Suffering Produces Hope
by Walter Brueggemann
(The following is an edited text of a paper presented in Baltimore, MD on April 2, 1998, on the occasion of the Dr. A. Vanlier Hunter, Jr. Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.)
It is odd that folks should meet together in Baltimore on a Thursday night in April to reflect upon hope, especially since we in the United States seem already to have everything, and need hope for nothing more. And yet, it is not odd that Jews and Christians should meet together--on any occasion--to think about hope, because Jews are the most elemental hopers in the world, and, in decisive ways, Christians have learned about hope from Jews. And so, we Christians hope with Jews. When Jews and Christians hope together, moreover, we express our shared oddity, for we hope, characteristically, in a context that is either satiated and indulgent, or in despair and incapable of hope. Either way, hope is a distinctive act that belongs to us together.
I The Context of LossIt is correct to say that the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. at the hands of the Babylonians, and the exile that followed, are the defining realities for ancient Israel in the Hebrew Bible. There surely were people in Jerusalem who never departed, but in the liturgical and imaginative life of emerging Judaism, the loss of home, the displacement that followed, and the apparent loss of God, were the defining realities--for that generation, and for all generations to come.
The text shows, in many places, that coming to terms with the loss of Jerusalem was the overriding intellectual and religious agenda of ancient Israel. Indeed, coming to terms with that loss has continued to be an overriding Jewish agenda, even until our own time. Ancient Israel "came to terms" with these losses as it did with all loss: by its capacity to tell the truth about itself--to claim the loss, and to express publicly and repeatedly all the hurt, the grief, the rage, the doubt, and the bewilderment of what it means to have the focal center of life and the engine of faith taken away. With the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., Judaism became a people displaced from its center and true home.
In a very different way, and yet strangely parallel, Christians are
defined by the huge, massive loss of that dread Friday we call "good."
As Israel had invested the city of Jerusalem as its center of possibility,
so Christians, for reasons we ourselves do not fully understand, invested
the person of Jesus with the same cruciality. Jesus became for Christians
the peculiar carrier of God's promises in the world in a way similar to
the way Jerusalem had become for Jews the embodiment of God's possibilities
in the world. Early Christians were compelled by Jesus, and they struggled
about how to speak of him. They called him many names out of their Jewish
repertoire, among them "Messiah/Christ," by which they meant to say that
Jesus was a human agent who carried and implemented God's dreams for the
world. As Jerusalem signified possibilities for peace, justice, freedom,
and security in a Jewish world, so Jesus was seen from the start by Christians
as a revolutionary force for transformation in the world.
Among exiled Jews the end of Jerusalem unleashed huge visions of disorder, for Jerusalem had been the power of order that held the threat of chaos and disorder at bay. And so, in exile, they sang of their beloved city:
Now it is important, as we meet together, that Christians understand better than we do why the loss and recovery of Jerusalem are pivotal for Jews; and that Jews understand better why Christians can go on and on about Friday and Sunday. But I suggest that--together--we have a more important, shared agenda, more important even than our understanding each other, namely, that Jews and Christians--even together--do not live in a vacuum. Jews--with the enduring loss of Jerusalem--and Christians--with the enduring death of Jesus--live in a culture that is now defined by loss, and, therefore, I propose that our peculiar and shared traditions of loss are a huge resource for faith and life in our time.
The loss, now among us, that touches everything public and personal for everyone, conservative and liberal alike, includes:
Now, as then, there are some who engage in denial and nostalgia, imagining that not much is happening, that the loss is not deep, not permanent. . . except that
II The Primacy of Memory
The primary ingredient--and primary resource--of faith that is indispensable in a season of loss is active, determined, concrete, resilient memory. The loss of Jerusalem and the death of Jesus might have resulted in forgetting and abandoning. But, of course, they did not. Jews and Christians did not forget; they did not abandon. Rather, each tradition engaged in an intense and disciplined recovery of the past.
It is now believed that Judaism--in exile, and just after--engaged in a massive reconstitution of memory that led to the formation and codification of the Torah. The materials of the Torah are, of course, very, very old. But as near as we can determine, it is precisely in the sixth century that the Priestly traditions codified the holiness rules that caused Judaism to develop internal disciplines of odd fidelity. And it was the traditions of Deuteronomy, linked to Moses, that codified the rules about widows and orphans and illegal immigrants that made Judaism into a community passionate for social justice. All this, as near as we can tell, among exiles who grieved Jerusalem. And, of course, we know the deep, enraged resolve of the Psalmist:
It is in exile, or soon thereafter, that we get Psalm 136, a liturgical chant for Jews that remembers the classical story: everything from creation through Egypt and Pharaoh and the Red Sea and the good land. And all the while this dominant memory is being recited, the congregation is saying, after every half verse,
"I received from the Lord what I also hand on to you,"
which is Paul's way of retelling the established formula. This became the classic formulation of the Eucharist--the church's great festival of thanksgiving--for "he took bread, gave thanks, blessed and broke and gave." And then in this festival of suffering love, they said:
"this do in remembrance of me (I Cor 11:23-24).
Eucharist is a remembering, and since that time Christians have, in this liturgical act, recited the great deeds of God, the great miracles of creation, the ancestors of Genesis, Exodus, land, culminating in Jesus. Of Jesus, they remembered his acts of healing and forgiving and cleansing and feeding. Thus, this festival of thanksgiving and of suffering love connects the death of Jesus to an act of remembrance in which this community recalls its life saturated with goodness and mercy of miraculous proportion. For all their differences, the cadences are in harmony:
For Jews: "for his steadfast love endures forever;"
Both communities resisted forgetting. In the midst of loss, both communities remembered that life consists in powerful acts of generosity and transformation on the part of God that cannot be explained, acts of generosity and transformation that we call miracles. In the midst of loss, our two communities recited miracles as a refusal to forget.
Now I tell you this because in our society, which is in the midst of profound loss--of a world we have trusted and that is no more--we face a deep amnesia. For Jews and Christians, loss evokes memory. For the society around us, loss evokes amnesia . . . and the outcome is a society without reference, without buoyancy, and without staying power for things human.
I suppose the temptation to amnesia is broad and deep and complex among us:
It is not our business tonight to do a cultural critique of society, except to notice what a seduction and a temptation this culture of amnesia is to Jewish faith and to Christian faith. For without vivid, concrete, nameable memories of miracles, we are out of business. But, of course, the truth that our communities hold in common, but do in very different ways, is that we are indeed passionate communities of memory who experience seasons of loss as seasons of passionate memory.
The amazing thing about our communities of faith, evident in our common life, is that memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair. Ponder that: memory produces hope. We Jews and Christians are people who recall the defining memories and miracles of their lives. We hope in and trust the God who has done these past miracles, and we dare to affirm that the God who has done past acts of transformation and generosity will do future acts of transformation and generosity. By a profound, elemental, and unshakable trust, Jews affirm that the deep loss of Jerusalem did not disrupt God's power and resolve in the world. By a profound, elemental and unshakable faith, Christians affirm that the deep loss in the death of Jesus did not disrupt God's power and resolve in the world. And that is the key issue in hope. If our embrace of God's past is thin, we may imagine that God is now defeated. If our embrace of God's past is thick and palpable, we will continue to trust in that same God.
We watch while those Jews in exile took their memories and turned them to the future. Right in the middle of the poetry of the Book of Lamentations--the poetry of deep loss and sadness--the poet is ready to quit:
That same Isaiah in exile famously declares:
I want you to observe this extraordinary claim that is being made in
the face of evil, disorder, social chaos, and imperial abuse: God has not
quit; God will make it right, because God will yet do what God has always
I imagine these people deep in loss and deep in memory, gathered to listen to something like Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech. It is a dream rooted in God's own passion, a dream that tells of God's resolve to make things new, undeterred by circumstance. As you know, King's Dream speech was of things he could not explain; it was a vision that defied and overrode circumstance. People of hope are always people who so embrace the promise that they will not settle for present circumstance. So these exiled Jews--the most passionate, the most faithful--took these dreams and hopes as the truth of their life. They acted toward that future.
It is not different with the early church. The early Christians had engaged so deeply with Jesus and were so sure he was the quintessential carrier of God's goodness, that they knew Friday was not the end. The tap root of Christian hope is that they turned the old memories of Jesus toward the future. The one who had healed the sick, had forgiven the guilty, and had raised the dead would do more. As they made that turn, they arrived at Easter, the tap root of all Christian future. In the Easter event lie all the hopes of the Church. Easter is not an act of magic anymore than Jewish homecoming is an act of magic. It is, like Jews coming home, a miracle wrought in God's fidelity. Those early Christians came to know in the Easter event that God's power embodied in Jesus is still on the move in the world. Jesus is still summoning and inviting and recruiting people to subscribe to his passion for God's future in disciplined ways. As Judaism emerged in the long and unfinished process of homecoming, so the church takes its life in the Easter conviction that what was begun on that Sunday is powerfully underway as God's good resolve for the earth.
Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, studies the amazing miracle of Christian hope, and articulates a stunning calculus of the life of faith:
and hope does not disappoint us.
Hope wrought out of loss and suffering by way of memory is an appeal to God. But the world of amnesia, which is a world of denial and nostalgia, has little access to God. In this world, God does not appear to be a live or relevant player, and where God is not a player, as Dostoyevsky has seen, "everything is possible"--everything brutal, everything greedy, everything violent--because greed, brutality, and violence are the fruits of idolatry and atheism, the fruits of a world without God. Such acts and attitudes and policies are the work of those who do not remember steadfast love, compassion, and mercy. It is the work of those who seek to have their future on their own terms. And so we Jews and we Christians, in a society of atheism and idolatry, are always again deciding about God's future among us.
On the one hand, hope for Jews in exile was focused upon the recovery of Jerusalem and the rehabilitation of Jews in the homeland. The text is saturated with that hope, and of course, that preoccupation, so deep in the text, clearly is at work in the politics of the state of Israel and a variety of Zionist claims. It could hardly be otherwise, then or now, given the long story of brutality. So Jews in exile imagined and hoped for and counted upon a recovery of the land and the city, perhaps as a gift of Cyrus, the Persian, and a lot of human courage and cunning and initiative.
The amazing thing is that in the midst of such justifiable preoccupation with self and community, these same lyrical dreams are not narrowly for the community. There is a spill-over beyond the community, because in the end, this is God's future and not the future of the Jews. And so, for example, the book of Isaiah is framed in chapter 2 with a vision of all nations coming to Jerusalem for Torah that will make peace possible:
Chapter 2 of Isaiah is matched by chapter 65, at the end of the book, about a new Jerusalem, a new heaven, and a new earth that exult in the new rule of God that touches everyone, everywhere, from Jerusalem on out. No doubt the urgent issue of our hope is to adjudicate promises for us and promises beyond us.
On the other hand, Christian hope, too, was hope for the world. Except that these earliest Christians, who had risked a great deal by being seen in public with Jesus, were concerned for themselves. You can see in the gospel narratives that while they were making large, loud claims for the risen Jesus, they were also creating narratives by which to gain power in the early movement. We can see that Peter is the dominant engine of the future in the early church. While he is remembered as having denied Jesus at the trial, claiming not to know him, there is competition in the narrative to claim who got to the Easter tomb first, and at the end of John (21:15-19), Peter is treated to special address as the coming dominant power in the church. And so the special celebration of Peter in Matt. 16:18 is much prized by Christians--Protestants and Catholics alike:
I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matt 16:18-19).
Now my reason for dwelling on this is that the concern for the control of the future life of the church seems to me parallel to the Jewish preoccupation with Jerusalem for Jews. And in the Christian tradition as well, while there is much that is turned in on the church, there is also a reach beyond the church to the world, insisting that the Gospel carried in Jesus of Nazareth is not for Christian preeminence or domination in the world, but rather it is affirmed that in Jesus of Nazareth, God's good governance of all creation has begun in a fresh way. And so in Christian faith, there is an endless juggling act of Christian hope to adjudicate promises for us and promises beyond us.
I do not suggest that the cases are parallel, but I do suggest that for these two communities of hope, the same tough issue is present in both, although in very different forms. As we become anxious, the tendency is to focus on the promise to us, when in precisely those times, it is the promise beyond us that matters most.
In both Jewish and Christian faith, because these communities of hope are concrete, identifiable, institutional entities, there is an easy readiness to draw the hopes of God toward us--toward Jews, toward Christians--because of our awareness of the fragility of our historic communities. But this readiness lives in tension with another awareness. Because our shared and common hope is in God, it is clear that these hopes cannot be fully packaged in and filtered through us, but reach to the world in practices of hesed, raham, and 'amunah in ways not managed by us or by our communities.
But, of course, there is more. There is more because these expectations have not worked out so well. Jerusalem was not--on anybody's schedule--recovered in that ancient world: a huge and definitional disappointment. And so, in the emerging work of Rabbinic Judaism, there was a hope that pushed beyond the prophetic, beyond the messianic, beyond human hope, into another realm of discourse and into another realm of expectation. That hope is called apocalyptic: a theology and a literature of a cosmic clash between forces of good and forces of evil who fight desperately for the control of the future. In this great cosmic conflict, the community of Jewish faith is not a participant, but only a bystander who awaits the outcome with confidence. Apocalyptic literature of the period is "serious literature" that assures the faithful that they may be confident, because while the struggle is deep and violent, the outcome is sure, and the faithful need only trust and be at peace. The rhetoric of this faith is enormously imaginative, voicing images and symbols that are outside the normal scope of human discourse and imagination, the kinds of images, symbols, and phrases needed to talk about a conflict that is out beyond us: out of reach, out of access, out of control.
It is important to recognize that this literature, for all its very peculiar character, is a theological act of hope. It is a candid acknowledgment that for an interim, perhaps a long interim, the struggle will be hard, with violence and disorder. But the outcome is sure: God will win and we are safe! That is its theological claim, though it arrives at that point in ways we think odd.
The rabbis who ordered the Hebrew Bible, on the whole, looked upon this discourse in negative ways. They found it odd and offensive, inviting extremity. For the most part, they were able to keep it out of the Bible, to muster biblical hope in more reasoned discourse. But they could not completely omit it, so it is there in Jeremiah, Zechariah, and especially Daniel. And the reason they could not keep it out is that the times were so desperate, the needs, so intense that some required a faith that could match the crisis in its intensity and shrillness. Thus the rhetoric matches the crisis, for it goes deep into the reality of chaos and disorder and there finds the God who is perfectly capable of defeating all that threatens life. It was clear to such voices that common-sense and ordinary faith would be no match for the threat, and so it was essential to go deeper.
It is not different in the New Testament. The central claim of the church is that Christ's spirit is at work to bring God's rule among us. But that early church lived in a context of enormous threat and despair, in which this literature and this hope is massive in its daring claim. The early church fathers, like the early rabbis, sought to organize the New Testament for a different sort of faith. But they could not do so, first, because of the context, and second, because the cosmic victory claimed for Christ over the powers of death and chaos would not be derived from present action, but would be a deep and profound newness that had to come from outside. And so they imagined, appealing to the book of Daniel, that the newness of God would come like the intrusion of a cloud entering the atmosphere. They strained to find language that would express this utter otherness of the God who would win and keep us safe.
So there is in the mouth of Jesus a warning and an invitation that God's rule will come suddenly among us--abruptly, violently--to bring the world to joy and obedience:
Now this matter of apocalyptic faith that lives at the edge of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament warrants our attention for three reasons:
Jews and Christians are indeed people who wait in confidence, recognizing that our agendas are profoundly penultimate and not ultimate. What we are now able to face, as we have not before, is a common waiting for the gift of God that has not before seemed to us to be common. I do not imagine that we can easily, or if ever, overcome the sorry history of Christian domination and Jewish suffering. That fact will linger. What we may be able to see, however, in growing contexts of trust, is that the good gifts of God's governance are an important equalizer that permits no violence toward each other. Newness is grounded only in the God who will win and who will keep us safe, but the winning is not our victory.
People who hope are not people who have a vague sense that things will work out all right. People who hope are those who know the name of God and the characteristic gifts of God: hesed, raham, and 'amunah, the three great qualities that eventuate in shalom. People who hope have complete confidence in God's coming shalom, a rule of order, peace, security, justice, and abundance. Without denying any present disorder, confusion, or distortion, people who hope, watch, wait, pray, and expect, know that God's shalom is as good as done. People who hope are people who act in the conviction that God's future is reliably "present tense" and act upon it before it is fully in hand.
The future is not in hand, but it is at hand, and therefore we count on the winner who has yet to do the winning. We--Jews and Christians--need to be asking: what happens "present tense" if God's future is secure? And the answer is: God's future is enacted as present neighborliness. If God's future is not sure, then the present ought to be shaped and propelled by greed, injustice, exploitation, brutality, and barbarism. These are the fruits of an atheism that believes there is no future from God. These are the fruits of an idolatry that has God all confused with militarism, racism, sexism, ageism, and ethnic privilege.
We Jews and Christians, however, have no truck with such self-serving atheism or such self-destructive idolatry. The commands of Torah are rooted in God's coming. Jesus, of course, was fully instructed by rabbinic teachers when he named the two great commandments. They asked him which one was the most important. He said, "Love God and love neighbor." They said, "We only asked for one." He said, "You cannot have one. You always get two. You always get the neighbor with God." And, of course, the rabbis knew that long before Jesus . . .
Now we live in a society that wants to separate God and neighbor, to keep something of God without the neighbor who comes with God. But, of course, we cannot, because God's coming shalom, which is sure for the world, is a gift of neighborliness, and so widow, orphan, illegal immigrant, poor, homeless, disabled, homosexual--all those not like us, all those who are threat and inconvenience, all those who are citizens of God's shalom--count in the way we trust in God.
I speak to you about an emergency and you know it is an emergency:
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