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Hope Within History

February 18, 2017

hopewithinhistoryHope Within History is a short book (5 chapters, 108 pages), and that’s good because it has a lot of dry, technical language. Walter Brueggemann is a theologian and seminary professor, so his brand of technical language is theological and academic. His primary concern here is: how does the Bible (in particular, the Exodus stories and the prophets of Israel) understand history, hope, and how people grow and develop in their faith? Almost everything he says about faith development applies equally to the notion of a community organization functioning as a “university of public life”.

Brueggemann wrote Hope Within History because “the temptation among us is to split hope and history. As a result we hold to a religious hope that is detached from the realities of the historical process, or we participate in a history which ends in despair because the process itself delivers no lasting victories for the participants…. Obviously such a split which yields both a historyless hope and a hopeless history is a betrayal of biblical faith. It is precisely the wonder and burden of the biblical texts that hope is relentlessly historical and history is cunningly hope-filled.

Chapter 1: Israel’s Articulation of Faith Development

The story (and the retelling) of the Exodus tells us at least three things about how Israel understood “faith development”.

  1. It begins with a critique of ideology. “Every Israelite is personally thrust into a world of power politics and public reality…. Israel’s self-identity is from the outset a public one.” The world as it is (slavery in Egypt) is designed to sever the special interests of some at the expense of others. This world can be changed, and God is the agent of that change.
  2. It continues with the public processing of painAs long as persons experience their pain privately and in isolation, no social power is generated.” When people “cry out” as a community, in public, that is a revolutionary act. And God responds to that crying out.
  3. This public outcry and processing of pain leads to the release of new social imagination. “When the cry comes to voice…there is a new ability, courage, and will to hope, imagine, design, and implement alternative scenarios” of how the world could be. The expression of this release of imagination is always social (the Exodus is a communal, not a personal, event), liturgical (the victory song of Moses), political (the Israelites reject Pharaoh’s kingship and accept God’s kingship), and legislative (the Torah is the concrete expression of this new kingdom—replacing Pharaoh’s laws).

Chapter 2: Righteousness as Power for Life

Brueggemann sees the same pattern in the Book of Isaiah as he sees in the Exodus. “First Isaiah” (ch. 1-39, written in the 8th century B.C.E.) is a critique of ideology, in this case, the arrogance and unrighteousness of Israel’s rulers as they face the Assyrian empire. “Second Isaiah” (ch. 40-55, written 540 B.C.E.) articulate the public embrace of pain, in this case, the pain of Israel exiled under Babylon. “Third Isaiah” (ch. 56-66, written around 500 B.C.E.) is a practice of new social imagination, in this case, Jews who have returned home to Jerusalem and must rebuild the ruined city on the basis of new hopes.

Faith transformation is not self-contained individualism…(it) cannot be privatized but always concerns community. This is so for two reasons: first, because the ideology in which one is enmeshed is always a social construction; and second, because the power for life always means life for others, so that the person is always agent and never simply recipient“.

Chapter 3: Blessed are the History-makers

Brueggemann asserts that, biblically speaking, you can’t tell who the “history-makers” are simply by following the timelines (who was king or president, and in which order) or the headlines (what happened to the Assyrian or British empire). He asserts that in Israel at the turn of the 6th century “Jeremiah and those linked to him are the history-makers” and suggests that “Jeremiah provides a paradigm for history-makers around these five items:

  1. A profound sense of anguish, pathos, and incongruity that touches him personally.
  2. Confidence in the moral coherence of the world.
  3. Assertion of the raw sovereignty of God in the historical process.
  4. Capacity for discerning social analysis and criticism.
  5. Bold conviction about an alternative possibility that goes under the name of hope.

It will be clear that these elements are in fact, and are regularly perceived to be subversive. History-making, as I understand it, is a process of subverting public and institutional forms of power that have become frozen and absolutized in favor of some at the expense of others.

History-makers like Jeremiah (a) take the timeline and the headline seriously but not normatively; (b) maintain some critical distance from the dominant definitions in order to have space for alternative thinking and liberated imagination; (c) live at the edge of society where alternatives are thinkable and possible in terms of an imagination not yet co-opted.

Chapter 4: Living Toward a Vision: Grief in the Midst of Technique

Here Brueggemann is exploring the biblical tradition of hope, asserting that the Bible is “fundamentally a literature of hope“, which places it at odds with the dominant Western intellectual tradition (Hellenistic philosophy) which is a tradition of order.

The function of hope is to keep the present open and provisional, under scrutiny.

The natural setting of hope is among those who have grief and process in the community“, that is to say, they articulate it publicly.

The enemies of hope include muteness, fulfillment, and technique, all ways of trying to keep life on our own terms.” The silent majority, the affluent, the best and the brightest who work for the powers that be are, in effect, a powerful alliance that works to create a society in which hopelessness is prevalent and powerful.

Chapter 5: Will Our Faith Have Children?

Here Brueggemann’s concerns intersect somewhat less with those of community organizers. He is putting forth his understanding of evangelical faith and rebutting some of his colleagues’ views. He again makes his point about the importance of grief and public articulation of pain as necessary prerequisites to the coming of new life or new hope.

Evangelical faith is not only buoyant about new gifts surprisingly given. Evangelical faith is also candid and unflinching about hurt, loss, grief, and endings in human history which are real and painful and not covered over. The concrete embrace of deep death is as evangelical as is the lyrica celebration of new gift.”

 

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