Walter Brueggemann: An Unwelcome Read of History

We lose so much by our liturgic impatience. We cannot wait, or pause, or sit still long enough.

As result we never to get to say or sing or hear such a marvelous poem as Psalm 105. We get only selected snippets; it is like memorizing the roster of U.S. presidents, but omitting eight of them “because there are so many of them.”

The forty-five verses of Psalm 105, with a powerful cumulative effect, is a long recital of the glorious transformative deeds of YHWH that offer a review of the entire sweep of Israel’s “canonical” memory. According to this memory, the long journey from Abraham (v. 9) to the land of promise (v. 44) is all accomplished by the compelling power of YHWH, thus a poetic rendition of the Bible from Genesis through the Book of Joshua. In our impatience we miss that grand narrative of God’s goodness.

We also miss, at the same time and for the same reason, the long historical recital of Psalm 106 that continues for forty-eight verses. This one we might prefer to miss, because it is a recital of the long-running infidelity of Israel, and Israel’s inability and refusal to receive life from the good hand of YHWH. It is a history of sin. The high points of this confessional history of failure include the flowing:

In response to the miracle of the Exodus, Israel confesses:

Both we and our ancestors have sinned;
we have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly;
Our ancestors, when they were in Egypt,
did consider your wonderful works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea (vv. 6-7).

This is followed by the pivotal “yet” of YHWH who saved Israel in spite of Israel’s rebellious response.

It is not different in the wilderness sojourn when God provided manna:

But they soon forgot his works;
they did not wait for his counsel.
But they had a wonton craving in the wilderness,
and put God to the test in the desert,
…They were jealous of Moses in the camp,
and of Aaron, the holy one of the Lord (vv. 13-14, 16).

This refusal had a disastrous result, a consequence of rejecting the goodness of God (vv. 15, 17-18).

Promptly after the covenant at Sinai, Israel could not tolerate the absence of God, and so had to invent an Ersatz god for itself … a calf:

They made a calf a Horeb
and worshiped a cast image.
They exchanged the glory of God
for an image of an ox that eats grass.
They forgot God, their Savior,
who had done great things in Egypt (vv. 19-21).

Even when they entered the land of promise, they did not credit the gift of the land to YHWH, but attached themselves to a Baal:

Then they despised the pleasant land,
having no faith in his promise …
Then they attached themselves to the Baal of Peor,
and ate sacrifices to the dead (vv. 24, 28).

They entered into transactions with other peoples and so perverted their holy destiny:

They did not destroy the peoples,
as the Lord commanded them,
but they mingled with the nations,
and learned to do as they did.
They served their idols (vv. 34-36).

It is no wonder that the Psalm ends with an urgent petition for rescue, apparently from a place of exile:

Save us, Lord our God,
and gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise (v. 47).

This is indeed a sad tale; we in our liturgical impatience are not likely ever to be exposed to it.

When we consider the juxtaposition of Psalms 105 and 106 in the Bible, we can see that 106 follows 105 as something of a “truth squad” and that corrects the uninterrupted celebration of 105. Psalm 106 insists that the “under side” of historical reality must be preserved and presented in the memory and worship of Israel.

What we have then is a wondrous “canonical” recital and an honest corrective that will not let the doxological wonder go unchallenged. Both Psalms are better read (and heard) if taken together. When we read or sing them together, we must endlessly negotiate between the wonder-telling and the truth-telling that together constitute the treasured narrative memory of Israel that marks it as a peculiar people.

I had this thought about these two Psalms when I heard about the “1776 Commission.”

The president has initiated a study to advance what he calls “citizen education.” I believe his notion of citizen education is that it should inculcate our young into the narrative of white male capitalism. Thus the commission proposes to create a U.S. version of Psalm 105 that is filled with uninterrupted celebration of the wonders of white America. His new Psalm that would be his core curriculum might affirm:

...That the founders (all slave-owners except for Adams!) were men of immense nobility;

...That the settlement of the new land by white Europeans was an exercise of the “white man’s burden,” an enactment of the church’s ancient “Doctrine of Discovery” that was a warrant for seizure of the new world;

...That U.S. foreign policy is at best noble and at least innocent;

...That U.S. expansionism has been an extension of the rightful superiority of white people and that aggressive trade has brought prosperity to the benighted peoples of the earth.

We might go so far as to imagine that this ode to control might conclude with an echo of the Psalm:

So he brought his people out with joy,
his chosen ones with singing.
He gave them the lands of the nations,
and they took possession of the wealth of the peoples (vv. 43-44).

We might even imagine that verse 45, with its “statutes and laws,” could be made to refer to the protocols of white superiority that must be kept in place and honored.

It follows of course that the in president’s new curriculum there will be no U.S. version of Psalm 106, no truth-telling that counters the “nice” story written by the winners. This means we may have education:

...That excludes any account of the genocide of Native Americans in an eager confiscation of their lands, a notable achievement of Andrew Jackson.

...That denies any recognition of slavery and the 3/5 of personhood for slaves written into the Constitution. At best that “peculiar institution” can be skipped over; at worst it can be mentioned through misleading euphemisms that cover the systemic brutality that is the basis of U.S. wealth.

...That is silent about the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that resolutely set restrictive quotas in order to limit immigration from Asia;

...That glosses over the fearful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a threat to white nationalism;

...That denies (or justifies) U.S. practices of torture, most recently in Abu Ghraib but before that water boarding of Filipinos in 1901 (see James Bradley, The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War).

...That refuses to acknowledge (or alternatively to glorify) that the United States is the only nation to have dropped an atomic bomb on civilian populations … or anywhere else.

The US version of Psalm 106, still to be constructed, (though anticipated by Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States), is a tale of savage totalism in the service of white privilege and superiority.

The supporters and corroborators of white supremacy don’t want that story known or told.

Thus they propose a rewriting of Psalm 105 as normative and canonical, to the exclusion of any whisper of Psalm 106. But of course such a false narrative requires great energy and can only be sustained for so long.

Among others it falls to the church to be a truth-teller about U.S. history. Ever since Jesus embodied truth in the face of the Roman governor (John 18:38), it is the DNA of the church to tell the truth. From that, moreover, it follows that the church must also be constructing our own “Psalm 106” about the church’s past.

That truth-telling narrative would not only bear witness to the Crusades and the Inquisition, but more recent collusions with state-sanctioned brutality.

The church must tell its own past so that we may be mindful of the shame-filled ways in which the church (and its leaders) has much too often conformed to the dominant ideology of culture and state.

We may be amazed by and grateful for the fact that Israel’s canonical hymnal (the book of Psalms) includes both Psalms 105 and 106. Psalm 105 is important because it attests that the gracious providential role of God has indeed been operative in every part of the history of Israel and by inference in every part of the history of the United States and the history of the church.

That affirmation, however, does not negate the need for the truth-telling corrections of Psalm 106 when we are tempted to tell our past only “from above.” The truth most often arises “from below” which, of course, is why Pilate could not recognize it when it stood before him. We might do our interpretive work on these Psalms through the demanding poetry of James Russell Lowell that he wrote with reference to the Mexican-American War:

Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet the truth alone is strong;
though her portion be the scaffold,
and upon the throne be wrong;
yet that scaffold sways the future,
and behind the dim unknown,
standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above his own (“Once to Every Man and Nation”).

In the end, the illusions of a false past will be broken by truth-telling. Our society is now at a moment for such truth-telling. That work will not be denied by anyone, including the president or the supremacists he refuses to condemn. Patience is required for our liturgical recital in order to hear what Paul Harvey might have called, “The Rest of the Story.”


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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