Memory and Rebuilding in the Ruins of America

by Brian Walsh

Five Years in Iraq and Holy Week. These two come together today. We are in the middle of Holy Week, walking that path of the cross with Jesus. And today marks five years of war in Iraq.

So I thought that I would share with you some words that I wrote for a chapel talk at Messiah College in Pennsylvania a couple weeks ago. I had been speaking about Isaiah 58 and how the prophet not only dismisses any pious fasting that is devoid of justice in the attempt to rebuild life in the midst of the ruins of post-exile Jerusalem, but also how he offers the community deeper and more liberating memories for their reconstruction efforts.

You see, the fasting that was instituted after the exile was a fasting in mournful memory of the loss of the Temple and the Monarchy. Isaiah doesn’t think that these are memories worth keeping.

Look closely at Isaiah 58 and you will see that the prophet offers better and deeper memories to this community … memories of exodus, jubilee, creation and sabbath. In that context, I then said the following to the students of Messiah College:

My friends, your young lives continue to be marked by the smoke clouds of 9/11. There is no memory, I suspect, or at least no cultural or civilizational memory, more imprinted on your lives then the memories of the twin towers coming down, the memory of vulnerability and threat that America collectively experienced that day.

The ruins from 9/11 may all be cleaned up now, but we still live in those ruins. And we are called to reconstruct our lives, to rebuild a sense of being at home in America in the midst of those ruins.

And it is not just the devastatingly real, and yet profoundly symbolic ruins of 9/11 that continue to plague us, and continue to shape our understandings of who we are. We are also, I suggest, living in the ruins of the American dream.

And maybe that is one of the reasons that Barack Obama is such a powerful voice today. One can only build a presidential campaign on hope if there is a profound sense of hopelessness and a longing for hope in the land.

One doesn’t need to talk about hope when things are going well. One doesn’t need to talk about hope when things are secure and our deepest dreams are being realized.

My point is not to come as a Canadian and endorse a presidential candidate in your country. My point is to encourage us to reflect deeply on the ruins in which we find ourselves and to ask biblical questions of how we rebuild our lives in the ruins.

And … I will say this with some certainty, and sadness – you, my friends will witness the collapse of America. You will witness the continued contraction of the American economy, the continued decline of the reputation of America as a force for good in the world, the continued crumbling of the social fabric of America, the continued frustration of American military ventures around the world, and the continued ecological despoliation of America the beautiful.

And the question will be, how will you rebuild your lives in the ruins? How will you make home in the ruins? And, perhaps most importantly, on what memories will that homemaking be founded? What will be the homemaking stories that will animate your lives?

Israel wanted to remember the temple and the monarchy. Will you want to hang on to a “God bless America” ideology that has legitimated so much violence, so much arrogance, so much exploitation? Will you want to hang on to the memories of political power and military control, of economic expansion and a conquering mentality?

Or will you take your cue from Isaiah’s prophetic word to the exiles returned from Babylon and embrace a fast of Justice? Will you follow Isaiah’s lead and embrace more radical, more deeply biblical, and more life-giving memories, more homemaking stories?

Jubilee, exodus, creation, sabbath – embedded in these we find a narrative worth living in. If you fast this Lent, make it a fast of justice. And if you meditate this Lent, meditate upon these memories – jubilee, exodus, creation and sabbath.

May it be, sisters and brothers, that we might be called repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

4 Responses to “Memory and Rebuilding in the Ruins of America”

  1. M.joshua

    Deeply compelling to say the least…

  2. Matt Dowling

    I’m not convinced that as Christ’s disciples in America we are called to be ‘repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets’ because this idea seems to me to suggest that we are to take action through political and governmental avenues in the course of calling America to repentance. If America is Rome, can we look to the first few centuries of Christian belief and find a precedent for how we are to act? I believe so. My first instinct is that we need a conversation started which calls Christ’s disciples to a renewed commitment to non-violence. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11–the pacifist Christian voice was barely heard. In my mind, justice must begin with a renewed commitment to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the gospel ethic of love. Nothing we do (or support indirectly) in war is consistent with Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5 or with the redemptive character of the gospel.

  3. andrew

    Matt – Thanks for your response. I think you’re right that action through political and governmental means is not the only way of seeking justice. Radical non-violence is certainly one way to go, but I do not think that this should necessarily exclude our participation in political processes.

    Our engagement with the surrounding culture should certainly take strong cues from the early church, but our relationship to government is different now than it was in 1st Century Roman Palestine. We have a variety of avenues to influence our governments.

    We can protest. We can demonstrate. We can hold rallies and we can speak out against injustices. We can also, as Christians work to bring Shalom to our broken and breached city streets, in a Jeremiah 29 kind of way. I suggest that the thrust of Brian’s post was not necessarily to plug action through either political or governmental avenues, but might leave room for such engagement.

    There are opportunities for some to work in and through government and politics to realise some Kingdom goals. There is probably room for Josephs and Daniels in our current political arena as much as there is room for non-violent resistance outside of that system.

    And you’re right, nothing we do in war is consistent with the redemptive character of the gospel. But how might we live out that ethic of love, or speak with a pacifist Christian voice that is a prophetic call both to the state, and to our own churches who have capitulated to Nationalist ideologies?

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