Walter Brueggemann: An Alternative Politics

I believe our political economy too often relies on a handful of wealthy families whose contributions profoundly shape political races and policies alike. In some countries, that “clique” is called “oligarchs.” In American society, it is sometimes called the “political elite.” Though some use their vast resources for the betterment of society, others use their money and influence to leverage power and policy for their own personal interests to the detriment of many.

In the Old Testament, it is called “the council of the ungodly” (Psalm 1:1, KJV). They are those who “have no fear of God and no respect for anyone” (Luke 18:4); the Psalms imagine a close linkage between wickedness and misuse of excessive wealth for personal gain. The names do not matter so much as the reality of an unelected clique that subverts the will of the masses and manages the political economy against the common good.

Full disclosure: I recently reread Wolf Hall, the novel by Hilary Mantel, on the life and work of Thomas Cromwell, the hatchet man for King Henry III. Cromwell, in this rendition, could variously exhibit wisdom, ruthlessness, and sometimes thoughtful mercy. The reason I am writing this brief exposition is that I want to share with the reader two declarations that Mantel places in the mouth of Cromwell. He explains to Henry Percy who, against Henry III, defiantly insists that Anne Boleyn is his wife. Cromwell explains to Percy that he is without resources against King Henry:

The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot (Wolf Hall 570).

In a second declaration Cromwell reports to the imperial ambassador, Chapuys:

The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclave of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh (Wolf Hall 907).

These Machiavellian notes faithfully witness to the force of the oligarchs, the political elite, and the council of the ungodly.

Cromwell is not making a defense of such practice or urging its legitimacy. He is saying what he knows to be the reality of the matter and is prepared to act accordingly. Cromwell is unembarrassed about the matter but believes there is no alternative to this reality.

That leaves us with the wonderment and the yearning that there might be an alternative that lies outside of and beyond Cromwell’s sphere of reality that might be effective in generating a different future. The Bible evokes such alternatives, and the deep hope of the human heart breathes otherwise, even beyond the hard realism of Cromwell. Cromwell would have doubted it and not without reason.

But our faith is not contained within his realism. In the Bible, we may identify two trajectories of faith that evoke another possibility, not contained in the matrix of money and power that Cromwell voiced so clearly and enacted so boldly.

The first such trajectory in the Bible attests a world that is narratively rendered so that God is featured as the central, lively, and effective agent in the world. This means that God can be subject of active verbs and can affect God’s own purpose of emancipation and restoration in the world. On the one hand, this God, unlike any other, is boldly addressed in urgent petition that God would intervene against the wicked who act as if “there is no God” (Psalm 10:4; see also v. 6). These petitions fully anticipate that God will effectively intervene:

Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up our hand;
do not forget the oppressed …
Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;
seek out their wickedness until you find none. (Psalm 10:12, 15)

O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion! (Psalm 22:19-21)

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! (Psalm 58:6)

Rouse yourself, come to my help and see! …
Awake to punish all the nations;
spare none one of those who treacherously plot evil. (Psalm 59:4-5)

On the other hand, the one who petitions affirms that God does hear, answer, and acts, and so gives thanks for divine action:

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. (Psalm 22:21)

O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit …
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy. (Psalm 30:2-3, 11)

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure. (Psalm 40:1-2)

Such a pattern of rhetoric, of course, is difficult among us. It is difficult for the “cultured despisers of religion” who long since dismissed such language of divine agency as primitive and obsolete. More than that, it is language that cuts no ice with the oligarchs, the political elite, or the members of the council of the ungodly. They long since have settled for autonomy; such language renders the certitudes of the governing clique as penultimate.

Thus, it is credible to judge that this rhetoric of divine agency is rhetoric that only works “from below,” that is, among those who lack “intellectual sophistication” and who lack as well a kind of connected affluence to make things our way in the world. Thus, it is not a question about whether this alternative language is true. Rather, the question is “in what circumstance?” and “for whom?” does this language work. For the powerful, such language is foolish; for the excluded and vulnerable, such language provides a ground for hope in a world that seems otherwise closed down and without promise.

In his exposition of counter-discourse in Ethics of Liberation: In the Age of Globalization and Exclusion, Enrique Dussel—following Gramsci—can conclude that the cry of protest from below is “the small door through which Messiah might enter” (243). Dussel judges the practice of such rhetoric in this way:

The victim who becomes conscious, who erupts with a revolutionary praxis, produces a rupture of “continuous time” [that is, time managed by the covert triad]. He or she erupts “remembering” … ”commemorating other liberatory-messianic moments of past history. (242-43)

Dussel recognizes that such speech:

Is acceptable today to the ears of a Nicaraguan, of the black Africans of South Africa, of the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, or of the homeless in New Delhi … or New York. (244)

This company of protesters, of course, are belated companions of the enslaved who “cried out” in ancient Egypt and so mobilized the saving power of God against Pharaoh, and belated companions of such as Bartimaeus, a blind beggar who refused to be silenced (Mark 10:48). It is this cry, echoing the long loud cry of ancient Israel, that evokes the emancipatory power of God. This emancipatory power, evoked by loud insistence, subverts the long-standing certitudes of the oligarchs, the political elite, and the members of the council of the ungodly.

The second trajectory of alternative historical possibility we may find in Psalm 1, the very Psalm that gives us the phrase, “the council of the ungodly.” That Psalm yields a triad of the cultured despisers of religion — “the wicked, sinners, and scoffers” — and commends and celebrates, to the contrary, Torah-keepers. The stark contrast offered in the Psalm is between “perish” and “prosper.” Those who perish are the “wicked, sinners, and scoffers,” a triad not unlike “oligarchs, political elite, and the council of the ungodly.” Those who prosper are the torah-keepers. Without putting too fine a point on it, we may include among the torah-keepers all those who “love God and love neighbor” or more simply, those who care for the neighborhood, for as Paul avers:

The whole law [Torah!] is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)

When we make the category of torah-keepers wide enough, it may acknowledge all those, of whatever ilk, who advocate for social justice and who put their bodies to the task of protest and advocacy. These are the ones who generate neighborly prosperity and social wellbeing, the very kind of neighborly prosperity and social wellbeing upon which the oligarchs, political elite, and council of the ungodly vigorously defaulted.

Thus, we may identify two trajectories of historical possibility that may outflank the oligarchs, political elite, and company of the ungodly. Recently, an affluent couple in an exclusive St. Louis neighborhood was photographed pointing guns at the protesters who occupied their street. The wife of the couple said, “We were frightened for our lives.” Indeed when the juices of justice flow in the streets, they do indeed constitute a threat to those who think themselves immune to the demanding requirements of the vagaries of history.

The march for justice is not deterred by the thick weaponry of the oligarchs, political elite, and council of the ungodly.

When we ponder these two historical possibilities beyond the triad—the holy power of the transformative God and the resilient force of the torah-keepers—we may wish for a way to link together the work of God and the work of the torah-keeping protesters. We may find a clue to such a linkage in the ancient “Song of Deborah” that celebrates a victory of the several tribes of Israel over the forces of Canaan. It was a stunning upset victory against long odds because the Canaanites were formidable in economic and military power. As a result, this upset victory was to be gladly celebrated as the song affirms:

“Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys,
you who sit rich carpets,
and you who walk by the way.
To the sound of the musicians at the watering places …” (Judges 5:10-11).

The victory is to be reiterated and celebrated all the time, as they ride, as they sit, as they walk, as they gather at the village wells, social places designed for neighborly gossip. (See the parallel of saturation testimony in the Torah practice of Deuteronomy 6:7-9). And then verse 11 identifies the subject of the gossipy celebration:

There they repeat the triumphs of the Lord,
the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

In this remarkable poetic parallelism, the “triumph” is said to be “of the Lord” and “of his peasantry.”

If we take only the first line, the victory is the singular work of God. If we take only the second line, the victory is the spectacular work of those called peasants at the time.

If, however, we take both lines together as the poem intends, it is a both/and. The holy God and those who are vulnerable act together in concert. And when they do, the ruling elite, in this case the Canaanites, are helpless before them. (Note well that “Canaanites” is not an ethnic designation, but a convenient ideological reference for whoever opposed Israel).

It is worth rereading the dictums of Cromwell again. He is surely correct in his realism … most of the time. Most of the time the powerful prevail. But not every time!

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, the ultimacy of God and the risk of the vulnerable converge effectively. And when they do converge, history is turned. That turn may leave “the door ajar, open for Messiah.” But even if open less than that, open enough to glimpse an alternative politics, an alternative politics that may generate neighborly justice and a generous economics, it is the task of the preacher to keep before us this alternative that makes the force of the covert triad at best penultimate. It is the task of the church to enter into this alternative account of worldly reality. That is why we accompany all people.

That is why we sing. That is why we pray. That is why we march!


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.

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