Brueggemann’s The Virus – Part 5

Reflections in this blog and in those that follow, are based on Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety (Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon), 2020. Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Colombia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia.

The sequence was broken by a timely story that needed to be addressed. American Catholic Bishops were advocating that President Biden be denied Holy Communion because of his responsibilities that appeared out of synch with Catholic thought and teaching. It gave one pause.

This is Part 5 in the reflections on Brueggemann’s Virus as a Summons to Faith. And here we turn a corner and move toward that development of his theme of inspiration, transformation, and renewal in relationship with self, neighbor and the Divine.

The last blog began by asking, “Who can explain the mind of God? Through the first four blogs we have considered three ways that scripture explains God’s use of pestilence. God uses the horrible work of nature to punish sin. Frequently God cautions humankind threatening that in response to sin, God will punish with sword, famine and pestilence. There are consequences to disobedience. And there are rewards to repentance. God’s wrath will not last forever. God restores and heals.

But is this a useful explanation for COVID 19? It is inadequate for several reasons. The scope is too broad. Too many innocent people are suffering. One could also observe that many who deliberately flaunt restrictions seem to go unharmed. Or perhaps they remain asymptomatic. If the horrible work of  nature is just, how can this be just?

There is another explanation. God may use the horrible work of nature in a focused way to achieve a specific purpose. The example is the use of plagues to get Pharaoh’s attention and break Pharaoh’s resistance in order that the innocent children of Israel may be set free. Again, perhaps this may explain the deliverance from Egypt. But applying that explanation to COVID, can we say that the poor of the developing world are being delivered; the starving and homeless, the people of color who suffer disproportionately the consequences of toxic waste, those who are denied access to treatment because of the unaffordability of health insurance – are they soon to be delivered from suffering, intolerance and exploitation? Not yet. Again, if God is focusing judgement on the high walls of affluence, defense, and urbanization, God’s aim seems more than a little off.

Maybe, (this is the third explanation) God’s ways are not our ways and we must simply kneel in humility and helplessness before the holiness of God. Again, not a helpful explanation, offering neither consolation, motivation, nor justice.

There is no explanation for the mind of God. Reason can only describe so much. Reason can only be applied so far to research and technology. Then there is mystery. We just don’t know. Or, we know only so much – in this manner.

Now Brueggemann turns a corner.  Science and reason are not the only ways of knowing. Brueggemann now appeals to the preachers reading his thesis, calling on the revealed knowledge that come through imagination, poetry and narrative. There is more to know. There is more to say.

So Brueggemann turns to story.

Brueggemann writes, “I do not think for one moment that there is any ready transfer from this narrative (the story of David, to be considered momentarily) to our real life crisis with this virus. The Bible does not easily ‘apply.’ The Bible does, however, invite an open imagination that hopes for the best outcomes of serious scientific research, At the same time, it affirms that deeply inscrutable holy reality is in, with, and under, and beyond our best science.” (25)

A story is told in 2 Samuel 24: 1-14, and again in 1 Chronicles 21:1-13, that adds another perspective to our limited explanations. King David has ordered a census. God is angered. Perhaps David needs to reconsider his tax base. Perhaps David needs to recruit another army. In either case, David is more reliant on himself and his own means and less dependent upon God. God is angry. God will punish. But he will allow David to choose his punishment from three options: three years of famine or three months of warfare or three days of pestilence. The effects of famine cannot be experienced evenly or equitably. Somme communities may get by; others will be destroyed. Warfare, David knows too well, can be brutal. David will take his chance with three months of pestilence, because only by God’s own hand may David have a chance at mercy. (24:14).  

David knows he has sinned. David knows he deserves punishment. Those realities are not in question. But guilt and punishment, the threat of pestilence, draws David back to God. Perhaps God will be merciful.

It’s a story. We do not know all the motivations or the outcomes. But we know that pestilence brings with it the opportunity to renew the relationship with the Divine, to seek God and be sought by God.

Reason will not reveal that. Only imagination.

There is more….

Some Catholic Bishops Challenge President Biden on Policy Directions – Seek to Deny Biden Access to Communion

[The series of blogs on the teachings of Walter Brueggemann concerning the COVID virus is interrupted briefly because of breaking news regarding efforts to deny the President of the United States access to Holy Communion    May 3, 2021 DMS]

When elected, Pope Francis personally called the President-elect to congratulate him. Francis also sent Biden a signed copy of his new book Let Us Dream. On inauguration day, the Pope sent a telegram congratulating Biden and “urging him to pursue policies marked by authentic justice and freedom.” (National Catholic Reporter, Christopher White, Jan. 20, 2021.)

Not all Catholic leadership has been so encouraging. Los Angeles Archbishop Joze Gomez issued a 1,200 word statement offering prayers for President Biden but also “outlining areas of policy disagreements, particularly on the issue of abortion, writing, ‘Our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils.’” As president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, Gomez cited abortion as “the preeminent priority” of the conference. At the time, there were possibilities of the U.S. legislature overturning Roe v. Wade. San Francisco archbishop Salvatore Cordileone added his support behind Archbishop Gomez.

A working group was established to challenge President Biden’s policies, stating that “Biden’s political positions did not match Catholic doctrine, specifically on abortion and LGBTQ issues.” (NCR Christopher White, Feb 15, 2021.) Secondly, the working group “proposed a document outlining church teaching on the Eucharist, ‘including the fact that our relationship with Christ is not strictly a private affair.’” The working group has been disbanded. But several Catholic bishops have in recent months suggested that Biden be denied Communion due to his support for legal abortion.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-life Activities and a member of the now disbanded working group, spoke in a homily to the National Prayer Vigil for Life, saying, “In effect, our Amen when receiving Our Lord is an affirmation that we believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God… We do not want a non-Catholic Christian to profess something that they do not believe. Similarly, integrity requires a Catholic not receive the Eucharist while acting in a manner incoherent with fundamental Catholic teaching.” (Christopher White, Feb. 15, NCR.)

May 3, Michael Sean Winters, NCR, published an article entitled, “Weaponizing the Eucharist: The Bishops, Not Biden, Cause Scandal”. In this article Winters wrote, “If we are honest with ourselves, all Catholics should approach the Eucharist in fear and trembling. It is like the words “Thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer: We say them sometimes without thinking of their dreadful meaning, when we should always ponder the crucified Christ when we utter those words. But we also should approach the Eucharist in hope and confidence. However great our sins, God’s mercy is yet greater….That goes for President Joe Biden too.”

Winters also wrote that Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, and Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix have each written statements or pastoral letters calling for a national policy favoring the denial of the sacrament. In Winters’ opinion this is all meant to cast doubt on President Biden’s leadership.

Winters wrote, “What is going on? Naumann, Cordileone, Aquila and Olmsted are not stupid men. They know that a bishops’ conference has no role in this matter, that Biden is a baptized Catholic, subject to canon law, and that canon law leaves this issue entirely to Biden and his pastor. They know, too, that persisting in this effort will further divide their own organization, pitting bishop against bishop on a highly public issue that is emotionally fraught and involving issues that are easily misunderstood and even more easily enflamed to affect emotional manipulation. They also know that a teaching document requires a two-thirds majority vote, and it is highly doubtful they would achieve that, and such a document requires the approbation of the Holy See, which is even less likely.”

I am not a Catholic. Nor am I a Lutheran bishop. No doubt there are theological, doctrinal and political points I am missing but this issue intrigues me. What would I do if I were pastor to the President of the United States? What would I do if I were the President? Winters cannot presume to know the mind of the President, standing in line to receive the sacrament. But he can imagine that the President approaches the altar humbly, carrying all the burdens of his office, and seeking the guidance, strength and mercy of his Lord Jesus Christ. President Biden has already shown the depth of his faith commitments in what has been included in his public appearances where religious inclusions are appropriate. He has invited pastoral leadership. He has included scripture, prayer, and blessing. He makes the sign of the cross as he begins and concludes prayer. On the other hand, Biden has been careful not to make a show of faith, excluding reporters and photographers from worship services. As Winters states it, “The Catholic Mass is never private — the angels are always present! — but Biden has never sought to exploit his attendance for politics.”

It appears this is less about eucharistic devotion and more about assuming a political identity under the marker of LGBTQ2S+ and abortion conservatism. There are other markers that could be identifiers as well. What about racism, misogyny, the endorsement of violence, nationalism, disrespect for indigenous people, as well as people of color, the poor, and disabled? What about the neglect of climate change?

I have a hard time imagining excluding someone from the table of Christ, if there is the possibility of pastoral care, instruction and personal transformation and repentance. [In the 60’s, my mother was denied communion because she had reported her pastor to the bishop’s office alleging professional misconduct. But that’s another story for another time.]

I understand that my Lutheran scholars and leaders will soon begin an exploration of teaching and practice around Communion. I look forward to that. In the meantime, I wonder whether anyone is ever worthy to approach the Table. My sense is that I come, together with those on my left and right, seeking what the Table offers, because without it, I have no hope for righteousness at all…

Pray for those beside you at the Table. I know, we cannot be physically beside one another in these times. Yet even now, we try to make the sacrament available, even virtually. Bless those who break the bread. Bless those who receive the bread, trusting that the words spoken over the bread are true: “This is the body of Christ broken for you.” And then, “Become what you have received.”

Pray for the President of the United States, for all our political leaders at every level, for Bishops and Archbishops, pastors and communion assistants and all who make the table a welcoming place, rather than an exclusionary place.

Pray for me. And for yourself. That Christ might look on our hearts and say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

Brueggemann’s The Virus – Part 4

Reflections in this blog and in those that follow, are based on Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety (Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon), 2020. Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Colombia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia.

Who can explain the mind of God?

Here are some answers from scripture…

Isaiah 14:27 – For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?

Isaiah 45: 9- Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making”? or “Your work has no handles”? 

Daniel 4:35- All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and [God] does what [God] wills with the host of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can stay [God’s] hand or say to [God], “What are you doing?”

As of April 19, 142.6 million people have been infected with the Corona Virus. 121 million have recovered. But 3 million have died. What is this virus all about?

How do we explain the existence, the virulence, the persistence of this virus and what it has been doing around the world for over a year?

Is this the hand of God?

Thus far in this blog series, we have unpacked Walter Brueggemann’s explanation of the virus in terms of how the Bible has looked at other experiences of pestilence. Brueggemann described pestilence as punishment from God, something of a transaction. When humankind disobeys God; God responds with punishment. When humankind repents; God heals and restores the people. But if humankind persists in disobedience, escalating from a mistake to intentional disobedience; escalating further to rebellious disobedience; escalating further to hostility – as disobedience increases, so does the punitive response from God.  Quid pro quo (pp 2-5) Such consequences are described in Leviticus 26. That is one explanation.

Could this be a reason for the pandemic? God has seen the sin of the last two hundred years, the extinction of many species, the desecration of mountains and forests and topsoil, the economic exploitation of developing countries and disproportionate suffering of the poor and people of color. Could it be that the virus is both a warning and a punishment? But the suffering is in all countries, borne by people totally innocent from the decisions and the actions behind climate change! This is not a satisfactory explanation.

Another explanation is the “purposeful mobilization of negative force to effect God’s own intent” (p. 5-10). This process is depicted in the story of ten plagues specifically focused on the people of Egypt in order to force Pharaoh to release the Israelite slaves. (Exodus 8-12).  Now, is God using this virus to reveal the social, racial, and economic injustices that have been buried all these years? Is this virus intended to liberate the innocent, poor, homeless and voiceless?  If so, the use of force is not as incisively targeted as in the days of Pharoah! Again, too many innocent fall under the justice of God. True, the intention of the biblical prophets is to pronounce judgement – but also to announce another way, to proclaim a different vision. Today, this experience is weighted too heavily toward despair. The people respond. “It’s too late!…There’s nothing we can do!… Civilization as we know it is finished!”

Again, this is not a satisfactory explanation.

There is one more explanation of pestilence in the biblical tradition: the holiness of God.

Who can explain the mind of God?

The passages above give the answer: No one. God is God. God is free. God is almighty. God is accountable to no one.

Brueggemann writes, “This third possibility concerns the sheer holiness of God that God can enact in utter freedom without reason, explanation, or accountability, seemingly beyond any purpose at all.” (10)

The best example of God’s destructive activity and the demand of humanity to explain these actions is the story of Job. Job loses his fields and crops. Job loses his livestock. Job loses his children. Finally Job himself is covered in sores. “The classic textual example is in the whirlwind speeches in the book of job where God declares that God’s forceful creative actions are beyond any capacity of Job to master, explain, or comprehend.

God is holy. The holiness of God is awe inspiring. And frequently terrifying as well. How can one explain the nature of God or the actions of God?

People of faith say, “Our times are in God’s hands.” God can inspire, bring courage, convey insight. God offers life and hope. In God’s hands we feel blessed. God is indeed holy. It is wonderful. But suddenly a busload of hockey players is hit by a truck. A gunman shoots innocent people in a grocery store. Then the sense of praise and confident wonder is changed to a wonder rooted in panic. We ask, What? How? And the big question, Why? Who can explain the mind of God?

Why do we need to name God at all?

Brueggemann writes, “So why bother with the interpretive categories of biblical faith when in fact our energy and interest are focused on more immediate matters? The answer is simple and obvious. We linger because, in the midst of our immediate preoccupation with our felt jeopardy and our hope for relief, our imagination does indeed range beyond the immediate to larger, deeper wonderments…. Beyond these demanding immediacies, we have a deep sense that our life is not fully contained in the cause-and-effect reasoning of the Enlightenment that seeks to explain and control. There is more than that and other than that to our life in God’s world!”

Listen to the politicians: “The future is ours to choose…This is humanity’s greatest challenge… We have the solutions and technologies at our fingertips to solve this problem… We get to build the future we want…!”

Confidence? Or hubris?

God is holy, free to be who God will be (Ex. 3:14)

“It may be that some human practices and policies evoke wrath” ( p. 18)

“It may be that ‘the purposeful mobilization of the negative forces of creation’ may be turned against ‘the high tower’ and ‘the fortified wall’ to perform God’s intention. (p.18) Perhaps climate change and the Corona virus will indeed set some free and bring others down.

It may also be that the virus is some wild force of nature “untouched by out knowledge.” In the face of “God’s raw holiness” we are left with no explanation. “I don’t know.”

Humbling, isn’t it?

A careful reading of this and the prior blogs will confirm that Brueggemann in looking for an “explanation” of the virus turned to earlier biblical “explanations” of pestilence.

But each of those explanations is insufficient. For all that each might reveal, there is much that remains hidden. These explanations say nothing about God’s covenantal commitment, God’s mercy, God’s love, even the nature of God’s intended justice.

We speak of the covid crisis as a “war.” And one does not fight a war without intending to win.

We speak of the “problem” of the Corona virus, a problem we must solve. Surely, we can; surely, we will.

We speak of the Corona virus as something wild which we must control with restrictions and protocols and vaccines. And while we may have some success with the scientific, technical elements, we still have the human element, the unexplainable need for some human beings to deny reality, defy authority, take unnecessary risks, and assert individuality over the common good. We must “slow” the infection rate, “bring down the curve,” “analyze the numbers” seeking some confirmation of the efficacy of all this.

But for a time, perhaps forever, we are bound by our limits.

We cannot explain the virus. Explanation is only one way of understanding. So far, even with three possible explanations, we are unable to have a complete understanding.

Here Brueggemann turns a corner. Praising science for all it can do, Brueggemann turns now to another way of knowing. Limited by what we cannot explain or control we turn to another way of knowing, so we may find another way of acting, another way of being. This is the remainder of his book.

To be continued.

Brueggemann’s The Virus – Part 3

Reflections in this blog and in those that follow, are based on Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety (Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon), 2020. Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Colombia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia.

You won’t find the words “Corona Virus” in the Bible. But that does not mean the Bible is silent about how to live with the pandemic. Brueggemann believes the virus brings a call that can transform society and bring the world closer to God and one another. This is the call, the intention of all the biblical prophets.

Brueggemann begins with exploring the curse of “pestilence.” He observes there are three interpretive approaches to pestilence. He describes the first curse as a “transaction;” there is a quid pro quo nature. The curse is a warning that God will punish disobedience. Psalm 1:6 cautions “for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

And Leviticus 26: 23-26 describes punishment proportional to disobedience.

“If in spite of these punishments you have not turned back to me, but continue hostile to me, then I too will continue hostile to you: I myself will strike you sevenfold for your sins. I will bring the sword against you, executing vengeance for the covenant; and if you withdraw within your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into enemy hands. When I break your staff of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven, and they shall dole out your bread by weight; and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied.”

There are consequences to disobedience. And if there is no appropriate response, the punishments continue. And if the disobedience escalates, becoming defiant, so too do the punishments.

Brueggemann recognizes a formula in the progression. The curse brings sword, pestilence, and famine. As well as the possibility of captivity. And God’s behavior is responsive to the behavior of humanity, hence the transaction formula: “If you will… then I will…”

Is Covid transactional? Is the pandemic a judgement against the commodification and exploitation of creation, the extinction of species, the social injustices that are borne by the poor and people of color, the extreme imbalance of wealth and poverty? If COVID is an example of transactional curse, it seems unfair that the warning belongs to the rich and powerful but the suffering belongs to the innocent and disadvantaged. Perhaps the prophet should bring the warning to the world’s three most affluent countries, producing the greatest amounts of carbon emissions and still realizing profits during the pandemic while the majority have lost their jobs, may lose their homes and amass increasing debt, individually and as countries. Perhaps the curse should fall upon the executives and administrators behind top one hundred polluting companies.

“Just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988”, The Guardian , Tess Riley, July, 2017. Since 2016 the Political Economy Research Institute, PERI, has tracked and published the top 100 air, water and greenhouse polluters globally.

While the prophet warns the unjust with judgement and another possible vision, the prophet also consoles those whom God watches over with steadfast compassion and mercy.  Something in this interpretive approach is not satisfying.

Which brings us to a second understanding of the curse of pestilence. Brueggemann cites “a second interpretive trajectory,” which he calls “YHWH’s purposeful enactment of force in order to implement the specific purpose of YHWH” (p.5).  He cites the pattern of “the plagues” in the Exodus story. “That sequence of ten episodes constitutes ten mighty exhibits of power in order that Pharaoh may discern the power and wonder of YHWH.” (5). He continues, “The aim is to exhibit the capacity of the creator God to mobilise the various elements of creation in the service of divine intentionality” (5).

Rather than a curse applied with a broad, free-ranging force of suffering, this curse is quite selective.

Exodus 6:6-    Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.

Exodus 6:7-   I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.

Exodus 14:4-7-    I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And they did so. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.

God intended to free the Hebrew slaves. Pharaoh recognized the people as “Hebrews”, outsiders, without dignity or recourse, a people to be subjugated. God, however recognized the people as “Israelites”, people of the covenant, people with identity, promise and a home in God’s heart. To “emancipate” the people, the curse would fall upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians selectively.

Exodus 11:5-7-   Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.

Brueggemann observes that there is a distinction between the livestock of Egypt and the livestock of Israel (Ex. 9:4). Hail shall fall upon the land and trees and fields of Egypt, but “where the Israelites were, there was no hail” (Ex 9:26)

Brueggemann concludes “The narrative is at pains that this wild destructive “force of nature” is not random or indifferent to historical distinction….the destructive event is not any “natural event”; it is the accomplishment of an intentional agent who has a specific historical intent.”

The Exodus is not the only example of this “purposeful enactment of force in order to implement the specific purpose.”

Brueggemann cites the prophecies of Isaiah chapters 2 to 5. In poetic imagery God announces both the judgement and the deliverance of Judah. Judah will be delivered. The mountain will be established; the people will come; instruction will be given again; justice will thrive; swords will be beaten into plowshares. The rule of YHWH will be maintained. However, Brueggemann writes, “the target of the terror of YHWH is identified only by poetic allusion: proud, lofty, lifted up, high, cedars of Lebanon, oaks of Bashan, high mountains, lofty hills, high tower, fortified wall, ships of Tarshish, beautiful craft, haughtiness. The imagery tumbles out!” (p.8). God is “against” all of these things. Ten times it is stated that God is “against” these things (Isa. 2:12-16) Judah is guilty of seven sins (Isaiah 2:8-23): greed, self-indulgence, cynical materialism, perversion of standards of morality, intellectual pride and self-sufficiency, intemperance, and loss of integrity. All that Judah has claimed as advantageous and virtuous will collapse.

Brueggemann writes, “The religious brokers will not save. The royal treasury will not save. The military establishment will not save. The idols will not save; Israel will throw them away in order to travel lightly into the caves. The security system of “The Man” is impotent and irrelevant before the terror of YHWH!” (9).

“These two texts together, from Exodus and Isaiah, bespeak the capacity and resolve of YHWH to act in massively destructive ways against any historical ordering that contradicts the intent of YHWH. YHWH, it turns out has many tools of sovereignty beyond the force of love.” (p.10)

What does this have to do with the Corona Virus? Is this virus a judgement from God? Is this a “purposeful enactment of force” to deliver the oppressed and exploited, the homeless and displaced? Perhaps God is looking at the hubris of humanity, tallying seven sins similar to those of Judah. Again: greed, self-indulgence, cynical materialism, perversion of standards of morality, intellectual pride and self-sufficiency, intemperance, and loss of integrity. Perhaps God is looking at the consequences of environmental injustice and crying “Enough!” The collapse of the global economy and crying “Enough!” The collapse of the fossil fuel industry and crying “Enough!” Perhaps COVID-19 is a selective use of force for the specified purpose of challenging racism and delivering the world’s environmentally displaced, people of color, Indigenous and Asian people, crying “Enough!”

Is that the call of the prophet, intending to draw people to God, to free and unite humankind and the creatures? There is something that is still lacking in this explanation of COVID as a tool of God. Neither this interpretive trajectory of selective force, nor the earlier interpretation of transaction satisfies the groaning of creation, consoles the suffering of despair, or calls sufficiently the unjust to repentance.

Brueggemann has one more interpretive trajectory to explain the curse of pestilence and the necessity of COVID. And then Brueggemann will take an entirely different approach….

Brueggemann’s The Virus – Part 2

Reflections in this blog and in those that follow, are based on Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety (Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon), 2020. Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Colombia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia.

Do you choose blessing or curse?

Odd question. Who would seek a curse?

And yet, by avoiding masks, social distancing, restricted gatherings we claim that we are richer for it.

But the numbers tell a different story. Every day the toll is tallied. So many tested. So many infected. So many hospitalized. So many dead.

We acknowledge that the numbers have names. But they remain unspoken. We share “our thoughts and prayers.” But we refuse to do what is required so “the numbers come down,” the curve is flattened. We refuse to do what is required so no more names need be named.

We seek to be blessed. But we forget that in relationships that matter, relationships that thrive, we are blessed as we bless one another.

How odd that we refuse rules. We complain about restrictions, but we acknowledge, as our government said this morning, “No one is perfect.” We are told that we must expect people will act as they will. And people will get sick. And people will die. The problem is that rarely, after the church service, after the game, after the house party – rarely do we have to name those who have gotten sick, those who have died. Rarely do we have to assume responsibility, state the possibility that we had something to do with this infection, death, the loss of someone’s parent or child or partner.

Am I my brother’s – or sister’s – keeper? Not often enough.

Rules are to be obeyed. And obedience is typically rewarded. Disobedience is rarely punished.

But punishment does not compel compassion.

Scripture reminds us that there are consequences to our disobedience. Psalm 1:6 – for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. In Leviticus 26:23-26 the LORD warns that as the people refuse to turn back, as the people continue to be “hostile,” “I too will continue to be hostile to you.” Leviticus does not mention COVID. But it does mention pestilence and starvation.

In Deuteronomy 28: 21-34 the pattern is repeated. “The LORD will afflict you with consumption, fever, inflammation, with fiery heat and drought and with blight and mildew….”

It’s only a flu, we say in justification.

“The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies.” There is the pattern: pestilence, sword, famine.

But as long as our borders are defended, our grocery store shelves are well stocked, there is nothing to fear, nothing to change. Some would say it is all a needless conspiracy.

Where is the prophet’s indictment? Where is the judgement?

COVID is not “the plague.” COVID is not the judgement of God.

But then we seem to have lost what Brueggemann calls the sense that “creation is ordered according to a reliable moral intention that is non-negotiable.”(p.4)

Scripture cautions – emphatically cautions – that if we persist in disobedience, injustice, abuse of land, person and animal, stranger, widow or orphan – the consequences will persist proportionately to our choices.  

Apparently, the consequences of COVID are not dire enough.

(DMS April 10, 2021)

Brueggemann’s The Virus – Part 1

Wear a mask – Don’t wear a mask.

Get the vaccine – Don’t get the vaccine

Gather in restaurants and churches – Don’t gather in restaurants and churches.

Who gets the vaccine first? –  And what does that say about those who must risk and wait?

Which businesses are open – Which are not? Which are required to close… again?

Which is a more essential service? A physio-therapist – Or a tattoo parlor?

Should my children physically attend school? Or not?

May I travel abroad – or even out of province – Or not?

And if I do, must I quarantine – and how long, three days or two weeks – Or don’t.

As a community we have so many questions. And there appear to be not only different opinions but contradictory “facts.”

What are we learning from the Corona virus? And what are we supposed to do?

Reflections in this blog and in those that follow,  are based on Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety (Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon), 2020. Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Colombia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia.

As the title suggests, through this pandemic, Brueggemann is hearing a summons from God… “The same summons all prophets hear in the midst of calamity: the call to right relationship with the Living Presence, a call into deeper, more caring and mutually beneficial relationship with all that is.” Rabbi Nahum Ward-Law, in the Foreword, p. viii.

Rabbi Ward-Law expands saying this is a call toward love, generosity and hospitality. This is a desire for all humankind to “live through this disaster toward a more fruitful and inclusive future.” viii.

He further asserts that Brueggemann hears a call from “a merciful God in steadfast solidarity with humankind.” viii.

The way out of this crisis is to “turn toward the mysterious and unknowable Thou [who] liberates humankind to take bold and imaginative action toward a world of neighborliness, a community of care and generosity for one’s neighbor.” ix.

I am glad Brueggemann is hearing the call and I am glad the church is to be prophetically proclaiming that call, because I fail to see the world, especially my part of the world, responding sufficiently to that call, in order to come through this disaster and thrive anytime soon. Look at the attitudes lying behind the polarities listed above. Love, generosity, hospitality, neighborliness are the virtues many of our community leaders and health professionals are requiring of us. “We are all in this together!” On the other hand, there are those who are actively, loudly and defiantly asserting their individual rights. They are seeking to protect their own economic and libertarian advantages. And when complying they insist on asking how little is enough, how long is required, and how much can they be compensated for their losses.

This pandemic we are all suffering is not drawing us together; it seems to be driving us apart.

Our political and health care leaders are now repeatedly saying that after fifteen months, people are exhausted. Indeed, there are front-line workers who are over-taxed, under-supported, and spiritually depleted.  It cannot be said that all our neighbors have borne the consequences or the responsibilities of this pandemic the same way. But our leaders are saying more frequently that “we have covid fatigue.”  We are tired. We are becoming care-less, taking more risks, testing restrictions just to get by. There are people all around us who set aside the masks, draw more closely together, drive side by side in confining vehicles and pursue exercise and sport without precautions. “We deserve this party; look how well we have done!”

“Covid fatigue” has been diagnosed and legitimized as one more side effect of the disease, rather than remaining an excuse for a lapse of the will.

It is said again and again that we want to return to normal, as it was a year ago. What we experience now is too painful, too demanding. This is even, some continue to insist, entirely unnecessary. There is no need to renounce, relinquish or repent of anything that used to give us delight, meaning, identity, and purpose.

A politician said this week, “In the race against the virus, the virus is winning.”

What do we say to that? As a community of faith, do we have anything to say? Or is there only silence, after the noise of dissent?

Is there a community that seeks fulfillment for all, the well-being of all? Or have our practices of isolation left us truly isolating?

Brueggemann will argue that the call of a prophet now is as it always has been, a call to turn from ourselves to God. The call of a prophet now is as it has always been a wake up to the limitations, the inadequacies of an autonomous, independent, pretentiously self-sufficient self.

But perhaps it is hard to hear a prophet’s call when the groaning of business, society, politics is loud and growing louder.

We have forgotten, if we ever knew, that the Living Presence has responded to the people saying, “I have heard the cries of my people…” Exodus 2: 23 is one example “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.” The responsiveness of God is affirmed in Genesis 3:7, Exodus 16:12, Numbers 14:27, Deuteronomy 5:28, 1 Kings 9:3, 2 Kings 20:5, 2 Chronicles 7:12 and so forth.

Somewhere, everywhere, this Living Presence is seeking to find and console and raise up those who have been brought low.

Where is this Living Presence? What is to be said? What is to be done? Brueggemann’s text has much to teach us. To be continued….

We Gather on Treaty Land

This is the short form of the land acknowledgement for Calgary, Alberta….

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge that we live, work and play on the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe Nakoda Nations, the Métis Nation (Region 3), and all people who make their homes in the Treaty 7 region of Southern Alberta.

I wonder whether you use this acknowledgement or one like It where you live. It has been interesting to experience Zoom meetings wherein the host asks participants to sign in through chat and name the territory where one resides. Many do. Many do not.

I remember the first few times I heard the words. They seemed strange to me. All the more reason to use them. The history of the traditional people was not part of my formal education, nor lived experience.

It is my understanding that land acknowledgements are rarely used in the United States, where I grew up. I remember at seminary an exercise wherein students were asked to take pen and paper and write down the names of indigenous tribes. Few could name more than ten. I think I could name almost twenty. But it took a long time to recover the memories.

Land acknowledgement is a discipline that reminds us where we live and who lived here before us and who likely still lives here. If we would only pay attention.

Land acknowledgements are a means to build bridges again. They are meant to be respectful words indicating we have a lot to do to be reconciled.

I am learning that I have a deep sadness. Something is missing. Something is incomplete. I need more than this recitation of words. I need conversations. I need faces. I need history. I need mended relationships.

Some years ago, I visited a museum in Victoria, B.C. There was an extensive display describing the arrival of the Europeans, the trade, the church, the death, the extinguishing of language and tradition and people. It took a long time to read. I needed to sit down. I found myself crying. But I could not walk away.

Sadly, I left that place, knowing I had been touched. But I left that place and returned to my place, my way of life, my neighborhood, including land which apparently has no place for indigenous people. I am learning this is my loss.

Their loss is my loss.

We speak of nurturing truth and reconciliation. But speaking of it and doing it are very different. This is taking a long time. That’s not an excuse. It’s a confession. Confession needing to become repentance. Needing to move to repentance. And reparation.

I am reading Kaitlin B. Curtice, (Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God, (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids) 2020). She speaks briefly about land acknowledgements. She notes how rarely they are used in the Untied States. And she notes (pp. 25-27) that because they have been spoken so often in recent years in Canada, people are beginning to question whether this is still a needed practice. I was stunned reading that. Obviously, to me anyway, this is very much still needed. Because we have only scratched the surface.

One can hear the words or read the words as though a formality. One can have the same sense about saying the Pledge of Allegiance of singing the national anthem.

One can remember the history one learned as a child in school. But as an adult, maybe, one learns that what was taught was not the history; it was a history. There are many histories, many stories of people becoming and people becoming lost.

I was retired before I ever learned about the Doctrine of Discovery. What it was. What it did. What it authorized… in the name of God. And how it is still written into Canadian law. Some Christian denominations have renounced the Doctrine of Discovery. Not enough.

So I find myself paying attention when the acknowledgement of the land and the people who reside there is read. I listen to the names. These are not minorities. They are nations. They are to be remembered. Honored. Welcomed.

But be careful about who welcomes whom. After all, I am the guest.

Magpie River to Be Granted Legal Personhood

This blog is based on a news report found here…

Quebec’s Magpie River becomes first in Canada to be granted legal personhood | National Observer

By Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin | News | February 24th 2021

It’s a new take on the “Old Man River.”

The municipality of Minganie, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and several environmental groups have formed “the Alliance” in order to protect the Magpie River from further development. The Alliance has taken the step to grant the rights of personhood to the river.

The article states “In accordance with Innu customs and practices, the Alliance has granted the river nine rights: 1) the right to flow; 2) the right to respect for its cycles; 3) the right for its natural evolution to be protected and preserved; 4) the right to maintain its natural biodiversity; 5) the right to fulfil its essential functions within its ecosystem; 6) the right to maintain its integrity; 7) the right to be safe from pollution; 8) the right to regenerate and be restored; and perhaps most importantly, 9) the right to sue.”

It is unclear how this will affect attempts to build developments on the river, including dams, moving forward, as legal personhood for nature doesn’t exist in Canadian law and could be challenged in court. The partners in the Alliance hope international precedents set in New Zealand, Ecuador and several other countries will help pressure the Quebec government to formally protect the river.

The article states, “This is a paradigm shift,” said Yenny Vega Cárdenas, president of the International Observatory on the Rights of Nature, which drafted the resolutions in collaboration with the Alliance. “In environmental law, as it is now, nature is just an object that humans can exploit at their pleasure. Now we’re recognizing that the river has its own rights; that we’re part of the same ecosystem.”

“The recognition of the rights of nature is a growing global movement, and Canada is joining it today with this first case,” said Vega Cárdenas. Whether this first case will be a success or failure for Canadians remains to be seen.

This action is a curiosity. It may not be valid as a point of law. On the other hand, as a matter of theological ethic, it is intriguing and worthy of defending.

It is difficult to say that a river is a person. On the other hand, we have the precedent from no less than St. Francis of Assisi, who in the Canticle of the Sun, 1224, addressed Wind and Sun and Fire as Brothers; Moon and Water and even Death as Sisters; Earth is both Mother and Sister. Each has personal characteristics and the capacities to care for, nurture, sustain other forms of life, and, most importantly praise God the Father and Lord. Indigenous people have long understood Earth as Mother, source of life itself.

Someone might argue, “But it’s just a river!”

 Yet, theologically, Christians are moving away from understanding the elements and the creatures of Earth as mere resources; objects to be commodified, bought, sold, and owned; “things” given in Creation to be objectified and dominated. Renouncing such attitudes, values and behaviors, Christians are moving toward an understanding of inter-relatedness and interdependence. Creation provides for humankind. Humankind is to protect and nurture, even defend, the creatures and the elements, especially when vulnerable and threatened.

Our relationship to creation is just that, relationship. We acknowledge the worth of Creation not for what it provides for humanity, but for the value inherent to it as deriving from God. God made creations. God provides for creation, whether pointing to water and sun or to the microbial biome of fertile soil. God delights in Creation and calls it “good.”

This action to protect the river acknowledges that too often human decisions about the extraction and development of animal, plant and mineral resources values only short-term profits without regard for long-term consequences. For instance, there is too little regard for what clear cutting forests and carving out roadways does to soil erosion, river pollution, the loss of habitat for wildlife, or the loss of sacred lands, rituals and traditions for generations of residents. There is an Indigenous saying that humankind does not own the land and its resources; we merely borrow them from our descendants.

The river cannot speak for itself. Nor do the birds, the coral reefs, the animals of the forest and plains. So there is a need to listen to what Creation does say in its own many languages and speak in its defence through our own.

It may be too much to grant the rights of personhood. It may be dishonest, even disrespectful, to anthropomorphize, to “humanize” Creation. To make Creation “one of us” fails to honor what is unique, dignified, necessary, and wonderful in letting Nature be as it is intended.

Now certainly there will be further arguments that human science has enriched the fertility of soil, provided for resistance to pestilence, disease and extreme climate, drained swamps and protected harbors….. But these arguments speak, if anything, to the inter-relationship of humanity with Nature and the human responsibility to protect nature, rather than to do more harm.

It is interesting that the energy behind this movement is not coming from eastern or western developed countries but from the southern hemisphere – from Equador, Colombia, and New Zealand – with partnership from the Innu and from other cultures in the north where the values and traditions of Indigenous people have been maintained.

Will the needs of nature and the balance of life be maintained as long as the rivers flow? It remains to be seen.

Vocation and the Collective Need

William Everson wrote: “The secret of vocation is the calling, the spiritual dimension. The vision quest is a seeking of the discovery of one’s vocation. It’s an act, an activity. It comes from the collective and re-enters the culture. The call comes from a collective need. There’s a need for doctors, a need for carpenters, all the activities of economics and entertainment….” (quoted in Christian Mystics, by Matthew Fox (New World Library: Novato California, 2011) p. 183.

Fox then comments saying, “We often focus on how our jobs and careers serve ourselves, but in what ways are we serving others? Do you sense a calling, a vocation, in the work you do? Can you name the collective need behind the calling? How does your work fulfill the needs of the common good and the greater community?”

I am wondering…

I hear so much these days about returning to normal, recovering our economy “building back better”… We need jobs… jobs…jobs… And it seems the emphasis is on getting back to work and earning a sustainable income…

But what is the common good we are seeking to attain? Other than economic security. What is the need we are trying to meet? Other than making the mortgage and planning to travel and putting the kids through school…

If reclaiming the economy means returning to “normal” that worries me because “normal” is what got us into the mess of climate change, environmental degradation, environmental racism and, one can argue, even the pandemic.

We want jobs. And for many that means pipelines. And coal mines. And we are represented by divided governments and have competing industries…. But what is the common good?

There’s something missing for me in terms of a vision we are committed to as a common humanity.

So maybe Fox is right. When we think of work, we think of what it brings home for the family, what it invests in the market, what it pays for now. The “good” that work provides is personal, or at least for the benefit of the family and maybe, in terms of the GNP, the good of the province (sometimes not even the good of the nation as a whole). But that said, it also seems to be a “good” that is short term.

Everson is saying that the good, the calling, comes from a “collective need.” Not just my need but a collective need. There is something more.

This makes me wonder…. Does a tree have a calling? A vocation, a purpose? What about the river? Or the wind?

Here’s a question… does the iron under the mantle of the earth have a purpose, a calling? Theologically we want to say that the tree, the river, the wind and the iron have a purpose just by nature of their being. They are “good” and serve the “collective good” even before being cut down, dammed, harnessed or extracted.

But the calling, the purpose is not for the primary benefit of the executive, the corporation or the stakeholder. The calling is for the common good, the greater whole, the collective. Maybe even the future.

So how is it that I and my fellow stakeholders get rich because of the purpose of the iron? And the surveyor… the earthmover… the truck driver… the smelter… the welder…the architect… and the interior designer all have benefit? Is that “collective” enough? Moving from iron in the ground to occupied office tower, has the purpose, the vocation, the common good been met sufficiently? At each stage of development and production I, we, get our percentage of added value. But if there remains a share belonging to the greater whole, then perhaps the “collective” has become more like the “corruptive” if the true purpose of the iron, the river, the wind, and the tree have not been met.

Fox says we focus on our work, sometimes neglecting our calling. That is to say, I can say “This is my vocation… This is my calling… This is what I think I am meant to be; what I am meant to do.” But the pronouns are “I – Me -My”. But if it is true that the calling comes from a collective need, then one must consider Who is calling…. And what is Their purpose?

My calling is not about me. The calling is about what the collective needs me to be. It is true, the collective needs doctors and lawyers and poets and teachers. The collective needs me. Not for my fulfillment, not alone, not at the expense of anyone else or any thing else with purpose. The purpose is to provide for the common need, the benefit of the whole, the good of all.

It is said that government subsidizes food production. I have access to inexpensive food. I benefit. And so does the baker, the grocer, the truck driver, the seed and fertilizer plants, the machinery manufacturer…. But do we benefit at the expense of the local farmer? There are voices saying we do. And we benefit at the expense of the soil, and the water, and the air. And the future.

Will the farmers and the consumers of the future incur even greater costs and inherit larger liabilities because we took our percentage before they could?

Fox asks whether we are aware of the collective need behind the work we do. Have we heard our calling to provide for the greater good, the common good?

Have I heard the call?

Have I answered it…well?

Rights and Responsibilities: A Few Beginning Thoughts

Imagine someone is saying to you, “I have a right…!”

Pause, freeze frame. Check the volume. Is this said quietly, or is there a bullhorn involved? What’s the expression on the face of the speaker? Is the brow furrowed; the face, flushed? Where are the hands? Are they open and inviting or clenched for a fight?

It seems all too often that when someone is saying, “I have a right…!” there is some conflict involved. Someone feels pushed and is pushing back. Someone feels conflict and engages conflict.

I would like to propose in these few pages that when someone is saying, “I have a right…!” someone is also saying, or needs to say, “I have a responsibility….” I also suggest that where there is the conflict over rights there is also a bond with responsibilities.

You can’t have rights without responsibilities.

From this point on, I don’t want to take a “we-they” or “you-me” approach. So I will be speaking about rights and responsibilities in the first person. “I have a right…” and “I have a responsibility…”

Fundamentally, I want to move from defending my rights to extending my responsibilities.

Rights and responsibilities are both about protecting boundaries. I assert my rights when I feel I am somehow threatened. My position shrinks and narrows to defend myself from harm or protect what I might lose. I feel challenged. So I challenge back.

At the same time, I have responsibilities, not only for myself and my well-being but for the well-being of others as well. I have responsibilities toward the boundaries of others, their rights, if you will. So my position expands in order to do no harm, to be as inclusive as possible, to insure the well-being of both myself…. and you.

Some examples…

“I have the right to bear arms….. I have the right to possess and use firearms…. I have the right to protect myself and my country….”

At the same time, my right to have guns is balanced by your right to safety, privately and publicly. I have the responsibility to keep my firearms locked. Ammunition as well. I have the responsibility to insure that the firearm is not pointed at you. I have the responsibility to insure that I am properly trained, as well as anyone who handles my firearms under my supervision. And I will produce the certificate or licence to express my intention.

I have the right to protect myself, my loved one and my family. At the same time, I have the responsibility not only to see no harm is being done, but to do no harm as well. My use of force, and firearm, is proportional to the degree of threat. I have the responsibility to use only the force required to defend myself and others. I have the responsibility to preserve my life and the lives of my loved ones. And I have the responsibility to protect your life as well. And, the responsibility to protect life may, and often does, mean that I will sacrifice property to preserve life.

“I have the right to defend my country.” Yes. And again, I have the responsibility to use every means at my disposal to defuse conflict and negotiate conflict before resorting to violence. I have the responsibility to defend the oppressed, the innocent, the vulnerable, the endangered, without becoming myself the oppressor, the tyrant and the threat. And I have the responsibility to seek the common good. That may mean I temper my own feelings and resentments and follow the lead and instruction of those assigned the duties to protect the common good.

“I have the right to free speech.” Of course, I have my own thoughts. I have my own opinions. But when does that become an issue?  Free speech and free thought – become issues when private thoughts become expressed thoughts, when personal words become public words. Then my rights must be tempered with my responsibilities.

Free speech allows for the expansion of thought, for imagination, for exploration. New ideas, free ideas, express reality and expand reality. But free speech does not impose reality, without limiting the reality of others. Words can harm. My personal understanding, my personal opinion, once spoken, becomes public opinion. Not to say that my words become the words of others or my opinion becomes the opinion held by others. If my words and opinions were to become imposed upon others, that would be tyranny. The very tyranny I oppose with new thinking. My free speech, once becoming speech, may not be shared by all but is now shared with all. I seek the freedom to think and to speak in new ways, ways that express my freedom of perception, expression and insight. At the same time, I have the responsibility to respect the perceptions, expressions and insights of other. I have the responsibility to acknowledge the experience of others, even as I describe my own. I have the responsibility not to objectify, exploit, shame, denigrate, or disrespect the person behind the stories. I have the responsibility not only to listen to the stories and opinions of others but to seek them, to invite them, and to encourage others to speak what they have in their minds and hearts. At the same time, I have the responsibility to allow a respectful silence for privacy, the choice to withhold until another time, and the profound reality that somethings cannot be expressed at all.

When I protest, “I have a right…!” I am claiming what is distinctive about me. At the same time, I cannot assume my own distinctiveness without allowing the distinctiveness of others.

Anonymity recently has allowed for “free speech” to become undisciplined speech, speech without accountability. If I express my thoughts and my opinions, how can I hide behind anonymity? They are mine. I own them. I express them. I am responsible for what I say and how I say it. In the name of freedom. Freedom for all. “Hate speech” is not “free speech.” If my words objectify, stereotype, humiliate or disrespect others for any reason, because of race, sexual identity or expression, politics, nationality or faith, then those people targeted by my speech are not free. My free speech is not free when others are not free also. My language is not full of freedom; it is full of spite.

Recently, voices have protested, “I have a right not to wear a mask.” Yes, I have the right to risk becoming infected by someone else. On the other hand, I have the responsibility not to infect someone else, should I be the one who has the virus, even without knowing it.  I also have the responsibility, in our public health system, to share the care of those who are infected. I also have the responsibility not to add to the burden of the public or the risk of front-line workers and their families. In a pandemic, we have rights… to wear masks, to travel, to gather, to worship, to celebrate the living and to honor the dead. And, at the same time, we have the responsibility – we publicly share the responsibility – to protect, the innocent, the vulnerable, and the ill.

“I have a right…!” “I demand my rights!” The expression of the right is an expression of the uniqueness of the person.  Actually, the right is more the expression of a common humanity,  than an individual humanity. The demand for rights is an expression not of the uniqueness of one person but a conflict between persons. The protest, the demand, expresses that something is wrong between you and me. My rights and your rights are clashing. My responsibilities and your responsibilities are tangled up or falling short.

“I have a right…” And “I have a responsibility…” As we talk this out… as we seek a common good… protest becomes conversation… individuality becomes mutuality…

These are some beginning thoughts.

Let’s continue the conversation…

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

DMS Mar 20, 2021