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God, Neighbour, Empire by Walter Brueggemann

15 September 2017

Anthony Phillips on the lessons of the Hebrew Scriptures for today’s world

NO SCHOLAR has done more in revealing the contemporary importance of the Hebrew Scriptures than Walter Brueggemann.

Once more, he does not disappoint in this perceptive analysis, as he confronts issues of the exercise of power by inviting us back into the wilderness of Sinai and the challenges of Mosaic law; for the God of the Exodus narrative radically questions the ideology of empire with his commitment to community. Indeed, the Hebrew Scriptures are subversive to power no more so, the author argues, than in the challenge they pose to the United States, the most powerful empire in the contemporary world. Brueggemann’s focus is on the convergence of justice, grace, and law.

The author begins by examining texts that reveal the nature of Israel’s God, his “fidelity, compassion and reliability”. From the beginning, the author is concerned with the political, social, and bodily well-being of all the members of the body politic. In contrast, he laments the loss of the idea of the common good seen in “the nullification of ‘society’ by Margaret Thatcher, and the epidemic of privatization”. But he acknowledges that the common good can be achieved only through human agency. God makes promises to Moses, but Moses has to go to Pharaoh.

Turning to justice, Brueggemann begins with the liturgy of Zion, which envisages a divinely ordered world. This is not guaranteed, but depends on someone to order it: in Israel’s case, her king. But from Israel’s history the author finds himself suspicious of such a top-down justice, which “seems too often to stop with the banks”.

Drawing on the Exodus narrative, Brueggemann argues that justice lies in hearing the cry of the afflicted and reorganising social power in response to that cry. Further, the claims of justice must always look beyond the reality of the present to the possibility of the future.

Brueggemann argues that when the covenant theology of rewards and punishments spelt out in Deuteronomy had become exhausted by the events of the Babylonian conquest, Israel found “grace in the wilderness” of exile. Her future still lay with the God of fidelity. He does not wait for her return, but acts, violating his own judgement. So Israel gets a second chance, which should lead to a reinforced zeal for justice, for a new inclusiveness, a desire for the common good, a new neighbourliness with all that that implies economically.

Finally, in his examination of Israel’s law, Brueggemann is forced to admit that there are within it elements that provide an excuse for the Church’s “continuing ‘morally grounded’ barbarism”.

Yet there is another trajectory arising from the Exodus narrative in the emancipation of the Hebrew slaves, which leads to an embracing of the other. Further, the law is not fixed or immutable: it is always open to further interpretation, which will require “courage, freedom, imagination and candour”. Indeed, it constitutes an “ongoing conversation” in which Israel must keep listening. As the author points out, at present the contested catalogue of neighbours includes gay people, immigrants, and Muslims.

Brueggemann’s analysis could not be more pertinent in the wake of the catastrophe of Grenfell Tower. It requires all who exercise power to ask those serious questions that this study evokes, and that includes the Church.


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


God, Neighbour, Empire: The excess of divine fidelity and the command of common good

Walter Brueggemann

SCM Press £19.99


Church Times Bookshop £18



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