Thursday, January 14, 2016

A New Community

From Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience, pp. 298ff

Much of the Bible is a presentation of how this new community of strangers has become a powerful force for "home-making" in the world.

These strangers now become citizens of a new community and are given more than a new beginning. They have been invited into and authorized for a new way in the world. They are not to live primarily in relation to or in antagonism against the empire, but are to transform life where they are, so that the world may become a home and other strangers may also come to be at-home.

Four dimensions of this home-making enterprise are noteworthy.

1. This new community of strangers is able to dream a different dream and hope a different hope.

People who own and manage the empire characteristically do not dream or hope. All their energy goes to maintaining the status quo. Strangers who can remember how unbearable it was in the imperial, excluding past can also anticipate how marvelous it will be in time to come. Their radical hope is not wishful thinking, but confidence that the God who initiated the transformation from outside to inside is the same God who is at work for the complete transformation of the world.

Because of this hope, the community refuses to absolutize the present. It trusts and knows that the present is open and unstable, in order that God's future may appear in the midst of the present. This community of dreamers has as a main task nurturing the dream of how this rescuing God has promised it will be. This hope-filled Israel waits for the transformation of the political process (Micah 4:1-4; Ezek. 34:25-31) and the natural process (Amos 9:11-15).

There will be a time of new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34), when all the nations shall be obedient to the purposes of Yahweh (cf. Isa. 19:23-25). This community refuses to let present realities negate the power of God's future.

2. This community of strangers is able to endorse a different ethic.

This new ethic envisions a community that includes strangers, and therefore is a bold and radical alternative. This transformed community knows that strangers will never be at home until there is an ethic other than the empire's, for the ethic of the empire always produces more strangers. In the covenant, Israel embraces a social practice that the empire regards as subversive, treasonable, and foolish:

Do not oppress a stranger. (Exod. 22:21-24; 23:9)
Do not exact interest from the poor. (Exod. 22:25-27)
On the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your bondmaid, and the alien, may be refreshed. (Exod. 23:12)
When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge. . . . If he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. (Deut. 24:10-12)
You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy. (Deut. 24:14-15)
You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge. (Deut. 24:17)
When you reap your harvest . . . and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deut. 24:19-22)
Love the sojourner. (Deut. 10:10)

The traditions of Exodus and Deuteronomy shape the foundational ethical presuppositions of covenanted Israel. That foundational material and memory provided the basis for continued critical reflection in ancient Israel, as it is preserved in the prophets.

The prophets constitute one important way in which the distinctive claims of this community continued to be valued and taken seriously. The prophets do not simply reiterate; they reinterpret the old materials.

In the exilic community of the sixth century, after the disaster of 587 B.C.E., there was a dispute in the community of faith about inclusiveness and exclusiveness and an inclination to draw narrow norms that would exclude all those who were not holy and righteous. The exilic community was tempted to produce its own generation of unacceptable outcasts. In the face of that temptation, the material of Isaiah 56—62 provides an important alternative.

This poetic voice insists that the community be inclusive. Two texts show how this poet continued the tradition of radical inclusiveness, Isa. 56:4-8 and Isa. 58:6-7. Isaiah 56:4-8 concerns the inclusiveness of ritual practice. Rigorous norms would exclude both eunuchs and foreigners from worship, but here they are included. Isaiah 58:6-7 concerns right worship, and asserts that true worship is to bring the poor into your house, to practice social inclusiveness. This poetry remains very close to the initial radicalness of Moses and the Sinai ethic. Israel is here urged to be a community that transforms outcasts into members of the household—transforms "Hebrews" into covenanted Israelites.

3. This community of strangers is able to pray a different prayer. If one always prays in the empire according to the modes of the empire, one learns to pray docile, passive prayers of resignation. Indeed the empire sponsors ritual activity that takes the dangerous edge off
worship. These strangers now at home can still remember that they were strangers and that it was their shrill cry that evoked new social possibilities from God. The cry reported in Exod. 2:23-25 stands as a model for dangerous prayer that summons this transforming God.

Thus Israel is still able to pray with shrillness and in protest. This community is not so docile or so reduced to conformity and despair that it accepts either the empire or the god of the empire as an eternal given.

This community practices hospitality, not vengeance. How peculiar it is that though this is a community summoned away from vengeance, its prayers can still articulate hope for vengeance directly from God.

Because Israel trusts Yahweh so intensely and believes God's promises of justice so deeply, its prayers impatiently demand intervention by God. In its prayer, Israel notices if God abandons and breaks promises:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? (Ps. 22:1)
Israel has come out of forsakenness and does not want to be forsaken again, especially not by Yahweh. Israel notices if God is indifferent and does not answer:
But I, O Lord, cry to thee;
in the morning my prayer comes before thee.
O Lord, why dost thou cast me off?
Why dost thou hide thy face from me?
(Psalm 88)

Israel notices if the neighbor maltreats:

For he did not remember to show kindness [hesed],
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted to their death. (Ps. 109:16)

Israel expects that Yahweh will be faithful and intervene when a breakdown occurs in the home-making process because God is careless or a neighbor is ruthless. Israel is present in diligent ways to its own situation and experience. Israel is present, moreover, in abrasive prayers to be sure that this God of covenant does not sell out God's passion and become simply another lord of the empire.

The radical ethic of Israel is matched and sustained by daring prayer. As Israel expects the world to be transformed, so Israel insists that God must be present in transformative ways. Israel has no patience for prayer that is not addressed against the stranger-generating real-
ities all around.

4. This community of former strangers, so attentive to covenant, permits and credits in its midst the abrasive prophetic voice of criticism and possibility.

The presence of this voice of criticism and possibility prevents Israel from becoming simply another form of the empire, the kind at whose hands so much has been suffered. Thus Amos's abrasive strictures and Micah's shrillness, Jeremiah's desperation and Ezekiel's oddness keep insisting that there is for Israel, even royal Israel, an alternative way to be in the world. The prophets relentlessly assert that reliance upon a derelict monarchy, a sham temple religion, or the power of cynical affluence will finally end in death.

The astonishing thing about this assembly of former strangers is that they were never able to expel completely the disturbing voice of the prophetic. They understood that in the end, this voice is constitutive for a faithful community. It is this voice which keeps open the home-making prospect that would otherwise be terminated.

Israel's home-making insistence, however, is not always the voice at the margin. Israel fully believes and trusts that the very empire of estrangement can and does become a hospitable home of covenantal justice. Justice is not to be confined to the edges of society but finally will become the practice and policy of the system. Israel will not let its abrasive passion be diminished. I cite four texts about this conviction of transformation of the power of the empire (see also my discussion of Isa. 1:21-23 in chap. 12).

1. Ezekiel 34 is a text about the transformed political community. Verses 1-10 voice a stinging indictment of the ruling authorities (shepherds), who have been endlessly exploitative. There will, however, be a new intervention by God who will introduce a new public policy. God asserts:
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them
lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring
back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will
strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over;
I will feed them in justice, (w. 15-16)

The new ordering will be Yahweh's own administration of covenantal compassion. But then the text continues with a more specific political intent:
And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken, (w. 23-24)

There will be a new governance. It will be characterized by compassion and equity. God is the guarantor of that promise, and David is the instrument of its implementation.

2. The mention of David makes an easy transition to the New Testament and the new governance sponsored by this heir of David “There is abundant evidence that Jesus' ministry was addressed precisely to those who had been excluded by the empire and die laws of holiness and righteousness. He related especially to the marginalized, who were nullified both politically and religiously '' His first announcement anticipates a new inclusion of the out casts:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience

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