God, Neighbor, Empire

The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good

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Walter Brueggemann
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     2016.
     179 pages.
     $24.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481305426.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Originally presented as a series of lectures at Fuller Theological Seminary, Walter Brueggemann demonstrates in God, Neighbor, Empire the distinctive character of Yhwh’s counternarrative of empire that serves as the background to the biblical story. In an effort to support its own hegemony, the ideology of empire shapes the worldview of those in its thrall in such a way that it is difficult to imagine life outside of the same. In a world whose dominant economic philosophy of empire instills a mentality of scarcity and competition, Brueggemann encourages us to follow the lead of the God of excessive fidelity, who initiates a reality characterized by abundance and neighborliness.

This book is broken into four chapters. Chapter 1 serves as prolegomena for the rest of the book, establishing the importance of relationality for God’s covenant with Israel, and ultimately, for humanity. The goal of this relationality is the common good, sought in connection with the emancipatory God, and the relationship between the self and the neighbor. The remaining chapters explore this relationality through the lenses of justice, grace, and law. Chapter 2 explores the role that justice plays in establishing Yhwh’s emancipatory alternative to empire. Pharaoh’s empire was a totality that permitted no alternative to exist outside of it, so the “question of justice in Israel’s imagination is this: Can the totalizing narrative of injustice be interrupted” (55)? While Israel itself is not immune to the temptations of empire, as in the case of Solomon and the royal pageantry of Zion, Brueggemann insists that the significance of the Sinai narrative is its answer to the question of justice. A just and neighborly life, outside of the totality of empire is possible, not as a result of royal decree from above, but as a movement of Yhwh registering as “transformation from below” (50).

In chapter 3, Brueggemann discusses grace in contrast to what he calls “common theology”—that way of doing theology whose purpose is to maintain the status quo with a sort of quid pro quo. The if-then statements of blessing and cursing in Deuteronomy represent this type of thinking, and shows that Yhwh himself participates—to some extent—in the logic of common theology; however, Yhwh’s grace exceeds if-then logic as witnessed by his mercy toward Israel in exile, wherein he showed them a generosity that exceeded the if-then stipulations of the Torah. God makes a way out of no way so his people are then able to practice a surplus of neighborliness rooted in the character of God that goes beyond symmetry and provides opportunities for unmeasured generosity, forgiveness, and second chances. In Yhwh’s willingness to violate his own Torah for the sake of relationship, one witnesses a justice that exceeds policy and allows for “neighborhood-creating gracefulness” (106).

Chapter 4 contrasts the law of empire with Yhwh’s law. Brueggemann contrasts the irrevocable and totalizing law of the Medes and the Persians with the law of Yhwh, which allows for reinterpretation and the changing of its commandments. This may, in fact, be the most interesting chapter of the book. While Brueggemann notes that the law of empire is always totalizing, he acknowledges a totalizing tendency within Yhwh’s own being and, rather than excusing it or explaining it away, Brueggemann suggests that Yhwh himself is susceptible to a temptation of totalization that sometimes “overrides Yhwh’s capacity for generously hosting the other” (114). Rather than denying the history of barbarism in Yhwh’s life, Brueggemann embraces Yhwh’s own violent history and says that there may very well be an “anxiety in Yhwh’s life” that has “evoked laws of exclusionary harshness” (115), but it was Yhwh’s response to the slaves in Egypt, and participation in the emancipatory Exodus narrative, “that changed Yhwh and made Yhwh changeable, because here was a chance to observe firsthand the immutability of Pharoah that was a harbinger of the Medes and the Persians. The Exodus was a disruption of the immutable” (116). Taking jabs at juristic doctrines such as the “original intent” in US political discourse, Brueggemann notes that unlike these views, Yhwh is capable of an altered response and a reinterpretation of Yhwh’s law that responds to new circumstances and the oppression of those in the “contested catalogue of neighbors”—which today might include “gays, immigrants, and Muslims” (126). God is fluid and capable of altered interaction as circumstances require, allowing for compassion in the interpretation process of Yhwh’s law. Yhwh is capable of “dialogue in new cultural settings,” and of applying the law “in unsettled and unsettling ways” (140). This opens the way for a neighborliness that exceeds the strict enforcement of “law and order.”

There are those who may approach Brueggemann’s book seeking practical advice for how to “do life” among one’s neighbors and, while Brueggemann offers some practical advice for how to live a neighborly life of abundance and generosity—lend generously, conduct affairs in justice, freely give to the poor—the book’s purpose is more so to ground and justify the imagination for such an endeavor in the narrative of Scripture and the character of Yhwh. Those looking for practical advice may want to look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for a text that will spark your imagination for Christian neighborliness, Brueggemann’s reading of the Old Testament narrative is exactly what you’re looking for.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Brake is a graduate student at George Mason University.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. 

Keywords: 

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