Tag Archives: Walter Brueggemann

Social Media, Sabbath and Silence: Three Ways to Counter Misshaping Cultural Currents

This is a repost from an entry I made on the Missio Alliance Blog last month, and it has also been curated on the Baptist News Global Perspectives Page:

The community group that I co-lead in our church has recently been talking about and experimenting with how to better spend our time and money on what matters most in God’s economy. At this point, we’re not very ambitious, but I think that’s a good thing for now. It’s easy for me to lose sight of the little ways in which we are called to be faithful. I enjoy thinking about the big picture — about the global economy, the ecological crisis, and geopolitical conflicts. Of course, Christians need to be involved in and concerned about these things. It’s just that I’ve learned how much my own personality is prone to introversion, abstraction and disembodied faith. I’ve learned that I need practices and people to keep me grounded and focused on the tangible responsibilities in my own little life. So we’re helping each other ask, what are the areas and opportunities for change right in front of me?

Last week we assigned three simple tasks, each of which is intended to challenge the cultural currents that are misshaping not only the church’s engagement with its mission but also community life in general in our society today.

First, in an effort to free ourselves from the cultural currents of our polemical political climate, some of us agreed to take a social media fast, and re-think the way we use social media altogether. On the surface, this seems like a harmless way to simply disconnect for a time and enable reconnection through face-to-face relationships. While that is certainly part of the goal, there is more to it than that. In her book Blog Theory, Jodi Dean has argued that social media is actually part of a force of what she calls “communicative capitalism.” This force functions to capture critique and resistance, and reformat it back into the social media circuit only to then have it broken up into smaller bits. At this point, the smaller bits of thought and insight can still be shared, but not in such a way that adds up to anything that might aid us in understanding, critically confronting or restructuring our present life. Dean explains that the

“deluge of images and announcements, enjoining us to react, to feel, to forward them to our friends, erodes critical-theoretical capacities — aren’t they really just opinions anyway? Feelings dressed up in jargon? Drowning in plurality, we lose the capacity to grasp anything like a system. React and forward, but don’t by any means think.”

One of the purposes of a social media fast then serves to cut us off from the pressure release valve that is clicking, “liking,” “favoriting,” “sharing,” and “commenting.” Notwithstanding the irony of writing about this through the medium of a blog post, the hope is that our time away reveals not only our egoistic tendency toward self-promotion, but also the drive to minimalistic, low-risk involvement in relationships and in the public sphere. The ultimate aim of such a practice is the transformation of politics and culture itself, but it has to start with our own individual, daily lives.

Secondly, we invited each other to take a real, 24-hour Sabbath. Of course, Sabbath is always an important practice for Christians to observe, but it is especially fitting in our culture today for at least two reasons. In the first place, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Sabbath is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity.” Sabbath makes time and space for people to become related to each other once again as people. It’s a shift from commodity-centeredness to covenantal relationship. So it serves us personally to be more richly related corporately.

In the second place, this invitation is reciprocated to others when we encounter them. Sabbath-keeping shares Sabbath. According to Sam Wells and Marcia Owen,

“Those who learn … stillness find that their lives become a Sabbath for those who encounter them. … Their lives become an embrace of the qualities and gifts in those around them that others have been too busy or too threatened or too self-absorbed to see and encourage. Their lives become an invitation into a place of depth, but an exhilarating invitation because it is depth without fear, depth as an adventure in which you are expecting to be met by God. Their lives become a place and a time of renewal in which others rediscover who they are and who God is.”

The end goal is to signal toward a new economy, a new environment, and a new creation. But again, it starts with the church actually becoming a pacesetter for this alternative rhythm of rest — one that counters busyness and consumerism, and one that rehumanizes our relationships.

Finally, we were instructed to spend anywhere from five to twenty minutes a day in stillness and silence. This could be a time for meditation or contemplative prayer, but regardless, the aim is the same: powering down what Thomas Keating has aptly called our “emotional programs for happiness.” We all have a pre-programmed self that is governed by instinctual values and conventional ideas. Unless recalibrated, this program will run us into some form of legalism or individualism. Silence and stillness — not just of body, but of thought — begins the journey of installing a new program. It takes patience, discipline and plenty of failure before this program gets fully uploaded and running, but God’s economy won’t operate on the version of that program that we were born with.

Just like fasting from social media and observing Sabbath, practices like meditation and contemplative prayer are not only intended to further our own spiritual formation. They are meant to grow us into our authentic selves, and into our authentic voices. Only then can the church participate in its mission in a way that shapes, rather than gets misshaped by the dominant culture. Cynthia Bourgeault talks about the mission behind stillness and silence in this way:

“The world will never listen to an arrogant voice that pronounces from a position of power and privilege. The world will listen only to the authentic voice that speaks from a place of deep sensitivity and openness to the real wisdom that is already present in the hearts of people who do not find a place in the church.”

This is not a battle cry to make our faith more palatable to the cultural currents. Practices like those just described are hardly accommodations. They are tools to help us live our faith faithfully enough to actually be heard.

Nor as a church are we supposed to “right” the “wrongs” in the world. There’s plenty that needs to be done to address the problems in the world for which North American Christians are more than partly responsible. But if we don’t start with disciplines that are as simple and concrete as these, we’ll never get anywhere.

Social Justice Ideology vs. Peacemaking

This distinction between social justice ideology and peacemaking is an interesting one that’s been brought to my attention recently through returning to some of Walter Brueggemann‘s work.  Obviously, social justice is a good thing.  As ideology, however — that is, as an ossified concept or immaterial absolute — its truth and goodness is cheapened.  Usually this happens when we pursue social justice solely by mechanical and rhetorical means. In doing so, we neglect aesthetics and appeal narrowly to a quantifiable distribution of goods, rights, laws, or to universal abstract ideals like freedom an equality — without embodied community, neighborliness or celebration of beauty and creativity.

Social justice ideology is depersonalized and lacks self-awareness.  It also tends to lack hope.  It merely identifies injustice and gets angry.  Basically, it’s pure judgment, which means it’s lazy.  Social justice ideology, much like conservative ideology, says we are right, you are wrong, and never relinquishes that condescending posture.  Richard Niebuhr called this henotheism.

Peacemaking on the other hand goes something like this:

Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity.  it is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice.  It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.  Peacemaking is about being able to recognize in the face of the oppressed our own faces, and in the hands of the oppressors our own hands.

Peacemaking, like most beautiful things, begins small.  Matthew 18 gives us a clear process for making peace with someone who has hurt or offended us; first we are to talk directly with them, not at them or around them . . . Straight talk is counter-cultural in a world that prefers politeness to honesty.  In his Rule, Benedict of Nursia speaks passionately about the deadly poison of “murmuring,” the negativity and dissension that can infect community and rot the fabric of love.

Peacemaking begins with what we can change — ourselves.  But it doesn’t end there.  We are to be peacemakers in a world riddled with violence.  That means interrupting violence with imagination, on our streets and in our world. Peacemaking “that is not like any way the empire brings peace” is rooted in the nonviolence of the cross, where we see a Savior who loves his enemies so much that he died for them.

— From A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

In sum, peacemaking is neither Fight nor Flight, but something altogether different.

According to Walter Wink, Flight consists of submission, passivity, withdrawal or surrender.  Conversely, Fight looks like armed revolt, violent rebellion, direct retaliation or revenge.  The neither/nor alternative is as follows:

• Seize the moral initiative
• Find a creative alternative to violence
• Assert your own humanity and dignity
as a person
• Meet force with ridicule or humor
• Break the cycle of humiliation
• Refuse to submit or to accept the
inferior position
• Expose the injustice of the system
• Take control of the power dynamic
• Shame the oppressor into repentance
• Stand your ground
• Make the Powers make decisions for which
they are not prepared
• Recognize your own power
• Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
• Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
• Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a
show of force is effective
• Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking
unjust laws
• Die to fear of the old order and its rules

A similar lesson seems to have recently been learned by protagonist and lead female actor Emily VanCamp‘s character Emily Thorne in an episode last week of the hit ABC television drama series Revenge.


I’m interested to see how this season plays out and hope to reflect on it some when it’s over.  In short though, she’s dedicated practically her whole life to an elaborate scheme aimed at avenging her father’s unjust death and public shame, which was carried out through a complex cover-up and legal scandal that left a number of pernicious perpetrators off the hook.  It’s too early to tell for sure, but it looks like Emily could be making the difficult but transformative journey from eye-for-an-eye ideology to real peacemaking.

The Inward/Upward and Outward

O Lord, who else or what else can I desire but you?  You are my Lord, Lord of my heart, mind, and soul.  You know me through and through.  In and through you everything that is finds tis origin and goal.  You embrace all that exists and care for it with divine love and compassion.  Why, then, do I keep expecting happiness and satisfaction outside of you?  Why do I keep relating to you as one of my many relationships, instead of my only relationship, in which all other ones are grounded?  Why do I keep looking for popularity, respect from others, success, acclaim, and sensual pleasures?  Why, Lord, is it so hard for me to make you the only one?  Why do I keep hesitating to surrender myself totally to you?  Help me, O Lord, to let my old self die, to let die the thousand big and small ways in which I am still building up my false self and trying to cling to my false desires.  Let me be reborn in you and see through you the world in the right way, so that all my actions, words, and thought can become a hymn of praise to you. I need your loving grace to travel on this hard road that leads to the death of my old self and to a new life in and for you.  I know and trust that this is the road to freedom.- from A Cry for Mercy by Henri J. M. Nouwen

Jesus in his solidarity with the marginal ones is moved to compassion.  Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.  In the arrangement of “lawfulness” in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharaoh, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion.  Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion.  The norms of law (social control) are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms.  Otherwise the norms will collapse and with them the whole power arrangement.  Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context.

– from The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann

Remembering the Prophetic Imagination

It is the crucifixion of Jesus that is the decisive criticism of the royal consciousness.  The crucifixion of Jesus is not to be understood simply in good liberal fashion as the sacrifice of a noble man, nor should we too quickly assign a cultic, priestly theory of atonement to the event.  Rather, we might see in the crucifixion of Jesus the ultimate act of prophetic criticism in which Jesus announces the end of a world of death (the same announcement as that of Jeremiah) and takes that death into his own person.  Therefore we say that the ultimate criticism is that God himself embraces the death that his people must die.  The criticism consists not in standing over against but in standing with; the ultimate criticism is not one of triumphant indignation but one of the passion and compassion that completely and irresistibly undermine the world of competence and competition.  The contrast is stark and total: this passionate man set in the midst of numbed Jerusalem.  And only the passion can finally penetrate the numbness.

The cross is the ultimate metaphor of prophetic criticism because it means the end of the old consciousness that brings death on everyone.  The crucifixion articulates God’s odd freedom, his strange justice, and his peculiar power.  it is this freedom (read religion of God’s freedom), justice (read economics of sharing), and power (read politics of justice) which break the power o the old age and bring it to death.  Without the cross, prophetic imagination will likely be as strident and as destructive as that which it criticizes.  The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death, and know the pain of the criticized one.

— From The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann

This understanding of the significance of cross was foreign to me until only a few short years ago.  It seems along the way we created a church culture in which the crucifixion was solely understand as either a substitutionary payment for sin (conservative) or a tragic ending to an exemplary life (liberal).  This message above, on the other hand, is deep, powerful, and compelling to anyone who has a sense that the world has gone awry and wonders whether God cares and has acted.  To the extent that we put faith in this story, we  can surely trust God’s answer as being one of judgment, solidarity, consolation and promise of a victory in the future hope of the coming reign of justice and peace.  Of course we also have an important responsibility in partnering with God to make this reign a reality.  I believe God will have to decisively act on our behalf for this hope to be confirmed, and that we will not be able to just rely on ourselves, but I also believe that our participation is critical.  This is the tension that disciples live in.

The prophetic imagination can have profound implications for eschatology if we really take it seriously.  What are the greatest threats to this promise?  Can we really just depend on God absolutely regardless of how we take care of creation and each other?  This is what many people seem to want to do instead of striving to eradicate the biggest problems we are facing – crises of energy, militarism (security), consumerism (prosperity), inequality, and spirituality – spirituality that actually engages the world in a systematically transformative way.  The proper response can be found, it seems to me, in a church setting that recognizes and appreciates this meaning of the cross – the criticism of royal/imperial consciousness – just as much as the one that many evangelicals grew up with about penal atonement.