Walter Brueggemann: How Long? Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Prophets in a Pandemic

How many of us have been asking for weeks how long this will last? How long will the pandemic surround us? How long will physical distance be a necessary step for us to take to care for one another? How long will our neighbors die alone? It’s a question the Psalmist asked long ago:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
(Psalm 13:1-2)

These questions are partly an act of hope, having no doubt that present trouble can and will surely be overcome by God. But these questions are also an impatient complaint; the trouble has gone on more than long enough, and it is high time to have it come to an end. Today, we are asking similar questions about this moment of pandemic and physical distancing. In part, our question is an act of hope, as in, “We will get through this.” It is for us as well also a statement of impatience: this is long enough, and we cannot bear it any longer. The sickness and death and separation and joblessness and hunger must stop. The questions, the demands require a response, if not from God then from some authority whom we can trust. We desperately need hope in a moment like this.

We may be tempted to seek a ready, optimistic, soothing answer. Hananiah, a prophetic figure in Jerusalem after 598 BCE when the Babylonians had taken from the city the first wave of deportees, gives precisely such an answer. Hananiah—whose name means “Yah is gracious”—answers with assurance but an assurance we may not wish to embrace so simply:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon.
(Jeremiah 28:2-4)

Hananiah asserts that the deportation will soon be over and all will come home, all 3023 of them will return (Jeremiah 52:28)! Perhaps Hananiah has geo-political reasons for his hope-filled answer. More likely it is a conviction that God, in God’s faithful mercy, would not allow such suffering by God’s chosen people any longer. But beyond such conviction, it is also the case that Hananiah was closely allied with the royal-priestly establishment of Jerusalem. That establishment had a huge interest in reiterating the absolute control of God over the city, for that absolute divine governance also legitimated crown and throne. Thus, Hananiah is not disinterested but was eager to reflect and reinforce the political interests of the elite. As a consequence, his theological conviction is complexly intertwined with his own vested interest and that of the powerful. The city establishment wanted and needed a hope-filled answer and Hananiah was ready and able to provide it.

A quick return to normalcy! Things are getting better! No need to continue worrying!

From the perspective of the book of Jeremiah, Hananiah and his ilk are phonies. They are not dispatched by God (23:21-22)! They echoed what the establishment wanted:

From prophet to priest everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully,
they committed abomination (6:13-15).

—They announce peace and wellbeing that will permit the elite to move past the crisis of deportation quickly. They declare “Peace, peace” with the hope that we can go back to business as usual.

I write this on just one of the many days lately when declarations of government officials and cautions of public health professionals appear to be in stark contrast with each other. Both are uttered as thousands continue to die daily, and scientific models are revised to estimate how many are still to come. Too often, we hear illusionary statements that reflect an impatient eagerness to move past the crisis more rapidly than the facts permit in order to return to the previous work of control and profit.

But when Hananiah voiced such deluded proclamations, the prophet Jeremiah was unpersuaded. He insisted that there would be displacement for deported Jews in Babylon for a very long time:

For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:
I have put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and they shall indeed serve him: I have even given him the animals (28:14).

It is as though the King of Babylon is the new Adam, the one in charge of all creation! “The beast” is sent by God and will not be overcome soon!

What are we to make of Jeremiah’s prophecy of days, years of suffering?

Faced with brutalizing racial rejection a generation ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his momentous speech in Montgomery at the end of the Selma march, gave a stirring answer to an inescapable question:

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darkening their understanding, and driving bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified and truth bear it?”

King’s cadence is not unlike that of the Psalmist. It is the old question of faith amid suffering. It was the question in ancient Israel. It was the question in old Montgomery. It is the question in every hotspot of the virus:

“How long?”

And then King answered:

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to the ground will rise again. How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”

And then King added:

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it is bent toward justice.

King’s “not long” may sound like the “not long” of Hananiah. King’s “not long” may seem to echo the sunny prognostication of too many political leaders today.

But King’s “not long” is in fact very, very different. Hananiah anticipated a quick fix. Hananiah predicted, “It will soon miraculously disappear.”

King, however, does not engage in magical thinking. He is no Hananiah. He does not offer any easy assurance. He is not saying anything that will reassure the establishment that wants to get on with business. He knows that faithful living amid crisis (whether a crisis of racism or of public health, let alone how often two intersect) offers no quick fix but requires moral courage and brave action. His own life, even his own death!, attest that his “Not long!” was a long, hard-earned, durable piece of faithful hope and work.

In our moment of crisis with the virus, illusions that can only lead us down paths of self-destruction will not suffice. Nor are such delusions faithful. The granular, everyday reality of bodily life in history does not admit of magical solutions.

We have a choice. Do we heed Hananiah’s illusionary expectation or King’s hope-filled realism? In the wake of King, we are called to moral courage for the long haul and brave, durable action that must, perforce, be grounded in truth telling. We have known this since Jeremiah, even when we wish it were otherwise.


Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.

Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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