Brueggemann Header

Sabbath as Resistance: An Interview with Walter Brueggemann

By Ken Wytsma

One of the more unique prophetic voices for many pastors and leaders I know today is Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann has a profound and simple way of highlighting narrative threads in the Old Testament as well as a poetic ability to make the message of the prophets come alive today.

Walter Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister and the author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles.

(Not only that, but he’s one of the more interesting people you’ll ever meet!)

KW: In The Prophetic Imagination, you bridged the witness of the Old Testament prophets into a passionate critique of today’s dominant culture. How does Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now both continue and focus this program?

WB: My book Sabbath as Resistance continues the contemporary critique of Prophetic Imagination. I root Sabbath in Moses and the Decalogue both as resistance and as alternative to Pharaoh who allowed no Sabbath from production quotas. The refusal to define life by productive work is a mighty act of resistance against consumer culture and its commoditization.

KW: In your writings you talk of Empire in strong spiritual language. How do you explain modern empire to listeners so the theological and cultural significance of your message is clear?

WB: I think “empire” should be expressed and is experienced as a “totalism” that monopolizes the political economy, all technology, and all imagination via control of the media. Empire allows nothing outside its domain as is evident in control of the news. Among us empire is not a nation state (not even the USA), but is the market ideology that controls everything. The NFL is the liturgic performance of that empire that ends, predictably, in violence.

KW: Often, modern listeners think of the Old Testament purely in terms of law or archaic thinking. How do you counter this so as to awaken imagination and draw out contemporary relevance in your writings?

WB: All of my writings work at showing the contemporary relevance the biblical text. To overcome such a caricature of the Old Testament, all one has to do is to read the text, most especially the poetry of the prophets and the Psalms. Prophetic poetry in Hosea, Jeremiah, and II Isaiah focuses on the pathos of God.  I think the caricature is based on a misreading of Paul in Romans and Galatians.

KW: What is your favorite Old Testament passage in terms of direct prophetic relevance to modern culture and why?

WB: The best summary text I know on the prophets is Jeremiah 9:23-24; it offers two competing triads, “wealth, might, and wisdom” or “steadfast love, justice, and righteousness.”  The choice between these two triads is the burden of the prophets and the freedom of the gospel.

KW: The subtitle of Sabbath as Resistance is “saying no to the culture of now.” What do you feel are the unique dangers of our globalized and technological world and how does Sabbath provide a counter-narrative or corrective?

WB: The danger of globalized technology is to reduce everything and everyone to a commodity that can be used, administered, and given a price tag. Sabbath is an insistence that we and all others are neighbors, not commodities.

KW: How would you sum up or describe the underlying aim or goal of your extensive writing to the church?

WB: My continuing insistence in my work is that life is possible outside the domain of Pharaoh when it is lived according to the gospel of neighborly covenant. But that requires not simply personal resolve; it also requires a radically altered economic and political practice so that social relationships of another kind become normative.

KW: What charge would you give to next generation leaders passionate about rethinking and reimagining the world through theological lenses?

WB: My charge would be to develop a well-informed critical capacity in order to see that what we regard as “given” in our society is in fact a construct. When recognized as a construct, alternatives become imaginable and possible.

Tags: , , , , ,

Categories: Church & Theology,Justice & Culture

Ken Wytsma is a teacher, entrepreneur and author. He is the founder of The Justice Conference and president of Kilns College, as well as the author of Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things, The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God and the Necessity of Faith, and Create vs. Copy:Embrace Change. Ignite Creativity. Break Through with Imagination.

Theology and Culture