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  Hope in the Face of Loss

Hope in the Face of Loss

Walter Brueggemann

JEWS ARE HISTORY'S MOST ELEMENTAL BEARERS OF HOPE. In decisive ways, they have taught Christians how to hope. But the hope that has sustained Jews and Christians did not come easily. Rather, it arose at times of cataclysmic loss, when life as they knew it seemed to have fallen apart.

That same feeling is afoot today. And like our Jewish and Christian forebears, we need to maintain our hope by reaching into the past for assurances that the future will restore what the present has destroyed.

In the Old Testament, the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE and the exile that followed are the defining realities for ancient Israel. From that point on, the overriding intellectual and religious agenda for the Israelites involved coming to terms with their loss of home and apparent loss of God. They accomplished this through their capacity to tell the truth: to claim the loss, then to express publicly and repeatedly the hurt, the grief, the rage, the doubt, the bewilderment of what it means to have the focal point of life and the engine of faith taken away.

In a different yet strangely parallel way, Christians are defined by the massive loss of that dreaded Friday we call "Good." As Israel had invested its center of possibility in the city of Jerusalem--king and temple--so the earliest followers of Jesus, for reasons even Christians do not fully understand, invested in the person of Jesus that same centrality. Jesus became for Christians the peculiar carrier of God's promises in the world. As Jerusalem signified possibilities for peace and justice and freedom and security in a Jewish world, so Jesus was seen by Christians, from the start, as a revolutionary force for transformation in the world at large.

So Jesus went to Jerusalem. That is the great decision and great journey of his life. There he encountered all the forces of resistance and status quo, and there he was eventually executed by the Romans as a troublemaker.

Just as the exiled Jews pondered the loss of Jerusalem, so the early Christians pondered the death of Jesus. Indeed, half of the gospel story is about that final week of his life--from the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the supper, trial, and execution. And then darkness and turmoil.

The enduring sense of loss that accompanied the destruction of Jerusalem and the death of Jesus continues into the present day. We live in a culture defined by loss. That loss touches everything and everyone. It includes the failure of the social fabric, the failure of intellectual certitudes, the failure of organizational structures, the failure of worldwide economic viability.

Our U.S. society now struggles to do what ancient Jews did in Babylon and what ancient Christians did in Jerusalem and Galilee: to embrace a loss that is more than can be imagined. Our ancestors have much to teach us about such an embrace. Jews and Christians are the people who know loss best, because loss is definitional in both their faith traditions. They know what it is like to give up that which is finished and ended.

Of course, the ancient Jews and Christians faced some of the same temptations that we as a society face when dealing with great loss. Then, as now, some engaged in denial, imagining that not much is happening, that the loss is not deep or not permanent (except that Jerusalem was really gone and Jesus was really crucified). Then, as now, some also engaged in fantasy, committing irresponsible private actions that fly in the face of public need. Then, as now, some acknowledged that old patterns are really over, but had no idea of how to deal with this.

But some--amid the loss of Jerusalem and the death of Jesus--engaged in massively buoyant acts of recommitment to the future. The primary ingredient of that recommitment, the 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. Rather they ignited an intense and disciplined recovery of the past in these traditions.

During and after the exile, Judaism engaged in a massive reconstitution of memory that led to the formation and codification of the Torah. Many components of the Torah are, of course, quite old. But Priestly traditions of that time codified the holiness rules that caused Judaism to develop internal disciplines of odd fidelity. The traditions of Deuteronomy, linked to Moses, codified the rules about widows and orphans and illegal immigrants that made Judaism into a community passionate for social justice.

In that moment the priests and the deuteronomists gathered the whole of Genesis, all the mothers and fathers, all the tales of barrenness and hopelessness, all the miracles of sons and daughters born, all those tales that remind us that the entire past of Judaism is a collage of miracles from a good God who does not quit, even in the face of profound loss.

We hear such tales reflected in Psalm 136, which likely emerged during the exile or soon after. This liturgical chant remembers everything that happened: from creation through Egypt and Pharaoh and the Red Sea and the good land--the classical story of faith. All the while that this dominant memory is being recited, the congregation is repeating, after every half verse, the refrain: For God's steadfast love endures forever.

God's faithfulness, God's fidelity, God's loyalty, they endure forever, even now, even in exile, even in loss.

It is not different among early Christians who reorganized their lives around the Good Friday loss. They could not understand the defeat of that day any more than the Jews could understand the loss to Babylon. But what they did, just like the Jews that they were, was to build loss into a stylized memory.

In one of the earliest Christian documents, 1 Corinthians, Paul writes "I received from the Lord what I also hand on to you," which is his 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 and blessed and broke and gave." Then, in this festival of suffering love, they said: "Do this in remembrance of me." (1 Cor. 11:23-25).

Since that time Christians in this act have recited the great deeds of God, the great miracles of creation, the ancestors of Genesis, Exodus, land, culminating in Jesus. Of Jesus they remembered acts of healing and forgiving and cleansing and feeding. This festival, connected to the death of Jesus, is an act of remembrance in which this community recalls its life saturated with God's goodness and mercy in miraculous proportion.

The cadences, for all their differences, are in harmony: for Jews, "God's steadfast love endures forever"; for Christians, "Do this in remembrance of me."

In their loss, both communities resisted forgetting, both communities remembered. And what they remember is that their life together has been filled with powerful acts of generosity and transformation on the part of God, acts that cannot be explained and that we call "miracles." Miracles, recited in loss, are a refusal to forget or succumb to defeat.

This shared act of determined remembering is important because our nation is confronting the loss of a world that it once trusted but that now is no more. In the face of that loss, we have become a society deep in 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, without staying power for things human.

The temptation to amnesia is broad and deep and complex among us. Its great lever is the homogenization of television consumerism, in which everything is reduced to the now, to commodity, to private gain and individual comfort, to thin humanness, while all the density of communal miracles and communal particularity is lost.

It is not my purpose to offer a cultural critique of society, except to note the seductive temptation that this culture of amnesia is to Jewish faith and to Christian faith. If we lose our vivid, concrete, nameable memories of miracles, our communities of faith are out of business. But the truth--which both Jews and Christians share in common, though they carry it out in very different ways--is this: We are communities of memory, who experience seasons of loss as seasons of passionate remembering. Bound together in loss, we are also bound together in the memory that the loss evokes.

The amazing thing about these communities of faith, evident in our common life, is that memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair. Jews and Christians recall the defining memories and miracles of their lives. They hope and trust the God who has done these past miracles, and dare to affirm that the God who had done past acts of transformation and generosity will do future acts of transformation and generosity.

By an elemental and unshakable faith, Jews affirmed that the deep loss of Jerusalem did not disrupt God's power and resolve in the world. By an 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.

The biblical text witnesses to the ways in which Jews in exile took their memories and turned them to the future. Right in the middle of the poetry of Lamentations, a poetry of deep loss and sadness, the poet gives voice to the exiles' despair:

Gone is my glory,
And all that I had hoped for from the Lord (3:18).

But then, only three verses later:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
God's mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning,
great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion, says my soul,
therefore I will hope in God (3:21-24).

In their loss, the Jews recall God's steadfast love (hesed), God's compassion (rahamim), and God's faithfulness ('amunah)--the three great covenant words. Israel in exile reminds itself how God had acted, of the miracles of fidelity. And then this community of displacement utters its stunning affirmation about the future: "therefore I will hope in God." The "therefore" is the turn that believing people make from past to future, affirming that the future is surely to be governed by God's abiding faithfulness and compassion. The future is not a shapeless void or chaotic barbarism. The future is shaped by God's gracious transformative miracles, as was the past.

It is not different with the early church. The first Christians had engaged so deeply with Jesus and were so sure he was the quintessential carrier of God's goodness, that they were absolutely certain Friday was not the end. The taproot of Christian hope is that they turned the old memories of Jesus toward the future. The one who healed the sick, forgave the guilty, and raised the dead would not be stopped.

As they made that turn, they arrived at Easter, where all the hope of the church lies. Easter is not an act of magic, any more than the Jewish homecoming is an act of magic. It is a miracle wrought in God's fidelity.

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 in disciplined ways to his passion for God's future. Just as Judaism emerged in the long and unfinished process of homecoming, so the church takes its life from the Easter conviction that what began in that Sunday is powerfully underway as God's good resolve for the earth.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, ponders the amazing miracle of Christian hope and articulates a stunning calculus of the life of faith: "We boast of our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (5:3-5).

This statement is expressed in Christian cadences, but it strikes me as close to the core of what makes Christians and Jews distinctive together: suffering, endurance, character, hope. And hope does not disappoint.

It is the speech of a community that refuses to give in, that refuses to see the present loss as the last truth, that knows that God is not finished. So Christians who say, in the tensive claim of the Eucharist, "Do this in remembrance of me," also say after Paul, "As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." It is a Christian way of acknowledging that things are not finished; God must yet complete the future that is now beginning.

The capacity to turn memory into hope in the midst of loss--a capacity that is defining for Jews and Christians--is not a psychological trick or an opting for optimism or even a focus on signs of newness. It is a pivotal theological act, attesting to the fidelity of God, who is the key player in the past and future.

Thus, when the good news of the future is announced to the exiles, Isaiah asserts "Here is your God" (40:9) and "Your God reigns" (52:7). Echoing this, Jesus asserts, "The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). The two statements are completely parallel. Jewish hope and Christian hope are grounded in the reality of the God who will and does work newness.

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 fantasy, has little access to God.

For such a world, God does not appear to be a live or relevant player in the commoditization and homogenization of society. 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, mercy, and compassion, who seek to have their future on their own terms. And so Jews and Christians, in a society of atheism and idolatry, are always deciding about God's future in the world.

Jews and Christians wait in confidence, recognizing that our agendas are profoundly penultimate. What we are now able to face, as we could not before, is a common waiting for a gift of God that until now has not seemed common to us. What we may be able to see, in growing contexts of trust, is that the good gifts of God's governance constitute an important equalizer that permits no violence toward one another.

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 God's characteristic gifts: hesed, rahamim, and 'amunah, the three great qualities that eventuate in the wholeness of 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 or confusion or distortion, people who hope and watch and wait and 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 therefore act upon it before it is fully in hand.

The future is not in hand, but it is at hand, and therefore Jews and Christians count on the winner who has yet to do the winning. And they are permitted to ask: What happens (present tense) if God's future is secure? The answer is: God's future is enacted as present neighborliness.

If God's future were not sure, then the present should be shaped and propelled by greed, injustice, exploitation, brutality, and barbarism. Those are the fruits of an atheism that believes there is no future from God. Those are the fruits of an idolatry that has God confused with militarism, racism, sexism, ageism, and ethnic privilege.

But both Jews and Christians are called beyond such self-serving atheism and such self-destructive idolatry. The commands of the Torah are rooted in God's coming shalom. Jesus, of course, was fully instructed by rabbinic teachers when he named the two great commandments, "Love God and love neighbor." They had asked him for one commandment, but he said, in effect, "You cannot have just one. You always get two. You always get the neighbor with God." And of course the rabbis knew that long before Jesus.

We now live in a society that wants to separate God and neighbor, to keep something of God without the neighbor who comes with God. But that is futile. God's coming shalom, which is sure for the world, is a gift of neighborliness. Widow, orphan, illegal immigrant, poor, homeless, disabled, homosexual--all count, all are citizens of God's shalom.

Faced, then, with a crushing loss--the destruction of Jerusalem or the death of Jesus, the defeat of goodness or the defiance of decency--Jews and Christians respond by doggedly recalling the enduring evidence of God's love, compassion, and faithfulness. Emerging from those memories is a deep and unshakable hope, a conviction that the present setbacks will never smother God's future. Such a hope generates confidence and conviction: confidence in the ultimacy of God's power, and conviction that the path of this power winds its way through the neighborhood we call the world.

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發表於 Thursday, 04/27/06 @ 14:09:13 CST
出處 by Dr. Walter Brueggemann / The Other Side, Mar/Apr 1999


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