The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
"God is not offered in this poetry as one who foams in righteous indignation. Rather God experiences and voices the sadness that anticipates what is to come that cannot be averted. ... YHWH watches over and grieves over YHWH's own people concerning its inescapable trouble to come." -- Walter Brueggemann
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The ancient biblical prophets spoke poetic words of both judgment and hope. They named the pervasive wrongs of their society, and lifted up an imaginative vision of living rightly within God's shalom.
The words of the prophets become very uncomfortable for us when we discern the parallel messages of judgment that apply to our own society. We're not inclined to go looking for that sort of scathing critique. And, tragically, the Revised Common Lectionary tends to skip over the judgment sections of the prophets, so that preachers and congregations are not forced to wrestle often with such texts.
Our reluctance to hear the prophets can turn into full-fledged avoidance in this rationalist modern era, when many churches cringe at the thought of supernatural intervention in the ways of the world. If the prophets are all about God breaking into history to punish wayward people, that's a hard message for us to proclaim, or even accept.
I've been delighted to have that distasteful model of the prophets taken apart. It has been replaced by a new image of the prophetic approach that is wonderfully relevant -- and perhaps makes the words of the prophets even more uncomfortable for us.
Walter Brueggemann gives us that gift in his brand-new book, "The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word." Brueggemann breaks open a reading of prophetic oracles where unavoidable consequences are more important than direct punishment.
In this fresh reading, the bad news of the prophets is not that God will come in a dramatic and unexpected way to smite us, but rather that God will not intervene to protect us from the inherent consequences of our pervasive sin.
Such a prophetic word about consequences is painfully relevant in this time of ecological devastation. We know full well what we are doing wrong -- warping the climate, polluting the biosphere, destroying habitat and pushing species into extinction, exhausting scarce resources, exploiting livestock and workers, seeking our own comfort and privilege at any cost to our neighbors or descendents.
The biblical style of prophecy tells us the distressing news that, when we so blatantly violate God's intention for creation, the expected consequences will follow.
Brueggemann writes about the prophetic "therefore" which connects cause and effect, "a connectedness that dominant imagination believes, with its power and wisdom and wealth, it can overcome." He draws examples -- from Hosea, Amos, Micah and Isaiah -- where, in legal terms:
the 'therefore' stands between an indictment and a sentence. The indictment is a recital of the commandments that have been violated ... The sentence concerns the dismantling of creation. ... The daring 'therefore' makes a connection that depends on a robust creation theology. The argument is that a violation of the commandments of Sinai results in the collapse of creation.
The "therefore" expresses a creation theology because it recognizes the interconnectedness of all of creation, of humans and the rest of creation together. It proclaims that all of creation is ordered and structured to work well within the shape of God's shalom, and that it will not function when shalom is violated.
My stereotypes about the prophets where shaken most thoroughly by Bruggemann's statement: "one is struck by the infrequency with which YHWH directly intervenes as an agent of punishment. In many of the verses that I cited, there is little direct action by God." Spread through several pages, he reinforces the idea that "judgment" is better seen as "consequences".
Thus if one does a 'foolish' thing long enough, the outcome of trouble is inevitable. ... the connection of deed and consequence, of cause and effect, is guaranteed by an order ordained by the creator" ... "the trouble follows the conduct 'automatically' and inevitably; there is no agent who initiates the consequence. There is no divine judgment and not even an appearance of God in such an utterance. The judgment come because the world is ordered in such a way.
Last year, during Lent, I wrote an extended series of Eco-Justice Notes on the theme "Telling the Truth about God's Creation." It was an objective description about how the world works, a factual affirmation about how the cosmos is ordered.
The series ended, on Good Friday, with reflections grounded in Sallie McFague's ecological theology. Her contemporary theological affirmations make exactly the same point as Brueggemann names in the prophets. As I put it a year ago:
God's ultimate truth exists not just in our minds and hearts but in the fabric of the universe. It is found in the natural laws that will always shape our world; humanity's damage, depletion and destabilization is occurring because we have not acknowledged those rules. God's truth is seen in the ever-evolving web of relationships that nurture and sustain all life; we get into trouble when we shred that web and pretend that we are not part of it. Ultimate truth is revealed in the sufficiency and solidarity that call us toward our common survival and flourishing; sin is revealed in our excessive and self-centered accumulation and consumption. We create destruction and pain when we do not recognize and conform to God's truth which is present and at work all around us.
The modern church has neglected the prophets, perhaps because they seem too angry and judgmental, and because we thought that they spoke of an interventionist God who doesn't make sense to us. Walter Brueggemann's careful biblical scholarship has opened my eyes to the stunning parallels between the biblical prophets and the modern voices of ecological ethics. Theologians and scientists are telling us the same thing as Hosea and Amos, Micah and Isaiah -- that our misconduct will have devastating consequences. God does not have to intervene to bring about punishment. Our own disordering of creation will bring it about.
I am energized by Brueggemann's description of the old prophets who simply said "therefore." They preached to their time -- and still to us -- that this delicate and interconnected creation will not tolerate abuse and exploitation.
I can more clearly recognize the prophets in our midst today, now that I can throw out the vengeful God of punishment. Knowing that the Bible's prophetic word of judgment speaks to us about natural consequences, I can see faithful and wise prophets all around.
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