Mandate to Difference by Walter Brueggemann

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Church
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Chapter 1: What are the three urgent issues “where we may take into account this regime change”?

The first area that we can take into account this change begins with our desire for more.  We live in a very consumer driven society that constantly desires more stuff.  It is a hoarding mentality.  It asserts that my needs and wants are greater than the needs of others.  Furthermore, it is a method of gaining power and status within our society.  However, Jesus reminds us that “where our treasure is there our hearts are also.”

This regime change in our lives empowers us to love as we have been loved.  This is especially relevant in those relationships with people that we don’t necessarily desire to love.  It is always easy to love those who love you, but God does not allow us to simply stop there.  If we do not love someone, then the love of God does not reside within us.  If we are not willing to extend forgiveness, we ourselves will be unable to receive forgiveness.  It is a call to love in a sacrificial way.

Finally, we find that this new regime empowers us to live without fear because ultimately God is watching over us.  He is intimately involved in the lives of the weak and the marginalized.  The powers of this world cannot overcome God and His redemptive plan for His people.  We know, furthermore, that God’s good creation was designed to provide for us abundantly.  It is His love that moves us beyond fear of what tomorrow may hold, instead, relying upon God to sustain us.  We no longer have to rely on our own strength and power to safeguard our lives.  Rather, we become solely dependent upon this God of love for our very life and its daily needs.

Just a note, some of the language and posturing in this article resembled Brueggemann’s article, “Myth of Scarcity, Liturgy of Abundance.”  The idea behind that article is that God has made Creation bountiful and plentiful.  Therefore, there is no need to hoard all of the resources.  In fact, hoarding is what creates poverty and “scarcity.”  It is the “myth” of supply and demand that our culture deems is the way the world works.  However, Brueggemann suggests that God has not made the world work by such principles.

Chapter 2: What does the “city” represent for Brueggemann and what are the relationships of Joshua, Solomon, Josiah, and Jeremiah?

            Essentially, the city is representative of three things, according to Brueggemann: the monopoly of technology, the oligarchy of monetary resources, and a center of multivalent voices and alternatives.  In a sense, the city is representative, quite often, of everything that is against the keeping of Torah.  It is the culture of covetousness that denies neighborliness.  There is great opportunity and advancement that happens within these urban centers.  However, the city most often desires autonomy from the restrictions and guidelines given in the Law.  As such, these centers of urban life quite easily become areas of oppression, poverty, and slavery.  In other words, it comes to embrace practices that are in direct violation of God’s ordained purpose in the world.

Joshua, Solomon, Josiah, and Jeremiah all represent ways in which the Israelite community has envisioned the city.  Some of these leaders initiated changes in the city in accordance with the Torah.  Others, such as Solomon, embraced a Canaanite city-state model that propagated the usury of people.

Joshua and the conquest describe an outright revolt against the Canaanite city-state.  Rahab is the best demonstration of the types of oppression being used in that culture.  Israel systematically destroys the urban centers that have embodied a politic of slavery.  The Joshua narrative is one that deals with the city with a separation ideology.  Israel is to come out and remain apart from those systems and cultures.

Solomon, on the other hand, is an example of the repercussions of embracing the Canaanite city-state.  The land is no longer the land of promise and gift that God has given them.  Instead, it has become the City of David.  The royal dynasty uses building projects and the Temple as imperial legitimacy.  Solomon “takes” and “takes” from the citizens of the land, so that they become enslaved to the monarchy.  Of course, this is the very thing God warned them about when they desired to place a king on the throne of Israel, to be like other nations.  And, Solomon has come to embody the very nature of Egypt that had enslaved Israel for four hundred years.  Solomon’s concern became about living lavishly, showing off the opulence of his kingdom.  In the end, his heart is turned away from God to the gods of his foreign wives.

Josiah later comes along and reverses much of what the city had become initially under King David and Solomon.  Josiah structures Jerusalem under the guidance of the Law.  It is believed that Josiah discovered Deuteronomy 12-26, which caused a great revival in the land.  The high places were torn down, worship was centralized, and neighborliness was re-constituted as the priority for this covenantal community.  Israel was to live in the land on God’s terms.  The result is a city that is opposed to multiplying the problems of the Canaanite and Egyptian models of the city.

Unfortunately, this revival was not sustained.  Jeremiah, the prophet, was called by God to speak out against the city due to its neglect of the Torah.  Consistently, Jeremiah rants against the way that the city has taken advantage of the weak and the poor.  The city will not stand.  It will be conquered and destroyed due to its wickedness.  However, that is not the final word spoken over the city.  God will restore the city and empower it to be different.  It will be holy unto the Lord.  God’s plan will be fulfilled in its midst.  We have not been called to live for ourselves and to acquire wealth at the expense of others.  God as Creator can restore this community to a life-giving, life-blessing center.  However, to arrive at that destination, we must ultimately conduct ourselves in ways that are conducive to Torah, loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Chapter 3: What is the significance of “Sabbath” for the one who proclaims good news?

             Sabbath for the one who proclaims good news is about speaking Truth.  We are all victims to the pharaohs of the world.  They place heavy burdens upon us.  We find ourselves living under anxiety due to false expectations.  We despair because we see no future or hope beyond our current situation.

Yet, it is the Sabbath that allows for re-creation.  It is a wonderful sense of renewal in our lives.  Moreover, it is the freedom to speak truth about those situation and circumstances that we find ourselves in, hurting and hungering for something better.  We have experienced the pain of being marginalized.  We know the seduction and shame of not meeting our culture’s standards.  We feel the press of Pharaoh’s demands on our backs.  It is from that tension that we most keenly become aware of God’s presence in the midst of death and destruction.

Sabbath is the breaking in of God on the mundane, over-bearing rigor of life.  It is the “Friday” people of God living toward Sunday’s conquering of death.  It is the redeemed people of God singing with one voice about the triumph and victory we receive through Jesus.  It is the understanding that we have received a burden we must bear, but one that is infinitely lighter than the oppressive burdens of Pharaoh.  It is the call for those who find themselves wearied by the “rat-race” finding solace in the open arms of a loving Savior and Friend.  It is a simplistic trust in the Creator who sustains all things, speaking life through His Spirit into the world.  It is the acknowledgement of a God who brings life, light, and structure from ex nihilo and chaos.

Chapter 4: How does the concept of “exile” function for the church?

Brueggemann writes, “The reason that Sabbath is a radical discipline is that it is a regular, disciplined, highly visible withdrawal from the acquisitive society of production and consumption that is shaped only by commodity.  Work stoppage and rest are public statements that one’s existence and the existence of one’s society are not defined by the pursuit of commodity, and that human well-being is not evoked by commodity but precisely by the intentional refusal of commodity” (59).

One possible note of application, especially where the minister is concerned, is the attitude of productivity.  The minister often feels a responsibility for getting everything done and prepared each week.  Many times, pastors are “work-aholics.”  So, in many ways, Sabbath is the understanding that our value is not wrapped up in how much we accomplish.  Rather, our value ultimately comes from the One who gives us life.  With that said, we then preach the Gospel through what we live out in our relationship with God.  We are living for “Sunday,” in some sense.  We understand that Sabbath is the shadow reality of the Kingdom of God that we will one day experience.  It is from this hope that we proclaim the Good News of God’s redemptive work in the world.

Secondly, Sabbath empowers us to take the relationship God has extended to us and extend it to others.  We are dispossessed people, living in the land of exile.  We are foreigners in a strange land.  We can identify with those who also find themselves on the outskirts and on the fringe of society.  We understand the plight of the outcast.  And, we become the “feet that bring good news.”  We are ambassadors of Christ sent into the world to gather the people into the covenant community of God.  We live with openness to others who are not like us.  Furthermore, we are free to live, not according to commodity, according to the Law of Love toward our neighbor.

Finally, Sabbath frees us from the mold of the world.  We understand that we were created in Imago Dei.  As such, God has created us to relate freely with Him.  Sabbath recognizes our dependence upon God, not the world and its systems of power and control.  As such, we are empowered to live a life of prayer, not only for ourselves, but for others.  In this way, we are empowered to live in the world on God’s terms, no longer controlled by the dominant culture.

With all of that said, understanding that we are living in exile drastically changes the mission of the Church in the world.  As Brueggemann suggests, we are in the world to gather those that have been displaced due to exile.  We are all exiles in one way or another.  Whether it is those on the fringes of society or those in the dominant culture simply hoping to maintain the status quo, fearing change, everyone experiences exile.  The only hope for salvation is God.  God alone is able to free us from the bondage of our enslavement to our culture.

The Church, therefore, has a ministry to those who are outcasts and those who find themselves fearing about tomorrow.  God has given us a future and a hope which must be shared with others.  This is not an “us versus them” mentality, which the Church often characterizes.  It is not shunning those who endanger the “holy seed.”  Rather, it is about bringing those people into the fold, loving them, and embracing them in the community.

It is especially important to remember that we too were exiles before God saved us.  Similarly, we are still exiles waiting for the final consummation of God’s redemptive plan.  We are strangers in a foreign land waiting for the gift of the Promise Land, the coming of the Kingdom of God.  And, God’s gifts are not ours to own… God’s gifts are always given to be given away and shared.  It is especially true in light of God’s advocacy for the “least of these” in society.

Chapter 5: What is Brueggemann’s thesis regarding the church and dialogue?

            First, and most importantly, God is a God of dialogue, not monologue.  By His very nature, God is in constant communication, for that is what it means to be Love.  Love is always flowing to and from someone, never static.  As a result, humans designed in the image of God are wired to live in dialogue, both with their Creator and humanity.

However, due to the nature of sin, our lives often become monologues.  We believe we are self-sustaining.  We become absorbed by our own “self.”  We assert implicitly, if not explicitly, that we are self-contained entities.  As such, we feel that we are the end of the line on all matters.  Along with this thought process come the affirmation that individualism is the modus operandi of life.  Our culture’s propaganda of individualism produces isolation and loneliness.  There is little concern for others.  And, we are only concerned about others if it directly affects us.

This mentality has produced the effect of authoritarianism that quickly shuts down any debate from opposing voices.  The dominant voice will not be silenced but will seek to maintain and conforms others to its image.  However, God does not take that approach with humans.  In fact, it is often human cries and complaints that encourage God to move and act in the world.  The dialogue, however, is not simply one-way (as indicated by the word dialogue).  Rather, it is the very nature of call and response.  God calls and we respond.  We cry out and God responds.  In all matters, God is glorified by the mouth of the redeemed.  Furthermore, the people of God are vindicated.  They are answered as they cry out in despair, which then turns to praise.

The monologue of prominent culture seeks to confine the voice that challenges its authority.  Such challenge is repressed by the use of coercion and violence.  It is little wonder then, take such an approach, the Church has quite frequently resembled the world more than it has resembled Christ.  It is this fact that calls the Church to account.  The Church is to be a revolt against the monologue of self.  Rather, it is an open dialogue with God and with humanity as we seek to live in community together.

That does not mean that we turn a blind eye to the sin that is so prevalent in our society.  Rather, a dialogue pushes the Church to live counter-culturally.  It is not simply about being “right.”  Most importantly, it is about living truly human lives and affirming the worth of other humans that God has created.  It is the understanding that to give voice is to create possibility.  The Church is a creating agent used by God to speak to the world about Himself.  We are bearers of the message, the mouthpiece God uses to speak Truth back into the world.  It is the people of God speaking to God on behalf of a broken world, praying for divine action.  In addition, it is the gathered community telling the story of God’s deliverance, rejoicing and praising Him for intervening.

Chapter 6: What is the role of hope and imagination for the people of God?

            Hope and imagination are the possibility of looking beyond the current circumstance.  It is the ability to see a future.  It is decidedly counter-cultural in that it is not bound by what society says is possible.  More importantly, it is viewing all of life through eyes of faith.

Brueggemann suggests that there are five elements to the despair that our culture bombards us with: security, ideology, technology, certitude, and commodity.  These are all intimately linked.  In essence, our society claims that security is the ultimate goal.  This does not allow for multivalent voices, only monologue.  In order for this monologue to continue, there is a supreme ideology that is prescribed to.  It is the religion of the masses that is not capable of self-reflection, only non-discerning practice of the ideology.  Technology is then developed, usually in the interest of military, to help maintain that sense of security.  It becomes a further method of control, which does not consider the cost to humanity or economically.  This “control” gives us a false sense of certitude that ultimately cannot be satisfied.  Therefore, the cycle continues to push for more security and control.  We thus turn to commodities, which give us temporary satisfaction.  However, this too is a dead-end road to satisfaction.  The more that we acquire, the more we desire.  It is the law of diminishing return at work.

Hope and imagination allow us to think “outside the box.”  God gives us the capability to see a world and a future unlike that of our current state.  It allows us to see the possibilities rather than the monotonies.  We are able to push past the fear of the future into a hope that moves us toward the future.

Christianity and Judaism, according to Brueggemann, are both faiths of hope and imagination.  When the great men and women of faith found themselves in difficult spots, their faith allowed them to look beyond the veneer of the present to a future reality.  It allowed Israel to see freedom from the bonds of slavery in Egypt.  It empowered the Israelites to move beyond the Babylonian exile to the day they would return to the Land of Promise.  This faith moved a people to see dawn despite the darkest hours of life.  It put a song in the mouths of Paul and Silas as they sat in prison.  We are a people of hope and imagination.

As God works in our lives, we are able to envision a future and a hope beyond the promise of death and destruction.  We clearly see the promise after death given by the Creator of life.  It is not a hope that can be divided.  Instead, we find ourselves being gathered together as the redeemed community of God living to One hope.  The Church understands that God guides and sustains us and that it is He who brings forth new possibilities by speaking a Word of creation to us.  From darkness springs light.  From death, new life is given.

We are a community that is living between the “now and not yet” reality of the kingdom of God.  God has given us the promise of hope.  We now live from that hope into a future that has been prepared for us.  It is not a hope that can be divided.  Rather, it is through the Spirit that all are given this hope and the imagination to see with eyes of faith a new future beyond our current state.

Chapter 7: What does it mean to say that worship is an act of “poetic imagination”?

            The poetic imagination is the ability to look beyond what is possible to a God that opens up new possibilities.  It is not being consumed by the present pharaohs in our lives, seeing a life that is abundant is the goal.  Life is not simply about the “brick quotas.”  It is not simply about the accomplishment of tasks.  Rather, it is finding life a possibility despite being surrounded by chaos and destruction.

The poetic imagination gives voice to the saving acts of God.  It is the gathered community rejoicing with one voice, remembering the past events in light of God’s redemptive work.  An alternative world is constructed and offered to those who find themselves in bondage to the pharaohs of the world.  However, it is not an obsession about these pharaohs; rather it is a preoccupation with the Creator.

The world often constructs reality, offering it as the ultimate vision for life.  However, the poetic imagination is not drawn into the deception and falsehood of popular culture.  Rather, it is a “sub-version” reality that is given voice.  It breaks through the façade of falsehood.  Imagination de-masks the pharaohs for what they are – puppets.  God is glorified as the king over creation.  The unfulfilling nature of commercialism is brought to its knees.  The need for genuine relationship is brought to the fore.

In all of this, we see the imagination bring forth a new reality that we can dwell in.  The imagination is not something that is simply wistful and fanciful.  Rather, it is the Spirit of God dwelling in the lives of His people, breathing new life into the community.  The word of God speaks into the void, creating new realms of possibility in our daily lives.  We find that the old has passed and the new has come.  We are created as new creatures.  We are given a new heart.  What had once been closed off, we find being opened up through Jesus by the Spirit.

Too often, the Church finds itself merely shadowing and mirroring the current culture.  The Church has become violent, greedy, manipulative, and comfortable.  But, when the Church finds itself truly fulfilling its calling, it is very subversive.  It is a hub for creativity and imagination.  Transformation happens when people are able to move beyond what the world tells them is possible to what God reveals is possible.  Within these two viewpoints is a world of difference!

Chapter 8: What does it mean to be re-nepheshed?

            For six days God labored, but on the seventh day He rested.  Creating requires something of the Creator, something of His life to be infused into the creation.  It is a draining business to be so intimately involved and connected, breathing life into all being.  It says something that God chose to rest.  He is not simply a God of tasks and quotas.  He is not simply about the accomplishment of tasks.  God takes rest… enjoying the fruits of His labor.

We were created in the image of our Maker.  We were designed to labor in creation, adding value back into the world.  However, like the Master Potter, we are in need of refreshing.  God created us, not simply for the accomplishment of tasks, to enjoy creation and the Creator.  To simply labor would leave us broken, depleted, unoriginal, and exhausted.

However, the pharaohs of the world step in and place taskmasters over us, driving us to produce more and more.  There is no Sabbath rest where the world is concerned.  No, it’s about the bottom line and the fulfilling of quotas.  The labor that should be used to add value becomes the method by which life is devalued.  The result is devastation and oppression.  Our nephesh is crushed.  Our very being is denied because we deny the image in which we were made.

Sabbath is a ceasing of labor.  It is a total dependency upon the God of creation.  After all, Jesus reminds us that we “do not live on bread alone, but on every word from the mouth of God.”  Our productivity is not that which sustains us.  God breathes life into us… and continues to do so.  That is Sabbath.  It is rest from our labors, finding our being in Him, and having life breathed back into us.  It is the Sabbath that reminds us that we were created to relate, not simply to create.

Pastoral ministry can quite easily sink into a constant barrage of tasks to be completed.  The pastor is to be available at all times and for all purposes.  We are stretched to the limits and called to go beyond.  At least, that’s the message that is often implicitly understood.  Burn out is the inevitable result.  However, ministry is not simply about the accomplishment of tasks.  Sabbath reminds us of that.

We can only give away what we have received.  The minister’s primary task is to be in proper relationship with God.  Yes, we are called to be poured out, but you can only do so if you are in turn being filled.  Sabbath provides that filling.  The Spirit breathes new life back into us so that we are able to once again labor in creation.  Our being is re-constituted to a proper balance.

Pastors that live under the impression that ministry is about the accomplishment of tasks become pharaohs themselves.  They set taskmasters over their volunteers, badgering them to produce.  Life is squelched out of the workers.  The Church becomes an oppressive system in the midst of a world of oppressive systems.  When Church and culture operate in visibly similar ways, such as these, people quit.  Their nephesh give out because they have no resources upon which to draw.  And, worst of all, they believe that is the Christian telos because that is what is being modeled in the public, in the pews, and in the pulpit.

Sabbath reminds us of our priorities.  We are saved from Pharaoh.  We do not have to participate in those systems of destruction, manipulation, and enslavement.  Rather, we are called to live in radically counter-cultural ways.  We praise God for His deliverance, we gain strength from His strength, and we discover our purpose.

Chapter 9: What cycle is broken in the threefold circle of emancipation – Sabbath – year of release – Jubilee year?

            The threefold circle of emancipation is an act in juxtaposition to the use of coercion that is often exhibited within our world.  Sabbath, the year of release, and Jubilee are all about forgiveness.  Debts are forgiven.  Debtors are released from the bondage of their burden.  Life is re-constituted through the extension of forgiveness.

Deuteronomy is constantly calling Israel to remember their bondage in Egypt.  The system of exploitation embodied in Egypt was the basis for Israel’s enslavement.  Taskmasters were set over the Israelites to ensure productivity and cooperation.  The human spirit is broken under such circumstances, rendering them weak and compliant.  Coercion is the pharaoh at work among the community of such commerce.

Remembering such turmoil in the life of the Hebrews was not simply a fanciful trip down memory lane.  No, it was a call to embody a different politic in the life of the community.  Israel was to live on Sabbath time.  Even aliens that found themselves in servitude to Israel were to be permitted rest and even sanctuary from enslavement!  How does such a novel idea even get conceptualized in the midst of nations that practiced coercion and exploitation?

The idea of freedom and life find itself most eloquently vocalized in Sabbath.  God rested and set apart a day of rest for humanity.  Sabbath is a day for remembering who the Creator is and who provides sustenance, blessing, freedom, and life.  God alone is worthy of such affirmation.  As such, Sabbath calls us to live radically different lives than that of popular culture’s employment of coercion.  Rather, we participate in the divine life-giving, life-blessing pronouncement over creation.

Sabbath then frees us from the violence of self-certitude and self-justification.  We are freed from the need to ensure our security because we rely upon God as our provider.  We remember and re-live our exodus story, praising God for His mighty arm of deliverance.  And, the community is empowered to live counter-culturally to the modus operandi of culture, namely acquisitiveness.

It is in these acts of forgiveness directed toward our neighbor that we find forgiveness being granted to us.  Participating in the redemption of others, finds us experiencing redemption ourselves.  We are forgiven as we forgive.  Does that mean that the debtor, stranger, or foreigner remain outsiders?  No, rather, they are treated as one of the community: equal.

Finally, Sabbath breaks us of the need or desire to live up to the expectations of others… even ourselves.  These expectations are often false and act as living pharaohs over our lives.  They push us to attain or achieve more.  Or, perhaps, they move us to be people pleasers.  Sadly, we are more concerned about living up to everyone else’s expectations, or our own, that we neglect God’s expectations.  And, unlike false expectations, God is not a taskmaster seeking to bury us, but to give us rest.  We find that there is a burden, but it is light.  And, despite that burden, God provides rest.

Chapter 10: What is the significance of the bread at the center of the table?

            Bread at the center of the table signifies the central issue of our faith.  Although Brueggemann does not state this, I believe that the bread is equally in reach of those who gather at the table.  Bread deals with many issues.  It is the earthy stuff that sustains us physically.  It is the ability economically to provide.  And, it is the mystery of salvation whereby God became incarnate.  It is the celebration of communion where bread is blessed, broken, and given to others.

Bread in the Scriptures speaks of God’s provision and abundance.  It is also this same bread that allow the disciples to become distributors of the grace that is given to them.  It is the power of life-giving creation.  It is the God who draws near.  And, it is the gathered communities shared reception of table fellowship.  Bread is the most basic need of every human, from the greatest to the least.  Jesus is the bread of life by which those needs are met in every way.

As Brueggemann asserts, “It is the Friday mystery that the bakeries owned by the empire cannot nourish us.  It is the Sunday mystery that loaves do indeed abound, and we, in our research and in our faith, bear witness to the truth that the world and its bread are under alternative management.  It is the beggars and the lepers who surround our work and who stand at the edge of our study, monitoring us, calling our most erudite research and our most esoteric investigations to stay connected to the holy gift and to the deep crisis” (187-88).

Bread is at the very center and core of our research, study, and preaching.  We must never allow it to become an ethereal reality that neglects the hungry.  The goal is not simply academic rhetoric and acumen.  Instead, our study should inevitably move us to act and engage our world in concrete ways.  It should draw us closer to the holy without sweeping us away from the dregs of society who must be fed.  Sometimes our study and writing is so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good.  Focusing on bread guides our studies to not simply stop at intellectual assent, but to live it out daily… even as we receive our daily bread.

Chapter 11: What do you see as the two or three most significant “theses” from Brueggemann on the use of the Bible in the church?

First, we all live as part of some narrative.  It is what shapes who we have become.  There is a dominant narrative that pervades our culture.  Brueggemann believes it is “therapeutic technological consumer militarism.”  In other words, it is about comfort and control.  This script is found wanting.  It does not provide what it promises, leaving us feeling more insecure.

Scripture is important because it unveils the masked lies that dominant culture seeks to promote.  It names the falsehood, revealing its deathly nature.  The fallen powers, as some would call them, are shown for their deceit and destruction.  We are made aware that we have fallen for the trap.  We have become implicated in the machine of such “consumer militarism” that deconstructs neighborliness.

Secondly, Scripture, the alternative script, holds forth a counter meta-narrative.  It shows us that there is a different reality than the one to which we have become enslaved.  Having de-masked the popular script of culture, we are now able to move toward a different telos.  God empowers us to live a different politic – not party-line.  We become part of a new script, discarding the falsehood of our previous script.

Finally, Scripture is most important because it reveals the “Main Character.”  God’s character and nature are revealed in Scripture so that we might be able to relate to Him.  In the text, we find a God who breathes new life, redeems His people, and empowers ministry.  He is not powerless, like the idols we find in the false scripts.  No, He is mighty to save.  And, we find that an encounter with this God does not allow us to remain the same.

So, in conclusion, Scripture is vitally necessary to the Church because it reveals the falsehood of the world’s narratives, it provides an alternative reality in which to live, and it reveals the character and nature of the Main Character who breaks down barriers, breathes new life, and redeems us!

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