Review of Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks by Walter Brueggemann (Eerdmans, 2014) 179 pages; $15.00.
In Reality, Grief, Hope, renowned biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann proposes that, mutatis mutandis, "the crisis of 9/11 amounted to [the] same kind of dislocation in our society as did the destruction of Jerusalem in that ancient society." He continues, "The impact of 9/11, along with the loss of life, was an important turn in societal ideology. We have been forced to face new waves of vulnerability. The force of that fresh awareness is evident in the various scrambles for security that have ensued since that event." However, how he fleshes out this analogy, following the headings of "Reality amid Ideology" (chapter 2), "Grief amid Denial" (chapter 3), and "Hope amid Despair" (chapter 4), raised serious concerns in my reading of the book. That said, his practical recommendation in chapter 5, "Living amid Empire as Neighborhood," took a refreshing turn for the better that deserves its due as well.
While I approached the book slightly skeptical of its contemporary analysis, imagine my shock to discover that the book begins with an explicitly Marxist reading of the Old Testament! Of course, acknowledging that Marx has something insightful to say with regards to ideology as "false consciousness" does not, therefore, make one's interpretation Marxist. Yet it quickly becomes clear that Brueggemann takes far more from Marx than this one definition.
For Brueggemann, Solomon's temple was a bold coopting of the conditional covenant religion of Sinai in favor of national exceptionalism, emphasizing an unending kingship and appealing to the Lord's "steadfast love and faithfulness" as an opiate for the peasant communities oppressed by Jerusalem's "urban elite." Under this reading, all the "Songs of Zion" in the Psalms become propaganda pieces: "The enhancement of … centralized and legitimated authority is advanced by the 'Songs of Zion' that celebrate the wonder of the temple." By contrast, the Old Testament prophets speak out of solidarity with the peasant proletariat of ancient Israel. In the face of the dominant ideology that uses the rhetoric of "steadfast love and faithfulness" in order "to bespeak divine reliability for the status quo," the prophets answer with "justice and righteousness," which to Brueggemann is "a word pair that concerns economic justice and neighborly solidarity."
Brueggemann is right that the monarchies of Israel and Judah often turned exploitative toward the poor, and the prophets do boldly denounce it. However, by reading this so strongly into Solomon's reign, Brueggemann begs the question in favor of a myopic reading in which all patriotism becomes nationalism. Thus, he cannot allow for a positive reading of the Songs of Zion, a point that breaks down when he tries to address the inconvenient fact that many passages (including Psalm 89) closely pair the Lord's "steadfast love and faithfulness" with "justice and righteousness."
How does Brueggemann explain this? "Such a convergence of terms shows the way in which dominant ideology could preempt other claims and submit them to the needs and horizon of that urban enterprise." Rather than a counterexample that would require him to rethink his thesis, he instead bends the meaning of the text by reading into it a dubious motive. When he transitions to the present, then, Brueggemann's analysis becomes predictable and, while sometimes true, continues to be counterfactual. Take, for example, his claim that American exceptionalism is fueled, even today, by a "racist component." After mentioning prejudice toward Middle Eastern Muslims, he writes, "And of course, that racism is closer to home, so that 'real Americans,' unlike others among us including the President, are not really American." This, however, does not square well with his central claim that "U.S. society is deeply committed … to an ideology of exceptionalism." How, I would ask, can this be the dominant ideology of our nation today when president Obama was easily elected and reelected? No doubt many America-loving conservatives were just as put off by Donald Trump's "birther" crusade as Brueggemann. That is not to say that racism no longer exists or that American exceptionalism cannot be taken to harmful extremes, but it is to say that Brueggemann's chapter on reality contains far too much analysis, both biblical and contemporary, that would better be described as fantasy.
While Brueggemann draws heavily on the scholarship of others, he unfortunately consults few actual economists to help explain the nature of what he sees to be our oppressive political economy. He rightly criticizes cronyism and corruption, but his attribution of these to a "market ideology" is completely backwards—they are the fruit of profoundly anti-competitive economic policy.
One possible corrective to this analytical problem is Walter Eucken's This Unsuccessful Age, in which he demonstrates that the failures of twentieth-century laissez faire in Germany and the policies of regulation and nationalization implemented to correct its ills grew from actually favoring freedom of contract to the detriment of freedom of competition. Thankfully, we are a far cry from Nazi Germany—I would caution against Brueggemann's general apocalypticism—but those disconcerting trends today that are actually grounded in reality suggest that Eucken and economists like him would be more helpful conversation partners than many that Brueggemann consults, assuming he himself prefers reality to his own ideology.
Nevertheless, just when I expected a Marxist call for revolution or a softer-left call for more legislation, Brueggemann surprised me again, concluding with a call to renewed, authentic neighborliness. While he acknowledges a role for activism, he emphasizes far more strongly the subsidiary role of communities and churches. "The church and its pastors," he writes, "have the task of making the case for this narrative of neighborly participation by talk and walk, by face-to-face generosity, by daily hospitality, and by incredible forgiveness." For him, this counters a prevalent narrative of empire, but even if I would quibble with whether or to what extent that is the case, I can join his call for a strengthening of civil and religious society. The more that people address the problems of the marginalized in their own communities themselves, the more they will be able to say to the state, "No thanks, we don't need you." And that, to me, is something for which we all should hope.