Interview

Scarcity and Abundance

Q&A with Walter Brueggemann

by Stacy Smith

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is one of the world’s most prolific biblical scholars and the William Marcellus McPheeters professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of over 100 books and articles and is perhaps best known for his scholarship on the Psalms and his book, The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 2nd ed., 2001).

Recently, Dr. Brueggemann collaborated with Peter Block and John McKnight to write An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture (Wiley, 2016) in which he explores consumerism and the free market ideology, and ideas like asset-based community development that challenge those models of thinking. Stacy Smith sat down with Dr. Brueggemann to discuss how the Bible informs covenant, commerce, community and innovation.

You co-wrote the book An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture with John McKnight, a public policy leader, and Peter Brock, a community development expert. How did an Old Testament professor end up working on this book?

From the biblical perspective, what interests me is that the Bible is primarily concerned with economic issues. The class structure of ancient Israel was exploitative of some peasants in the same way that our economy is stacked against the same kinds of people. Consumerism has to do with the disproportionate distribution of commodity goods according to economic leverage.

So in this book, we try to speak together but with different accents. I tend to accent the theological more than Peter and John by suggesting that not only is this good public policy, but it’s also the will of God.

This book lifts up or describes a piece of asset-based community development. What is asset-based community development?

I learned about asset-based community development from John McKnight. As I understand it, asset-based thinking operates on the conviction that every community has the resources it needs—if you can mobilize those resources. There’s an emphasis on keeping money locally and doing business with local commerce, and hopefully having local lending institutions that keep the money circulating in the community. It comes out of the conviction that the local economy is the vehicle for the well-being of all the community.

How does the local economy include the local church?

The church not only tries to be specific and concrete about community actions but it also provides some vision for the local community in the sense that we are in solidarity, committed to the same good, and if one member suffers, all suffer together. That is not only a nice religious idea; it is also an economic reality.

Often, communities, churches specifically, are very different theologically or socioeconomically but are in the same neighborhood. How can this approach address the cultural, racial and social boundaries of people who live in a close physical location?

I think the trick is to avoid abstract theory and large programmatic proposals and rather to focus on very specific issues and concrete initiatives that can be taken about specific questions. Churches that have great theological differences can agree on specific socioeconomic initiatives. No matter whether one is a religious liberal or a religious conservative, everybody agrees that there needs to be health care. Everybody agrees that the schools need to be cared for better. Everybody agrees that no one should be living on the street. How you do that is complex and disputed, but that’s where the conversation can begin, by an emphasis not on what we disagree about but what are we all committed to. That can be very local and very small, but when we learn to trust each other then it can move out into bigger issues

Scripture invites us to imagine social relationships that are organized around covenant rather than consumption. Can you explain that?

Covenant is rooted all the way back to Mt. Sinai in ancient Israel, and it is a political model of a relationship based on mutual fidelity. It includes sanctions and punishments when one breaks that fidelity, but the accent is on the positive. And it is the affirmation that God and Israel have made mutual promises. From there you can say that powerful people and powerless people, or strong people and vulnerable people, can act in fidelity to one each other and need to be held accountable to that. When we honor those commitments, everybody benefits.

Consumption is based on the idea of scarcity, and scarcity is an ideology that operates out of fear—I must take away from my neighbor because there is not enough to go around. Abundance is the conviction that there is enough to go around and we need to share it. It’s a theological conviction rooted in the generosity of God.

You mentioned health and access to health care. Can you describe what a covenantal economy of health might look like?

It has to do with mobilizing the resources of the community so that everybody has access to responsible, good health care, good doctors, good health programs. The alternative is health care that is for sale, and so it goes primarily to people who have the resources to pay for better health care. What you get, then, is a highly stratified health care program. It doesn’t need to be that way; it can be organized more humanely.

We suggest that programs like asset-based community development are an example of a tool for innovation. How would you define innovation from a theological or biblical perspective?

It means trying things that we haven’t tried yet. When you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging deeper. Innovation might be recognition that what has become normal might actually be socially unacceptable. Then you are in a position to ask, “What resources do we have?” and “What steps can we take to break out of this failed normalcy for the sake of something else?” I think it is really crucial from the church perspective to be paying attention to the deep pathologies that have become normal among us that cannot possibly be normal in any gospel perspective.

Finally, you are perhaps best known for your scholarship on the Psalms. Is there a specific psalm that guides you in this community-based work?

Psalm 72 is a psalm about how the king ought to act. The king is a metaphor for powerful, wealthy people, and what it says is that the longevity and military success of the king in ancient Israel depends upon constructive attentiveness to the poor and the needy. What this psalm insists on is, no matter how good you are economically and militarily, if you do not make the poor and the needy participants in well-being, then nothing else the king can do will succeed. And it doesn’t take much imagination to transpose that in to our economy.

 

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