Tag: Walter Brueggemann

Challenging the idolatry of power

Readings for a second day in a row confront me with notions of present day idolatry right here among seemingly Bible-believing Christians. Today’s reading comes from Walter Brueggemann in his book, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. It is somewhat risky to pull out one paragraph from a lengthy, in-depth book, but it is worth the risk because it may stimulate thought.

Near the end of the book, Brueggemann is discussing hope as revealed in the apocalyptic book of the Old Testament, Daniel. Apocalyptic is described by Brueggemann as “the extreme conviction that God will make all things new.” (p. 364) This idea is all over the Hebrew Bible, but it takes a different form in Daniel, which I will not get into.

Brueggemann says one of the spinoffs from biblical apocalyptic (New Testament included) is in U.S. religion, which has a “great attraction”  to such modes of thought and speech. Now let me turn Brueggemann loose. (All quotes, pages 364-365.)

“That way of hope, however, has been cast into modernist modes of dispensationalism that for the most part contradicts the theological force of hope in God.”

A brief stop here. Yes, dispensationalism is a modern invention, and Brueggemann seems right — there is a real sense in which dispensationalism becomes a god in and of itself, thus distracting from the true God who is to be worshiped and trusted.

“Much of that current thought, prominently in the Left Behind Series, has an odd and disastrous alliance with right-wing politics that characteristically supports and celebrates U.S. military adventurism. This odd and widely embraced juxtaposition of apocalyptic imagery and superpower self-aggrandizement demonstrates in an unmistakable way how such daring imagery is easily pressed into the service of idolatry. The outcome of such an alliance is that the rhetoric of hope is matched to a politics of despair that intends at all cost to preserve the status quo of privilege, entitlement, and self-propelled security.”

In essence, Brueggemann here has offered an indictment of American Christianity. He seems to be saying that we Americans have taken the apocalyptic notions derived from Scripture and married them to a distinctly American religion that is more about us than about God. This alliance is formed to preserve three things that are not of Jesus, it would seem — privilege, entitlement, and self-propelled security. Jesus clearly stood for the under-privileged, spoke of responsibility not entitlement, and offered security through God not ourselves.

And lest my left-wing friends take too much joy in the above, let me say that they have their own odd and disastrous alliances.

I’ll let Brueggemann continue:

“Such a utilization of apocalyptic hope is a disastrous idolatry because the God to which apocalyptic hope attests stands precisely against such craven hungers of present arrangements of power and security. Hope stands as a contradiction of all such idolatries. Indeed the very superpower status of the United States, so valued in many forms of contemporary apocalyptic rhetoric, more likely stands, in the tradition of Daniel, as one of the empires that will fall rather than as an icon of the new rule of God. In the contemporary U.S. religious scene, such an idolatrous alliance of future hope and current power employs the rhetoric of hope precisely in the practice of hopelessness, bespeaking not eager trust but immense fear.”

It seems to me that since World War II, the United States has developed an out-sized trust in its own power — economic and military. During the war itself, I do not think that was so much the case, especially among the regular folk. This growing trust in worldly power is a back story to our declining trust in Yahweh, the God of the Bible.

I need not say more; there is enough here to ponder.

The power of what we have

“People are discovering that satisfying possibilities for their lives are in the neighborhood, not in the marketplace.”

That’s how John McKnight and Peter Block start their book, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. I wanted to know more after hearing John, Peter and Walter Brueggemann speak at the Abundant Communities conference in San Antonio, so I’ve just started the book and will share some highlights here. (All of the quotes on this post are from pages 1-2.)

In many nations, local people are having the “courage to discover their own way–to create a culture made by their own vision. … [I]t is a culture that starts the same way, with an awakening:

“First, we see the abundance that we have–individually, as neighbors, and in this place of ours.

“Second, we know that the power of what we have grows from creating new connections and relationships among and between what we have.

“Third, we know that these connections are no accident. They happen when we individually and collectively act to make the connections–they don’t just happen by themselves.”

Two words jumped out at me as I read this–“we have.” This book is not about something we do not have but need to acquire; it’s about what we have. That may not seem like a biggie, but so much of what we encounter today through advertising, self-help advice, and even church is about what we need but do not have. The simplicity of the notion that we have what we need seems powerfully freeing.

And while we may have what we need, I like the notion that this is something we’re going to have to work for. That squares with our experience of life.

The three steps mentioned above “awaken us to our abundance, not our scarcities. … [And they] can often be undermined by great corporate, governmental, professional, and academic institutions.”

For those of us who attended the San Antonio conference, these words sound so familiar. Walter Brueggemann made a superb biblical connection between the ideas of abundance and scarcity. (I blogged my notes from Walter’s remarks.)

And then John and Peter pick up the notion of citizenship about which I didn’t get good notes during the conference.

“It is our calling as citizens to ignore the voices that create dependency, for we are called to find our own way. …”

In a democracy, “we strive to be citizens–people with the vision and the power to create our own way, a culture of community capacity, connection, and care.”

I look forward to hearing more about these notions of citizenship.

“… [S]trong communities are vital, productive, and important. And above all they are necessary because of the inherent limits of all institutions.

“No matter how hard they try, our very best institutions cannot do many things that only we can do. And the things that only we can do as a family and a neighborhood are vital to a decent, good, satisfied life.”

I want to be part of something that is vital, productive, and important. I want to have a decent, good, satisfied life. I do experience all of this in many ways now but look forward to seeing how John and Peter open new possibilities for us.

Push back from the community

The final morning of the Abundant Community conference was like none other that I have attended. They gave participants a chance to push back on the things they had heard the day before. This showed great courage on behalf of the speakers, and it modeled true community. A speech, in essence, is an “empire” expression. A discussion is by its nature communitarian.

I did not take notes of the various comments, but they were excellent. I did write down the essence of one person’s comments: “Community also creates rigid lines that separate.” And, “there was little mention yesterday of justice.”

Peter Block then responded. As with my previous posts, these are basic paraphrases, not quotes. Here are my notes from Peter:

Patriarchy is held together by force. Structure is not bad. We’re trying to create structures that affirm community, invite widespread participation, that challenges certainty. … Part of your congregational role is to create structures that promote community.

I am broken, but I resist being fixed. All efforts of self-improvement have an element of contempt in them.

Doubts and reservations create a need for me to customize what I hear.

How do you help people become committed and not compliant (in an organization you lead).

“Take it to scale” is an effort of empire.

“Speed” is an effort of empire.

They are obstacles to transformation.

Dissent is important. It’s the beginning of the conversation that may lead to commitment.

When you allow people to have their doubts and reservations and you don’t have an answer for them is the beginning of community. The leadership function is to be a catalyst and then to organize the structure.

What commitments do you have that you no longer mean?

Create space for people to change their minds.

What are you mad about that nobody knows?

You want to help people express their doubts. When released, they no longer control me.

The Walter Brueggemann added this important note:

In our world we have to accommodate empire. The important thing is that we be aware of it.

Walter Brueggemann: The food fight

Ferrell Foster and Walter Brueggemann

I’m attending an amazing conference in San Antonio titled “Our Abundant Communities: Neighborly Nourishment in the Wilderness.”

Here are my notes from Walter Brueggemann’s session titled “The Food Fight: Accumulation and Abundance.” (The following notes are close to being quotes but there is no guaranteed precision so I will not use quote marks. It would be best to see them as paraphrases.)

Food draws together all the important themes of biblical faith.

Production — Distribution — Consumption — Environment

Hunger for food overlaps our spiritual hunger.

We are in a food fight — a fight between two narratives about food. Who gets it and how much and who decides?

1) Aggressive Accumulation

The metaphor is Pharoah

Genesis 12: Abraham went to Egypt because Pharoah had food.

Genesis 41: Pharoah has acute anxiety; he has a nightmare. He dreams of cows and wheat. Joseph told him it was a dream about scarcity.

With a scarcity mindset, the more you have the more you worry about running out. Pharoah dreamed scarcity out of his anxiety. Therefore, Pharoah had the need to accumulate food.

Anxiety = Scarcity = Accumulation = Monopoly (Pharoah controlling all of the food)

People get into slavery because of market manipulation of the economy.

Exodus 1 says Pharoah treated slaves ruthlessly. Monopoly = Violence

Later, Solomon becomes the Pharoah of ancient Israel. (1 Kings 4:22) Solomon was an accumulator of food, weapons, wives, wisdom sayings, etc. … Solomon had productive peasants so the transfer of wealth was to urban elites.

Luke 12: A dispute over family resources.

Brueggemann broke us into small groups to deal with these questions: 1) Where do you see this narrative being found in our world? 2) Are there any ways in which you are prone to collude with or participate in this narrative? 3) What steps are necessary for you to depart from this narrative?

The scarcity narrative dominates our culture. The scarcity narrative will never permit healthy, safe community because it’s designed to keep us insecure.

Biblical faith imagines an alternative narrative.

2) Shared, Grateful Abundance

There are three preconditions for abundance:

i) a firm grounding in a conviction about the reliableness of God’s generous creation. … The earth is blessed. … God intended the world to produce abundance. … Psalm 104. … The opposite of creation faith is to imagine that you can be self-sufficient. Creation faith points beyond oneself.

ii) doxology: the total sense of self-abandonment — back to the goodness of God… Praise. … The more we accumulate, the less we have freedom to abandon it to God. … Our desire to accumulate evaporates in wander and awe. … Psalm 11:48. … You can’t let go in a scarcity system.

iii) Sabbath: Exodus 31. … God tells Moses to keep the Sabbath. … v.17 … keep the Sabbath as God kept the Sabbath and was refreshed. … God was “re-souled.” … Sabbath is a cessation from production and consumption in order to get your depleted life back. … Doing productive work 24/7 is a requirement of the scarcity system. … The scarcity system wants exhausted people. Exhausted people do not change systems.

These three are profound acts of resistance against the scarcity narrative.

The exodus from Egypt was a departure from Pharoah’s system. … In Exodus 16, the Israelites said, “Let’s go back.” … It takes enormous intentionality to step outside that narrative. … The wilderness equals no viable life-support system. The coming of manna in the wilderness is the narrative of abundance. In the deepest wilderness, the creative God provides sustenance for the day.

Elishah is a performer of abundance.

In Mark 6, there is a hungry crowd in the wilderness. Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave. Jesus fed 5,000 people and there were leftovers. in Mark 8, he does it again. Jesus took, thanked, broke and gave. He fed 4,000 with leftovers.

In Mark 8:14, Jesus says, do you not yet understand that the scarcity system has been defeated.

Jesus is saying, “Do not be anxious.”

Mark 6:52 — The disciples did not understand about the bread because their hearts were hard. It reminds you of Pharoah. This is not an accident. They couldn’t get abundance because they were situated in Pharoah’s narrative of scarcity.

As you think about these two narratives they do not break down along Catholic-Protestant lines or conservative-liberal lines. They are at war in our own persons. In our own lives, how do we sort out these two narratives?

John McKnight: The gift of fallibility

I’m attending an amazing conference in San Antonio titled “Our Abundant Communities: Neighborly Nourishment in the Wilderness.”

Here are my notes from John McKnight’s session titled “The Gift of Fallibility.” (The following notes are close to being quotes but there is no guaranteed precision so I will not use quote marks. It would be best to see them as paraphrases.)

The institutional world seems to be in constant struggle with infallibility. It views fallibility as something to get rid of, … to get rid of our uniqueness.

An institution has a way of doing things by taking the person out of it. … Uniqueness includes fallibility.

Institutions represent the pursuit of perfection — to do away with our humanity.

Community is a place where fallible people can reside.

Fallibility is also related to friend. … You care even though you know your friend’s shortcomings.

People who call us servants are always fixing us, but friends don’t always try to fix us.

In communities, people know things by stories.

In community, we ignore people’s deficits and honor their capacities.

What makes community is its power to live with our infallibilities.

What label do you have? A powerful person is labeled by the full half of their half full glass.

Labeling hurts us the most in community. To have the most powerful community we must see the gift in every person.

Community is a group of people who by their very act of coming together create outsiders. The more people in a community are not contributing their gifts, the weaker the community. And labels cause this.

Make a list of outsiders you know.

How do communities grow by widening the circle? Two methods are pursued.

1) Compassionate people — their compassion leads them to see the hurt in outsiders, but compassion doesn’t enlarge the boundary of the community.

2) A more effective way: Communities that intentionally go about identifying the gifts of those at the edge. Gift-centeredness is the building block of a strong community.

Special skill: To see the abilities behind the label. … These people are “gift discerners.” Gift finders use the following categories to explore: gifts (natural), skills (learned), passion and teachables (things the person can teach).

We talk a lot about the importance of diversity. The greatest diversity can be found in giftedness.

Making visible our gifts, skills, passions and teachables is the baseline of community development.

To make all of these gifts visible requires hospitality. You can’t offer hospitality to a friend; you can only offer it to a stranger. “We need you here.” Because that stranger knows songs and stories that no one else knows and from which others can benefit.

We all have a window into the world. People who are different help us see a different world.

Song by Larry Cohen: “There is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.”

Every outsider is saying “invite me.”

“A gret neighborhood creates places where we can fall in love, … and say, ‘how did I ever do without you.'”

Peter Block responded to McKnight’s remarks: The community has a job to do. Regarding schools, the children need to know what they can do.

Walter Brueggemann responded: Ultimate neighborly truth comes in small narrative vignettes. Empire exists by large narratives. … The testimonial mode of truth in the Bible corresponds with John McKnight’s mode (of small vignettes), and small narrative vignettes may be fallible.

My reaction: So much to think about. Such a different way of seeing the world.

Peter Block: Art calling out empire

I’m attending an amazing conference in San Antonio titled “Our Abundant Communities: Neighborly Nourishment in the Wilderness.”

Here are my notes from Peter Block’s session titled “Art Calling Out Empire.” (The following notes are close to being quotes but there is no guaranteed precision so I will not use quote marks. It would be best to see them as paraphrases.)

“Empire” (a patriarchal, top-down system) stands for control and predictability. … A triangle is the symbol of empire.

Most systems have organized effort in a certain predictable way.

Community or neighborliness is able to imagine another world, a different world from empire.

How do you create a future distinct from the past?

Help people create an alternative future.

What is the methodology of transformation?

The patriarchal methodology is to create a blueprint of the future you want. You then determine how to measure it. You train people for that future. Then you appraise performance. These are the tools of patriarchy. It’s not destructive, it just makes things a little better.

Community thinks bigger. It organizes certain core beliefs.

If I believe I can help you (as the patriarchal culture asserts), I’ve established superiority over you. … You are, in essence, deficient.

Sports is the dominant metaphor for this patriarchal culture — competition. … In this culture we think poor people are at fault.

With communal transformation you can’t explain everything by personal history.

We can reconstruct our way into an alternate future.

What do we do when we come together?

A room without windows makes nature obsolete.

The circle is the symbol of community.

Focusing on deficiences doesn’t make them better. Focus on gifts.

Community is built on relatedness, not planning. … It’s a shift in narrative. Transformation is a shift in narrative. … I can’t be explained by my history. Narrative is just a constructed history.

Poverty is the absence of possibility. … The work is to shift the narrative. … Small groups shift the narrative.

(As a participant in community, you are a citizen. I didn’t get this point well in my notes.)

“Citizens” in small groups engaged in conversation change the world.

Art brings us together. … We tend to treat it as peripheral.

Talk about possibilities, not problems. Talking about problems becomes a barrier to transformation. … You have to show up as a change agent.

I am my commitments.

(Block then divided us into groups of three. He told us not to offer help to one another because “help is a colonizing form of existence.” He told us to substitute curiosity for providing help. We were to see with our needs less than nine inches apart. In preparation for our dialogue he also said, “Research is not very compelling. … Connectedness is what changes people.” Each person in the group then answer these two questions: Why is it important for you to be here today? What’s the crossroads you are at?)

In response to Block’s presentation, Walter Brueggemann offered the following comments:

Exodus 15, which deals with the period after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, says the “first act of their citizenship was to dance.”

Also in response, John McKnight offered the following:

The world of empire is a world of pretense. Empire controls people in order to produce a lot of the same thing. This creates the need for a consumer of these many things.

The triangle symbolizing empire stands for control, production and consumption.

There is a whole other world outside the market (that empire doesn’t see). What is the life outside of market about? It is about consent, care (service) and citizenship (everyone equals power).

My reaction to Block’s presentation: This is so different from how organizations normally function, but it’s so compelling. I wonder, how does it fit with a Jesus-centric culture.

Block made some final comments: Art doesn’t need a facilitator. … Art invites performance. … The audience makes the art.