Laing Lectures 2008: Walter Brueggemann (2 of 3)

Just like I did last year, I’m writing summaries of this year’s Laing Lectures. Update: The audio of all three lectures is available for purchase here.

Brueggemann’s second lecture was called “Boasting in Power or Boasting in God? Jeremiah’s Either/Or of Public Faith.” In this lecture, Brueggemann continued his concern for the common good, and began to speak in threes.

He said that in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy organized and institutionalized the concern for the common good into a social ethic: practice hospitality to runaway slaves, no withholding wages, no injustice to immigrants, and practice gleanings (Deut 24) – that is, don’t harvest all of your field, but leave parts of it for the widow, orphan and immigrant. This commandment names three money crops – grain, oil, and grapes – and juxtaposes them with the second triad of the widow, orphan and immigrant. This command, Brueggemann says, seeks to break down separation between commodity and consumer, and to situate the economy of Israel into the neighborhood.

But the Israelites reject this vision. Moses urges them in Deuteronomy 15 to give liberally and ungrudgingly. Brueggemann pointed out that this passes has five unlimited infinitives, and is the only place in scripture that he knows of that has that. He didn’t explain exactly what this meant, aside from saying that it meant Moses was really serious. Moses connects this command to the fact that the Israelites were themselves slaves in Egypt. He never gets tired of saying it (Deut. 15:15, 16:12, 24:18, 24:22).

The text, Brueggemann said, makes a connection between God (YHWH) and neighbor. However, there is a powerful counter-narrative that resists this connection, because the world of Pharaoh is powerful for all of us. This counter-narrative consists in three things:

1. An imagined nostalgia for the “good old days.” The Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt, even though they were slaves there (Numbers 14).

2. Graded holiness. Brueggemann claims that there came to be three levels of holiness in the tabernacle, and later the temple, because of the concern of the powerful to differentiate themselves from the less powerful. He compared this to the three divisions of people on a commercial airline. This differentiation in holiness concerns health care, moral ratings and economic possibility. The resistance to the common good, Brueggemann said, has cultic, moral and economic domensions.

3. King Solomon stands at the center of the counter-narrative. In his life, there is a fresh enthrallment with Egypt and graded holiness. Egypt itself practiced graded holiness. Solomon himself is married to Pharaoh’s daughter and clearly wants to emulate his father-in-law.

There are, not surprisingly, three aspects of this narrative of the royal regime.

First, it is clear that Solomon is committed to the accumulation of wealth: both money and women (700 wives and 300 concubines).

Second, it is clear that Solomon is committed to power. He was an arms dealer, importing horses and chariots. This wasn’t connected to a particular policy; just finance. He had, in Brueggemann’s words, created a national security state.

Third, Solomon became a great practitioner of wisdom. It may just be a personal achievement, but Brueggemann says it was probably a celebration of Solomon’s patronage of the arts that enhanced his regime. It also could be seen as an accumulation of data so that the elite would have a monopoly on knowledge. Solomon may have been celebrated for his worldly awareness, but Brueggemann compares him to the Wise Men of the Vietnam era who didn’t know what to do.

Brueggemann then continued to elaborate on Solomon. When David hands over power to Solomon (I Kings 2), he says, “Keep the Torah and you’ll be fine.” Then he proceeds to give Solomon a hit list. It is, Brueggemann said, like something out of The Godfather. Solomon would like to kill the high priest Abiathar, but can’t, so he banishes him to his home village of Anathoth (I Kings 2:26). Solomon’s perspective came to dominate urban Israel in an act of resistance to the neighborly demands of the law given at Sinai. The Jerusalem enterprise saw itself as entitled to privilege and security. This Brueggemann explicitly links to what we now call “civil religion.” Sinai, however, continues to have its advocates: the prophets.

Jeremiah presided over the great crisis of his day (Brueggemann compares it to 9/11), the conquering of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Interestingly, Brueggemann points out that Jeremiah was from Anathoth, the very same village to which the high priest Abiathar was banished 400 years before. The text at the center of Brueggemann’s lecture is Jeremiah 9:23-24:

“Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.”

Brueggemann calls wisdom, might and wealth the “royal triad,” against which YHWH sets his own triad of steadfast love (hesed in Hebrew), justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedaqah). One is a triad of death, and the other is a triad of life. The village voice from Anathoth, Jeremiah, was able to trace right from Solomon Jerusalem’s way of ignoring YHWH.

Brueggemann then made four extrapolations:

1. Brueggemann thinks that Paul has this passage in mind in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul understands that the way of the cross is an extension of the same contest between these two triads.

2. In the United States since Teddy Roosevelt, we have been posturing as an empire. The national security state thrives on wisdom, might and wealth. In this passage, there is a clear summons for the people of God to be in tension with the theological claims of the national security state.

3. Being out of sync with God’s holy agency is lethal. God’s holiness forms an alliance with pain. The alliance of holiness with pain generates truthfulness. The bodily performance of truth, Brueggemann says, is up to the people of God.

4. As Jesus says, no one can serve two masters. Brueggemann points out how interesting it is that Solomon’s name is on Jesus’ lips in Matthew 6 (and its parallel in Luke 12) when he teaches his disciples to not be anxious.

After Brueggemann’s lecture came the two responses, which I’ll mention briefly because this post is already too long.

Phil Long said, positively, that Brueggemann has helped us hear with fresh ears the biblical call to stop worrying and trust God, who delights in being called “Father.” He also agreed with Brueggemann’s reading of Solomon. Negatively, though, he calls into question Brueggemann’s negative construal of sacred space. Even if sacred space eventually came to act in a discriminative way, laws about sacred space were not originally intended to function that way. The initiative came from YHWH to construct the temple, and also to set some men apart as priests. And priests were allowed to enter the holy place not because they were better, but because they were consecrated and represented Israel. Further, YHWH not only commissioned the tabernacle but validated it by visiting it after its completion. Brueggemann responded that while the text did say that, he had a hermeneutic of suspicion about those texts – implying, of course, that these texts were changed by those in power to validate their power.

Paul Williams took up Brueggemann’s call to choose between two triads, and questioned whether our choice is as free as we assume. Isn’t our problem not that we make bad choices, but that we want bad things and keep wanting to get them? We can’t get out of this dead end on our own; we need to be rescued. Brueggemann responded that when he emphasized the choice between two triads, he had in mind the OT calls to Israel to choose (Josh. 24:15). Williams affirmed Brueggemann’s thoughts on the political nature of the church. It is only as the church that we can position ourselves vis-a-vis the nationalist state, and this can only happen if Christ is our head. Boiling things down to principles of neighborliness won’t work. This is how the Bible and the flag end up on the same platform. Williams then illustrated this with the religious history of Britain since World War I, beginning with close ties between religion and nationalism, and ending with hostility toward the church because of its association with the modern project. Williams can’t help but wonder if the current situation isn’t healthier, and hopes that the church in America will separate itself from nationalism sooner rather than later.


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