Book Release: Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization

I’m so pleased to have an Bible reflection in Unsettling the Word, this beautiful and totally unique collection, edited by Steve Heinrichs.–Rose Berger


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can we make the Bible a nonviolent weapon for decolonization? Check out Unsettling the Word.

For generations, the Bible has been employed by settler colonial societies as a weapon to dispossess Indigenous and racialized peoples of their lands, cultures, and spiritualities. Given this devastating legacy, many want nothing to do with it. But is it possible for the exploited and their allies to reclaim the Bible from the dominant powers? Can we make it an instrument for justice in the cause of the oppressed? Even a nonviolent weapon toward decolonization?

In Unsettling the Word, over 60 Indigenous and Settler authors come together to wrestle with the Scriptures, re-reading and re-imagining the ancient text for the sake of reparative futures.

Created by Mennonite Church Canada’s Indigenous-Settler Relations program, Unsettling the Word is intended to nurture courageous conversations with the Bible, our current settler colonial contexts, and the Church’s call to costly peacemaking. (Comes with a study guide for groups.)

Order from Commonword.

Jeremiah and the Wine Jars

Amphora, Isle of Hydra, Aegean Sea (photo by Rose Berger)
Amphora, Isle of Hydra, Aegean Sea (photo by Rose Berger)

From this morning’s scripture reading:

“You shall speak to them this word: ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, “Every jar shall be filled with wine.”‘ And they will say to you, ‘Do we not indeed know that every jar will be filled with wine?’ Then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD: Behold, I will fill with drunkenness all the inhabitants of this land: the kings who sit on David’s throne, the priests, the prophets, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And I will dash them one against another, fathers and sons together, says the LORD. I will not pity or spare or have compassion, that I should not destroy them.'” Hear and give ear; be not proud, for the LORD has spoken.”–Jeremiah 13:12-15

“The figure of full wine jars is used to assert that all inhabitants of the community will be filled with drunkenness (Jeremiah 13:13). But the metaphor remains enigmatic, until it is recognized that drunkenness may be taken as a protoapocalyptic figure for instability and judgement. The notion of drunkenness here is not related to immorality, but to loss of equilibrium, of being dizzy and unbalanced. The image is of a person so unstable, as in crazy drunk, that they will bump against and hurt each other. They will be helpless, unable to act differently, or responsibly. They will be at the mercy of their condition, out of control. Indeed, the only one who could save them from this uncontrolled act of self-destruction is Yahweh.” — Walter Brueggemann (“A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming,” p. 129)

Is Homophobia a Proxy for Fear of Social Change? Walter Brueggeman Explains.

In May, Krista Tippett interviewed Protestant Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. He explains why he thinks gay and lesbian sexuality “has such adrenaline” in and beyond church communities. He explores the idea that homophobia is a proxy for people’s ill-defined fears about an old world order that’s rapidly disappearing.

“It is an amorphous anxiety that we’re in a free fall as a society. And I think we kind of are in free fall as a society, but I don’t think it has anything to do with gays and lesbians particularly.”

Listen to Walter Brueggemann, author of Prophetic Imagination, read Jeremiah 4 and Isaiah 43 — passages of judgement and hope. He discusses the anxiety of our current age in the context of the prophets and the call of the contemporary church to minister WITHIN the anxiety.

“[The prophets] were rooted in the covenantal traditions of whatever it was from Moses and Sinai and all that. And the other thing is that they are completely uncredeintialed and without pedigree, so they just rise up in the landscape. And the way I put it now, they imagine their contemporary world differently according to that old tradtion. So it’s tradition and imagination.

There’s no way to explain that, so we explain it by the work of the Spirit but I don’t think you have to say that … They are moved, like every good poet is moved, to have to describe the world differently according to the gifts of their insight. Of course in their own time, and every time since, the people who control the power structure do not know what to make of them so they characteristically try to silence them.

What power people always discover is that you can not finally silence poets. They just keep coming at you in threatening and transformative ways.” —Walter Brueggemann, interview with Krista Tippett (May 18, 2011)

Christian Support for Repealing DADT Is a Double-Edged Sword

Most Americans – including Christians – now support equal rights for gays and lesbians serving in the US military.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that 58 percent of Americans support equal rights for gays and lesbians in the armed forces. Large majorities of Democrats (70%) and independents (62%) favor allowing gays to serve openly. Republicans are divided (40% favor, 44% oppose).

But let’s look at the religious breakdown too:
62 percent of white mainline Protestants support equal rights for gays in the military
52 percent of black Protestants support equal rights
66 percent of Catholics favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly

Let me be clear, I’m very glad to have Christians moving toward a strong stance in support of equal rights for gays and lesbians in all sectors of society. This is a positive step forward for the society at large and Christians should be part of it.

The Pentagon report released yesterday finds significant support for repealing DADT among the the younger “blue collar warriors,” while a vocal minority of top brass will be uncomfortable with the shift. And don’t get me wrong, I want the churches to continue to support fair and equal treatment for gays and lesbians.

However, there are other sticky questions I want to raise.

Are the Christians that want a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also supporting gays and lesbians within their own churches? Do they advocate for LGBT justice and liberation? Do they invest in and promote gay and lesbian leadership and open their congregations to new, liberating ways of reading scripture in the context of the LGBT life experience?

Secondly, are the Christians that want a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also calling into question military service in a era when the U.S. has the second largest standing army in the world (behind China) and has troops stationed on all 6 inhabited continents?

I can support equal rights for gays in the military – but there’s the bigger question: As a Christian should I be supporting military participation at all? And how do Christians critique the prevailing “Empire consciousness” and offer instead our “prophetic imagination” or “alternative consciousness,” as theologian Walter Brueggemann calls it, on issues of war and peace?

If Christians are supporting the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, then are they also advocating strong teaching in their churches on the Christian pacifist tradition or the rigorous moral “just war” process that any Christian – gay or straight – must go through before participating in any given war?

When Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” what does he mean? Or when he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”? Or “To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic”?

Early generations of Christians refused to participate in war (though those who did were counseled and sometimes asked not to seek communion for a period of time, but were not cut off from community). Soldiers who subsequently converted to Christianity often left military service, viewing it as incompatible with their new life.

Why? Largely because of idolatry. Military service forced them to put the gods of nationalism ahead of the God of Jesus Christ. Military service also fostered hatred for an enemy, an attitude viewed as antithetical to Christ’s teachings. “Love of enemies is the principal precept of the Christian,” said the Tunisian theologian Tertullian in the first century. Until the time of Constantine no Christian writing allowed for Christians to participate in war. Military valor was not a virtue. True victory was won through love.

In a democracy that enshrines civil rights and “justice for all,” it is right and good for Americans to support the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and promote LGBT civil rights in the society at large.

Christians, however, have another set of values to examine. For traditionalists it may be whether you can be gay and Christian. For progressives, it’s whether you can be Christian and ‘Army Strong.’

Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning?, is a Catholic peace activist and regular writer on faith and justice.

On the Outskirts of the Enlightenment: Prophets, Power, and Post-Modernism

Why is this issue of the end of modernism and the beginning of post-modernism of interest to Christians?  I’m working my way through an academic paper by Jesuit priest Hugues Deletraz on Post-Modernism Opens New Perspectives for Evangelization (see earlier post ‘Modernism has reached its limits‘) to understand what are the marks of this shift and how it helps us understand changes in institutional Christianity today.

While reading Deletraz’ paper, I also picked up Hopeful Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. I love Walter’s deep Bible study and contemporary wisdom drawn from the ancient sources. (I have the honor and pleasure of working right now as his editor at Sojourners while he’s writing Living the Word, our monthly lectionary reflections, for us.)

by Banksy

In Hopeful Imagination, Walter compares and contrasts the eras of the biblical prophets around the time of the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE with our current shift from  modernism to post-modernism. His premise is that the loss of the authority of the priestly dynasty and the temple in Jerusalem is analogous to the loss of certainty, centralized authority, legitimacy, and dominance in our own times. Here’s what he says:

“A variety of scholars are calling attention to the prospect that Enlightenment modes of power and Enlightenment modes of knowledge are at the end of their effective rule among us.  All of us are children of the Enlightenment. That cultural reality of the last 250 years has brought us enormous gifts of human reason, human freedom, and human possibility. None of us would want to undo those gifts, but they are gifts not without cost. The reality of the Enlightenment has also resulted in the concentration of power in monopolistic ways which have been uncriticized. Moreover, it has generated dominating models of knowledge which have been thought to be objective rather than dominating.

The evidence grows that the long-standing concentration of power and knowledge which constitutes our human world is under heavy assault and in great jeopardy. God’s work at transforming our world is apparent in the rise of Third World nations, the emergence of Islam as a vigorous political force, and the visibility of a variety of liberation movements. In the midst of such realities, we discover the ineffectiveness of old modes of power. American military and economic power is of course considerable, but it is not everywhere decisive. The limit of such power is matched by the limit of Enlightenment modes of knowledge, for we are coming to see that such “scientific” knowledge no longer carries authority everywhere. There is increasing suspicion of such knowledge because it has long been in the service of domination. Such knowledge arranges reality in ways that are not disinterested. Technique becomes a mode of control, and that mode is no longer easily or universally addressed.

Trust in these conventional modes of power and knowledge is matched by a growing uneasiness when those modes are critiqued or rejected.”–Walter Brueggemann (Hopeful Imagination, p. 5-6)

The question that runs through the communities addressed by the biblical prophets — particularly Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and second Isaiah — during the paradigm shift brought on by the destruction of the Temple and the forced emigration of the Hebrews is this: Are the promises of God strong enough to deal with the current collapse of our “known world”?

It’s a question we are still asking.

Is Sheol in Preston Hollow, Texas?

Whilst reading in the prophet Isaiah, I popped down to the grocery store to buy orange juice for Sojourners’ Mardi Gras pancake breakfast tomorrow. With the prophet’s searing poetry still curdling inside me, my eyes fell on that this week’s edition of that fish-wrap, scandal rag The Globe trumpeting:

globecoverbushorig1Just weeks after leaving the White House, depressed and paranoid George Bush is suicidal, insiders fear. In a blockbuster world exclusive, sources tell GLOBE the ex-President is boozing up a storm – and reveal why he is terrified of Barack Obama and his own wife Laura. Don’t miss a single word!

It seems that life in the Bushes’ new home in Preston Hollow, a wealthy Dallas suburb, is not all he expected it would be. It struck me that the prophet Isaiah is much better at explicating the daily headlines than I am and in words much franker and bolder than I usually give myself permission to use. Isaiah 14:6-10 says:

You persecuted the people with unceasing blows of rage and held the nations in your angry grip. Your tyranny was unrestrained. But at last the land is at rest and is quiet. Finally it can sing again! Even the trees of the forest–the cypress trees and the cedars of Lebanon – sing out this joyous song: `Your power is broken! No one will come to cut us down now!’ In the place of the impotent there is excitement over your arrival. World leaders and mighty kings long dead are there to see you. With one voice they all cry out, `Now you are as weak as we are!

In fact, Isaiah describes Yahweh’s specific instructions to Israel to taunt the deposed leader of an empire, saying, “When the Lord has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon”  (Isaiah 14:3-4).

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his explication of Isaiah 1-39, makes the argument for why this taunting is important, saying that when the people are free from their oppression then “one of the important opportunities, in such freedom, is to engage in a mocking song against the tyrant.”

Brueggemann goes on to describe the toppled ruler’s arrival in Sheol:

“Sheol” is not a place of punishment, but it is where the dead are kept in their impotence. As the deposed oppressor arrives in Sheol, now completely removed from authority and utterly impotent—a suitable resident for Sheol—all the others who used to be active authorities and great powers in the earth (now become impotent) present themselves as a welcoming committee for the new arrival in Sheol. They gather around the new arrival and recognize him as one of their own, formerly powerful, now completely powerless.

In high irony, the poet [Isaiah] has them welcome the new member of the powerless to their company—“You are like us”—powerless, no longer a force to be reckoned with. … The speech “rubs it in,” so that this now feeble has-been should be recognized for what he is, completely broken and irrelevant, warranting no attention at all. (Isaiah 1-39 by Walter Brueggemann, 1998, p. 127-128)

elliottsorig-crop1In light of Isaiah’s description, it seems entirely appropriate that Kyle Walters, president of Elliott’s hardware store in Dallas should offer George Bush a job as a store greeter, saying, “Like you, many of our greeters are retired from the corporate world, so we’re sure you’ll have no trouble making new friends.”

How many American retirees have had to do just this in order to make their Social Security checks stretch farther and cover their medical expenses?

And, the LA Times reports, that while the former first lady is working on a book, “the former president has yet to interest a publisher in his memoirs. In fact, several have advised him to wait a few years until his reputation is less, well, in need of a good hardware polishing.”

Of course, having compassion for George W. Bush, the man, the husband, the father, is part of the Christian calling, as is extending him the hand of mercy when he repents of his sins.

But for President Bush who sought the status of emperor and who claimed divine right in his exploits; who tortured strangers in secret prisons; who opened the nation’s treasuries to privateers; who unleashed the dogs of war on civilians for the purpose of working out old vengeances and hoarding resources, I have a few good taunts left in me.

In fact, I imagine that, right now, Sheol may have taken up an address in Preston Hollow, Texas.