The deep anxiety in our society (that now readily spills over into violence) reflects a loss of confidence in trends that seem to have been interrupted and broken, a disruption that is powerfully symbolized by 9/11 and the loss of our illusion of invulnerability. This is not the first time in our memory that “trends” have been violated and broken by disruption. In the Old Testament the defining disruption is the destruction of Jerusalem and the consequent displacement of Jews into a hostile imperial context. The prophetic truth is that the disruption became inescapable because the public life of Israel—political, social, and economic—was out of sync with God’s purpose for them.
The astonishing reality of that ancient disruption is that the matrix of brokenness became the venue for new possibility. It is especially in the sixth century displacement that new prophetic utterance was given by God that was welcome but unexpected and inexplicable. The astonishment of that reality is put with deep poignancy by Amos Wilder:
Accept no mitigation
but be instructed at the null point:
breeds new algebras.
The ancient prophets were indeed instructed at the null point of the sixth century displacement. The epitome of that astonishing poetry of newness is in our text, Isaiah 43:16-21 that articulates the deep disjunction between “former things” and the “new thing” that is now being given by God. The “former thing” was ancient Jerusalem with its self-satisfied exceptionalism, the unconditional promise to David, and the unconditional presence of God in the temple. All of that is now lost! And the poet must speak newness that summons to a new life in the world.
It requires no great imagination to draw our own time, place, and circumstance into that ancient utterance. We are at the null point of the zero hour. It now depends on wild hearts to imagine, free tongues to speak, and open faith to receive…in order to see how that zero among us now breeds newness. Here are four thoughts about newness that arises from the disruption that may become new trajectories of faith and well-being.
1. The common good becomes the new world of possibility that replaces the old selfishness of private good and extreme individualism. There is no doubt that private individualism, enshrined in “market ideology,” has made us all competitors with each other for what we have taken to be “scarce resources.” Clearly such an ideology has become profoundly destructive in our society as the “uncommon” accumulation of wealth amidst poverty by some has skewed the political process and distorted economic futures for great numbers of people.
In contrast to that, the summons of “the common good” is the intentional awareness that none can go it alone, that we are bound together, that we are indeed, in elemental ways, “members one of another.” The “common good” summons those with resources to contribute to the neighborhood. In the most pragmatic terms, safe wealth cannot exist in the presence of extreme poverty. And for that reason we must rethink and recommit to the social infrastructure that is elemental to our common life. The future belongs to those who commit to the common good!
2. The others are now vigorously and visibly present in the neighborhood. That presence, moreover, disrupts the kind of safe (often oppressive) homogeneity of communities of like-minded people. The others come to us with accents and customs and habits and assumptions that are unlike our own and that feel like threat. With communication and transportation crossing all old boundaries, with the presence of immigrant communities (documented and undocumented), with ethnic challenges in many neighborhoods, coming to terms with new social reality is urgent. And I have not even mentioned the presence of gays and lesbians who seem so “other” to many people.
The first fact is that the others are among us. The second reality is that the others may be perceived as gift and resource and not simply as threat. The third reality is that efforts to recover the imagined world of 19th century exclusion is a non-starter. The reality of the other challenges our deepest conventional assumptions. The future belongs to those who welcome the other into our common life!
3. The “common good” and the presence of ‘the other” require a rethinking of our practices of justice. The ideology of individualism has accented freedom so greatly that the summons to justice has largely disappeared in our creation of social system in which the strong can be predators against the weak. Recent license for predation goes under the flag of “deregulation,” which means that there should be no public restraint on the capacity of the strong who may devour the weak. But, of course, in the practice of unrestrained predation the weak disappear from social possibility and the strong monopolize all social possibility.
Justice requires restraint so that communitarian values and practices may flourish. It is clear that justice cannot be reduced to unfettered freedom and the punishment of those who dissent from such unfettered freedom. Justice requires policies and practices that assure that all members of the community have safety, wherewithal, and dignity for a viable life. If that is not guaranteed, in the long run society will devolve into a collage of walls, gates, dogs, surveillance, and imprisonment, a wholly unsustainable project. The future belongs to those who commit to a community of justice for the weak and marginal!
4. The nurture of the common good, othering, and justice yields a call to the church to reposition its missional energy and vision. With its sense of entitlement and certitude, the church has been busy as an enforcer of the status quo and as a partner in privilege. The upshot of that self-indulgence has been endless quarrels about morality and doctrine that have functioned mainly to exclude and condemn.
In this moment of disruption, the church may think afresh about the common good in the midst of its entitlement and certitude. The church may imagine afresh, how to receive the other, the other who confesses another faith that challenges our exclusionary claims. The church may think again about the maintenance of a polity of justice that is deeply rooted in the Torah. As the church ponders neighborly justice, it may use less of its energy on its secret cache of truth and its insistent claims of knowing best. The future of the faithful church belongs to those who reach beyond themselves as witnesses to the lavish generosity of God that overflows our conventional arrangements!
The new “trends” that may arise from our disruption mean no more business as usual. The poet, Isaiah, understood that there is no time now for business as usual. As God does a new thing among us, so we, as God’s people, are called to newness as well, beyond our usual assumptions and our preferred certitudes. The poet says in disbelief to his contemporaries, “Do you not see this? Have you not noticed?” The faithful look into the disruption and are astonished to see new algebras that require our fresh computation.
Walter Brueggemann’s work focuses on the relationship between the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian faith. His 58 books, hundreds of sermons, and worldwide lecture events have deeply influenced contemporary theology and biblical exegesis. Walter’s books include The Prophetic Imagination, Praying the Psalms, Theology of the Old Testament, and numerous commentaries on the Hebrew canon. Walter is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, and a minister in the United Church of Christ.