The coronavirus has caused many people to feel abandoned, and in actuality to be abandoned. Consequently, I have been thinking about biblical articulations of a season of abandonment. To be sure these abandonments are not on the scale of being God-abandoned, but they no doubt move in the same sphere. We are all familiar with Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross:
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)
Of this cry Juergen Moltmann can conclude,
"According to Paul and Mark, Jesus himself was abandoned by this very God, his Father, and died with a cry of godforsakenness" (The Crucified God 241).
We are, moreover, all familiar with the fact that Jesus was quoting from the Psalm of lament:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1)
It is this unresolved utterance of abandonment at the center of the gospel narrative that of course creates a deep problem for any pastor. I know of two common attempts to soften this cry of abandonment. First, it is worth notice that Psalm 22 moves at the end to a great assurance and affirmation:
“From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” (vv. 21-22)
It is possible that Jesus implied the entire Psalm, speaking not only of abandonment but also of God’s rescue. As a result, abandonment on the lips of Jesus is not the final word. Second and a less compelling softening of the cry is the notion that that the Psalmist “felt” abandoned but was in fact not abandoned. But of course, that is not what the Psalmist said nor is it a helpful pastoral response for those who know themselves to be abandoned.
Much theology is marked by the conviction that God, along with being omnipotent and omniscient, is also omnipresent, that is, never absent. And of course, if never absent, then the cry of Jesus or of the Psalmist cannot be taken at face value. (The best critical affirmation of divine omnipresence known to me is the recent discussion of Katherine Sonderegger, pp. 49-147. Sonderegger places a primary accent on the “hiddenness of God.” See especially Isaiah 45:15. See also Martin Buber, The Eclipse of God.) Such a claim of hidden presence has a strong appeal for us. But against such a claim are both the attestation of scripture and the lived reality of peoples’ lives.
Thus, I judge that we must allow for the genuine experience of divine absence and the real experience of being abandoned. Any assurance that flies in the face of this lived reality is not likely to be compelling or reassuring. In my judgment, we do better, theologically and pastorally, to acknowledge God’s abandonment in our lives. In our lifetime surely the Nazi holocaust is an exhibit of God’s abandonment that was lived through and known to be acutely real.
If we linger over the interpretation that Israel (or even Jesus!) “felt” abandoned but was not really abandoned, we may notice the remarkable text of Isaiah 54:7-8 at the far edge of the exile:
“For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer.”
We have seen the voicing of abandonment by Israel and then by Jesus. But now this is, according to Isaiah, the voice of God’s own self. This is God’s own declaration of abandonment! In the first line of each of these verses, the poet offers a divine assertion of abandonment. The lines speak amid exile and declare the exile as a season of abandonment. (I will comment again in this Church Anew series on the second lines of each of these verses). The first two lines, on the lips of God, assert that the Lord of the covenant has indeed abandoned covenant with Israel. These lines are an echo of God’s declaration in Hosea:
Then the Lord said, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.” (Hosea 1:9)
This is the undoing of Israel’s covenantal identity. The exile is characterized as the historical reality of that undoing. The abandonment is said to occur because of God’s anger and loss of patience with Israel’s recalcitrance. Perhaps it might be judged that God is whimsical or capricious about covenantal commitment to Israel, but this is not likely on the horizon of the poet.
The divine asseveration is stark and uninflected. It is eased and relieved to some extent by the reassurance of the second line of each verse; that assurance however does not change the stark harshness of the first line of each verse that had to be faced by the generation of the exile. Compassion later does not much change abandonment now!
So let us entertain the claim—pastorally, theologically, historically—that Israel in exile was indeed God-abandoned (and that Jesus on the cross reiterated and replicated the abandonment of Israel). This claim, I submit, is pastorally useful amid the virus, because it recognizes honestly and takes seriously the lived reality of those who die without the presence of loved ones, those who are left economically bereft, and those who are mandated to continue to work in unsafe environments.
The summons of faith amid abandonment, I submit, is that we should in such circumstance maintain, with intentional resolve, faithful practices and disciplines that belong to our baptism. (Those who do not do so in ancient Israel, we may imagine, evaporated from the covenant community in despair). There is, however, an antidote to despair in the regular practices of the disciplines of faith. It does not seem a far stretch to imagine that these practices that fend off despair include at least the following:
In seasons of abandonment people of faith tell sustaining stories.
In ancient Israel they told the big stories of YHWH’s faithfulness, accounts of deliverance and transformation. These are the stories that evoked the characteristic mantra of wonder in Israel:
“For his steadfast love endures forever”
(Psalm 136:1, 2, 3, ff.)
These inexplicable actions of YHWH, not generic but one-time acts, are regarded in Israel as “wonderful works” that defy explanation (see Psalm 107:8, 15, 21, 31). But Israel also told little stories of fidelity:
It told of Shiphrah and Puah who “feared God” (Exodus 1:21).
It told of Jael and her bold action:
She put her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his temple.
It told of Elisha who fed a hundred hungry people (II Kings 4:42-44).
In the telling of the faithful, these small stories can be readily continued with contemporary counterpoint, as with actions in present time of generosity and sacrifice amid the virus. The telling of such stories keeps our attention fixed on life-sustaining reality in contexts that seem death-delivering.
In seasons of abandonment people of faith sing defiant songs.
There can hardly be any doubt that singing is an antidote to despair. The songs of Israel are indeed these stories, big and small, set to rhythmic beat. The repertoire of such singing is limited and clearly defined, staying always with the wonderful transformative wonder of God, and with the attentive compassionate mercy of God. The singing constitutes a defiant act that refuses to permit life to be defined by circumstance. Life—the whole life of creation!—rather is occupied by the unutterable wonder of God to which Israel boldly gives utterance. Such singing is unmistakably counter-factual, not unlike the “We Shall Overcome” singing of the Civil Rights Movement. Israel’s hope-filled singing is not restrained by the shabbiness of circumstance.
In seasons of abandonment people of faith pray without ceasing.
The prayers of Israel, along with the songs and stories of Israel, focus relentlessly on the wonder of God. The prayers of Israel are prayers of praise and thanks, voicing God as having faithful powerful agency in the world. The prayers of Israel easily address God as “Thou” (You!)
“Your way was through the sea,
your path through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Psalm 77:19-20).
In the presence of this overwhelming “Thou,” however, Israel does not hesitate to voice the legitimacy of “I” and “we”:
“I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
…I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints” (Psalm 77:1-3).
Thus the prayers of Israel, with articulation of “Thou” and claim for “me,” gives voice to both sides of the fidelity that sustains in the midst of abandonment.
In seasons of abandonment, people of faith perform story, song, and prayer.
These covenantal acts, however, do not permit faithful people to withdraw into a closed or simplistic sense of “I-Thou” or “me and Jesus.” Beyond this rich articulation Israel knows, even in abandonment, that it is a people under mandate, compelled by the commands of Torah. People of faith practice neighborly obedience. Thus Zechariah can say, just as Israel emerges from exile:
Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor, and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. (Zechariah 7:9-10)
There is nothing remarkable about this catalogue of obligations, except that it is mouthed just at the cusp of homecoming. In its season of abandonment, Israel had not forgotten—and always remembered—that the performance or covenantal fidelity—even amid abandonment—consists in radical, restorative neighbor actions for those left behind. To the familiar triad of “widow, orphan, immigrant,” the prophet adds “the poor.” Action toward the left behind who are treasured by God is a primary strategy for resisting despair in abandonment. Equally radical is the warning that Daniel commends even to the exile-causing King of Babylon as an icon of big government. Even big government is summoned to neighborly obedience!
“Atone for your sin with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy *to the oppressed…”* (Daniel 4:27)
Even abandonment does not diminish the urgency of the life of the neighbor!
These practices that might be given many forms of articulation are disciplines of resistance. Even (or perhaps especially) in dire circumstance of abandonment Israel does not cease to be the faithful people of the absent God. Such actions refuse despair, because they constitute an act of both remembering and hoping. At the same time these disciplines refuse denial because they look circumstance full in the face. For every praise there is a lament. For every thanks there is voiced need. For every act of neighbor, there is a sense of the legitimacy of self. By such resolved practices faithful people are not overwhelmed by circumstance. They rather redefine circumstance as a venue for a chance to live differently by fidelity that yields energy, courage, and even joy. I am not, dear reader, making this stuff up; you can see it every day among the faithful!
This is the first of three articles in a series to be published by Church Anew. The second and third will appear in our upcoming Brueggemann Column. We are honored to give Walter Brueggemann a place to share personal reflections and commentary about life today as God’s children in God’s world.
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.
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