In contemporary society, we are all bombarded with the temptations of individualism, consumerism, and militarism that inevitably shape our understanding of what it means to be human in the world today. In the midst of such peril, YHWH as revealed in the Old Testament presents a countercultural path to life through the choosing of the covenant to this day. Contrary to popular belief, the Old Testament is not merely an antiquated text; rather, it introduces poignant and relevant themes such as God’s saving power, social organization based on covenant as opposed to coercion, and the urgently important notion of “prophetic consciousness” as opposed to “royal consciousness”.
As Christians, we tend to grapple with the role that the Old Testament can or should play in our experiences of faith in the Trinity. Are the Old Testament and the New Testament so different that Christians can disregard the former? Is the Old Testament simply a starting point to be read solely through the lens of Christianity? Walter Brueggemann stresses the importance of continually learning from the Jews and the way they read the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the necessity of honoring our similarities and acknowledging our differences. For we cannot, he suggests, fully understand the New Testament without having a firm grasp on the Old Testament. With openness to the graces of these Books, we as Christians can gain access to the interior life of a God with whom we can become acquainted in a totally fresh and more substantive way.
In reading the second half of An Unsettling God, I was particularly struck by several of the insights Brueggemann provided in terms of his understanding of God’s dialogical relationship with the nations. From the very beginning of this course, I struggled with the notion of Israel’s chosenness; if some people were chosen, were some people not chosen to be loved by YHWH? What does this say about justice and inclusion sought by an all-loving, all-merciful God? First, Brueggemann unpacks Amos 9:7, a verse that he refers to as “a stunning departure from self-congratulation” for Israel (128). “Are you not like the Cushites to me, O people of Israel?” declares the LORD. “Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir? (Amos 9:7).
The text illustrates that YHWH’s transformative power exists for everyone, even supposed “enemies.” Compared to innumerable completely self-serving and self-indulgent comments regarding Israel elsewhere in the Old Testament, these words and Brueggemann’s interpretation of them shed light on some difficulties I encountered earlier in the semester with reconciling the violence of YHWH against everyone except Israel in the Old Testament and the pacifist we find in Christ Jesus. Considering the reality of a world in which God often becomes mobilized for the war effort (134), Brueggemann subversively endorses the limitlessness of God’s love for all people on every “side” of a conflict. Additionally, he emphasizes the image of God as an enforcer of justice, not as One who inflicts violence and destruction upon people.
Furthermore, Brueggemann reminds us of the redistribution of names of affection for Egypt, Assyria, and Israel. This evidence, too, bolsters the belief that YHWH and YHWH’s love are far too massive and life-altering to be limited to one particular group of people, no matter how much they had been favored previously (130-131). The idea that God loves people who were formerly defiant foreshadows, in a sense, some of the ideals that would be brought to life through the parables of Christ, namely, the Prodigal Son. Israel could not monopolize YHWH any more than one child out of four, no matter how favored they seem to be, could monopolize a parent’s affections.
This aforementioned desire for special regard impacted Israel and eventually even Jesus’ own disciples just as intensely as it affects us today. Israel, however, seemed to understand something deep down that modern-day Americans tend not to trust. Israel, in their worship and reflection, expressed a belief in the abundant generosity and extravagant abundance of YHWH. Brueggemann refers to today’s drama as an ideology of scarcity, one that focuses on competitiveness, war and aggression, individualism, and anxiety out of fear that there could not possibly be enough of anything for everybody to have it all and be happy (171). People spend their lives hoarding everything from material wealth to university degrees to means of retaining visible physical youth in hopes that coveting these worldly things might provide them some semblance of security. Trusting in God’s vastness leaves us feeling just a little too vulnerable. We can use Israel’s example, however, to guide us to a level of intimacy with God that allows us truly to surrender to and rest in God’s ever-abounding goodness.
For the past four months, I have been working to develop my ministerial approach as a novice Youth Minister working with students who are at risk, to say the least. As a recent college graduate who is not so far removed from the experiences my high school students encounter, I have been learning, until recently, most of my lessons directly “in the trenches.” That is, instinct and personal experience along with passion and heart have been the driving forces behind ministerial work that takes so much more than just love for and knowledge of Catholicism. I have found, especially in recent weeks with my students, that the heart of the Old Testament, as we have discussed it this semester, has equipped me with the vocabulary I need to more aptly express my “mission statement” as a minister.
At the core of my own faith journey lies a theme of yearning for grace, courage, and desire to live in opposition to the status quo, which varied, of course, according to my social context. For instance, throughout college as a musical theatre major, I fully anticipated pursuing the arts full-time following graduation. A mission trip to Jamaica in the spring of my junior year, however, significantly impacted the kind of life I envisioned for my future, thus leading me to a year of service with Jesuit Volunteer Corps. It was incredibly difficult for me to put some of my most life-giving passions on hold for a call that God was sending me loud and clear. Acknowledging the brokenness of society, I knew that God was beckoning me to a year (and most likely a life) of direct service, one that begged for the surrender of the lifestyle to which I had become accustomed and to which most of my closest friends were continuing to subscribe. I knew that I wanted to go deeper into God.
Striving to heed God’s will for me as a part of my current program which is, essentially, a hybrid of JVC and an IPS degree, the scope to consider in trying to actually live out this alternative lifestyle has broadened significantly. Yes, I am living in an intentional community in which I pray with “like-minded” individuals. Yes, my job is to minister to underprivileged teenagers within the Church. But in how many innumerable ways do I continue to comply with structures that perpetuate “royal consciousness?” When I look at my own daily life, how authentic and formidable are my attempts to build Christ’s kingdom, one that challenges me, along with my brothers and sisters, to recognize that life can be better and that we all must play a part in realizing that?
So when I ponder the core of my own faith — the message I am striving to pass on to these teenagers with whom I work — I see the heart of YHWH. I draw inspiration from the prophets who preached faith and obedience in the face of dangerous foes and contemporaries who viewed them as insane. I am beginning to discuss with my students Brueggemann’s vision of a brighter future — vulnerability over fear, generosity over self-indulgence, community over competition, interdependence over autonomy, feeling over numbness, and so on. In doing so, I hope to empower them, as well as myself, to remember the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
The word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’ ‘Ah, Sovereign LORD,’ I said, ‘I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.’ But the LORD said to me, ‘Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord (Jeremiah 1:4-8).
Most of all, I hope the show them hope. These teenagers were born into a technologically savvy, materialistic, sexually-obsessed, power-driven, and yet wonderfully, undeniably, strikingly beautiful world that desperately needs their example. They must know that each one of us is called by our constantly relational God to be modern-day prophets living the opposition.