As I reflect upon all the political commentary I’ve read on our election as well as the Brexit debacle, we are inundated with political, economic, and sociological perspectives. Missing is the theological.
I know that preachers once occupied a prominent position in our country as social commentators. I also know that today many people don’t hear preachers, whether liberal or conservative, often because participation in organized religion has diminished. I also find that the media generally has no clue about religion, but in a nod towards hearing a faithful voice, will usually tap a religiously conservative commentator rather than a liberal one. (It’s why we get Tony Perkins to comment about LGBTQ issues, which shuts out the entire progressive side of the spectrum.)
The best commentary I’ve read (because networks don’t call on Walter Brueggemann to comment) on what’s happening today was in Brueggemann’s book Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles, which was published in the late 1990s. Actually, it wasn’t a commentary as much as it was a prophetic explanation.
A quick Bible lesson before we go on. Around 586 BCE, Judah collapsed. The Jerusalem Temple fell. Judah’s political and economic leadership, went into exile to Babylon. They did not return until around 539 BCE after Cyrus, the Persian king, conquered Babylon. The Exile was a theological turning point, which we see noticeably in Isaiah 56-66. Whereas Second Isaiah 40-55 reflected upon the time in Babylon, Third Isaiah reflected the tensions in defining the communal life after its return.
Although Brueggemann addressed the state of the American church, his analysis easily could apply to American secular community as well. Addressing exile, Brueggemann wrote, “exiles experienced a loss of the structured, reliable world which gave them meaning and coherence, and they found themselves in a context where their most treasured and trusted symbols of faith were mocked, trivialized, and dismissed. Exile is not primarily geographical, but it is social, moral, and cultural.” Referring to the cultural dimension, “The ‘homeland’ in which all of us have grown up has been defined and dominated by white, male, Western assumptions which were, at the same time, imposed and willingly embraced. Exile comes as those values and modes of authority are effectively and progressively diminished. That diminishment is a source of deep displacement for many, even though for others who are not male and white, it is a moment of emancipation.” (page 2)
As I think about what has been happening in the United States, even before this election cycle, and tangentially Great Britain in the wake of Brexit, we’re seeing a desire to hold fast to a past that is mythologized and never to return. Changes, beginning with the diminished authority and privilege of white men, have been happening for decades. We can see it in the result of civil rights which brought about affirmative action. Other tongues, such as Spanish, have become part of the daily fabric of American culture. We see it in the rise of feminism and more open expressions of sexuality, specifically in the rights of LGBTQ people. Immigrants have gained their footing in the American economy. The assumptions of the 1950s and 1960s, especially for straight, white men, faded.
Culture, though, is not the only change affecting this nation. Capital is no longer bound by national borders. Companies can move work around the globe in order to cut production costs. Technology has increased productivity so fewer workers are needed to manufacture products. Telecommunications has made it possible to deploy people and departments around the globe. These changes have arisen faster and change faster than our institutions have been able to manage. People have lost their jobs, feeling their jobs are not reliable, or can’t get reasonable wage increases.
These changes came slowly at first, but over time their rapidity has outstripped our capacity to adjust and re-imagine our life’s assumptions. We become fearful and want to protect and hold fast to what we had.
Fear disposes us to close ranks and circle the wagons. We’re too anxious to protect the idea we hold in our heads of a better time, not acknowledging the wider forces in our lives will prevent that from happening.
So, we keep out immigrants. We want to make sure people have their guns. We manipulate the people using fear and demonizing those who are not like us. In fear we don’t listen or think carefully. Our reptilian portion of our brains take over and we become defensive.
When that happens, we can’t think creatively. We can’t live generously. We can’t imagine a fuller and richer future because we’re too focused on preserving what we once had or thought we had. We fall for “snake oil” promises of greatness without thinking seriously how those promises will be made real. From a preacher’s perspective, when won’t find “home” again until we embrace the deep spiritual values we teach as part of our faith: love, generosity, compassion, gratitude.
The “snake oil” salesman appeals to our fears. We forget 1 John 4:18, “…perfect love casts out fear.”
The response to the changes we face is not to retreat in fear in order to hold fast to a mythological past, but to trust love’s transforming power. It will take new theological imagination by re-imagining and reclaiming the cherished values of the past, such as real community where people really care for each other and the common good is upheld so everyone has his/her share of daily bread, even as the markers all around us are different. We can’t receive new possibilities if we insist on clutching a past that is no more and can be no more.
We need theologians, maybe now more than ever.