taking brueggemann seriously: listening to the conversations of exile...

"It is abundantly and unmistakably
clear," writes Walter Brueggemann in an essay entitled, "Four Indispensable
"Four Conversations among Exiles" in the anthology Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope that "we are in a deep dislocation in our society that touches every aspect of our lives." This is a time of "deep displacement and perhaps transition" although no one can yet see what will replace the status quo. Such is the curious challenge within the charism of exile: Life must change, new social relations must arise and hearts must be cleansed - yet all we experience is emptiness.

Brueggemann asserts that emptiness is essential for grief - and grief is necessary to receive God's gift of hope in our suffering by the gift of the Spirit - and hope will emerge when the time is right. St. Paul synthesized this wisdom in Romans 5: 3-5: That is why we can boast in our sufferings for we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  Hope is not of our own making, but a gift from beyond - from the Divine - that most of us only recognize when we have been emptied. Brueggemann describes our current emptiness with clarity: 

The old certitudes are less certain; the old privileges are under powerful challenge; the old dominations are increasingly ineffective and we seem not to be so clearly in charge; the old institutions (governmental, educational, judicial, medical) seem less and less to deliver what is intended and long counted upon; and the old social fabrics of neighborliness are eroded into selfishness, fear, anger and greed. It is equally evident that this massive dislocation... touches the church... with great confusion about authority... bewilderment about our mission... and questions of institutional survival and budget anxieties.

This rings true for me whether I am watching hearings concerning acts of collusion with our enemies at the national level or wrestling through an operating budget at church council:  anxiety, fear and confusion have become normative. To which the good professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary suggests a renewal of our "peculiar role and responsibility in the midst of relocation including: paying attention to our memory as God's people, remembering the ancient miracles of our history, speaking with courage in our own cadences rather than accenting everyone else's language, recalling that our old seasons of hurt were never the end of the story, and insisting upon trusting God more than self.

To do this, Brueggemann offers us a contemporary conversation with four voices from ancient Israel's time of exile that all take issue with our current denial and despair.  For those unfamiliar with ancient Israel's exile, he notes:

The community of ancient Israel, by its stubbornness, its refusal to heed the purposes of YHWH, and its resolve to act against neighborliness, brought upon itself the great crisis of 587 BCE. In that year:  the beloved temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the cherished city was burned, the king was exiled, the leading citizens were deported and made fugitives, public life came to and end (and this end included) the end of privilege, the end of certitude, the end of domination, the end of viable public institutions and the end of a sustaining social fabric... It was the end of life with God which Israel had taken for granted.

As a result, the best and the brightest found themselves in exile by the waters of Babylon without ways to sing the Lord's song.  A faithful imagination ached to be reborn, but could not without first embracing an emptiness within a critical season of introspection guided by grief. From within this experience, Brueggemann suggests four clues about how we might faithfully respond our own dislocation.

"The first speech practice I mention that the community of loss and hope knows about is the practice of honesty, sadness, rage, anger and loss." We, like our spiritual ancestors, know something about this for "our current cultural loss is immense... shaking the privilege of whites and males and their various entourages." Like ancient Israel, there is enormous rage in our land that is palpable. Think of the so-called "Make America Great Again" campaign, the "school to prison" pipeline, the vitriol over reproductive rights for women, the mean-spirited "Bernie Bro" rants on the Left as well as the terror within the immigrant and LGBTQ communities. There is an anger towards one another in America that is alive in ways we can no longer ignore.

Instead of letting our rage and indignation at loss take us down the path of brutality, however, we might follow Israel's road by addressing our grief and rage to God. The poets of the exile direct their agony and anguish towards God as Psalm 137: 9 shows:  "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks!" God, after all, is a part of this dislocation. God has been directing the exile. So why not give God our rage, fear, tears and shame? 

The bitterness (of exilic poetry) sounds like a litany familiar in our society that continues to indict humanists, Muslims, homosexuals (and people of color) only now it is addressed to the God from whom no secret can be hidden. The utterance is not merely catharsis, though it is that. It is also a practice of prayer that is honest and courageous. These speech practices offer an opportunity for brutalizing loss to be turned into an act of faith that may in turn issue into positive energy... they provide a way to do something with our brutalizing rage at loss so that it does not escalate into antineighborly hurt.

The first conversation turns our legitimate anger and anxiety away from others - especially the most vulnerable or misunderstood - and lays it at the feet of the Lord. In this we de-escalate our inclination towards violence. The second sacred conversation moves towards "order and holiness" as found in the Priestly tradition of ancient Israel. "This language is markedly absent of shrill moralisms (and) insists that in the confusion, when old patterns of meaning are destroyed, one may resort to liturgical construals of ordered holiness."  We 21st century relativists with a post-modern aesthetic, studiously avoid the call to holiness, but ancient Israel's priests "say it right out loud without embarrassment:  I am the Lord your God: sanctify yourselves therefore and be holy..." 

In response to the crisis of displacement, Leviticus advocates stringent notions of holiness. And (while) we likely would not want to follow all of their concreteness about purity and th shunning of defilement... (we could learn something important) from their sacramental imagination that undertook a reordering and recovery of... their communion with God... The beginning point for holiness that recovers and reorders life is indeed Sabbath - holy time - not legalism and blue laws, but also not frantic, feverish, self-indulgent entertainment. The priests envision, in heaven as on earth, a restfulness that makes neighborly communication possible, apart from the impositions of production and consumption. Sacramentalism is a cogent alternative to despair, an awareness that even here and even now, God's demanding and assuring presence pertains.

It is no accident that the opening order of a bountiful creativity in Genesis 1 hails from the exile. There is order and grace, purpose and abundance, all of which culminates in the Sabbath and an important second conversation. "The third speech practice that this community of abuse and selfishness knows about is the practice of imagining a neighborly transformation" of the world. Here, "Deuteronomy emerges as a primary document for exiles."

Dislocation carries with it a temptation to be preoccupied with self, to look out only for number one, to flee the hard places of community formation for the sake of private well-being. One can see that among us; public responsibility is on the wane while even the most privileged desperately work to improve their private estate. Against such an inclination, the tradition of Deuteronomy relentless things of society as a neighborhood and enjoins attitudes and conduct and policies that enhance neigjhborliness. 

Not only does the Decalogue now contain language about remembering our own time of suffering and dislocation when we consider how to live with our neighbors, but it offers what Brueggemann calls "the most astonishing commandment in the Bible."  Jubilee:  "Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts... do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You shall rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be." 

Here is the essence of the upside-down wisdom of gospel:  when our feelings call for hardness, God's love calls us into tenderness. When our desire is for revenge, our heart requires forgiveness. When our resources seem limited and we're inclined to hoard, this is the time when sharing is essential.  And "when we are nervous and anxious, there is a temptation to gouge the neighbor, especially the economically vulnerable neighbor. This core tradition of the Bible, however, sees our dislocation as a time in which to regroup and reorder public policy for the sake of all the members of society." It is our season to cherish vulnerability and oppose social amnesia.  As the health care battle rages on amidst punitive and mean-spirited budget conversation, the way of Deuteronomy and Jubilee cry out for a fresh hearing. 

And the fourth conversation needed at this hour comes from the prophets who sing songs of new life springing up from places of death. Brueggemann correctly celebrates the stunning wisdom of II Isaiah, chapters 40-55 in particular. Here "are the most vigorous, most daring, most imaginative of all the voices of faith in exile, offering in the midst of the suffering and despair of his people a voice for radical new possibility."

In the sixth century, Isaiah says: "You shall go out in joy, you shall come home in peace..." You shall come out from under the lying denial and killing despair of dominant values. And while most refused this offer, some took a chance on the poetry.

And so four conversations that bring perspective and antidote to our current dislocation. I hear this voice in the Reverend Barber in North Carolina and his movement of Moral Mondays. I hear it in the findings of judges who shut down the Muslim ban. I heard it in the Women's March and the Four Freedoms local movement. And I hear it beyond the confines of my own faith tradition. I believe the Sikh prophet, Valarie Kaur, is showing us how to speak to one another in this hour. For she sees this time not as one of death, but rather birth pangs of a new compassion. 

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