Walter Brueggemann: Fall 2020: How Do We Not Live in Despair?

In 2020, the church has been driven back to basics! We are driven there in the context of the dominant narrative of our society; that is a narrative of an ongoing pandemic, scarcity, fear, greed, and violence. That narrative is all around us and is powerfully compelling among us and for almost all of us. It is clear that the outcome of that narrative is likely to be denial. This is a narrative of denial, not wanting to see reality for what it is.

I suggest the reason for this denial is when we see the reality of our current life, we plunge into despair. Thus denial serves to protect us from despair. I suggest that if we live by that narrative we are surely fated to either denial or despair. When we see the reality of our life (the virus, the economic meltdown, the crisis of climate, the jeopardy of democratic institutions), we are pressed toward helplessness because the issues appear to be too immense for effective address.

In that context as we ponder the basics of our faith, we are promptly aware that we, in the community of the baptized, inhabit a very different narrative that contradicts that dominant narrative. The narrative of our faith has many variant forms of articulation. At its center, in any case, is the Friday-Sunday drama of execution and resurrection. It is my thought that as a new season begins in the life of the church, this drama of execution-resurrection might govern our reason and our imagination in surprising and generative ways.

This “Friday moment of our faith,” signified by darkness, is a moment of profound loss that evokes deep grief. The church is always tempted to compromise that profound loss (like leaving the last light on at tenebrea). But the loss is total; the Messiah did die! We have reached the null point of reality. The disciples were driven to bewilderment and despair by Friday night: “We had hoped …” (Luke 24:21). It is a moment of loss, grief, and honesty that contradicts the seduction of denial by its truth-telling insistence.

Thus the church, with this basic narrative, does not flinch from the loss all around us. It tells the truth about the loss of the old world in a way that permits relinquishment of what is gone. Think what is gone! The naming of what is gone assures that the church will not be the “happiest place in town.” It is not, however, the work of the church to be happy, but to be honest; honesty, then and now, requires grief for loss.

Friday in our drama of faith is countered (countered, not simply followed!) by Sunday, by the inscrutable gift of new Easter life in a world that had been shut down in despair.

If Saturday invites despair, Easter is the great counter to despair that invites to hope. This is hope in the power of God to give life in the midst of death: This is the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).

Our hope is in no other save in thee;
our faith is built upon thy promise free;
Lord, give us peace, and make us calm and sure,
that in thy strength we ever more endure.
(I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art. Public domain).

It is the work of the church to engage in hope that is neither optimism nor a notion of progress, but a confession that God’s resolve for a new heaven and a new earth is not precluded or hindered by the power of death, not the death of old white, male, straight privilege, not the death of U.S. domination, not the death of any of our treasured totems:

Our little systems have their day;
they have their day and cease to be;
they are but broken lights of thee;
and Thou O Lord, art more than they (Tennyson, “In Memoriam”).

Easter is the occasion for us to assert of God that God is “more than they,” more than our treasured systems, more than our past certitudes and our privilege, deeply, wholly “more than they!”

We now live amid immense “loss” for some. Our pervasive system of white male domination and all that follows from that is being lost. While some will surely rejoice at that, there are a surprising number in the church who feel that loss acutely. The loss, however, is a run-up to God’s newness that is beyond our capacity. For that reason, the church meets to recite the promises of God. God’s promises, counter to our feeble capacity for newness, surprise us with newness we do not conjure or evoke, because this is the God who:

Is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

The church has two principle tasks in our time, I propose: practice grief in the face of denial by truth-telling; practice hope in the face of despair by promise-telling.

Both of these practices that are respectively grounded in the crucifixion and the resurrection counter the dominant narrative of scarcity, fear, greed, and violence. They counter frontally by the performance of abundance, courage, generosity, and peaceableness:

Abundance in the face of scarcity;

Courage in the face of fear;

Generosity in the face of greed, and

Peaceableness in the face of violence.

This is an urgent time to help church folk see clearly the contradiction between our narrative of faith and the narrative that dominates our society. We are a community that for good reason,

...Resists denial and tells the truth,

...Refuses despair and tells the hope.

The interpreter may find rich grist for this work in the Old Testament. In the memory of Israel...

...The moment of loss is the displacement of exile. Hananiah, judged to be “false,” is the voice of denial, incapable of recognizing the exile to be serious (Jeremiah 28:2, 11). He is countered by the truth-telling of Jeremiah (v. 14)!

...The moment of hope is the time of restoration and homecoming. Despair is palpable in the community of the displaced: ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’ (Ezekiel 37:11).

That despair is countered by the hope-telling of Ezekiel! (vv. 12-14).

Israel knows about both crucifixion and resurrection (See Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life, and with Kevin J. Madigan, Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews). Israel knows about denial and despair; it resists denial, and it refuses despair. Its resistance and refusal are made possible by telling a different story and performing a different practice. It is a resistance and a refusal that are performed and practiced in actual liturgical insistence (on which see Michael Fishbane. Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology). Thus honest grief and buoyant hope (as alternative to denial and despair) come to full voice in Israel’s laments and doxologies.

It is crucial that the counter-narrative of Friday honesty about loss and Sunday joy at possibility not only be “thought” and “believed,” but that it be performed in actual, bodily, concrete ways.

There are many ways for this to take place, but at the center of such performance of the counter-narrative of faith is liturgical practice. At the center of that liturgical practice, moreover, is the Book of Psalms that can readily be divided into the Psalms of lament, protest, and complaint and the Psalms of praise, thanks, and hope.

The Psalms of lament, protest, and complaint are indeed Friday Psalms wherein Israel — and eventually all of the faithful — voice their honest loss to God. These Psalms are indeed laments as they describe in tones discouragement and abandonment many situations in which the blessings of life are experienced as remote or absent.

They are not, however, voices of resignation precisely because in addition to complaint that spells out the loss, they are Psalms of protest in which the speaker insists that the present circumstance is unacceptable. The speaker hopes for, asks for, and fully expects a response from God that will effectively alter present reality. At the center of these Friday articulations are vigorous, demanding imperatives in which the speaker boldly insists to God that the speaker has legitimate expectations to which God must respond. We can find these imperatives everywhere in these poems:

Rise up, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God (Psalm 3:7)!

Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
… Be gracious to me and hear my prayer (Psalm 4:1).

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror (Psalm 6:2).

Give ear to my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my supplication.
Attend to me, and answer me (Psalm 55:1-2).

Such vigorous imperatives on the lips of the faithful are, of course, unfamiliar to most Christian worshipers because our worship tends to be excessively reverential and deferential. There is no such deference here. Indeed we can notice that there is a provisional role reversal in these Psalms whereby the speaker takes on the role of the pace setter for the exchange. These Psalms do not hesitate to speak out loud, an insistence that God create new social possibility. We may notice, for example, in Psalm 86 that the speaker prays back to God God’s own claim of fidelity and insists that God must measure up to that claim:

But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me, and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving girl.
Show me a sign of your favor (Psalm 86:15-17; see Exodus 34:6-7).

The Psalms of praise, thanks, and hope, conversely, are Sunday Psalms that celebrate the new life that God gives. At the center of this trust in the restorative power of God is the deep rootage of the covenant tradition. Israel — and we who follow — count on and trust in God’s sovereign fidelity that persists in every circumstance:

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103:8-10; see Exodus 34:6-7).

Israel does not doubt the capacity of God to move life beyond present unbearable circumstance; for that reason it praises and commends God in remembrance and in anticipation.

In these Psalms there is no longer any assertion of “me” or “my”; now the accent is turned away from the speaker to the wonder and transformative reality of God: “you,” “Thou.” This is the one who is the agent of active verbs of restoration, healing, and newness. In these Psalms there is trust in and yielding to the wonder and goodness of God. The extreme expression of this yielding to God is the final Psalm 150:

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him for according to his surpassing greatness!

Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breaths praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!

One can imagine the singing, dancing, and gladness as the community of faith in God moves beyond self and dire circumstance so that it may be lost in “wonder, love, and praise.” In this act of glad self-abandonment, the community eschews despair; it refuses to give in to present circumstance and does not doubt the capacity and readiness of God for otherwise. This is indeed a stubborn, insistent refusal of despair.

The Friday Psalms of lament, protest, and complaint resist denial. The Sunday Psalms of thanks and hope for new life refuse despair.

If a Christian congregation is to engage in glad, risky, missional work, then it must be unfrozen from our habitual denial and despair that are the currency of our dominant narrative. The Psalms are a vehicle for such an indispensable thaw. (When we fully appreciate such performance with the Psalms, then we may notice that there are many other songs and poems that echo and reiterate the claims of the Psalter.)

A practical caveat: It is unmistakable that the Friday part of this dialectic is the hard part for most pastors and for most congregations. We most want to rush to the Sunday part. This is evident in the practical refusal to engage the Friday Psalms as in their absence in the sequence of the lectionary. This is evident, moreover, in the way in which most congregations slip past Good Friday with as little notice as possible in an eagerness for the exuberance of Easter.

But the Sunday part, without the Friday part, ends in triumphalism and illusion. It is a resurrection before which there has been no crucifixion.

There can be no resurrection if there is no crucifixion. There is no genuine praise if there has been no honest lament, protest, and complaint. The church and its pastors have resources for a faithful engagement with the time, place, and circumstance where God has placed us. But it will require intentional resolve to allow Friday its due in the process. There is little point, in my judgment, in the church simply echoing the pious clichés of the dominant narrative of our society.

Our work — and our wonder — is to do otherwise. It is my urging that pastors and congregations may undertake this unfamiliar work that boldly resists denial and with equal boldness refuses despair.


Walter Brueggemann

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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