Sunday, March 04, 2007

Either I am a contrarian

Or I am determined to make somebody mad at me. *

Walter Brueggeman, in a series of lectures I attended last week, made an interesting connection, one I hadn't thought about. And when I did, I made some connections of my own. But the estimable Dr. Brueggeman first.

He started out with Deuteronomy, which he pointed out provided the richest material in the Bible on the topic of obedience to the covenants with God. The main theme he drew from Deuteronomy (with, of course, examples) was that the economy of God's people (those in the covenant) should be organized for the sake of the neighborhood. Not for the sake of the nation, the individual, the "greater good," but the neighborhood.

Stop right there and, if you know the work of Wendell Berry, recognize the connections. (If you don't, shame on you. Stop reading and go read some of Berry's non-fiction works on economy, and then come back. I expect better of my readership than that. Go on, this will be here when you get back. Right, then.) Berry critiques, for example, the phrase: "Think globally, act locally." It's nonsense, he says. We are incapable of "thinking globally," because the world is not merely an extension of whatever you have locally, just with strangers in it. It's far too complex for that, and trying to "think globally" simply minimizes the importance of the distinctness of other localities (which may have problems you don't, or not have the problems you do). Far better, he says, to think locally and act locally. Keep your eye on the neighborhood, in other words.

Back to Brueggeman: the situation described in Deuteronomy, he says (there is a bit of an anachronism here, since Deuteronomy is the restatement of the law and history set out in Exodus, and was written after the Exile, not before; but go with the flow a moment), existed by and large up until the time of Solomon, he of the temple and "wisdom." That's when it started going downhill, because Solomon led Israel away from the covenantal economy, and toward an imperial one.

Solomon became a centralized power in Israel (something, by the way, God had warned Israel about back in 1 Samuel). He became the main source and owner of chariots and arms, which he also sold; so he was an arms dealer. He levied tributes on those who came through Israel (it was on the trade routes), and on all the peole of Israel. Tributes, of course, are nothing more than taxes, and they do nothing more than take money from the many, and give it to the one: the king. It's good to be king; for the king. He also built the Temple, in a style typical for the Near East; but there's another issue there, and it's the same underlying issue: the Temple enforced control.

The Temple was arranged into three areas: the outer Temple, where women and slaves and all the "non-persons" of Israel could gather. The Inner Temple, where the men of Israel alone could go; and, in a small room at the back, the "holy of holies," where only the priest could enter. Brueggeman said if you put wings on the Temple, it would be a modern passenger plane. The elite board first, and get the best seats in a special section, while the rest of us board last and sit cheek by jowl. Those up front even get the curtain drawn so we can't see what they are eating. The cockpit, of course, is there the priest goes.

Contrast this to Sinai, says Brueggeman, where all of Israel saw Moses on the mountain talking to God. Now, most of Israel can't even go into the inner temple, and no one is allowed to venture into the place where God could be seen.

Control, in other words, with access guaranteed by accidents of birth. All the Jubilee stuff that comes into Deuteronomy, by the way, doesn't even exist yet, and under Solomon it never will. That would cost him control.

Solomon becomes "wise," too, not because he is born that way, but because he puts scholars on his payroll, and pays them to know and learn wisdom and give it to him as he needs it. He controls knowledge, then, too; as much as he possibly can. And Solomon does one more thing: when he fights his brother for the throne, he kills all his brother's supporters after he becomes king. All of them save the priest, whom he exiles to a small village, where the priest leaves so long as he remains quiet. His power consolidated, Solomon proceeds to build a Temple to prove his power and wealth, and to enjoy a reputation that he largely bought and paid for with other people's money.

Jump ahead about 400 years, to the impending Babylonian Exile. Now comes Jeremiah, descended from a long line of priests, from that very village where Solomon exiled the priest who had supported his brother. And now Jeremiah tells the reigning king:

Let not the wise boast of their wisdom,
nor the valiant of their valour;
let not the wealthy boast of their wealth;
but if anyone must boast, let him boast of this:
that he understands and acknowledges me.
For I am the LORD, I show unfailing love,
I do justice and right on the earth;
for in these I take pleasure.
This is the word of the LORD.

There is a direct rebuke of the descendants of Solomon there. Solomon who purchased his wisdom and his palace and his power and even the Temple, with his central concern for Solomon, and what Solomon could obtain, and own, and control. Solomon who used his control of horses and chariots to exact tribute (read: taxes) from others; who used the location of Israel along the trade routes to exact a toll for what passed through the land, and made sure the money went to Solomon, not to the community. Solomon cared about Solomon, not about:

How good and pleasant it is to live together as brothers in unity!
It is like fragrant oil poured on the head
and falling over the beard,
Aaron's beard, when the oil runs down
over the collar of his vestments.
Is is as if the dew of Hermon were falling
on the mountains of Zion.
There the LORD bestows his blessing,
life for evermore (Psalm 133)

The LORD bestows the blessing freely. Solomon makes sure the blessing is recovered and rewarded to Solomon. Solomon, like the Pharoah, says there isn't enough to go around: not enough money, not enough power, not enough wisdom, and I, Solomon, must control it all, must deal in it, must buy and sell in all the marketplaces, of arms, of ideas, of palaces, even of religion. Because of this, says Jeremiah, comes the Exile. Because of this, Isaiah tells Israel, the people, not the kings:

"Come for water, all who are thirsty;
though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
come, buy wine and milk, not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food
your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
you will enjoy the fat of the land. (Isaiah 55:1-2)

Listen, not to the king, but the LORD. Fare well not because the king is wise, or rich, or virtuous, but because of the goodness of the LORD. And buy without money, buy food without price, because economic transactions are not the basis of true life. There is no basis of exchange here: "Come to me and listen to my words, hear me and you will have life." (Isaiah 55:3). It is the call of the Creator, who gave life simply by speaking, in the beginning; and who gives life still, simply by speaking. And what is life if not a gift, something for which you can't give anything in exchange, which you can't even accept or acknowledge or receive, because you can never step away from it, apart from it, stand beside it and recognize it as something other to you, something which you could be given. What you is there to give to, if you don't already have life?

And because of the Exile comes Deuteronomy; the book of identity; and not identity for the king, but for the people. The people to whom God has given the one gift which can be given: life.

The consistent thread through the Hebrew scriptures into the proclamation of the basileia tou theou is that humans must eschew and avoid political power, because power draws its source from the fear of scarcity. As Brueggemann reads the Biblical narrative, Pharoah represents the people who live in fear and anxiety and anger. Such people have no energy left over for the neighborhood. In the story of Joseph and Pharoah, the guy with the most power and authority and wealth, dreams of scarcity. Which is not surprising; Pharoah's oikos is governed by the fear of running out. It is what keeps him in control, keeps him in power and why the people allow him to rule. This anxiety about scarcity is what drives the Hebrews into slavery and so, in brief, Genesis moves into Exodus.

Now Pharoah is so afraid of scarcity, so filled with anxiety for what might be taken from him, he begins to kill the babies of the Hebrews (and here the parallel to Herod in the New Testament, where he is clearly Pharoah to all the Gospel writers, becomes clearer. This is where Matthew draws his parallel with the Massacre of the Innocents). This is Pharoah's anxiety at work. As my notes indicate from the lecture: "The system that generates anxiety cannot relate to steadfast love." Which all by itself explains much about the reaction to Tom Fox, and even to the desire to go to war in the Middle East, a desire Wesley Clark says originally led to a plan to invade 7 countries in that region. But the story of the Exodus is that "Anxiety generated by ideology and social systems is not a part of the human condition." It is, in other words, our creation, and our creation, unlike God's, is grossly imperfect.

Enter Moses, a person with nothing who dreamed of freedom and departure from the "anxiety producing system." And then there is the miracle in the desert, the gift of God's abundance in the manna which comes to break the influence of the anxiety system (it comes as the people are complaining that they were better off in Egypt than in the desert). Our anxiety, Brueggemann notes, is a product of our lack of trust (faith) in God. God's offer of abundance, he says, calls into question the anxiety created by social systems, by human structures and strictures; and yet God never gives us more than "this day our daily bread."

I consider this point as I wander around the bookstore on a quiet afternoon, looking at titles like Why We Want You to Be Rich and The Joys of Much Too Much, which advises me on the cover that I can "have it all," including the perfect spouse, the perfect career, perfection in everything. And the anxiety of not obtaining all that, of never achieving "perfection"? Negative thinking which holds me back from my success; or, in some teachings, from having the faith in God that will pay off big for me. But the question of faith is yet another question, isn't it?

As for the issue of power, that is my own reading. The people of Israel got along well enough (with incidents of disagreement, of course; the Bible is nothing if not honest) under the leadership of Moses and the elders, and then the peace between tribes and families was kept by the judges, who were basically arbitrators. God warns Samuel that the people won't be happy with a king ruling over them, and when Israel insists God finally gives in, and gives them Saul. Things go bad almost from the start, and soon Saul is hunting David and jealous of this new king who will usurp his authority (think Herod several centuries later hunting down the infant Jesus; Matthew did). In a very real sense, Israel never recovered, and the prophets preach, not the vengeance and punishment of God, but the price of apostasy and greed, a greed and apostasy made inevitable by the decision to abandon the covenental economy in favor of an imperial economy. The covenental economy is proclaimed in Isaiah (64). The imperial economy was proclaimed by Gordon Gecko: "Greed is good." It is the economy of scarcity, of want, of never having quite enough and being driven by the constant goad to acquire more, to establish security based on insecurity, to store up treasure on earth where moth and rust and thieves will, sooner or later, get to it. Consider the actual historical experience of the Pharoahs, who could not take it with them. Sooner or later, someone else took it.

So it's 1-2-3, what are we fightin' for? By "we," I mean Christians; whether we are fighting among ourselves for who can be members of "our" church and in what capacity, or fighting with politicians for how the power is divided, wielded, employed, and controlled. Are we fighting to establish our identity? Do we need to fight someone else in order to do that? Do we need to set our boundaries by who we are in opposition to? (That link is just one of many examples on one of many topics.) Is that any different from finding our identity in what we own, what we have, what we can keep? As long as my identity is in things or idea, does it matter what those things or ideas are? Is God simply an idea?

Which leads us back to the question of faith, but doesn't leave us with an answer. Frustrating, isn't it? I blame the limitations of blog posts.

*Well, that must have been how it seemed when I started this. I left that opening there but, since I haven't linked to anyone, perhaps no one will notice, or take offense. Or they'll all just continue ignoring me. Let the reader understand.

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