Suffering Produces Hope

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Suffering Produces Hope

by Walter Brueggemann

(The following is an edited text of a paper presented in Baltimore, MD on April 2, 1998, on the occasion of the Dr. A. Vanlier Hunter, Jr. Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.)

It is odd that folks should meet together in

Baltimore on a Thursday night in April to

reflect upon hope, especially since we in the

United States seem already to have

everything, and need hope for nothing more.

And yet, it is not odd that Jews and

Christians should meet together–on any

occasion–to think about hope, because Jews

are the most elemental hopers in the world,

and, in decisive ways, Christians have

learned about hope from Jews. And so, we

Christians hope with Jews. When Jews and

Christians hope together, moreover, we

express our shared oddity, for we hope,

characteristically, in a context that is either

satiated and indulgent, or in despair and

incapable of hope. Either way, hope is a

distinctive act that belongs to us together.

I The Context of Loss

It is correct to say that the destruction of

Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. at the hands of the

Babylonians, and the exile that followed, are

the defining realities for ancient Israel in the

Hebrew Bible. There

surely were people in

Jerusalem who never

departed, but in the

liturgical and

imaginative life of

emerging Judaism,

the loss of home, the

displacement that

followed, and the

apparent loss of God,

were the defining

realities–for that

generation, and for

all generations to come.

The text shows, in many places, that coming

to terms with the loss of Jerusalem was the

overriding intellectual and religious agenda of

ancient Israel. Indeed, coming to terms with

that loss has continued to be an overriding

Jewish agenda, even until our own time.

Ancient Israel “came to terms” with these

losses as it did with all loss: by its capacity

to tell the truth about itself–to claim the

loss, and to express publicly and repeatedly

all the hurt, the grief, the rage, the doubt,

and the bewilderment of what it means to

have the focal center of life and the engine of

faith taken away. With the destruction of

Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., Judaism became a

people displaced from its center and true

home.

In a very different way, and yet strangely

parallel, Christians are defined by the huge,

massive loss of that dread Friday we call

“good.” As Israel had invested the city of

Jerusalem as its center of possibility, so

Christians, for reasons we ourselves do not

fully understand, invested the person of

Jesus with the same cruciality. Jesus became

for Christians the peculiar carrier of God’s

promises in the world in a way similar to the

way Jerusalem had become for Jews the

embodiment of God’s possibilities in the

world. Early Christians were compelled by

Jesus, and they struggled about how to

speak of him. They called him many names

out of their Jewish repertoire, among them

“Messiah/Christ,” by which they meant to say

that Jesus was a human agent who carried

and implemented God’s dreams for the

world. As Jerusalem signified possibilities for

peace, justice, freedom, and security in a

Jewish world, so Jesus was seen from the

start by Christians as a revolutionary force

for transformation in the world.

So Jesus went to Jerusalem–that is the great

decision and great journey of his life–and

there he encountered all the forces of

resistance and status quo because that is

how an urban center tends to work; and

there, eventually, he was executed by the

Romans as a trouble-maker. Just as exiled

Jews pondered the loss of Jerusalem, so

Christians pondered the death of Jesus.

Indeed, half of the gospel story in the New

Testament is about that final week of his life:

from the entry into Jerusalem on Palm

Sunday to the supper and the trial and the

execution. And then darkness and turmoil.

Among exiled Jews the end of Jerusalem

unleashed huge visions of disorder, for

Jerusalem had been the power of order that

held the threat of chaos and disorder at bay.

And so, in exile, they sang of their beloved

city:

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. . . though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of

the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult

. . .

God is in the midst of the city;

it shall not be moved (Psalm 46:2-5).

In much the same way, early Christians saw

in Jesus a power to fend off disorder. And

then came death and darkness and

earthquake and terror. In ways we do not

understand, this loss of Jesus became the

key confession of the early church,

symbolized among Protestants by a cross,

and among Roman Catholics, by a cross with

the body depicted as either suffering or in

triumph. And the mantra of Christian faith

became “Jesus, and him crucified.”

Now it is important, as we meet together,

that Christians understand better than we do

why the loss and recovery of Jerusalem are

pivotal for Jews; and that Jews understand

better why Christians can go on and on

about Friday and Sunday. But I suggest that-

-together–we have a more important,

shared agenda, more important even than

our understanding each other, namely, that

Jews and Christians–even together–do not

live in a vacuum. Jews–with the enduring

loss of Jerusalem–and Christians–with the

enduring death of Jesus–live in a culture

that is now defined by loss, and, therefore, I

propose that our peculiar and shared

traditions of loss are a huge resource for

faith and life in our time.

The loss, now among us, that touches

everything public and personal for everyone,

conservative and liberal alike, includes:

• the failure of the old social fabric, now

deeply in jeopardy;

• the failure of the old consensus of

intellectual certitudes;

• the failure of old patterns of privilege and

domination that we count on;

• the failure of economic viability–except for

the privileged few–so that

“down-sizing” of claims and possibilities goes

on everywhere.

So now we–together–must engage in what

ancient Jews did in Babylon, and what

ancient Christians did in Jerusalem and in

Galilee: embrace the loss that is more than

can be imagined. We are the people who

know loss best because it is definitional in

both our traditions. We are the people who

know best what it is like to give up what is

over. We are the ones who are entrusted

with resources to help our communities and

our society move beyond the loss.

Now, as then, there are some who engage in

denial and nostalgia, imagining that not

much is happening, that the loss is not deep,

not permanent. . . except that

Jerusalem really was gone;

Jesus really was dead;

old patterns really are over: no denial; no

nostalgia.

Now, as then, there are some who engage in

fantasy and in irresponsible private actions,

out of touch with social reality. But then–get

this!–some, in the loss of Jerusalem, and

some, in the death of Jesus, engaged in

massively buoyant acts of recommitment to

the future. It is that massive, buoyant act of

commitment to the future that is our proper

agenda and our proper topic. And here I

reflect with you on that agenda.

II The Primacy of Memory

The primary ingredient–and primary

resource–of faith that is indispensable in a

season of loss is active, determined,

concrete, resilient memory. The loss of

Jerusalem and the death of Jesus might have

resulted in forgetting and abandoning. But,

of course, they did not. Jews and Christians

did not forget; they did not abandon. Rather,

each tradition engaged in an intense and

disciplined recovery of the past.

It is now believed that Judaism–in exile, and

just after–engaged in a massive

reconstitution of memory that led to the

formation and codification of the Torah. The

materials of the Torah are, of course, very,

very old. But as near as we can determine, it

is precisely in the sixth century that the

Priestly traditions codified the holiness rules

that caused Judaism to develop internal

disciplines of odd fidelity. And it was the

traditions of Deuteronomy, linked to Moses,

that codified the rules about widows and

orphans and illegal immigrants that made

Judaism into a community passionate for

social justice. All this, as near as we can tell,

among exiles who grieved Jerusalem. And, of

course, we know the deep, enraged resolve

of the Psalmist:

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign

land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right

hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

if I do not remember you,

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3

if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest

joy (Psalm 137:4-6).

In that moment of the priests and the

Deuteronomists, the whole of the book of

Genesis was gathered–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.

It is in exile, or soon thereafter, that we get

Psalm 136, a liturgical chant for Jews that

remembers the classical story: everything

from creation through Egypt and Pharaoh

and the Red Sea and the good land. And all

the while this dominant memory is being

recited, the congregation is saying, after

every half verse,

ki l’olam hasdo,

ki l’olam hasdo,

ki l’olam hasdo,

for his steadfast love endures forever.

God’s faithfulness, God’s fidelity, God’s

loyalty last always, even now, even in exile,

even in loss. It is not different among early

Christians who reorganized their lives around

the Friday loss. They could not understand

the defeat of Friday any more than Jews

could understand the loss of Jerusalem. But

what those early Christians did–just like the

Jews that they were–was to build their loss

into a stylized memory which was soon

transformed into liturgy, for Paul writes early

on:

“I received from the Lord what I also hand

on to you,”

which is Paul’s way of retelling the

established formula. This became the classic

formulation of the Eucharist–the church’s

great festival of thanksgiving–for “he took

bread, gave thanks, blessed and broke and

gave.” And then in this festival of suffering

love, they said:

“this do in remembrance of me (I Cor 11:23-

24).

Eucharist is a remembering, and since that

time Christians have, in this liturgical act,

recited the great deeds of God, the great

miracles of creation, the ancestors of

Genesis, Exodus, land, culminating in Jesus.

Of Jesus, they remembered his acts of

healing and forgiving and cleansing and

feeding. Thus, this festival of thanksgiving

and of suffering love connects the death of

Jesus to an act of remembrance in which this

community recalls its life saturated with

goodness and mercy of miraculous

proportion. For all their differences, the

cadences are in harmony:

For Jews: “for his steadfast love endures

forever;”

For Christians: “this do in remembrance.”

Both communities resisted forgetting. In the

midst of loss, both communities remembered

that life consists in powerful acts of

generosity and transformation on the part of

God that cannot be explained, acts of

generosity and transformation that we call

miracles. In the midst of loss, our two

communities recited miracles as a refusal to

forget.

Now I tell you this because in our society,

which is in the midst of profound loss–of a

world we have trusted and that is no more–

we face a deep amnesia. For Jews and

Christians, loss evokes memory. For the

society around us, loss evokes amnesia . . .

and the outcome is a society without

reference, without buoyancy, and without

staying power for things human.

I suppose the temptation to amnesia is broad

and deep and complex among us:

• the temptation for grandchildren of

immigrants not to remember the price paid

for being here;

• the temptation of African-American

grandchildren not to embrace the costs of

the civil rights struggle or the massive

racism in its midst;

• the temptation of Jewish children not to

want to take the time or the discipline to live

either the possibilities of Torah or the pain of

the Shoah;

• the temptation of the affluent not to

remember the suffering that has produced

structures of freedom and procedures of

justice.

The list goes on–the loss of the concrete;

the embarrassment of the particular; the

irrelevance of rootage–and the great lever

for amnesia is televised consumerism in

which everything is reduced to 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 our business tonight to do a cultural

critique of society, except to notice what a

seduction and a temptation this culture of

amnesia is to Jewish faith and to Christian

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faith. For without vivid, concrete, nameable

memories of miracles, we are out of

business. But, of course, the truth that our

communities hold in common, but do in very

different ways, is that we are indeed

passionate communities of memory who

experience seasons of loss as seasons of

passionate memory.

III Suffering Produces Hope

Now I come finally to our proper theme. Our

two communities are twinned in loss; our

two communities are twinned in memory.

The loss in each case has evoked memory. I

do understand that this twinning in loss and

in memory is not fully commensurate, for

Christians have been for a very long time not

only dominant, but abusive and oppressive,

while Jews have been for a very long time

subservient and abused. I understand that

historical reality and do not take it lightly.

But our work just now is to see if we can

reclaim the twinning of loss and the twinning

of memory in ways that will keep us twinned

in hope.

The amazing thing about our communities of

faith, evident in our common life, is that

memory produces hope in the same way that

amnesia produces despair. Ponder that:

memory produces hope. We Jews and

Christians are people who recall the defining

memories and miracles of their lives. We

hope in and trust the God who has done

these past miracles, and we dare to affirm

that the God who has done past acts of

transformation and generosity will do future

acts of transformation and generosity. By a

profound, elemental, and unshakable trust,

Jews affirm that the deep loss of Jerusalem

did not disrupt God’s power and resolve in

the world. By a profound, elemental and

unshakable faith, Christians affirm that the

deep loss in the death of Jesus did not

disrupt God’s power and resolve in the world.

And that is the key issue in hope. If our

embrace of God’s past is thin, we may

imagine that God is now defeated. If our

embrace of God’s past is thick and palpable,

we will continue to trust in that same God.

We watch while those Jews in exile took their

memories and turned them to the future.

Right in the middle of the poetry of the Book

of Lamentations–the poetry of deep loss and

sadness–the poet is ready to quit:

Gone is my glory,

and all that I had hoped for from the Lord

(Lam 3:18).

But then this–an invitation to newness–only

three verses later:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

his 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 him (Lam 3:21-24).

This voice of Judaism in loss recalls God’s

steadfast love (hesed), God’s compassion

(rahamim), and God’s covenant faithfulness

(‘amunah), and therefore ‘I will hope in him.’

These three words–hesed, raham, ‘amunah-

-are the three great, pivot words of faith:

steadfast love, compassion, faithfulness.

Israel in exile recalled these, recalled

concretely how God had acted, recalled

miracles of fidelity. And then Israel in exile

uttered this stunning affirmation about the

future: ‘al-ken, “therefore.” The “therefore”

is the turn that believing people make from

past to future, affirming that the future is

surely to be shaped and governed by God’s

steadfast love, God’s compassion, and God’s

abiding faithfulness. The future is not a

shapeless void. The future is not a chaotic

barbarism. The future is shaped by God’s

gracious transformative miracles, as was our

past.

That same Isaiah in exile famously declares:

Do not remember former things,

nor consider the things of old.

Quit reciting ancient miracles. Do not be

locked into that old, precious remembering:

I am about to do a new thing,

now it springs forth,

do you not perceive it (Is 43:19)?.

God is doing something new that is

congruent with God’s past actions, and

faithful, discerning people are able to see, to

notice, to embrace, and to receive that

newness as it is given by God. And then this

poetic tradition of exile fills out the future in

acts of buoyant imagination: even in times of

barbaric imperialism, God is giving newness.

God will stay with it until God has brought

the world right.

I want you to observe this extraordinary

claim that is being made in the face of evil,

disorder, social chaos, and imperial abuse:

God has not quit; God will make it right,

because God will yet do what God has always

already done.

In the prophetic imagination of Jeremiah,

Ezekiel, and later Isaiah, moreover, there are

many scenarios of God’s good future for

Israel. This material is all poetic imagination.

We call it “prophetic.” If you like, you can

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say it is “inspired by God.” But at least you

must imagine little groups of displaced Jews

listening to these poets with their fabulous,

determined visions of how it might be:

• Ezekiel envisioned a restored temple in

Jerusalem;

• Jeremiah enjoined a new covenant with

Israel, wherein God would completely forgive

and start again with this people;

• Isaiah anticipated a wondrous, triumphant

homecoming to Jerusalem, led by a

victorious God who has defeated Babylon.

All these poets invited Israel beyond the

concrete circumstance of their lives to a

world that was soon to be enacted by the

word of God.

I imagine these people deep in loss and deep

in memory, gathered to listen to something

like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream

speech. It is a dream rooted in God’s own

passion, a dream that tells of God’s resolve

to make things new, undeterred by

circumstance. As you know, King’s Dream

speech was of things he could not explain; it

was a vision that defied and overrode

circumstance. People of hope are always

people who so embrace the promise that

they will not settle for present circumstance.

So these exiled Jews–the most passionate,

the most faithful–took these dreams and

hopes as the truth of their life. They acted

toward that future.

It is not different with the early church. The

early Christians had engaged so deeply with

Jesus and were so sure he was the

quintessential carrier of God’s goodness, that

they knew Friday was not the end. The tap

root of Christian hope is that they turned the

old memories of Jesus toward the future. The

one who had healed the sick, had forgiven

the guilty, and had raised the dead would do

more. As they made that turn, they arrived

at Easter, the tap root of all Christian future.

In the Easter event lie all the hopes of the

Church. Easter is not an act of magic

anymore than Jewish homecoming is an act

of magic. It is, like Jews coming home, a

miracle wrought in God’s fidelity. Those early

Christians came to know in the Easter event

that God’s power embodied in Jesus is still on

the move in the world. Jesus is still

summoning and inviting and recruiting

people to subscribe to his passion for God’s

future in disciplined ways. As Judaism

emerged in the long and unfinished process

of homecoming, so the church takes its life in

the Easter conviction that what was begun

on that Sunday is powerfully underway as

God’s good resolve for the earth.

Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, studies the

amazing miracle of Christian hope, and

articulates a stunning calculus of the life of

faith:

We boast in 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 (Rom 5:3-5).

This statement is expressed in Christian

cadences, but it strikes me as close to the

core of what makes us distinctive together

with Jews:

suffering . . . endurance . . .character . . .

hope . . .

and hope does not disappoint us.

This is the speech of a community that

refuses to give in. It is the speech of a

community that refuses the present loss as

the last truth; a community that knows that

God is not finished. God is not finished, and

so Christians, in the tensive claim of the

Eucharist, where we say, “Do this in

remembrance of me,” also say after Paul:

As often as you eat this bread and drink the

cup,

you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes

(I Cor 11:26, ital., mine),

which is a Christian way of acknowledging

that things are not finished, and God must

yet complete the future that is now

beginning.

The capacity to turn memory to hope in the

midst of loss–a capacity that is defining for

Jews and Christians alike–is not a

psychological trick. It is a massive

theological act that is not about optimism or

even about signs of newness. It is rather a

statement about the fidelity of God who is

the key player in our past and in our future.

And therefore, when the good news of the

future is announced to the exiles, Isaiah in

exile asserts:

Here is your God: hinneh eloheken (40:9).

Your God reigns: malak eloheka (52:7).

And, in parallel, 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

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6

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 nostalgia, has little access to God. In

this world, God does not appear to be a live

or relevant player, and where God is not a

player, as Dostoyevsky has seen, “everything

is possible”–everything brutal, everything

greedy, everything violent–because greed,

brutality, and violence are the fruits of

idolatry and atheism, the fruits of a world

without God. Such acts and attitudes and

policies are the work of those who do not

remember steadfast love, compassion, and

mercy. It is the work of those who seek to

have their future on their own terms. And so

we Jews and we Christians, in a society of

atheism and idolatry, are always again

deciding about God’s future among us.

IV Us and the Others

These “hopers”–Jews and Christians–were

people in demanding and difficult

circumstance. And so they asked, first and

inevitably, how will this effect us? Hope

tends to stay very close to home.

On the one hand, hope for Jews in exile was

focused upon the recovery of Jerusalem and

the rehabilitation of Jews in the homeland.

The text is saturated with that hope, and of

course, that preoccupation, so deep in the

text, clearly is at work in the politics of the

state of Israel and a variety of Zionist claims.

It could hardly be otherwise, then or now,

given the long story of brutality. So Jews in

exile imagined and hoped for and counted

upon a recovery of the land and the city,

perhaps as a gift of Cyrus, the Persian, and a

lot of human courage and cunning and

initiative.

The amazing thing is that in the midst of

such justifiable preoccupation with self and

community, these same lyrical dreams are

not narrowly for the community. There is a

spill-over beyond the community, because in

the end, this is God’s future and not the

future of the Jews. And so, for example, the

book of Isaiah is framed in chapter 2 with a

vision of all nations coming to Jerusalem for

Torah that will make peace possible:

Many peoples shall come and say,

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the

Lord . . .

For out of Zion shall go forth Torah

and the word from Jerusalem . . .

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more (Is

2:3-4).

This vision is indeed of Jerusalem, but there

is no hint of Jewish privilege in this prophetic

vision. It is a gift of God in Jerusalem, but a

gift for the whole world, a gift that must not

be kept as close monopoly.

Chapter 2 of Isaiah is matched by chapter

65, at the end of the book, about a new

Jerusalem, a new heaven, and a new earth

that exult in the new rule of God that

touches everyone, everywhere, from

Jerusalem on out. No doubt the urgent issue

of our hope is to adjudicate promises for us

and promises beyond us.

On the other hand, Christian hope, too, was

hope for the world. Except that these earliest

Christians, who had risked a great deal by

being seen in public with Jesus, were

concerned for themselves. You can see in the

gospel narratives that while they were

making large, loud claims for the risen Jesus,

they were also creating narratives by which

to gain power in the early movement. We

can see that Peter is the dominant engine of

the future in the early church. While he is

remembered as having denied Jesus at the

trial, claiming not to know him, there is

competition in the narrative to claim who got

to the Easter tomb first, and at the end of

John (21:15-19), Peter is treated to special

address as the coming dominant power in

the church. And so the special celebration of

Peter in Matt. 16:18 is much prized by

Christians–Protestants and Catholics alike:

I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I

will build my church, and the gates of Hades

will not prevail against it. I give you the keys

of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you

bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and

whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in

heaven (Matt 16:18-19).

Now my reason for dwelling on this is that

the concern for the control of the future life

of the church seems to me parallel to the

Jewish preoccupation with Jerusalem for

Jews. And in the Christian tradition as well,

while there is much that is turned in on the

church, there is also a reach beyond the

church to the world, insisting that the Gospel

carried in Jesus of Nazareth is not for

Christian preeminence or domination in the

world, but rather it is affirmed that in Jesus

of Nazareth, God’s good governance of all

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7

creation has begun in a fresh way. And so in

Christian faith, there is an endless juggling

act of Christian hope to adjudicate promises

for us and promises beyond us.

I do not suggest that the cases are parallel,

but I do suggest that for these two

communities of hope, the same tough issue

is present in both, although in very different

forms. As we become anxious, the tendency

is to focus on the promise to us, when in

precisely those times, it is the promise

beyond us that matters most.

In both Jewish and Christian faith, because

these communities of hope are concrete,

identifiable, institutional entities, there is an

easy readiness to draw the hopes of God

toward us–toward Jews, toward Christians–

because of our awareness of the fragility of

our historic communities. But this readiness

lives in tension with another awareness.

Because our shared and common hope is in

God, it is clear that these hopes cannot be

fully packaged in and filtered through us, but

reach to the world in practices of hesed,

raham, and ‘amunah in ways not managed

by us or by our communities.

V Us and Beyond Us

This tension of us and beyond us may take

yet another form. It is clear that for both

Christians and Jews, the dominant form of

hope is prophetic messianism. That is, it is a

hope that will come to fruition in the

historical process, for the historical process,

and by human agents. In the loss and

recovery of Jerusalem, that human agent is

variously identified as Nebuchadnezzar or

Cyrus, or, eventually, Ezra. These are known

human agents who will do God’s work in the

earth. And there is clear evidence that the

prospering of early Judaism depended upon

the funding of the Persian empire, a very

human enterprise. In Christian hope, the

matter is parallel. For all our doctrinal

formulations that are endlessly problematic,

it is the core claim of Christianity that the

human person of Nazareth, whose name and

family and home town are known to us, is

the agent of newness. Post Easter, post

Pentecost, it is the spirit of Jesus that brings

the future. I suspect that all of us would

hope through such human claims, Jewish or

Christian.

But, of course, there is more. There is more

because these expectations have not worked

out so well. Jerusalem was not–on

anybody’s schedule–recovered in that

ancient world: a huge and definitional

disappointment. And so, in the emerging

work of Rabbinic Judaism, there was a hope

that pushed beyond the prophetic, beyond

the messianic, beyond human hope, into

another realm of discourse and into another

realm of expectation. That hope is called

apocalyptic: a theology and a literature of a

cosmic clash between forces of good and

forces of evil who fight desperately for the

control of the future. In this great cosmic

conflict, the community of Jewish faith is not

a participant, but only a bystander who

awaits the outcome with confidence.

Apocalyptic literature of the period is “serious

literature” that assures the faithful that they

may be confident, because while the struggle

is deep and violent, the outcome is sure, and

the faithful need only trust and be at peace.

The rhetoric of this faith is enormously

imaginative, voicing images and symbols

that are outside the normal scope of human

discourse and imagination, the kinds of

images, symbols, and phrases needed to talk

about a conflict that is out beyond us: out of

reach, out of access, out of control.

It is important to recognize that this

literature, for all its very peculiar character,

is a theological act of hope. It is a candid

acknowledgment that for an interim, perhaps

a long interim, the struggle will be hard, with

violence and disorder. But the outcome is

sure: God will win and we are safe! That is

its theological claim, though it arrives at that

point in ways we think odd.

The rabbis who ordered the Hebrew Bible, on

the whole, looked upon this discourse in

negative ways. They found it odd and

offensive, inviting extremity. For the most

part, they were able to keep it out of the

Bible, to muster biblical hope in more

reasoned discourse. But they could not

completely omit it, so it is there in Jeremiah,

Zechariah, and especially Daniel. And the

reason they could not keep it out is that the

times were so desperate, the needs, so

intense that some required a faith that could

match the crisis in its intensity and

shrillness. Thus the rhetoric matches the

crisis, for it goes deep into the reality of

chaos and disorder and there finds the God

who is perfectly capable of defeating all that

threatens life. It was clear to such voices

that common-sense and ordinary faith would

be no match for the threat, and so it was

essential to go deeper.

It is not different in the New Testament. The

central claim of the church is that Christ’s

spirit is at work to bring God’s rule among

Walter Brueggemann : Suffering produces Hope

8

us. But that early church lived in a context of

enormous threat and despair, in which this

literature and this hope is massive in its

daring claim. The early church fathers, like

the early rabbis, sought to organize the New

Testament for a different sort of faith. But

they could not do so, first, because of the

context, and second, because the cosmic

victory claimed for Christ over the powers of

death and chaos would not be derived from

present action, but would be a deep and

profound newness that had to come from

outside. And so they imagined, appealing to

the book of Daniel, that the newness of God

would come like the intrusion of a cloud

entering the atmosphere. They strained to

find language that would express this utter

otherness of the God who would win and

keep us safe.

So there is in the mouth of Jesus a warning

and an invitation that God’s rule will come

suddenly among us–abruptly, violently–to

bring the world to joy and obedience:

Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know

when the master of the house will come, in

the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow,

or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep

when he comes suddenly. And what I say to

you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:35-

37).

The early church sang in its deep

expectation:

The kingdom of the world has become the

kingdom of our Lord

and of his Messiah,

and he will reign forever and ever (Rev

11:15).

The hope of the church, derived in form and

content from the hopes of Judaism, is that

the present trouble will be overcome by

God’s good rule. In the end, God will win and

we will be safe.

Now this matter of apocalyptic faith that lives

at the edge of both the Hebrew Bible and the

New Testament warrants our attention for

three reasons:

12. Apocalyptic faith is more than a little

embarrassing for those of us who are urbane

and sophisticated in faith, for it violates our

more respectable reason.

13. Yet, it makes assertions that are pivotal

for our faith, because we Jews and Christians

trust deeply in God’s future, and we need a

way of rhetoric to speak our faith.

14. But this rhetoric of apocalyptic is

profoundly open to distortion and abuse. The

theological verdict that “God will win and we

are safe” is an unthinkable gift that admits

that things are beyond are control, but will

turn to the good. The rhetoric is candid to

acknowledge that God’s control is not yet

visible and in the meantime there is acute

threat and violence.

It is a wrong move–and an easy move–to

conclude that we must participate in the

violence in order to assure the victory of

God. Such a practice–now evident in many

places (among them the vigilante in this

country, supported by Christian zealots and

echoed in other places by Jewish zealots)–is

a deep betrayal of Jewish and Christian

apocalyptic faith, for it confuses our

engagement in violence with the deep faith

that leads to watchful, confident, quiet

waiting. I am aware of the problematic of

such a claim–to wait and hope–given the

rich history of waiting, resistance, and

violence. Whatever judgment may be made

on strategic grounds, we should at least be

clear that the faith we share is not a faith in

human violence, but a trust in God’s

governance in and through whatever

violence evil may do. I suspect that we shall

continue to struggle in our faith communities

with this matter, struggling with the claim

that God’s power and God’s governance do

indeed redefine our life, and we are

permitted neither to quit nor to despair nor

to seize life in our own hands, as though God

were not present to us.

Jews and Christians are indeed people who

wait in confidence, recognizing that our

agendas are profoundly penultimate and not

ultimate. What we are now able to face, as

we have not before, is a common waiting for

the gift of God that has not before seemed to

us to be common. I do not imagine that we

can easily, or if ever, overcome the sorry

history of Christian domination and Jewish

suffering. That fact will linger. What we may

be able to see, however, in growing contexts

of trust, is that the good gifts of God’s

governance are an important equalizer that

permits no violence toward each other.

Newness is grounded only in the God who

will win and who will keep us safe, but the

winning is not our victory.

VI So What?

I have tried to trace our common inheritance

of hope that rises from memory in loss. What

I now want to ask is, so what? Does hope

make any difference? And, of course, the

answer is “Yes,” or we would not be thinking

Walter Brueggemann : Suffering produces Hope

9

about it together as we are. But let me say

what that difference is.

People who hope are not people who have a

vague sense that things will work out all

right. People who hope are those who know

the name of God and the characteristic gifts

of God: hesed, raham, and ‘amunah, the

three great qualities that eventuate in

shalom. People who hope have complete

confidence in God’s coming shalom, a rule of

order, peace, security, justice, and

abundance. Without denying any present

disorder, confusion, or distortion, people who

hope, watch, wait, pray, and expect, know

that God’s shalom is as good as done. People

who hope are people who act in the

conviction that God’s future is reliably

“present tense” and act upon it before it is

fully in hand.

The future is not in hand, but it is at hand,

and therefore we count on the winner who

has yet to do the winning. We–Jews and

Christians–need to be asking: what happens

“present tense” if God’s future is secure? And

the answer is: God’s future is enacted as

present neighborliness. If God’s future is not

sure, then the present ought to be shaped

and propelled by greed, injustice,

exploitation, brutality, and barbarism. These

are the fruits of an atheism that believes

there is no future from God. These are the

fruits of an idolatry that has God all confused

with militarism, racism, sexism, ageism, and

ethnic privilege.

We Jews and Christians, however, have no

truck with such self-serving atheism or such

self-destructive idolatry. The commands of

Torah are rooted in God’s coming. Jesus, of

course, was fully instructed by rabbinic

teachers when he named the two great

commandments. They asked him which one

was the most important. He said, “Love God

and love neighbor.” They said, “We only

asked for one.” He said, “You cannot have

one. You always get two. You always get the

neighbor with God.” And, of course, the

rabbis knew that long before Jesus . . .

Now we live in a society that wants to

separate God and neighbor, to keep

something of God without the neighbor who

comes with God. But, of course, we cannot,

because God’s coming shalom, which is sure

for the world, is a gift of neighborliness, and

so widow, orphan, illegal immigrant, poor,

homeless, disabled, homosexual–all those

not like us, all those who are threat and

inconvenience, all those who are citizens of

God’s shalom–count in the way we trust in

God.

I speak to you about an emergency and you

know it is an emergency:

• The emergency is that the human

questions have almost been forgotten among

us.

• The emergency is that the collapse of the

human fabric of our common life fates us to

violence.

• The emergency is that the creation is

jeopardized by our anxious greed.

Jews must look to the state of Israel and its

endangerment. Christians must look to the

church and its vexed future in the West.

Those are our close engagements. But Jews

and Christians are always to look beyond

ourselves and beyond our local needs and

our local claims, because in the end, the

future belongs to the God of hesed, raham,

and ‘amunah . . . eventually, to shalom . . .

and not to us.

The Psalmist confesses:

Not to us, O Lord, not to us,

but to your name give glory,

for the sake of your steadfast love and your

faithfulness

(Psalm 115:1, ital., mine).

And Paul echoes:

Now to him who by the power at work within

us is able to accomplish abundantly far more

than all we can ask or imagine, to him be

glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all

generations, forever and ever. Amen (Eph

3:20-21).

We are so different in our utterance: “not to

us” . . . “to him who is able.” But we are so

alike. We have all things in common:

remembering together,

hoping together,

neighboring together,

set together in God’s generosity,

God’s transformation,

God’s miraculous shalom . . . coming soon.

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