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Review of Walter Brueggemann book: “Interrupting Silence”

Overcoming the Evil of Silence

 

Silence and tacit consensus always, without fail, protect privilege. That is why the privileged are characteristically silencers.

Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, p. 56

In 2018, the evangelical scholar Walter Brueggemann boldly departed from the twin evils of American Christian Evangelicals – fawning approval and cowardly silence about the evils of privilege and oppression that have resulted in “our socio-political circumstance.” (p. 5) His examination of eight scriptural episodes is most often poetic and elusive, like the biblical passages themselves; but his message is clear. Scriptural traditions call for speaking out against today’s “establishment” and the many oppressive privileges being enforced. Without directly naming the main political figure of 2018, Brueggemann wrote a powerful condemnation of Trumpism and its supporters.

Brueggemann’s Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out is a series of biblical studies that begins with Israel’s groaning against slavery in Egypt. Symbolic interpretation of forced Egyptian brickmaking turns to contemporary application by looking at oppressive conditions of brickmaking in modern Pakistan. Although figurative language is the rule, direct comparisons are made that can’t be ignored. “Indeed, when we consider permanent indebtedness of many people in our own predatory economic system, we can see how the drama of Egypt is endlessly reperformed.” (p. 13) The combination of figurative interpretation of scripture and direct application to contemporary issues is repeated throughout these studies intended for adult study groups.

The studies move from Egyptian enslavement, to prophets defying exploitation, to penitential psalms that acknowledge sin, and finally to encounters with Jesus illustrating multiple impacts of speaking out. In this review, we will look at how this respected biblical scholar and evangelical spokesman departs from the cowardice and betrayal of so many evangelicals who support whatever Trump does. First, I will examine chapters on prophets and an episode involving Jesus. I will end with a discussion of how this book compares to other anti-Trump books published in 2018.

Prophets like Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah are described as “uncredentialed poets without pedigree or authorization.” They spoke against the “holy legitimacy” of the monarchy and temple because that alliance resulted in the “triad of exploitative labor, unjust taxation, and exhibition of surplus wealth.” (p. 25) Two pages later, the point of the italics is made clearer when he says the rivalry of prophets versus establishment “permits us to see that in our own time this same contestation is underway with the royal role performed by a wealthy, greedy oligarchy ….” (p. 27) The criticisms of the temple for which Amos is famous were rejected by religious leaders, a phenomenon also seen today. “And of course, many churches in our own time are simply chapels for the establishment, in which those who speak in church are expected to support the establishment claims and so to ‘show the flag.’” (pp. 32-33)

In the first of four chapters involving Jesus, Brueggemann openly draws on Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s interpretation of Mark’s story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. When she asked Jesus to exorcise the demon in her daughter, he insulted her by comparing her to a dog begging at the children’s table. The insult is explained as directed at her as a non-Jew in Jewish territory asking for benefits intended only for Jews. It is further explained as a patriarchal slap at a woman who dared to speak up in “manly space.” But the woman was not cowed by rejection, for she used the imagery of the insult to shame Jesus into sharing at least crumbs with dogs like her.

Striking conclusions are drawn from this simple story. First, contradicting and even shaming Jesus “reeducated” him. “Reeducation comes from voices that dissent from the unexamined comfort zone, from those who abrasively shock our comfort zones with voices from outside that violate the consensus that has been silently accepted.” (p. 52) Second, Brueggemann concludes that Jesus changed his sense of mission. Following this episode, he went outside Galilee and expanded healing to non-Jews. The woman with her “passion and courage have pushed Jesus’ ministry and his healing capacity out beyond the conventional consensus of Galilee.” (p. 53)

Let’s not overlook the shock of many evangelicals when they read that Jesus was reeducated and redirected by an encounter with a non-Jewish woman. This implies a human Jesus who learned from people and changed his mind. It also shows a Jesus open to criticism, who could lower his ego defenses and learn, not retaliate, when verbally challenged. Brueggemann concludes: “Jesus turned out to be an apt student, and the outsider woman was an effective teacher and witness. He was a quick learner and put his new learning to immediate and effective use.” (p. 54)

The book is a consistent but indirect attack on the values of Trumpism and the cowardly silence of evangelicals and others who endorse them. Brueggemann does not mention how our current president uses messianic language to describe himself or how any criticism is seen as justification for torrents of abuse and bullying in return. But how can any informed person today not be reminded of those daily messages in the media when reading how Jesus stopped insulting a woman, learned from her, and redirected his ministry as a result. Even Jesus could be reeducated by listening to and respecting someone who dared to speak up against him.

My view is that this short, easy-to-read book belongs in the company of important anti-Trump literature published in 2018. Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America spoke out on recurring demonic forces in America since the Civil War and of how presidential leadership was important in frequent victories for “our better angels.” Part of the motivation for Meacham’s analysis was the problem of navigating a time when a president champions so many of the darkest parts of our national character.

Madeleine Albright also spoke out in Fascism: A Warning. In a combination of memoir, history, and analysis, Albright exposed the ongoing threat of fascism. Her life has been spent fighting for democracy against the authoritarian tendencies that promote totalitarianism in all its forms. Telling her story in 2018 was partly motivated by the emergence of Trumpian support for fascism at home and abroad.

Brueggemann’s book completes a historic 2018 anti-Trump trilogy by adding the voice of biblical prophecy against forces of oppression. The author’s motives are expressed in the introduction.

Since we now live in a society – and a world – that is fitfully drifting toward fascism, the breaking of silence is altogether urgent. In the institutional life of the church, moreover, the breaking of silence by the testimony of the gospel often means breaking the silence among those who have a determined stake in maintaining the status quo, (p. 5)

He is very specific as to the oppressive forces to be overcome:

White privilege by multicultural possibilities

Western privilege by the assertion of other cultural realities

Male privilege by insistent feminine voices

Heterosexual privilege by the legitimacy of LGBT voices and presence

American exceptionalism by the rise of other political economies

Entitled Christendom by the emergence of generous ecumenism. (p. 57)

Speaking as a Christian who has felt increasingly alienated by sermons that refuse to speak about conscience-rending domestic and environmental policies and by Sunday school classes that avoid topics that threaten fellowship – I am especially grateful for Brueggemann’s voice sounding so clearly that it is hard to justify switching the channel or trying to lower the volume.

The message of Brueggemann seems clear to me: The forces of history and the requirement of fidelity to the gospel are calling on every congregation, every Sunday school class, every prayer group, and every American to speak out and follow words with courageous action.

References:

Madeleine Albright with Bill Woodward, Fascism: A Warning. New York: HarperColins Publishers, 2018.

Walter Brueggemann, Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out. A Bible Study for Adults. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018.

Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. New York: Random House, 2018.

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

About the Author

Dr. Edward G. Simmons is a graduate of Mercer University and earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. After a career of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources, he returned to his original career by teaching history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. Noted for energetic and challenging presentations, he is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.

Review & Commentary