Walter Brueggemann, a Disruptive and Hopeful Voice for All Ages
by Krista Tippett, host
Walter Brueggemann is a very special voice. He is one of those figures — another being Jaroslav Pelikan — who is not a household name but is revered in his universe of knowledge and accomplishment. He’s a kind of theological rock star. His name has been synonymous with the phrase “prophetic imagination” for three decades of preachers and Christian teachers. Students in all kinds of seminaries read him, and they are captivated by the man as much as his ideas. That’s my explanation for why the live video stream of our conversation is one of On Being’s most-watched online interviews.
I too was thrilled to meet this man whose writings I have admired up close; he more than fulfills the promise of those writings. Walter Brueggemann is not merely an expert. He somehow embodies this tradition of the prophets that he knows as well as anyone living. He is wise and forceful, quick to laugh, passionately challenging, and fiercely hopeful. He demonstrates as much as teaches the way the prophets of the ages are disruptive of politics and culture as usual.
He helps me understand that part of a prophet’s power is in wielding language poetically rather than stridently. Beginning with the words they choose, they transcend ideological splits that actually inhibit us from seizing the great challenges and problems of our time.
“I have a dream” is the line we all remember from Martin Luther King Jr., whom Walter Brueggemann identifies as a prophet of living memory. King wasn’t talking about “enacting a civil rights bill,” Brueggemann says, “except that he was.” He points out that the prophetic voice is not issues-based. It accomplishes the harder, more necessary work of reframing the big picture of what is at stake, so that we can take in the reality of our moment in a new way, with a new sense of what might be possible.
Prophets help us connect the dots between the world as it is and the world as it might be. Prophets tend to emerge in moments of chaos and change, and this is surely a description of our age as of the 1960s or of the era of the biblical fall of Jerusalem. Walter Brueggemann helps us reclaim some important language for being people of change and chaos: the healing necessity of “lamentations,” the difference between being bold and being strident, the hard and life-giving work of letting go of comfort for the sake of what is important. That work, he says to Christian preachers and teachers, has to happen in the pulpit as in life.
Yet, even as he challenges, Walter Brueggemann calls upon mercy, another word he recovers in all its usefulness and beauty. Indeed, he shows how the two are meaningfully fused. He reminds us that the Hebrew word (like the Arabic word) for “mercy” is derived from the word for “womb.” It is the ultimate image of knowing one’s own well-being to be bound up with the well-being of another. And it comes with an extreme amount of discomfort.
How refreshing to experience a voice that is at once deeply disruptive and beautiful and critical and hopeful without any of these qualities clashing. In Walter Brueggemann’s prophetic imagination, we experience a new way of being, of living, and of faithfulness. He reminds us too — and I find this point essential — that, alongside our pantheon of prophets across time and cultures, there are countless prophets of the everyday in communities everywhere who are not and will never be famous. So many of us long to transcend what he calls “the managed prose” around us; Walter Brueggemann shows us that while this is difficult and terrifying it is can also be exhilarating and life-giving. I’m very happy to bring Walter Brueggemann’s voice to the air in this season, at this moment in time.
Image of Walter Brueggemann courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press.
To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.
I would rather live the revolution now than write it — it’s still fresh, newborn, untainted by additions and blind custom. It is a Libyan-flavored revolution, a mixture of spice and salt and light that smells like the blessings that come from the lanterns of saints.
Pharaoh Has Left Town, Now the Hard Work Begins!
by Rose Aslan, guest contributor
Women hold an Egyptian flag with a sign that reads, “A Request from 80 million: Leave, Leave You Pharaoh.” (photo: Darkroom Productions/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, now the most famous square in the world, got its name after the revolution of 1919, when both Muslim and Christian Egyptians marched in the streets of Cairo to demand their freedom from the British. It didn’t officially receive its name until the revolution of 1952 that led to the fall of the Egyptian monarchy.
Aptly named, the Egyptian people freed themselves from Hosni Mubarak by standing their ground in Liberation Square. Yesterday, the news spread like wildfire throughout Egypt, and within seconds the entire world was celebrating the successful revolution and courage of the Egyptian people to free their country from Pharaoh. So, now what?
Now the hard work begins. The real revolution must start from inside Egyptians themselves. Here might be a good time to mention the oft-quoted Qur’anic verse:
“Truly, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (Quran 13:11)
Muslim scholars constantly quote this verse to drive the point home that our external circumstances cannot change unless we purify ourselves and live wholesome and moral lives. Egyptians have taken it upon themselves to change their political condition (all on their own, no thanks to America!), and they have heroically rid their country of an evil dictator. They now must act to rid their country of the many socio-economic problems that have plagued the country for decades. I hate to be a pessimist, but whoever takes over Egypt once elections take place will have a huge task at hand and will only succeed if Egyptians are able to maintain the enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation and responsibility that we have seen in the past two weeks in Tahrir Square.
Corruption is so rampant in Egypt that people think nothing of paying a bribe to the police to avoid receiving a moving violation or sneaking a few extra pounds to a government employee to move their paperwork a bit quicker. Bribes are part of daily life in Egypt, and, in most cases, you can’t get anything done without greasing someone else’s palm. People have forgotten how to follow the rules and have gotten so used to playing the game that they don’t know what the rules are. You would be at a loss to find someone who can tell you who has the right-of-way at a stop sign (since they don’t stop at them anyway!); the only rule in driving in Cairo is there are no rules.
Ministers and other cronies of Mubarak have been pocketing the majority of Egypt’s wealth while many Egyptians scrape by on less than a dollar a day. Poverty and illiteracy are rampant throughout the country. According to UNICEF, the literacy rate in Egypt is only 72 percent, with women faring much worse than men. Forty-five percent of all women over the age of 15 are illiterate, and 85 percent of rural households run by women are illiterate.
The public school system is a mess, classrooms are overflowing, and teachers do a half-baked job teaching since they don’t make a living wage. They make their real income after school when they tutor the same students they see in the morning at their homes for excessive rates. The teachers have no other way to support their families and children need to pay for their lessons in order to pass exams that will determine their future.
Out of 18 million residents in greater Cairo, nearly a million souls — primarily migrant workers who came to the city looking for ways to support their family — inhabit al-Arafa, the “city of the dead” in Cairo. They hang their laundry from tombstones, and their homes lack running water and electricity. Cairo is overrun by other shantytowns, entire neighborhoods of unzoned residential neighborhoods that do not exist on the map, that lack basic infrastructure to support its burgeoning population.
The UNDP Human Development Index ranks Egypt 101 out of 177 countries: the gross national income per capita in 2008 is only $2,015, while 21.6 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line of $2 per day and more than 12 percent of children under than age of five suffer from malnutrition.
While there are reports of discrimination against religious minorities in Egypt, most ordinary Egyptians, no matter their religious identity, have little hope of social mobility if they are born into the wrong class. If you don’t have a wasta, someone with connections, you have little chance of finding a good job, even if you receive straight As in school and university. A successful college graduate without connections couldn’t hope for more than a low-paying and mindless job in a government office, that is, if they are lucky to get a job at all.
In the streets, women of all ages and religious preferences are constantly harassed, including those who wear the face veil. Men, both young and old, seem to think it is their God-given right to grope women’s bodies and make explicit gestures and cat-calls at them. It’s gotten so bad that a group of internet-savvy young people got together and designed an interactive map to collect data on the rate of sexual harassment in the country. People think nothing of throwing their wrappers on the sidewalk or out of the bus window. While they keep their homes immaculate, the streets of Cairo and other cities are filthy.
We have seen a glimpse of Egypt’s potential at Tahrir Square. People have been treating each other with kindness and respect, reclaiming the dignity that the regime has stolen from them. Men and women from all socio-economic backgrounds organized clean-ups to keep the area tidy, set up mobile clinics to care for the injured and sick, passed around food, and made new friends. Women were able to move freely through the crowds without being harassed. Christians and Muslims held hands and prayed together. In the early morning after Mubarak’s resignation, the youth swiftly organized groups to begin a clean-up of the entire downtown area where the protests took place. Now that’s inspiring, how many revolutionaries have you seen doing that?
Egyptians are resilient and courageous, and they could bring their beloved country to a new standard if they manage to keep up the momentum of change. Today, let’s celebrate a huge milestone in Egyptian history, but then let us prepare ourselves for the long process that lies ahead.
About the bottom image: Volunteers clean one of the iconic lion statues at the Qasr el-Nil bridge leading to Tahrir Square on February 12, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Rose Aslan is a doctoral student in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lived for more than five years in Egypt and received her MA in Arabic Studies from the American University in Cairo.
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Lessons on Friendship from an Afghani Refugee Family
by Heidi Naylor, guest contributor
In 2001 my husband approached me about hosting an Afghan refugee family of four. I was hesitant. But my reservations — lice, tuberculosis, loss of solitude — seem petty and insulting now. In the end, they were outweighed by his enthusiasm.
So our family arrived one evening just before Memorial Day, exhausted from long travel. We stood outside nodding, smiling, shaking hands. Akbar wore a dark suit, Rahima a blouse and skirt and heels, the children ribbons and a bow tie and shined shoes. We had pizza and soda and very few words.
The next day we bought a Russian-English dictionary. We couldn’t find one in Dari, the family’s native tongue, but they’d spent years in Moscow so we found common words through a language belonging to none of us. Spasíba, pazhálusta, ímya, lagushka. The children laughed with our kids and our dog in the backyard. They needed no book, and before long were translating for their parents.
Over the weeks our English developed an accent, and we took to pantomime. One evening my son said he was going to take a shower. He mimicked the spray above his head and pretended to shampoo himself. I smiled. “Kid, I speak English!” Akbar watched with growing pleasure, finally erupting in laughter.
Rahima cooked succulent, beautiful meals with lamb and cumin, raisins and cilantro. We searched for her preferred rice and found a species of basmati I still buy for pennies per pound from an Asian grocer. Its burlap bag features an inked-on label: “Once taste eat for ever.”
Rahima made me tea four times a day, despite my discomfort at her servitude. She asked if I’d like one shovel of sugar or two. We laughed over the confusion of “kitchen” and “chicken.” She taught me to cook the okra I’d never liked in a way that was savory and “deshilous.”
One day we discovered our youngest sons were born within ten days of one another, on opposite sides of the Earth. Sistera, she said, pointing shyly at me, and she has introduced me in that way to her friends every since.
As our common words increased, we began to linger over dinner. We sprinkled our tea with cardamom, bit into Rahima’s crunchy lemon cookies, and listened as Akbar spoke of the Taliban and its terrible grip. “I want carpet,” he said, gesturing toward our Persian rug. “I want car, home for children. Television. Taliban no good,” he said, “no what you want…” He searched, settling on the Russian: svabódny. No liberty. Everyone was silent. I poured more tea. He looked around the table at his children, his sweet shy wife, our children. “Politic,” he said, like you or I might say “robotic.” He slapped his palm on his thigh. “I wery like.”
Our Christian religion requires fasting one Sunday each month, so I fixed breakfast for our guests and explained why we couldn’t join them to eat. Rahima asked, “One month?” — no doubt thinking of the Ramadan fast her religion requires. Well, no. But the practice, fasting in faith and devotion, was another thing we’d found in common.
After several weeks, their English improved to where they found jobs at a thrift shop and auto auction. They moved into an apartment nearby, the next step on the way to citizenship. And then, Nine-Eleven.
My husband was traveling, and I feared for his safety. I cried with the nation, watched in disbelief as footage revealed Muslims across the globe dancing in the streets. I phoned our friends and learned they’d also spent the day glued to the television. That evening the kids and I dropped by, and Rahima prepared a tray of tea and cookies. We chatted: work, new friends in the apartment complex, the start of school, the horrific attack. The talk was quiet. Their graciousness and loveliness were immediate, familiar, genuine. Our kids ran and shouted together in the grassy square outside the window.
Soon they moved to a larger city, seeking better employment, as any American is likely to do. We’ve visited them across the country; their children have grown and are pursuing further education, poised to better themselves and, as they do, make further contributions, again like so many Americans.
Before they moved away, I drove Akbar to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office to take care of some paperwork. Taped to the clerk’s window was a notice: “Warning!! If you have more than 180 days of unlawful presence in the United States it is our strong recommendation that you do not leave the United States for any reason.”
This was odd to me, but it was no more strange than the questions on Akbar’s application seemed, since I’d come to know him, though I understand their necessity: “Are you wanted for extradition for a crime you have or have not committed? Are you wanted for questioning or as a material witness? Are you or have you ever been engaged in espionage? Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or sedition?” (One woman thought a moment and answered, “force.”)
I did my best to explain each question. We smiled a bit. There was some patient, acquiescent laughter, and Akbar checked his answer in a box. In this way we tried to give the official behind the glass a clear picture of Akbar and his family. Some reliable notion of who they’d come to be.
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