Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an interview series with Walter Brueggemann on his book, God, Neighbor, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good (Baylor University Press, 2016), conducted by RLC executive director Don Golden. This discussion also features Olivia Golden, a third-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University.
DG: Why is relationship and covenant essential to biblical faith and what role do they play in resistance to empire?
WB: It seems to me that the pivot point of the Bible is the covenant at Sinai which is anticipated with the covenant with Abraham. According to the text, the holiness of God makes promises and demands of the human community and that linkage which then comes to fruition in Jesus of Nazareth who is truly God and truly human is what scripture is all about. It is about the mystery that this bonded loyalty between heaven and earth is the truth of our existence. And that bonding at Sinai then becomes the model for “all creatures of our God and king,” human and non-human, to be bonded in tenacious loyalty to each other. And money, power, privilege, entitlement of empire, all mean to interrupt or distort that bonding.
I don’t know whether I’m being very articulate or not…
DG: Ha, yes, very! So Exodus is “the pivot point” when God and God’s people covenant together. What does this covenanting with God have to do with how we relate to others?
WB: When they asked Jesus for a great commandment he said you can’t have just one, you get two so that love of God and love of neighbor are intimately connected.
My favorite text about this is in Jeremiah 22 where the prophet is contrasting the wicked king Jehoiakim with his good father Josiah. He says about the father Josiah, “he cared for the poor and the needy, is this not what it means to know me?” Jeremiah does not say, “If you care for the poor and the needy, you will get to know me.” He does not say, “If you get to know me, you will want to care for the poor and the needy.” It is the act of caring for the poor and the needy that IS knowledge of God. And it seems to me that ties the two great commandments intimately together with each other. And what we try to do is separate those commandments.
So pious people are tempted to want to love God and forget neighbor and secularists sometimes love neighbor but want nothing to do with loving God. And the wonder of evangelical faith is that they cannot be separated. Which I suppose is echoed in the epistle of John — if you do not love the brother, sister, neighbor or immigrant whom you have seen, how can you love God whom you have not seen?
DG: Given that relationships are so vital, I wish evangelicals would welcome their queer and gay and lesbian brothers and sisters because they too need this covenant fidelity, both in marriage and in church.
OG: Do you think there is a particular reason why Christians fixate on homosexuality? I just saw an article that asked, “Is homosexuality really the greatest sin?” And I feel like that’s the way Christians make it out to be.
WB: I have a theory about all this adrenaline about homosexuality and that it is not about homosexuality. It is about the old privileged world coming to an end. And you cannot any longer blame black people. You can’t blame women. You can’t blame any of those who want a part of the pie. So it is still morally safe to put all of this angry adrenaline on gays. But I think it is a misplaced anger that has to do with the loss of the old world. And it feels like high moral ground to take your stand on, that’s what I think.
OG: That makes a lot of sense. I think our generation has more experience with people who identify as LGBTQ.
WB: Your whole generation says, “Well, what’s the problem?” But when I think of how long it took me to get to accepting this new social reality, it’s not surprising. If you have no contact, or at least no awareness of contact… my generation didn’t have that contact because so few people were ‘out.’
DG: So the evangelical anxiety about inclusion and affirmation relates to our struggle with empire and the changes that threaten our privileged place in it. Thanks, Walter!