Walter Brueggemann: Refusing Erasure

In my recent exposition of Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem, I noted that they went there to be “registered” (Luke 2:1-5). They were “written down” by the Roman Empire for purposes of taxation; we know, moreover, that the empire never forgets the name of a single taxpayer.

Now in what follows here, I pursue a counter-theme, namely that the empire readily erases the names of persons it finds “unqualified,” unwelcome, or simply inconvenient for the purposes of empire. The dominant culture has many strategies for accomplishing “good riddance” that run from neglect and abandonment, to economic dismissal, to incarceration or deportation, or to even more brutal measures of disappearance and erasure.

It is chilling indeed that “disappear” has become a transitive verb, so that we can say that the regime “disappeared” someone. While Mary and Joseph were written down by the empire forever, many young children were brutally “disappeared” by Herod, leaving only mother Rachel to grieve them (Matthew 2:16-18).

While I was aware of this practice by brutalizing regimes, I have become more fully and acutely aware of it by reading What You have heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché. Forché is a U.S. poet who was invited (recruited!) by Leonel Gomez to come to El Salvador to observe and learn of the political brutality of his country.

Gomez was an elusive but effective activist for justice and peace, and was one of the brokers of the peace agreement in El Salvador in 1992 that put political society on a new democratic footing. Forché accepted his invitation and spent extended periods with Gomez, amid daily danger, as she experienced his society permeated with violence and the threat of violence. She has written of her experience, one of the most important and most searing books I have read. I commend it to you.

Forché experienced the competing brutalities of the government and a number of left-wing guerrilla groups who were unrestrained in their capacity to cause suffering, torture and disappearance. She also observed the pervasive fear in which people lived, how secrecy had to be practiced, and how those under threat were required to move constantly to another safe place while no one was ever fully safe.

Forché writes of the “disappeared”:

All that day we went places together — to the empty gray cathedral without pews, flocks of doves flying the clerestory; to the human rights office, with its red-and-gray-tiled floor, folding chairs and blue walls, where she [Margarita] showed me photograph albums, one with daisies on the cover, where the photos of the desaparecidos were mounted on sticky pages covered with plastic. Most of the photographs of the desaparecidos had been taken at school or on some occasion, such as completion of nurses’ training, a quinceanera birthday party, or dinner in celebration of a betrothal. Therefore, most of the photos were of young people, even if, at the time they disappeared, some were no longer young. (133)

The brutality served not only to erase those who might threaten power, but also to intimidate those who might undertake resistance.

The wonder of her report is that there was a considerable sustained and courageous resistance movement, even in the face of such acute danger.

I read this book over Christmas week, a gift from my son. It happens that in my church, Central United Methodist Church, on the Sunday after Christmas we remember by name those who have died in our town in the last year because of a lack of adequate housing.

My church, led by the indefatigable pastor Jane Lippert, maintains (along with others in our community) a vigorous ministry of care, food, and shelter for those without adequate housing. But of course even given such good attentiveness, some of those exposed to these severe Michigan winters will die. Thus, on Dec. 27, the last Sunday of the year, we once again remembered in church by name 13 such persons who died in the last year for lack of adequate housing.

13 may not seem like a big number. But it is a number that measures the neglect of our community and the lack of an adequate public care system. The 13 persons and their names will not be remembered very long. They are readily “disappeared” by a wealthy economy that lacks the political will to provide a caring humane infrastructure for all the neighbors. “Homelessness” is caused by a lack of housing. Of course I do not equate that uncaring violence in our town with the cynical brutality of El Salvador. But they are of a piece. Both rosters of the dead, those remembered in El Salvador and those remembered in Traverse City together point to a violent society in which violence becomes so commonplace as to be unnoticed.

The counter-community of the church (along with its allies) has as a part of its work the refusal of such erasure, resisting the nullification of human persons.

Thus, our remembering is a vigorous political activity. In my church we paused to remember, even if not in any durable way, assured that at least Pastor Jane knew these well-beloved persons.

Forché reports more daring efforts at remembering in El Salvador:

In the human rights office, these albums and some other folders were stacked high on a table. There was a telephone, and a fan turning side to side. People came and went, mostly older women. Some appeared desperate and anxious, clutching photos and scraps of paper, while others stared listlessly, waiting for some news. I turned the plastic pages, and it was like looking through a school yearbook of those most likely never to be seen again. I wrote as many names as I could in my notebook, not knowing yet what I would do with them. No one stopped me from copying these names down. A woman even crossed the room to bring me another album from the table, nodding as she pressed it into my hands. (133)

Toward the end of her book Forché returns to the practice of remembering:

When a body was found that matched, it would be placed in a coffin, sometimes with a window cut over the face so that the mourners could see that yes, this was indeed that brother or friend, and the coffin would be taken to the altar for Sunday Mass, where Monsenor Romero welcomed them, and recited their names into microphones, so the names would be heard throughout the basilica or the cathedral, and also on the radio and in the streets. It didn’t matter how many names. He called out all of them. (365)

It strikes me that this defiant act of calling out each name was not unlike our liturgical practice at Central Church, only much more immediately dangerous. In both cases, the act was an act of resistance and defiance. In both cases it was an act to refuse erasure.

In El Salvador, it was resistance and defiance of great brutality. In Traverse City it was resistance and defiance against uncaring neglect. In both cases it was an act that mattered; in both cases, however, it was an act that did not change anything. Even after such remembering, the dead are indeed disappeared.

But then I remembered one other matter. In the later biblical tradition, with the emergence of apocalyptic imagery, there was a shift from utterance to document, from oral practice to written evidence. The great apocalyptic seers were authors and sponsors of written witnesses.

In the orbit of such documentary thinking (real or imagined), the biblical tradition develops the imagery of a written “Book of Life” that is secure beyond all historical vagaries. This “Book of Life” contains the mysteries and secrets that are most closely held by the holy God of heaven and earth. This includes the decisions made by the holy one concerning the shape and outcome of the future. Once that imagery is developed, moreover, appeal can be made to it after the exhaustion and failure of all penultimate assurances.

An entry point into this remarkable imagery is found in Luke 10:20. The 70 disciples return from their mission with exuberant success:

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” (vv. 17-19)

Jesus confirms their great success and their joy. But then he turns their attention away from their “success” to a much more elemental affirmation:

“Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are *written in heaven*.” (v. 20)

The joy of the disciples is misplaced if it is because of their “success.” Rather, their joy should be found in the assurance that their names are recorded in the script of God. This rhetoric imagines a great ledger kept beyond human writing. In that record are the names of faithful who will, in all times to come and beyond all time, be remembered and cherished “in heaven.” They are entered because of their faithfulness to the gospel.

We may notice other appeals to this same imagery. In the book of Daniel, there will be deliverance for the wise and the righteous:

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since the nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found *written in the book*. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to the shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end.” (Daniel 12:1-4)

“Anguish” makes reference to the hard time of Antiochus IV who assaulted the Jews for their Jewishness. In Malachi, the urgency is a bit more extended and concerns the fear of the Lord:

Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord took note and listened, and a *book of remembrance was written** before him of those who revered the Lord and thought of his name. They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them. Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and one who does not serve him.* (Malachi 3:16-18)

The prophet uses the phrase “special possession,” (sglh), an appeal to the older tradition for the special status of Israel (see Exodus 19:5, Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, 26:18). Only now the term refers to those who “revered the lord,” who practiced risky righteousness, and who have been written down. The imagery is reiterated in the New Testament in the promissory vision of the book of Revelation:

If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your names out of *the book of life*; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. (Revelation 3:5; see 13:8)

In all of these uses, the ones whose names are recorded in the Book of Life are those who have remained faithful in demanding circumstance. In the book of Daniel, the demand concerned those who were faithful under Antiochus. In the book of Malachi, it is those who remained faithful amid cultural accommodation. And in the book of Revelation, it is those who withstood the threats and dangers of the Roman Empire.

And, of course, we notice a word of negation toward all those who do not have their names written in the Book of Life. They, like Antiochus and the Roman rulers, might be written down in monuments, plaques, and mausoleums; they are not, however, written in the Book of Life, and they will not be remembered very long at all. We may readily imagine that in El Salvador the names written in the Book of Life are those who have withstood the pressures of brutality and death and have kept a vision and practice of humanity. And even in Traverse City, we may wonder about ourselves, who will be written down in the Book of Life, and who will not.

The names written in the Book of Life are beyond the reach of our historical control. We do not write the entries into the Book. We may imagine, nonetheless, that the recitals of the names by Archbishop Oscar Romero and by Pastor Jane Lippert constitute reliable, significant human echoes of the heavenly book.

The Book of Life refuses to accept the “disappearance” and the erasure caused by either brutality or neglect.

Human pride and illusion can imagine who will be long remembered for their power and wealth. But such fantasy has no reliable durability. By contrast, the Book of Life, inscribed beyond us at the throne of good mercy, makes a different kind of record.

It seems, as I write this in Traverse City, a long leap from The Book of Life to policy and practice in my town. But of course those whose names are written down are the ones who know how matters are reckoned. They know that readiness to combat disappearance and refusal to erase is daily work in the neighborhood.

The book is being written on its next pages even as we breathe.

Recitals of the names by Oscar and Jane attest an alternative to the name established by power and wealth or by cozy award systems. Shift the imagery for a final moment. The good shepherd knows the name of every sheep. Equally amazing is the claim that the sheep know the shepherd (John 10:11-18). The sheep are remembered and cherished long after the “wild beasts” have been forgotten and erased.


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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