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Sunday, May 6, 2018

"Interrupting Silence" (Walter Bruggemann)

TITLE: Interrupting Silence: God's Command to Speak Out
AUTHOR: Walter Bruggemann
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018, (108 pages).

We must speak out. We must not sit back and let chaos and injustice run amok. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak out. Alas, many are guilty of keeping quiet when there is a need to speak up; and speaking up when there is a need to be silent. This book about interrupting silence is a call to all to bear the arms of vocal activism in the midst of unholy forces seeking to silence our witness. As one who has consistently spoken out against the excesses of powers and the abuse of the weak. There are many quotables about many different things:
  • "The church at its most faithful is allied with artistic expression from the margin that voices alternatives to dominant imagination."
  • "Prayer—beyond conventional polite prayer—is an act of breaking the silence."
  • "In the institutional life of the church, moreover, the breaking of silence by the testimony of the gospel often means breaking the silence among those who have a determined stake in maintaining the status quo."
  • "Prayer is a refusal to settle for what is."
  • "The parable exhibits the relentlessness of refusing silence, the unwavering resolve to continue to speak and to ask."

Brueggemann hopes that this book would inspire more to know when to keep silence and when to break silence. Breaking the silence is equated to breaking the status quo. He goes back to the Bible as he ponders about the place of silence. When Israel were enslaved in Egypt, God used Moses to speak out against Pharaoh who oppressed the people.  It was economic greed by the powers and economic dependency by the oppressed. Any dissent would be met harshly economically and militarily. Israel groaned under the harsh rule. So much so that the victim card continued to be played out even when Israel were freed from Egyptian slavery. God used the prophets of old as His spokesmen in speaking out against evil and idolatry. Here is where the author's familiarity with the prophetical texts shines through. The prophets spoke out against the "triad of exploitative labor, unjust taxation, and exhibition of surplus wealth" as rebellion against God's will. He even calls prophets as poets, those who use "stylized" speeches to expose the evil deeds and the shine forth God's desires for the people. In the New Testament, Brueggemann looks at the ministry of Jesus through the gospel of Mark to see how Jesus undo the excesses and evil in first century Palestine. He then contrasts that with our contemporary battles surrounding contentious matters such as: white privilege; Western privilege; Male privilege; heterosexual privilege; American exceptionalism; and entitled Christendom. He closes with a call to the Church to play her part to liberate people. Speak out for equal rights. Speak out against any form of bigotry. Do not silence the women. Tackling the difficult passages in the Bible about gender, he looks at the silence of the women in the Church to say that it cannot be read as a "flat absolute." He proposes a re-reading of the passages in the light of modern concerns surrounding gender equality, gay rights, and others. Yet, such attempts only create controversies.

My Thoughts 
First, Brueggemann starts well with a call to Christians to speak up especially when we have the freedom to do so. In a book that promotes courageous speech, Brueggemann reminds us about the mandate to do what is right when we are able to. Like the late civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr who said: "The time is always right to do the right thing," Brueggemann is not only urging our exercise of free speech, he emphasizes right speaking and right interrupting. If we fail to use it, we may lose it.

Second, Brueggemann is convincing when it comes to biblical characters speaking out against the excesses of their day. The prophets, the oppressed, the persecuted, and even Jesus spoke out bluntly against the evil of their day. The point is that we should not be ashamed to break silence. In many parts of the Western world, we have become accustomed to being nice. Even in churches, people prefer to say nice things when everything is positive and keep quiet when things run south. This comes at the expense of truth speaking. The Bible didn't tell us to shut up when it comes to criticism or dissent. Instead, we are called to speak the truth in love. This is something that Brueggemann has done well in this book.

Third, the later parts of the book can be controversial, especially when it comes to re-reading Scripture. His statement about "The old pattern of silencing served old-time religion, and old-time religion is in the service of old-time politics of domination and old-time economics of privilege" is a polemic against old-fashioned beliefs that failed to change with time. Things are not often so straightforwardly new-fashioned vs old-fashioned. There is a need to nuance what people mean by new and old. We need to be careful not to straitjacket anyone into categories that don't fairly represent their views. Conservative folks can be flexible. Liberal groups can be rigid. Perhaps, when taken as an invitation to discussion, this book would be a wonderful conversation starter. Readers should take this position when reading this book.

Walter Bruggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. A highly sought after speaker and theologian, he is particularly known for his skills in rhetorical criticism, as demonstrated in his bestselling book, the Theology of the Old Testament and the Prophetic Imagination.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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