Honest Speech and Transformative Potential: An Interview with Walter Brueggemann

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 - 5:50am
Photo by Elvert Barnes

Honest Speech and Transformative Potential: An Interview with Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament scholar and theologian. Widely considered one of the most influential Old Testament scholars of the last several decades, I interviewed him about recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and the place of protest and prophecy in people's faith:

Micky Jones: Theologian Dr. Emilie Townes talks about “communal lament” as part of addressing injustice and eventual healing. What, as you see it, is the Old Testament precedent for lament and protest?
Well, the laments in the books of Psalms and Lamentations are all an expression of grief, but they are also an expression of hope. They are an insistence that things cannot remain this way and they must be changed. Such prayers are partly an address to God, but they are also a communal resolve to hang in and take transformative action. Unless that kind of grief and rage and anger is put to speech, it can never become energy. So I believe the transformative function of such prayers is that it transforms energy and rage into positive energy.

How do we react to anger being viewed as negative, or wanting to avoid it? We want people to “calm down” or “get over it.”
We live in a bourgeois cocoon of niceness and anything that breaks out of that is very threatening and disruptive to people. We have to work towards having honest speech with each other. When we have honest speech we have to speak out about the things that are unjust and unfair. We need a more honest and abrasive speech to bring our talk into connection with our social reality. Any intent to curb that kind of speech is a desire to not have reality pointed out to us. But if we don’t have reality pointed out to us nothing will ever change.

So how do we reflect on the protests in Ferguson in relation to the protest of the prophets?
The prophetic text in the Old Testament, because they are scripture and canonical, are ready for reuse. What we do when we reuse them by way of analogy is find them relevant to our analogous situation, insofar as the ancient prophets protested against injustice, violence, and exploitation (and that rhetoric continues to be pertinent in our context of brutality and exploitation). It is that kind of abrasive speech we cannot easily welcome into settled and stable society but, then again, it wasn’t welcomed the first time.

I think the scriptures are important because they both model that kind of speech and they authorize that kind of speech for our use in our circumstance.

For seminarians, or for myself as an African-American seminary student, it has been difficult to focus on study. I feel like, “What am I doing here taking classes when there is work to be done on the ground?”
There is also work to be done in study. Every revolutionary movement needs people who think and study and write and analyze. A revolution is not sustainable if there are only people on the street. You have to have what the great Italian sociologist called “organic intellectuals.” You have to have intellectuals doing the homework and background work that will sustain the movement. For people like you, who are in seminary, that is an important part of your work. Do that homework and hard head work that will sustain.

As you know street protests often do not succeed. Then it becomes a question of, “How do you stay at it in the face of failure?” You stay at it in the face of failure if you have some intellectual underpinnings that will keep interpreting why we do this and how we do this. The purpose of study is to keep the movement from running out of steam.

And how do you talk to professors, especially non-black professors, who may not know how to approach something like Ferguson? What do we say to them?
We are all situated sociologically and economically, and we all do what we can do. I can’t ever put myself in the place of an African American or a Native American, but I can learn and I can be in touch with the reality of injustice around me. I can speak about it, and I can be instructed by people who are closer to the violence than I am. We are all in a process of being educated and learning more about our place of faith and testimony.

We can’t expect everybody to be in the same place of radicality, but we can expect the people to be engaged as they are able. We need to grow and deepen our understanding. There is a lot of head work to be done but there is also a lot of dialogic interaction that is instructive for us.

How do we find inspiration in the Bible for strength in protest or activism?
It is in the narratives and the psalms. Beginning with the Exodus narrative and the Elijah narrative and the Jesus narrative, they are all storied about public transformation that happened by courage of uncredentialed people. These kinds of narratives feed our imagination and give us energy and courage. As the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s understood, singing is a way to keep your nerve. If you think about the Song of Miriam or those dangerous songs (many of which are in the mouths of women), we are invited to join that kind of singing which is a refusal to accept the dominant definitions of reality. Such singing and storytelling is an insistence that there is another way to experience the world and there is another way to act in the world. These are very important models and authorizations for us.

Walter Brueggemann

You're right. We are drawn to narrative. The scripture could just be rules and laws, but it is stories. I am drawn to those stories and songs, like the freedom songs and the protest songs. There is so much meaning in them.
That is right. Many of those old songs, in their old context, really were freedom songs. If you think about Mary’s Magnificat, as it announces the themes of the Gospel of Luke, is so very revolutionary. They knew that you had to sing it out. And they did. Over time we find ways of repeating their singing.

You have affirmed that it is not anti-semitic to want peace for Palestinians. However, some argue that is anti-white to want justice for black Americans. What are the connections there and how do you respond to that kind of thinking?
Compensating for the defining sin of slavery requires a great deal of our public institutions and our public policies. I think reparations and affirmative action are essential if we are to get past our racial divide which is cultural and economic and political. To resist those kinds of compensatory investments is a vote for the status quo which in our society becomes increasingly intolerable.

What do justice, love, and humble walking-with look like for Christians, especially white Christians, wanting to stand in solidarity with black folks?
I don’t know that there is a single way to answer that. It is highly contextual. There are a variety of strategies that run from face-to-face engagement to pressure on public policy. We have to be engaged on every front because the issue is so urgent and the problems are so complex that there cannot be a single strategy. As we grow in our commitment to racial equality or social justice we have to be very imaginative. We have to find ways that have transformative potential.

How do you answer someone who says, “We just need to concentrate on the Gospel?”
We have to ask what we mean by “concentrating on the Gospel.” That has to do with study and interpretation, and it obviously has to do with transformative revolutionary action. The Gospel is a very dangerous idea. We have to see how much of that dangerous idea we can perform in our own lives. There is nothing innocuous or safe about the Gospel. Jesus did not get crucified because he was a nice man.

© Theology of Ferguson. Reprinted with permission of the author.


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Micky Jones

is a student, writer, and communicator, living just south of Nashville, TN with her beer aficionado husband, KC, and their 3 creative, funny and kind children. After more than 10 years as a mother-baby specialist (doula, childbirth educator, lactation consultant, trainer and author), she decided to become a theologian. She is currently studying with NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) through George Fox Evangelical Seminary. Micky currently serves on the planning teams of the TransFORM Network and Wild Goose Festival. Her special interests include womanist theology, the intersections of Black and Native American history and theology, practical theology, nonviolent direct action, and health issues (particularly around stress, women, birth and children). Micky likes to engage in interesting conversations, participate in transformative experiences … and dance.

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Good interview! Strong concepts presented well.

Thank you for these insightful and inspiring words that move us all to action.

Thank you for a thoughtful approach to the issues Ferguson brings to our current political dialogue. I am confused by the idea of reparations. Are we, as a country, expected to pay descendants of slaves for their ancestor's enslavement? How do we measure the cost of slavery to descendants generations later? How do we determine who benefited and by how much? My family immigrated to the United States between 1880-1910, am I personally financially responsible? Are my children? I cannot see how any system of reparations would work. Are we morally responsible to fight injustice and to help level the playing field? Absolutely. Are reparations a reasonable and workable part of that? I don't think so.

Trent Gilliss's picture

As you point out, Keli, the concept of reparations is a complicated one, and an idea fraught with details. In the article above, I offered a link to Ta-Nehisi Coates article in The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations." He explains the ins and outs of reparations with incredible detail, and he also argues that the U.S. as a country has a moral debt to pay, and that we'll never be whole as a people until we come to terms with our history. Interestingly enough, Coates opens his essay with a verse from the book of Deuteronomy:

"And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today."

I read the article before posting my response above. The article did a good job describing the injustices faced by African-Americans the last 500 years. It did not convince me that reparations are the road to healing and reconciliation. The passage from Deuteronomy is clear if YOU have a slave YOU should pay them. It doesn't say if someone had a slave many generations ago and you now live in that same country you should pay their descendants. In cases where it is possible know who is responsible and who benefited, reparations make sense. But how to we quantify the cost or the benefits in this situation? How do we say who the perpertrators and beneficiaries are? Holding a group of people, that may or may not have benefited, responsible for actions of people, they may or may not be descended from, does not look like a path of healing. It looks like a new way to cause division, resentment, hatred and blame. As a Christian, I believe we have an obligation to fight injustice, to help its victims become whole. I believe spending our energy and dollars on education, job training, job creation, fair wages, fair housing, judicial reform, etc. is the way to correct.

I appreciate your sentiment. I am a black male and I believe that the idea of economic reparations is one whose time has not yet come, if it ever will. But the Gospel speaks of repentance and one thing that America has not done is repent of the sin that was slavery and its follow up act, Jim Crow. I read an article a few days ago about the governor of Colorado officially apologizing to Native Americans for the Sand Creek Massacre. That was in 1864. No one alive participated, but the effects of that instance of oppression ripple through time, as do the effects of the enslavement of Africans in this country. For me, it is not that black people need to receive money from white people or the government for slavery, it’s that we need to receive an official acknowledgement and apology that an atrocity was committed that affects us even today. Such a step is the first movement in the process of atonement and reconciliation. We even have something of a model in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that worked in South Africa after the end of apartheid. That work did not solve all of the past problems made present, but it served to bring a separated people together in a way that began the healing process. It is such reconciliation, beginning with repentance, which America needs.

The Gospel is a very dangerous idea. We have to see how much of that dangerous idea we can perform in our own lives. There is nothing innocuous or safe about the Gospel. Jesus did not get crucified because he was a nice man.
The essence of the message, I believe, is summed in the last four sentences. It begins in our own lives, the jihad within.

And how does the violence looting thievery burning of property shooting and fighting and civil disruption advance the discussion of race?

And how does the violence, looting, thievery, burning of property, shooting, and fighting and civil disruption advance the discussion of race?
It doesn't directly advance the discussion. While I do not totally understand it, it demonstrates a desperation and inadequacy of words to express lifetimes of frustration. It gets the attention of people who otherwise would forget or brush off the news of the day/night. Sadly it is out of helplessness, anger and the inability to express feelings immediately through "proper channels" that the destruction has occurred. Of course, lawless mob actions are self defining and devastating to those on the receiving end of the violence, but unfortunately in the eyes of the destroyers the actions serve a purpose.

To elaborate on the last question: the Christian gospel has the power to change anything but itself (a Martin Kretzmann quote). The change is in the direction of truth, peace and justice.

In my younger days I was wildly fortunate enough to be taught Old Testament by WB. That's like blues lessons from Robert Johnson, if that were possible. Any time someone makes his words public, they are doing the world a favor. Thanks for this. Will certainly share.

It seems to me that our actions must be both top down and bottom up. We need to speak truth to power at the top while simultaneously working at the grassroots level to rebuild, or build for the first time, the structures of hope and trust in our communities that will provide the assets our children and grandchildren will need to thrive. In Stanley, NC, we have formed an ecumenical coalition of churches, "United Action of Stanley Churches (UASC, Inc.)," that worships together, prays together, serves the community together and supports a ministry called "Common Ground" in which all are invited to share in building a community where no one is left behind and all have access to the critical assets needed to grow and thrive. These assets are relational and can't be provided through governing policies or monetary grants. The Search Institute, www.search-institute.org provides a good starting point for assessing community assets.

Astounding! Informative!

This should be required reading, I hope you can do a radio segment on this, we, I need constructive models to transform our current racial divide that has been made glaringly evident through the recent Grand Jury decisions. For Whites it is almost as unavoidable as when the Four Little Girls getting killed in Birmingham. What I am longing for is true transformation, I accept and support the rage that must be expressed, but I do not want to go "back"or "stay" I want to go forward.

"Jesus did not get crucified because he was a nice man." If we could only understand the radical nature of Jesus. His underlying message and purpose was to challenge the existing culture - to preach the Good news. Despite so much human progress, we still can't figure out how to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Thank you for this interview with Walter Brueggemann - what a fine scholar of Scripture.