/evangelical) by paying attention to the Bible’s irreducible word. Like the prophets he passionately interprets in his dozens of books and hundreds of articles, Brueggemann is on the lookout for truth and willing to face it with clear-eyed realism, no matter how uncomfortable and unsettling.
This kind of task requires addressing difficult issues, and in Reality, Grief, and Hope, Brueggemann takes on a tough one, unveiling the current state of America by making connections between the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. For Brueggemann, both events reveal the problems that an unreflective nationalism and a commitment to empire embed within communities and cultures. Through a provocative and close reading of the prophets he identifies three necessary tasks for the church in order to reclaim a “prophetic ministry” to our violent and vulnerable society.
The first task is to name reality amid ideology. Comparing Israel’s ideology of chosenness with contemporary American exceptionalism, Brueggemann exposes the hubris that sees chosenness as a given, devoid of any connection to character or ethics. He challenges the church to resist the ideology of American exceptionalism and name the difficult realities of a society dependent on military might, fractured along social, racial, and economic lines, and sustained by an over-consumptive economy.
The second task is to encourage grief amid denial. Losing one’s sense of place, power, and prestige is not easy. Brueggemann shows how difficult it was for the Jerusalem elite to hear prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel warn of coming destruction while other “prophets” spoke of the city’s perpetual peace. In our own time there is no shortage of voices disparaging any attempt to challenge our national identity or question our prosperous future, despite mounting evidence that suggests we are headed for trouble. Brueggemann challenges the church to help our society accept a more limited and healthier place in the world and to grieve the inevitable losses that will accompany that shift.
Only then are we ready for the third task: to engender hope amid despair. The prophets were unrelenting in naming the difficult realities of their time because that was the only way to begin imagining an alternative future. For Israel, that meant seeing within the despair of exile a ray of hope illuminating the possibility of renewed life with God. The same prophets who spoke of doom and gloom also sowed seeds of renewal, anticipating a time when “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be on their heads” (Isaiah 35:10).
The prophets were unrelenting in naming the difficult realities of their time because that was the only way to begin imagining an alternative future. For Israel, that meant seeing within the despair of exile a ray of hope illuminating the possibility of renewed life with God.
Brueggemann sees a similar penchant for despair in our own society, clothed in pervasive anxiety and rooted in the unsustainability of our greed and the emptiness of our individualism. He challenges the church to develop an inspired prophetic imagination that can bring hope and healing to our broken world by dreaming of new ways of life together.
These are difficult challenges, and Reality, Grief, and Hope offers few concrete practices to move us forward. That is the purpose of Sabbath as Resistance. In this book, Brueggemann interprets the Sabbath as God’s imaginative alternative to a culture of consumption, anxiety, and violence. Helping the reader see the practice of Sabbath as far more than a day of rest or a list of moralistic laws, the book holds up Sabbath as an act of resistance that continually reorients us to God’s life-giving presence and purpose.
Rooting the Sabbath in creation and the exodus, the chapters walk through the ways in which practicing Sabbath helps us resist anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and multitasking. Beyond the need for a day of rest from these destructive forces, the Sabbath prepares us to resist them throughout the week, reminding us of who we are and enabling us to say yes to God in new ways.
I have struggled with the incessant pulls and coercive demands of contemporary society in my own life, and I’ve watched my congregation do the same. I agree with Brueggemann’s assessment that “the fourth commandment on Sabbath is the most difficult and most urgent of the commandments in our society, because it summons us to intent and conduct that defies the most elemental requirements of a commodity-propelled society that specializes in control and entertainment, bread and circuses…along with anxiety and violence.”
Reading Brueggemann is not easy. His writing is thick and unsettling. Perhaps this is fitting, because discipleship is not easy, and we need authors who allow the prophets to shake our foundations as they call us to the alternative, Sabbath-centered life for which we were created.
James Amadon is the pastor of Highland Covenant Church in Bellevue, Washington. He loves to play basketball, listen to U2, read good books, and explore the big questions of life. He appreciates the way Walter Brueggemann is able to combine scholarly depth with pastoral concern.