25 April 2015

Walter Brueggemann: Speaking Truth To Power, Confronting Today's Pharaohs

Walter Brueggemann is a contemporary theologian and an Old Testament scholar from the United Church of Christ to whom I have been introduced by one of our patrons.

One of the things I appreciate most about le café, besides the occasional note describing how the patrons may have been affected by things served here, is when readers bring in knowledge and ideas and stories that I have not encountered before.  It is certainly return enough for the simple fare served here.

Below are excerpts from a recent interview regarding his book Truth Speaks To Power.

For the complete interview which is not all that long you may read these excerpts in context here.

"Legitimate power always includes attentiveness to justice, When power is not attentive to justice it cannot endure. This is a summons to us to keep the agenda of justice for the vulnerable alive and front and center to maintain a kind of subversive stance toward power.

Power is the capacity to organize and administer social goods and social access. Truth is the structure of reality that is in the nature of things that cannot be violated by our capacity to administer it. Power can sometimes be administered in harmony with such truthfulness, but very often power is seduced so that it runs contradictory to truth.

Truth is not a set of propositions in the Bible, but a cluster of relationships. Those are relationships of dignity, well-being, security and respect. When power violates those, then those who administer such power learn is that they cannot finally withstand the force of truth. So, the truthfulness of God’s commitment to neighborliness does not give in in the long run.

Moses is designated at the burning bush to be the carrier of God’s truth, which in that narrative is that God does not want people to be enslaved to the economy of Pharaoh. God does not want exploitative labor or excessively cheap labor. Pharaoh never catches on as obtuse power usually does not.

The truth carried by Moses is always coming from below in the cries of the slaves, but it always turns out that power from above never has the capacity to silence the cries from below. It is the cry from below that is finally generative of the historical possibility. Pharaoh is very slowly diminished and his power wanes and he does not catch on until it is too late—which I think is probably a right rendering of how that tends to work...

Early on in the gospel traditions, the power elite in Jesus’ society who were colluding with the Roman Empire, recognized him as a threat and began to conspire to kill him. I think he was presented in the gospel narratives as being a huge threat to the established order of the Roman Empire...

Jesus became a reference point for much of the hostility and resistance to the power of the empire because he refused to accommodate and told another story of reality that the empire could not co opt.

It [the pursuit of political power] is very seductive for all of us. And I suppose it has been the seduction of the Jesus movement since Constantine, when Christians gained access to power and have loved having it. I think the collusion of the church with political order in almost any society causes the church to lose its edge and have failure of nerve about the gospel that has been entrusted to it...

The market ideology is now the new form of imperial power and many of us, without any critical reflection, have signed onto that and organized our lives in that way so we do not have any time, energy or capacity for the things that are rightly important to us."

Here below is a discussion in which Walter Brueggemann presents the place of the prophets in the Old Testament, which is one of his special areas of study. 

I have listened to some other videos of Brueggemann this morning and have found him to be thought provoking.  I especially enjoyed his description of how God, who is of course unchanging and vast, nevertheless evolves through lens of the human understanding, in our perception, as we seek to comprehend the nearly incomprehensible.

The first video is recommended for the topic above. The other two are there for those of you who wish to hear more from him from the array of his videos available on the web. I do urge you to do some exploration on your own if you have the time. The last one is lengthy but particularly thought-provoking.

I know enough to know what I do not know, that I can be no authority in this, no matter how much more time I might spend on it. That is the top of the second hill of learning. Most stop at the first, and fixate there, and tend to cast their thoughts in stone. I tend to see the pluralism in this, and am not troubled by it, because there can be many paths to the same end as there are people who walk forward looking towards the light.  

The point is to look towards and keep walking towards the light, and not sit in a safe place and remark scornfully on the stumbling of your fellows, ignoring your own lack of progress, sitting still in a comfortable mud puddle.    I have never yet seen so much lack of love cloaked in the thin robes of self-righteous judgement and unfounded vanity.  

 And too often the more elaborate the externalities, the more impoverished and empty the heart.   As Paul says so famously,  even if on has prophecy, and understanding, and a wide array of other gifts, at long last, there is only love.   For love is God, and God is love, and the only tragedy is not to have found Him in the end.

But for most of us, and this certainly includes me, a Way has been made for us, and that path is more certain, less prone to self-delusion and folly. It is perfect, but alas, those who try to follow it as best as they can are not. And so it is a struggle, always, even on this road we have been shown.

And so we must be wary of the grandiose and elaborately ostentatious prayers of the Pharisee, compared to the simple, sincere offering of the widow's mite. If you have all the ritual, all the knowledge, all the pomp of power and influence of the world, all the followers even to a countless multitude, but have no love, you have nothing.  And that is, in the end, the only tragedy.