Walter Brueggemann

2013: learning about hope

derwent bridge

When I chose hope as my one word for 2013, I must have thought I knew what it meant. Writing about the choice here, I said it would be my touchstone for year, a prism through which to view whatever unfolded.

It turns out that was a bit over-ambitious. If I think about the role hope has played in my life this year, I seem to have mostly been working out what it means! It’s been worth it, though.

Partly, my new understanding of hope has come about through reading. Some truly formative books have fallen into my hands over the past twelve months, and the most important of them was Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination (thank you, Kelley Nikondeha!).

Brueggemann helped me to identify false hope, which is actually a form of hopelessness. You can recognise false hope because in the end it doesn’t change anything.

The false hope offered by our affluent Western culture is that the answer to any discomfort is to consume more. In the short term, and on an individual level, this works (hello, new shoes and chocolate cake). In the long term it makes things worse. Our pain could be a catalyst to action but over-consumption dulls our emotions and takes away the energy we need to act.

In effect, the more we eat, drink and buy, the more deeply we reinforce the very structures that imprison us.

Brueggemann introduced me to the unsettling notion that the only way to real hope is through pain. We have to begin by looking unflinchingly at the darkness that is both around us and within us.

This idea was reinforced for me during the Advent just passed, through many of the Bible readings traditionally associated with that great season of hope.

It is the people walking in darkness who see the ‘great light’ promised by the prophet (Isaiah 9:2).

Or as Richard Rohr puts it in his book Preparing for Christmas: ‘We must wait and work with hope inside of the darkness – while never doubting the light that God always is … That is the narrow birth canal of God into the world – through the darkness and into an ever greater Light.’

It sobered me to think that if we manage to dispel the darkness temporarily, with all kinds of artificial things that are ultimately themselves part of the darkness – then we could miss the true light.

Which leads me to Leah Kostamo’s Planted. This book tells the funny and grace-filled story of how Kostamo and her husband established a branch of the Christian conservation organisation A Rocha in Canada, and also weaves in some serious wrestling with issues of justice, community and how to live simply in a world in crisis.

Unsurprisingly, hope is often in short supply among those who care for the environment. As Kostamo puts it: ‘Knowing what conservationists know, it’s only logical they would be tempted to despair.’

Gently and convincingly, Kostamo explains how her Christian faith roots her in hope – ‘hope that some day, some how, some way redemption is possible for all things’.

This is not another airy-fairy, false notion of hope. It is a hope born of what Kostamo calls ‘a divine adventure of reckless love’ – namely that other great Advent theme: the incarnation. An all-powerful God could choose to engage with creation in any way at all. The decision to become a part of it by taking on human form has endless implications for the way we think about the world.

As Kostamo says: ‘The incarnation shows God’s commitment to creation. The Creator becomes the created in the ultimate act of solidarity.’

The ultimate act of solidarity. Therein lies the third thing I have learnt about hope – it is inseparable from action. Another book that influenced me profoundly was Ellen Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture. Described as an examination of ‘the theology and ethics of land use’, it sounds dry but it is the opposite. It propelled me into the garden, determined to care for it properly, recognising for the first time that care of the land is a non-negotiable part of my Christian discipleship.

I still have so much to learn as a gardener but already I am understanding that the actions of caring for soil and seed, leaf and bud, bring about a new kind of consciousness, an opportunity to disrupt some old and hitherto unquestioned notions about how to be in the world.

It’s not a bad place from which to enter 2014. I’m glad I joined in with the ‘one word’ idea. It turns out it was, as I hoped, a much better way of starting a new year than making lots of soon-to-be-broken resolutions.

The picture is of the Derwent Reservoir, Derbyshire, on Boxing Day 2013

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wild, free and not very safe

‘The future is given to those who are experienced in groaning. The future is denied to those who have been cynical and calloused and self-deceiving enough to rejoice in the present ordering and are unable to grieve about the ruin toward which the royal community is headed.’

Walter Brueggemann The Prophetic Imagination

 

I should have known from Kelley Nikondeha’s challenging and profoundly thoughtful blog that joining her reading group would be something that shook me up.

But I just wasn’t prepared to be affected as deeply as I have been by this month’s read: The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann.

I have been a Christian for more than twenty years but by the end of chapter two I felt like the disciples who, when they caught a glimpse of the radical reversal that Jesus had brought into the world, cried out: ‘But who then can be saved?’

With ruthless clarity, Brueggemann lays bare the hypocrisy, the smugness and the numbness of our dominant culture. And here’s the thing: for me he also laid bare my own complicity in that culture.

Brueggemann gives us a portrait of a God who is wild and free, who stands opposed to the dominant powers, which need us to be numb consumers if they are to continue to control us.

As much as I hate the consumer culture, a wild and free God scares me if I’m honest. I like order; I like to know where the limits are; I like to keep things well contained.

What’s more, as a white middle class woman in the rich west I have a pretty strong interest in things continuing as they are. As crazy as it seems, I hadn’t understood that before, not like I do now.

In reading Brueggemann I saw there is a choice to be made. People like me who are comfortable and powerful can cling stubbornly to the status quo, even as we claim to want it to change. We can keep ourselves at one remove from the real suffering there is in the world. We are so affluent and so satiated that we can, literally, eat our way around pain.

But this choice comes at a terrible price. It’s the price of being only half alive. It’s the price of dulling our emotions, narrowing our vision and drastically limiting our entire conception of what it means to be a human being.

It means settling for optimism instead of finding real hope; being content with superficial relationships instead of finding true community; worshipping a tame and benign deity instead of daring to engage with a wild God of furious love.

As I wrote this post I realised I had heard a version of this message about the need to choose hundreds of times. It usually goes something like this: you are a sinner and you need a saviour.

But I have only ever heard it communicated in such a privatised, individualistic way that it never sank deep inside me as it did this month while reading Brueggemann.

And very often I have heard it communicated from inside an institution that – like me – appears to have a lot more in common with the static, controlling, dominant culture than it does with what Brueggemann describes as an ‘alternative community’ – one that makes room for the freedom of God ‘to surface in the brickyards and manifest itself as justice and compassion’.

Brueggemann is clear that for people like me the alternative to the status quo is not easy. For him there is no real hope until we have faced the desperation of the world.  There is no new life until we have understood that the culture that brings us so many goodies and eases our path though life is nothing less than a culture of death. It is not possible to face these things without entering into grief.

And yet, and yet – beyond the grief there is true hope, the promise of a completely different future, a future characterised by amazement and joy, expressed in dancing and new songs, free from the weary hopelessness that characterises so much of human life.

I found Brueggemann’s writing about hope to be the most difficult part of this book and I need to return to it. But what I did understand is this: that it is rooted in the reality of a God who is making all things radically new and who wants to include everyone in that newness, no matter how complicit they have been in the cynicism and injustice of the dominant culture.

It’s the hope that rings out through the songs of the Bible, defiant songs that tell of God lifting up the humble, bringing down rulers from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things.

It’s wild and it’s scary and it doesn’t always look like good news to those of us who are rich and powerful.

But I want it.