Thursday, July 22, 2010

Brueggemann's Journey to the Common Good

I'm working on a curriculum project about faith, community, and the common good. Thus, when I attended a religious conference and saw, among the numerous books for sale, Walter Brueggemann’s new book Journey to the Common Good (Westminster John Knox, 2010), I snatched it right up. (Yes, I also paid for it....)

Brueggemann's arguments are fascinating. Here are just a few, which I'll share in case others are as interested in these ideas. Brueggemann notes that we find two kinds of “social ethic” in the Exodus-Sinai tradition. One is certainly a very radical kind of social ethic that includes the cancellation of the debts of the poor after seven years, thus eliminating a “permanent underclass” (Deut. 15:1-18), no interest on loans to members of the community (Deut. 23:19-20), no collateral on loans to the poor (Deut. 24:10-13), no withholding of wages to the poor (Deut. 24:14-15), hospitality to runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16), ongoing provision for the poor and needy (Deut. 24:19-22), and justice for orphans and resident aliens (Deut. 24:17-18) (p. 39-40).
Brueggemann says, “The tradition of Deuteronomy intends to resituate the economy of Israel into the fabric of the neighborhood…the economy is [not] a freestanding autonomous system; it is, rather, checked and measured at every turn by the reality of the neighborhood” (p. 41).
Furthermore (as he echoes philosopher Michael Walzer), God is providing a permanent way out of “Egypt” via these justice-oriented, common good-oriented commandments (p. 43).

But he notes that the other “social ethic” (or rather, counter narrative) in this tradition is that of holiness, which offered “degrees of eligibility” (p. 44) based on purification rites, access to the most sacred places of the Temple, and eventually of the monarchy at Jerusalem and the lack of national justice criticized by the prophets.

Brueggemann says that the triad “wisdom, might, and wealth,” which characterized the reign of Solomon and eventually spelled the downfall of the nation, is characteristic of “the U.S. national security state.” But that triad, he argues, is expressed “as consumer entitlement in which liberals and conservatives together take for granted our privileged status as the world as God’s most recently chosen people” (p. 68). “It remains to be seen how the church can fashion an intentional alternative to the national security state, which is itself a path to death. The critical edge of faith requires us to ask if a national security state can be impinged upon and transformed by strands of neighborly commitment that lie deep in our national history,” he says, citing The Broken Covenant by Robert Bellah et al. (p. 68).

What shape will that neighborly commitment take? I've also been rereading Hauerwas and Willimon's Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abingdon, 1989) and finding that, in their framework, neighborly commitment would entail Christian truth-telling to the world as well as growth as a people of God through discipleship practices. Their vision seems to be close to the holiness-as-separation traditions of the Bible, where the common good is serviced by the people's faithfulness to the truth. I've also been reading Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change: When the World's Biggest Problems and Jesus' Good News Collide (Thomas Nelson, 2009), which has a broad vision of the possibilities of Christian compassion to address world issues. McLaren's vision is shaped in a way similar to the tradition of a "radical social ethic."

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