Walter Brueggemann: Speak Truth; Do Justice

For no reason beyond my curiosity I recently read a biography of John Charles McQuaid (John Cooney, John Charles McQuaid; Ruler of Catholic Ireland (Syracuse University Press). McQuaid was the long-running Catholic archbishop of Dublin in the mid-twentieth century, before, during, and after Vatican II. With a strong authoritarian propensity, McQuaid took as his work the creation, maintenance, and protection of Ireland as a pure Catholic country. In order to accomplish this ambitious task, he sought to purge the public life of Ireland of all other influences, secular, modern, or Protestant. In his ruthlessness he was singularly adept at shaping public policy in which he frequently equated his own whim or inclination with the will of God. He regularly invoked the punishment and wrath of God on whatever behavior he disapproved. He was especially eager to protect his faith community (that he identified with civic society) from bad influences concerning sexuality. He was particularly attentive to the protection and wellbeing of the young boys in this regard. He played up to Rome in the most direct way in the hope of being made a Cardinal, but he never was so appointed.

The single page in Cooney’s book that most struck me was the list of books banned by the Catholic hierarchy of Ireland, a banning vigorously urged by McQuaid. According to Cooney, the list of banned books included the following:

James Joyce, Sean O’Casey Sigmund Freud, Maxim Gorky, Thomas Mann, Alberto Moravia, Graham Greene, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O. Faolain, Frank O’Conner, Liam O’Flaherty, Kate O’Brien, Oliver St. John Gogarty, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Noel Coward, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Compton MacKenzie, Sinclair Lewis, W. Somerset Maughan , Ernest Hemingway, Taylor Caldwell, Upton Sinclair, Truman Capote, Henry Morton Robinson, Robert Penn Warren, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Margaret Mead, Martha Gellhorn, John Dos Passos, Joyce Carey, Marcel Proust, Anatole France, Jean Paul Sartre, Andre Gide, and Simone de Beauvoir (p. 242).

The list seems more or less random, until it is recognized that all of these books, in various idioms, open up a world of daring imagination of a modern secular kind to which the scholastic hierarchy in Ireland was strongly opposed. The bishops obviously thought that the banning of books would preclude the invasion of new ideas into the cultural landscape of Ireland. And for a season, as long as their stern authority prevailed, the banning was effective…for a season! The bishops hoped to eliminate any interpretive venue that did not conform to and enforce their narrow articulation of reality permitted by their rigid scholastic faith.

Reading this page on the banning of books called to my mind one of the most dramatic encounters in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 36 it is reported that the prophet, Jeremiah, dictated a scroll to his scribe, Baruch. That dictation, it is presumed, became the substance of our Book of Jeremiah. Because the prophet himself was persona non grata to the king and so banned from the temple, he dispatched Baruch to read the scroll in the temple (vv. 8-10). [Note, this is the same word, “banned”!] When the leadership of the king’s cabinet heard the words of the scroll, they questioned Baruch and he read the scroll to them. The scroll, evidently, laid out the waywardness of royal Israel that took the form of greedy exploitation against the vulnerable poor. The scroll, moreover, indicated that such policies and practices were sure to bring upon Israel the sanctions of the ancient covenant of Sinai. It is no great wonder that the leadership was alarmed at such a prospect, and reported the matter to King Jehoiakim. 

When the scroll was read aloud to King Jehoiakim, he very ostentatiously cut the scroll [shredding!], and tossed it into the fire place. The king clearly assumed that if he disposed of the scroll, he would at the same time dispose of the social analysis and sanctions voiced in the scroll by burning the prophetic words. He assumed that burning the prophetic scroll would protect his realm from the hard, uncompromising truth of the prophet. Just to be on the safe side, the king organized a posse to seek out and arrest Jeremiah and Baruch. The text reports, laconically, “The Lord hid them” (v. 26). We are not told the means of such hiding, but we may imagine that some of the royal leadership recognized the legitimacy of the prophetic words, and so intervened to protect them (see 26:24). It strikes one that the work of archbishop in banning the books and the work of the king in burning the scroll serve the same purpose. In both cases, the intent is to protect and maintain the status quo by silencing voices that threaten the status quo and to deny the categories of interpretation that disrupt the absolutism of present arrangements. Thus the banning and the burning are designed to maintain status quo without interference, and so to protect a social arrangement of privilege and advantage, even if that privilege and advantage are based on a misconstrual of social reality.

The banning by the archbishop and the burning by the king have been on my mind as we have heard reports of local governments and school boards banning the teaching of “Critical Race Theory.” Those who fear and resist “Critical Race Theory” have taken the phrase and reified it into an ominous identifiable principle as a threat to the status quo. In fact the phrase “Critical Race Theory” is simply an ordered, disciplined way of studying the way in which racism and white supremacy have prevailed in and dominated US history. It is nothing more (or less) than the recovery of our national history that has been infused with racism. Thus while some can declare the advocates of “Critical Race Theory” want to teach our children to “hate America,” in truth they simply want our children to learn our past and to accept responsibility as heirs of that unhappy past.

The prohibition (banning, burning!) of the teaching of Critical Race Theory is not unlike the banning of books and the burning of the scroll. It is an effort to maintain a status quo social arrangement of advantage, privilege, and domination; that maintenance requires a continuing, intentional ignorance of our real history.  But what we learn, repeatedly, is that such banning, burning, and prohibition finally will not work. It will not work because the truth will out, even if it is sorry truth. Thus the banning of books in Ireland could last only as long as the Catholic bishops could maintain their out-of-size authority that was bound to be overthrown by the emancipating workings of the historical process. Thus while Jeremiah and Baruch were, for a time, slowed in their testimony, Jeremiah 36 in the end reports that Jeremiah redictated the scroll, and Baruch rewrote the scroll, and so we have the book of Jeremiah. The narrative ends, moreover, with the teasing terse conclusion, “Many similar words were added” (v. 32). The books finally could not be banned in Ireland. The scroll would not stay burned in Jerusalem. Indeed in II Kings 22:11-13), in what many interpreters think is designed as a counterpoint to Jeremiah 36, King Josiah, the good king who was father of Jehoiakim, received the scroll found in the temple, responds to its summons, and acts on its imperative. In the end, it is certain that the forces of denial and resistance will not stop the fresh telling of the racist past of our society. Such refusal and resistance will not silence the retelling of our past, because there are many insistent advocates who will not be silenced. More than that, the resistance cannot prevail, because truth will out in a world where the God of all truth presides. Soon or late, we will come to an awareness that the honest facing of our racist history is the only means whereby we can move beyond the fear that yields denial, the fear that produces anger and eventually violence. The cover-up cannot succeed here anymore than it could Dublin or in Jerusalem.

  We have everywhere in my town a sprinkling of the same yard sign. That sign says, simply, “Speak truth, do justice.” The sign appears in odd and unexpected places, because here and there folk know what is required. The sign compellingly confirms that “truth” and “justice” go together; if there is no truth-telling, there will be no justice. Thus the archbishop sought to repress the truth, and that led to deep practices of injustice. Thus the king refused the truth of the scroll, and that was alongside the practice of exploitative injustice. Thus it is reported in Jeremiah 22:13-14 that the king used unfair labor practice and prospered on cheap labor. In our own society when we do not tell the truth of our long vexed history of racism, we are sure to let the claims and practices of white supremacy go unnoticed and unchecked. Thus truth-telling must resist book banning and scroll burning. Even now, in our moment of truth-telling, the state of Texas has provided that no book can be used in school that may evoke “discomfort, guilt, or anguish.” In the state of Pennsylvania, students have in some places rejected the practice of using only books that attest white privilege. And this just in from the New York Times, February 17, 2022: Marcus Dohle, the CEO of Penguin Random House has donated $500,000 to PEN, a writers group that resists book banning and that promotes freedom of publication. Dohle reported that his action was in a concern to protect freed speech that is essential in a democracy.

It is certain that speaking truth is as urgent as doing justice for the church. Thus it is my quite practical thought that in venues where teaching ”Critical Race Theory” is banned, that the church may have an obligation to engage in just such teaching in order to overcome such aggressive denial. Just as the scroll of Jeremiah had “many similar words added,” so our work is to add many similar words that may contribute to our “discomfort, guilt, and anguish,” but is a sine qua non to our emancipation and to the wellbeing of our democracy. We might better respond to the painful truth telling of books in the way that father Josiah did, unlike his son, Jehoiakim:

Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it as well with him. 
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
Then it was well.
Is not this to know me? Says the Lord (Jeremiah 22:15-16). 

Josiah knew that such truth-telling alongside justice-doing is the prerequisite of wellbeing. It is so in Dublin, in Jerusalem and among us. It will not and cannot be otherwise.


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

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