Walter Brueggermann is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 30, 1998, pp.1096-1098. Copyright by The Christian Century foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.
God promises peacemaking. That peacemaking by God only happens, however, when there is truth-telling – costly, urgent and subversive.
The government in ancient Jerusalem was busy doing the things governments do: deploying ambassadors, developing new weapons systems, designing new technologies, dealing with cost overruns, securing more funding, levying taxes and holding press conferences. It was busy pursuing the things that would bring security (or the impression of it): power, money, technology. But the more it worked on security and defense, the more precarious public life became. The government held press conferences to give assurances. It engaged in maneuvers and war games. It showed the flag and reiterated the slogans, and received innocent applause. All of these activities, however, had an increasingly empty ring.
While its leaders made the war effort, ancient Jerusalem staggered toward death, invaded by the empire, occupied by armies and eventually leveled, spent in self-deception and self-destruction. All the technology, power, money and deployment had not brought safety and peace. Most of the people in Jerusalem had not noticed the gathering dark-ness, the ominous violence, the fearful emptiness, the growing brutality that prepared the way for death.
Some, however, had noticed-a very few. They were regarded as cranks. There was Jeremiah, who reprimanded and spoke out of his dismay. There was Ezekiel, who had fantasies and hallucinations. Call them prophets. They were hostile and abrasive. Their speeches were unwelcome. But they noticed what no one else noticed. That is their significance. That is why we preserve their words – they were the only ones who saw death coming.
Ezekiel, the one who hallucinated, did not challenge the common notion that you need technology, muscle and power for security. He never even commented on that assumption. He did not think efforts at defense and security were important, but he did not argue about it. When he saw death coming, he interrupted the planning and deployment with a different agenda. You cannot have peace if you lie to each other, he said. You cannot have well-being if you do not speak the truth to each other. All the weapons in the world will not save you from your lies.
Ezekiel did not blame the king, the government, the military or the war planners for this terrible death to come. He blamed the religious community, the clergy, the prophets: “My hands will be against the prophets who see delusive visions and give lying messages” (13:9). Ezekiel blamed the religious community because that community is responsible for truth-telling.
But the prophets had failed; instead of telling the truth, they deceived and distorted: “When the people build a wall” (the wall of the city; Wall Street; walls of finance, defense, security and privilege; walls that divide and protect; walls that include and exclude; walls of policy which are highly doubtful in their social implications and in their theological presuppositions), “the prophets paint those walls with whitewash. ” They cover over the reality with high-sounding and soothing phrases, so that social experience looks good even though it is a wall of brutality, exploitation and abuse. They mislead the people, saying “peace” when there is no peace (v. 10). They call war “peace,” and self-interest 6 generosity, ” and greed “opportunity,” and brutality “national interest,” and exploitation “the free-market. “
It is no wonder that the government and the corporate leadership have lost their way. They have lost their way into the madness because the religious community has engaged in a terrible whitewash of deception-romantic whitewash among liberals, legalistic whitewash among conservatives.
Such lies, said Ezekiel, will lead to death. There will be a deluge of rain and hail and wind (v. 11). It will break the wall of policy, deception, brutality, indifference and cynicism. There will be a great destruction, and the cowardly religionists must answer for their failure.
This is the scene in Jerusalem. The political leadership is focused on power and. technology. The religious community-priests, prophets, laypeople – lives in the midst of the power and technology and wealth – which is where the religious community always must live, because it is precisely this community in the midst of power that knows that truth-telling is the condition for peace. Without truth, no peace. Without truthtelling, no peacemaking.
We also know that truth-telling is dangerous and costly. We do not like to hear or speak the truth, so we tone it down and cover it over. We mouth pleasant slogans which please and seduce and deny. We say, “God loves us,””World without end,” “Saved by grace.” All the while, however, we know about truth and peace. We know we are the ones who must speak. And when we speak the truth, the whole civil community, even with its enormous power, has a possibility of peace.
What would we say if we spoke the truth that gives peace and makes freedom? For us the truth is not advice on foreign policy, not strategy for how to prevail in Nicaragua, not arguments about taxes, all of which are important issues. Rather, what is needed in Indianapolis and Atlanta and everywhere today, like what was needed in ancient Jerusalem, lies deep underneath such issues: the truth about human hurt and human hope.
A conversation on these topics is lost in our society, lost because hurt is so repugnant that we would rather not notice it. The conversation is lost because hope is so unlikely, so unsettling and so embarrassing that we would rather not risk it. But when we do not notice and do not risk, we lose the chance for peace. Ezekiel warned about lies which prevent peace. Our lies which block peace are about hurt, which is real, and about hope, which we find too demanding.
The church is a conversation about human hurt: “Your hurt is incurable, and your wound is grievous. There is…no medicine for your wound, no healing for you” (Jer. 30:12-13). The deep hurt in the body politic and in our bodies, the wounds of not caring and not being cared for, of not belonging, of being unrelated and unconnected, are wounds endemic to our social situation. We cover up the alienation we all feel and the angry fear that is strong among us. The circle of concealed hurt grows wider. It touches our young, so fearfully driven to success and security, so tempted to disengagement. When we reach out to the hurt we touch homelessness as well as unopened homes, unshared food and hard, tired hearts. Those hearts authorize policies of cynicism all around us. We countenance cries of vengeance, policies of brutality, thirst for capital punishment, police terror, and slogans to justify our advantage. We prattle about “standard of living,” and we fail to notice the deep links between cynical policies, extravagant living, and failed human lives.
Of course, our continued self-deception is a whitewash. The homeless are like us, the brutalized are children, the bayonets kill parents. We translate acts into great public jargon so as to ignore the torn flesh, violated bodies and enraged spirits of real humans. There is, we know in our sanity, an anguished connection between our vacuous homes and homelessness, between our fearful craving for repression and the violence so close to policy. We whitewash so that we need not notice the savaged minds, hearts and bodies, treasured only by God. As the truthtelling stops, we become more brutal. The conversation stops because we dare not speak. We do not know what to say. It is all too unutterable.
Alternatively, the church is a conversation of human hope:
For a brief moment I forsook you but with great compassion I will gather you. In overwhelming wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you… For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (Is. 54:7-101).
We have grown sober and grim. We believe with the beer commercial that “it doesn’t get any better. ” We suspect that there are no new gifts because we do not believe in a God who can override the ways things are. The problems that beset us are almost all insoluble. The world is full of scarcity and we must scramble to get and hold onto our share. We become fearful and defensive, and if need be brutal. There is little talk among us about the lame walking, the hungry fed, the lepers cleansed, the dead raised. There is no caring embrace of resurrection or new life, no remembrance that God can act beyond our imagining for the sake of human well-being. Our ears are empty of the daring cadence of “I have a dream,” for we have only nightmares. We have so little hope in a God who promises, and who walks in the ruins to raise a new world-such talk sounds too awkward or has been captured by a religious cheapness-that we grow silent.
The news is that the lies of the whitewash need not continue. It is not true that human hurt must be endless and that brutality must continue forever in our silence. It is not true that human hope must be stifled and suffocated by our frustrated cynicism. These are not truths but old habits, rooted in unfaith. We lie because we have forgotten how to believe.
The truth is that hurt hurts badly, and all our hurts are held in community. When one member suffers, all suffer together. The truth is that hope is open and the world is not closed. The world is indeed fatigued waiting for governments and armies to devise peace. The truth is, peace cannot be devised. it can only be permitted where the truth is told about hurt and hope.
What would happen if all of us in the church resolved to undertake truth-telling about the fabric of human caring authorized by God, caring which undercuts and overrides all our usual postures? What would happen if we were to speak of the possibility of homes and food and access to health care, and of valued elders, and cherished children come home? Of orphans claimed, barriers removed, land reformed, and mortgages canceled and slaves liberated? Of rivers cleansed, and mountains dancing and trees hushed in wonder? Of acts of risky generosity, of people giving extravagantly, keeping only what is necessary – and of watching God’s newness well up from this human gesture?
The world need not stay as it has become. The change we wish for depends on truth-telling of a quite local kind which becomes as contagious as it is subversive.
Ezekiel watched over Jerusalem. He watched as his people slowly, painfully began to notice. He watched the lying stop and then he saw the hating, the killing and the fearing stop. That old brutal world was finally overcome. Then the prophet noticed a new reality from God, made possible because the lying stopped. He heard God say what God had refused to say for the long season of lying: I will make with them a covenant of peace … I will send down the showers in their season. . . . The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in the land; they shall know that I am the Lord when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them. They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them; they shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid. And I will provide for them prosperous plantations so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land. . . . They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they … are my people, says the Lord God 134:25-30].
God promises peacemaking. That peacemaking by God only happens, however, when there is truth-telling – costly, urgent and subversive. That is the work of the church. The issue, since Ezekiel, is clear: When we lie, we die. When we speak truthfully about human reality, God sends us peace.