Numbness and Grief

Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

David speelt harp voor Saul“Royal consciousness”, Walter Brueggemann tells us, is expressed in “the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation”. This is the consciousness of empire, of affluence and full stomachs: “Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour, and sixty cors of meal, ten fair oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides harts, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl” (1 Kings 4:22-23). But obviously not everyone ate like this, and Brueggemann observes that “then or now, eating that well means food is being taken off the table of another”. To legitimate his rule, Solomon built God a temple, “trapping” the free God of the wilderness in Jerusalem. Brueggemann writes: “God it now ‘on call’, and access to him is controlled by the royal court. Such an arrangement clearly serves two interlocking functions. On the one hand, it assures ready sanction to every notion of the king because there can be no transcendent resistance or protest. On the other hand, it gives the king a monopoly so that no marginal person may approach this God except on the king’s terms”. Solomon made his city affluent but he would not tolerate criticism. He ignored the warnings of the prophet Ahijah and tried to kill the dissident Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:29-40). Furthermore, he promoted a creation theology that justified the status quo as “the way things are”, and encouraged messianic promises that celebrated the line of David. The religion of the royal court is one that emphasizes stability and numbs us to the pain of those disenfranchised by the regime.

rembrandt-jeremiah-lamentingRoyal consciousness is our consciousness, Brueggemann argues. “The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act. .. That enculturation is true not only of the institution of the church but also of us as persons. Our consciousness has been claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric”. Royal consciousness permeates our ways of thinking so profoundly that it is almost impossible to imagine another alternative. David cried out to God in his pain and his joy, but if we are to take Ecclesiastes as an accurate portrayal of Solomon’s time, his son was apathetic about life: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). How does God wake us out of our self-deception? Brueggemann writes that “the proper idiom for the prophet in cutting through the royal numbness and denial is the language of grief, the rhetoric that engages the community in mourning for a funeral they do not want to admit. It is indeed their own funeral”. While everyone else continued business as usual, Jeremiah wept. He saw that Judah’s world was unsustainable and was on the brink of collapse. Amos warned Israel that “you drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:6), and for this reason destruction was coming upon them. In Jeremiah’s day, Judah was similarly incapable of recognising that their time was up, and Jeremiah took up Amos’ message, mourning that “your hurt is incurable, and your wound is grievous. There is none to uphold your cause, no medicine for your wound, no healing for you” (Jeremiah 30:12-13). The grief of the prophets sought to confront the dominant culture with the reality of its own shallowness and ultimate doom. Only genuine grief, Hosea, Amos, and Jeremiah realized, could wake up people so hopelessly satisfied by their own selfishness.

crucifixion_by_rembrandt_1631_s-vincent_du_mas-dagenaisJesus wept too. His tears took Him all the way to the cross. And there Brueggemann shows how Jesus’ words from the cross expressed a grief the undermined the very consciousness it mourned. “His initial plea for forgiveness for his enemies is an act of criticism (Luke 23:34), for it asserts the insanity of the dominant culture. … His cry of despair is an announcement of abandonment (Mark 15:34). … The ultimate criticism ends in submission (Luke 23:46), the last thing possible in a world of competence and control. Thus in that very world of control Jesus presents a new way of faithfulness that completely subverts the dominant way. And finally, his assertion of paradise is a speech about the delegitimization of the world that killed him (Luke 23:43). Now he speaks from a very different value system. The very one called criminal is now welcomed to paradise; the outcast is the welcomed one”. Jesus preached that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15), and that this kingdom brought freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19), which is bad news for the oppressors. Jesus forgave, which undermined the power of the dominant culture to control people through their guilt. He healed on the Sabbath, making it a day of freedom rather than a way for those in power to enslave their followers. He ate with outcasts, breaking down basic social barriers. He associated publicly with women, welcoming them into His kingdom. And He spoke about the destruction of the temple, of the religion of the establishment and of power. In His grief and in His compassion, Jesus showed a new way of living that energized and amazed those around Him rather than numbing and subjugating them.

450px-rembrandt_harmensz-_van_rijn_079The prophetic imagination not only wakes people up, Brueggemann argues, it also energizes them and offers alternative ways of being in the world. It does so by drawing on deep memories and awakening old promises, forgotten by those in power but cherished by the marginalized and the outcasts. Brueggemann thinks that Moses epitomized the possibilities of the prophetic message: “Moses dismantles the politics of oppression and exploitation [in Egypt] by countering it with a politics of justice and compassion. The reality emerging out of the Exodus is not just a new religion or a new religious idea of a vision of freedom but the emergence of a new social community in history, a community that has historical body, that had to devise laws, patterns of governance and order, norms of right and wrong, and sanctions of accountability. The participants in the Exodus found themselves, undoubtedly surprisingly to them, involved in the intentional formation of a new social community to match the vision of God’s freedom. That new social reality, which is utterly discontinuous with Egypt, lasted in its alternative way for 250 years”. If we are to survive the next few years, we need to recover something of that vision for ourselves.

Paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn.

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