Walter Brueggemann: When God’s Normal Becomes Abnormal

Jeremiah offered a scathing assessment of the ruling oligarchy that governed ancient Jerusalem that included king, priests, scribes, and prophets:

For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
yet they were not ashamed,
they did not know how to blush (Jeremiah 6:13-15).

These fierce words of the poet were so on point and poignant that they are reiterated in this book yet again:

… from the least to the greatest
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
yet they were not at all ashamed,
they did not know how to blush (8:10-12).

Jeremiah was able to see clearly the abject failure of public leadership in Jerusalem that was not visible to those safely contained in the ideology of Davidic election. Those so contained only believed in making Israel great again.

Jeremiah saw clearly:

  1. He saw that the primary principle of public life in the city was unmitigated greed that was generated in a desperate sense of self-sufficiency. He saw that the organs of state, temple, and the law were all distorted for private gain at the cost of public wellbeing. He saw that the city’s economic enterprise was grounded in ideology-propelled exploitation.

  2. He saw that such willful distortion of public life and the public economy required wholesale deception and the issuance of fake news in the service of an ideology that was remote from economic reality. Thus the propaganda of throne and temple issued false mantras of assurance that were misleading and misrepresenting of social reality. Those false mantras of assurance seduced much of the population of the city.

  3. Before he finished, Jeremiah saw that the force of ideology had been able to establish in Jerusalem a new social narrative that offered a triad of unregulated greed, phony press releases, and willful misrepresentation that should have embarrassed the perpetrators of such distortion. The leadership—priests, prophets, scribes, however, had lost any capacity for shame. They could no longer be embarrassed by their gross acts and policies. They had lost their ability to blush, because their grossness had achieved the status of the new normal. Greed and misrepresentation were perfectly fine: “We do it all the time and everyone else does it too.” No problem! When long-held social expectations and constraints can be violated with impunity, the capacity for shame evaporates. That is what happened in Jerusalem. There were no longer any tacit constraints to which the leadership was accountable. The loss of shame, says Jeremiah, leads to a devastating “therefore” from which the leadership will not be exempt:

Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;
at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown
says the Lord (6:15; see 8:12).

Shamelessness leads to disaster!

It requires little imagination to transfer this loss of social restraint from that ancient city to our present social. In our contemporary social crisis:

Greed reigns! There was a time when the controlling oligarchs in our society had to act covertly. Not now! Now it is all out in the open: all without cover-up and without apology. Phony assurances are offered in a ready eagerness, without empathy or compassion, to dismiss unbearable socio-economic reality that is all around us. The assurances are unblinking and finally shameless in their cynicism!

These practices of greed and these offers of phony assurances among us are without restraint. Their perpetrators are unchecked by any sense of embarrassment. They echo the lines of Mayor Richard J. Daley who famously said amid a scandal, “Nothing embarrasses us.”

When the capacity for shame evaporates, the maintenance of human dignity and the valuing of human life are dramatically diminished.

Human persons easily become throw-away objects, completely dispensable for those who have reduced life to tradable commodities. For such brutalizing practice and policy everything depends upon the verification of new normal that no long seem stunningly abnormal

It is a new normal among us that homeless persons, that is, the house-disadvantaged, are accepted as ordinary social fixtures without hope or reprieve.

It is a new normal among us that health care is primarily for the well financed and the well connected.

It is a new normal among us that many people should work for pay that make a viable life impossible.

It is a new normal among us that racism is often forcefully practiced in administration of justice.

It is a new normal to keep unwelcome children in detention.

All of this is old stuff; but now these practices have become normal and accepted; we are no longer shocked or horrified by the cynical legitimacy of these hard habits. No one is embarrassed. No one blushes. Many of us can remember the dramatic moment when Joseph Welch, the pixie-like attorney, put the question to Senator Joe McCarthy: “Senator, have you at long last no shame?” There was a long pause in that moment; the question was unanswered. It lingered in the air; but the answer was (and is) unmistakable:

No, Senator McCarthy had no shame.
No, the urban elite in old Jerusalem had no shame.
No, the greedy oligarchs among us have no shame.

In the midst of these shameless new normals, God dispatched Jeremiah as a truth-teller.
In the midst of our contemporary shameless new normals, God has sent the church. The church is not a nag or a nanny to monitor such policy and conduct. It is, however, I submit, the proper work of the church (and its pastors) to bear witness to the normals that are ordained of God and structured into the creation that cannot for long be outflanked or violated with impunity:

It is normal that greed should be curbed by an awareness that we live most elementally by gift.

It is normal that every human person should have good housing.

It is normal that every human person should have adequate health care.

It is normal that those who work should receive a living wage and enjoy the fruit of their labor.

It is normal that the wealth of the community should be deployed for the wellbeing of the neighborhood.

It is normal that the truth shall be told about the deployment of public moneys, about the degradation of the environment, about the index of suffering caused by injustice and inequity.

It is normal that those who violate these norms will be shamed and embarrassed enough to blush.

We live in a society where destructive abnormalities have been recast as normal. But the truth must be told. All those who follow in the wake of Jeremiah are charged with such truth-telling so that we do not, in our drowsiness, fail to see the reality of our world. As Jeremiah discovered, the perpetrators of phony normals do not want such truth-telling. We do it, nonetheless, because we know that the will of God is not finally negotiable. When we do our work well, we may embrace the good charge made to Timothy:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

Church Anew is dedicated to igniting faithful imagination and sustaining inspired innovation by offering transformative learning opportunities for church leaders and faithful people.
As an ecumenical and inclusive ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, the content of each Church Anew blog represents the voice of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of Church Anew or St. Andrew Lutheran Church on any specific topic.