Walter Brueggemann is a world-renowned Old Testament scholar and the author of more than 100 books. He is an ordained United Church of Christ minister and the William Marcellus McPheeters professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. This interview draws particularly on his books Journey to the Common Good, The Bible Makes Sense and The Prophetic Imagination.
Would you speak first to the level of concern many of us have about the COVID-19 pandemic and our need to believe that God is present and will see us through this?
Well, I think our concern is obviously grounded in reality — and it is very acute. I think what happens depends on whether we have the courage and imagination to devise a new way of being human together or whether we just go back to the way things used to be.
That would be a very terrible, missed opportunity if we do that — since the way we were was not working very well for an awful lot of people. We ought not to be returning to that.
What has happened during this virus is that we have been able to gain a new vision of neighborliness. And the question for us now is, “How shall we take up this new vision and put it to good use and good public expression?” So, that is what I think our work is, and I think it is fair to say that God will see us through all this. But God will not do our work, and we have huge work to do. We cannot simply neglect that work and leave it in God’s hands.
When you say that work should not be left in God’s hands, are you speaking directly to all churches, other houses of worship, local groups and individuals as well as the government — that we all need to step up?
That is exactly right. I am referring to all fronts, the private sector, the church and the government. Everybody is at a new place. And everybody has new tasks and new opportunities.
What comments can you make regarding all the people we know who are struggling without adequate food?
On the one hand, we need lots of local charities to provide food for hungry neighbors. But we also need better government policy. The cutbacks on food stamps and other similar programs are wrongful acts of greed. The churches and the synagogues must do their part, but they alone cannot solve the problem of hunger. It is absurd that we are not doing what is necessary to provide generous government funding to readily assure people of an adequate food supply.
So, the question now is whether our governmental policy will be led by neighborly generosity — or if we are going to continue with the pattern of greed that scorns people who are without more resources.
Regarding the theme of your book, The Journey to the Common Good, what types of actions must we all take so that everyone will benefit, not just the poor and marginalized?
It is not possible to be rich and powerful enough to live in isolation. Therefore, the health of the whole neighborhood and the functioning of the whole economy matters to everyone. So, it is an illusion that people can have a private arrangement about their life and be happy when there is misery all around. Our society simply cannot be organized that way.
In other words, the well-being of all our neighbors is a precondition for having a healthy neighborhood. Therefore, the resources of the entire neighborhood must be mobilized for the sake of all the neighbors. It is as simple as that. And this illusion of private individualism is simply nothing more than an illusion. We keep learning that over and over and then forgetting it repeatedly. That is an important truth for us to remember.
Many people who have more than others are afraid they will suffer a loss of power if they share more fairly or equally with others. However, if we do build everyone up and provide a living wage, could more people become productive and actively help build up our national economy?
Yes, that is exactly so. And it is true that doing that does cause the advantaged to lose a bit of power and control. But it is a trade-off we must make because there are limits to what our private privilege, private control and private advantage can deliver. And we must make a trade-off that is realistic about how all the resources of the community can deliver well-being for all of us.
In a lecture you delivered several years ago, you referenced the Old Testament book of Exodus to say there have always been “economies of extraction.” You noted those develop whenever the wealthy decide to take unfair advantage of the poor. Could you speak more to that point?
Yes, that is exactly so. The new studies of American slavery show that not only the wealth of the South but also the wealth of the whole American economy was based on slavery. It was clearly an extraction system in which labor was extracted from black slaves to the advantage of other people. And you see, obviously by the way you said that, that if you start with the book of Exodus, the whole crisis of difficult faith arises from the extraction system of Pharaoh. That is where it all starts.
The God of the book of Exodus is shown to be one who wants to dismantle those types of extraction systems. And I suppose if one wanted to wildly imagine, one could imagine that’s what is happening now during the virus — our current extraction system is being dismantled. Because we are all suddenly discovering it is possible to be generous toward the disadvantaged and those without resources.
So that flies in the face of our conventional extraction system. Those old issues you can see in the book of Exodus — and in the life of Jesus — are now fully operative right in front of our eyes. It is amazing.
In light of COVID-19 and job losses, housing is becoming more complicated in many American cities. In my city, within the next 30 days or so, many landlords will be filing new eviction notices. A woman I know who works in that field told me that someone recently said to her, “Please don’t make me homeless!” How does the Bible indicate we should respond now?
Landlords are entitled to their rent. But they are also entitled to have neighbors. And I suppose that we need some public monies to help make that possible. I think two questions that must be posed to landlords when they are evicting people are: “Who are you going to rent to now?” and, “Do you know someone else who can pay the rent?”
The old logic of rent and eviction is not completely applicable to the crisis we are in now. The government, banks — or somebody — must help adjust matters to deal with the reality that is in front of us. It does not serve us well to put large numbers of people out on the street.
What is the gain in that for anybody? So, we have got to re-calibrate the way we invest, the way we reward landowners and the way we sustain renters. We just need a quite different calculus about all that this crisis is now requiring of us and this crisis is inviting us to think about.
Surely the pandemic is pointing out clear cracks in our health care system. Many people are suddenly losing their jobs and health care insurance due to COVID-19. What type of new, fully moral approach to that problem do we need in this country?
Once again, the same matter is involved: the economy of extraction prevents workers from earning enough and having the resources to purchase health care coverage. And now we see, once again, that our current health care system is not sustainable. And we are even seeing serious attempts to get rid of useful health care programs that are greatly needed — especially during a pandemic.
We have vast numbers of people who may still become infected. And many thousands are regularly dying. The various types of costs to countless people who are now without health care insurance are incalculable. And many people are now desperately needing care.
We need new policies that will provide immediate delivery of health care services to those who need them right now. It is absurd that in a society with our wealth, that we would even imagine that there should be people without health care insurance. Our current system needs further improvements to make it even more effective.
The Christian teachings in the Bible and books like yours remind us that if we want to make important social changes, we must keep humbly allowing God to change each one of us to become more like Jesus. That clearly indicates that no one has perfect views on anything and we must listen to similar or opposing views to determine the best solutions. Can you add to that outlook?
That approach does seem to be lost. We have polarized things into slogans so that our thinking capacity has become skewed in all such matters. And now the people we need to hear from the most — the people who need to be at the table — are the most vulnerable ones who have limited resources.
We need to hear, in some specificity, how their lives are going. That way, we can learn what we can do that could make a real difference for them. So, the time for formulating policies from the top down is just something we cannot afford to do anymore.
What can we say or do that might help people who do not believe in God now come to see that God is present, loves all of us and wants to comfort us during this uniquely difficult time?
The primary and most effective witness for that is when men and women practice faithful, generous lives and give themselves away for the sake of the neighborhood. People see that and sooner or later they will ask, “Why do you do that?”
It is at that moment that we can say, “My life of generosity is grounded in the goodness and faithfulness of God.” But I think there is a danger of saying things about God too soon because we must lead with our actions and the way we live our lives. Also, we must give witness in the way we engage in policy and practice.
We have such a problem now with people who prefer to live in denial, apart from reality. And others who prefer to dabble in “magical thinking.” How can we engage with people who now often say that they no longer know how to discern what is true anymore?
Well, facts arise from the bottom up. We need to focus on actual, bodily lives. We need to share what is happening to people because of the virus, poverty and other problems and illnesses. That really is the argument in my book Materiality as Resistance: Five Elements for Moral Action in the Real World.
If you look at the materiality of the facts, you must look at bodily existence. Right now, too many churches have flown off into spiritualizing generalizations that are unhelpful to everyone. But if people willfully do not want to know about the facts, what we will need to do is politically marginalize them — those who want to live in a “wish world.”
So, in other words, we should not put our faith in them, not ask them to speak for us – and not ask them to act on our behalf?
That is exactly so.
Can you suggest specific books in the Bible — in addition to the Psalms — that people might want to read for added comfort now? As you know, the stress of the pandemic is deeply upsetting to most people.
In addition to the Psalms, I would suggest the many stories involving Jesus. I would particularly suggest reading the Gospel of Luke. In that Gospel, Jesus is more engaged with suffering women and men. Also, the lament psalms can be quite helpful. They are practices in telling the truth before God. We need a lot of that now.
How do you suggest we try to help other people hold on to hope now?
We must model generosity and hospitality. That really is the ground of hope. If people who are hurting do not see or experience any faithfulness, then they may feel there is no reason to believe that something better is going to come on down the road.
So, it really is the walk, not the talk. We must commit neighborly acts that show we care about others. And we must keep praying daily for God’s guidance about how to best help those in need.