Dr. Walter Brueggemann is one of the most influential contemporary theologians. His dozens of books and hundreds of articles have shaped American sermons, as Brueggemann’s work — especially on the Old Testament and the Psalms — has been widely utilized by seminaries and pastors across the country.
Recently, I caught up with Dr. Brueggemann during a lectureship series sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at the University of Findlay.
What’s your main message for young church leaders today?
We in the United States live in a deathly social context that’s marked by consumerism and militarism and the loss of the common good. Younger people that are committed to the gospel have to think carefully about how to critique that dominant system of military consumerism and how to imagine alternative forms of life that are not defined by those corrosive pressures.
That’s a very demanding job, but I suspect that the gospel at its best has always been a summons to think about how the world can be practiced differently.
Can you give some examples of a military consumerist mentality in the church?
That ideological system causes us to be very afraid, to regard other people as competitors, or as threats, or as rivals. It causes us to think of the world in very frightened and privatistic forms.
The gospel very much wants us to think in terms of a neighborhood, in terms of being in solidarity with other people, in sharing our resources, and of living out beyond ourselves. The gospel contradicts the dominant values of our system, which encourages self-protection and self-sufficiency at the loss of the common good. The church is in some ways a reflection of those dominant values.
What are some concrete ways we can be neighborly?
A paradigmatic example is the conversation that we’ve had about healthcare, the Affordable Care Act. Providing healthcare for all of our citizens is a mandate for any workable society. Our resistance reflects our kind of privatized notion that everyone ought to get what they can pay for – and if they can’t pay for it, they ought not to get it. And [that] identifies and fosters a kind of disadvantaged class that is excluded from all of the resources of society.
You can watch while the differences between people who have a lot and people who have a little or nothing — that gap grows and grows. You can’t have a viable society if you organize the economy that way. You can take it in terms of healthcare delivery, education, or in terms of housing or any of the social goods. If you do not have a practice of neighborliness, society becomes unlivable.
Does it bother you that more conservative evangelicals might label such ideas as communist or socialist?
Of course, to beat each other up with labels like capitalism or communism or socialism is simply a waste of time.
The real issue is neighborliness. There are many ways to practice neighborliness — it requires the private sector being involved, the corporations, the government, the church. Everybody has a stake in maintaining a viable neighborliness, and to get caught up in abstract discussion about those kind of labels takes energy away from what our real concerns ought to be.
You talked about the poor and healthcare. What about the LGBTQ community, especially when people use the Old Testament to argue against that community?
The discussion needs to start with what it means to be made in the image of God. The confession of Christian faith is that all of God’s human creatures are made in the image of God. That means that they are to be treated with dignity, offered maintenance and security, as is necessary. There’s almost no use arguing over biblical text.
The only thing that will change people’s minds about this is getting to know people who happen to be gay or lesbian or bisexual, and what you discover is that they’re people just like us. To overcome our fears, I think it is basically fear, means getting to know people and to see that they are not a threat. There may be people with those sexual differences whom we like or whom we don’t like, but they’re all made in the image of God. To stereotype them negatively, it seems to me, is a complete misunderstanding of Christian faith.
I know those texts are in the Bible, but the Bible is a dynamic tradition that’s always on the move to new truth. If you track that out, probably the ultimate statement about that is made by Paul in Galatians 3, that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Barbarian, slave or free. We are all one in Christ. And what we know in the gospel is that God’s love reaches toward all of God’s creatures. To sort them out in terms of who are the deserving and the qualified and who are not is imposing a judgment on human reality that simply cannot be done.
But some Christians fear disobeying God when it comes to LGBTQ issues. Because of what the Bible says, they fear that they are compromising the gospel.
Well, what we do is to pick and choose things out of the Bible that conform to our fears. It’s not a matter of obeying the Bible — it’s about obeying the gospel. The gospel is about God’s saving love that wants to restore all of humanity to full communion. To reach back to an ancient text that has now been corrected by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is simply a bad maneuver and poor methodology and theologically irresponsible. Those texts are not the determinative texts.
The texts that are determinative are those that talk about the love of God that has been shown to us in Jesus. We can’t compromise that.
What do you say to people who have a problem reconciling the God of the Old Testament and Jesus?
The question is an important one. It is a difficult and complex one. But I believe that running through the Old Testament and through the New Testament is an overriding question about the faithfulness or the fidelity of God — whether God keeps promises and whether God can be trusted. There are many articulations of that in the Old Testament. There are many articulations of it in the New Testament.
The attempt to contrast the Old and New Testament and to say they are different Gods and all that kind of business — I just think that’s too easy. The whole interpretive process is much more complex than that. I want to resist such easy conclusions.
Have you found God to be faithful?
The answer is yes. I have found God to be faithful, and I have found it to be a big question in my life about whether God is faithful. It is a central theological preoccupation of my life, as it is of the Christian tradition. In some ways, our defining human vocation [is] to be preoccupied with questions of fidelity.
Image via Westminster John Knox.