One of our neighbors who will not wear a mask says, “Well, if I die it must be my time.” Our roads, moreover, are strewn with signs that say, “God’s got this.” These judgments, if taken seriously, conclude that we are fated to a future that is already determined for us. This sentiment is an echo of the ancient confidence in the “law of the Medes and the Persians.” Thus, the lesser authorities in Persia say to King Darius,
“Now, O King, establish the interdict and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked.” (Daniel 6:8)
This sentiment, ancient and contemporary, is a wish for and confidence in a world that is settled, secure, stable, does not change, and cannot change.
This sense of fate, when uttered, seems to locate life in a deep trust in God “whose got the whole world in his hands.” In fact, however, it is a statement of despair and resignation, without hope or expectation for anything new. The signs along the road and the statement of my neighbor together bespeak a sense of helplessness before circumstances that are beyond our control.
It amounts to a loss of agency, when being an agent is understood as the capacity to act in order to open new futures for self, for neighbor, and for the world. When one loses agency, one is a passive recipient of what comes, whether what comes is from God or from elsewhere. It is a refusal to take any initiative or responsibility beyond the present status quo.
When I think of about “loss of agency,” I am drawn to Psalm 115. In that Psalm, it is readily affirmed:
Our God is in the heavens;
he does whatever he pleases. (v. 3)
Witness to YHWH as an effective agent requires only this terse affirmation. By contrast, the Psalm lingers in a detailed characterization of idols that are quite unlike YHWH:
Their idols are of silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
they make no sound in their throats. (vv. 4-7)
The sum of these markings is that the idols are inanimate and powerless; they can do nothing. Indeed, the “the sound they cannot make in their throats is “ahem.” They cannot clear their throats! But the point to notice is the derivative statement of verse 8:
Those who make them are like them;
so are all who trust in them.
Those who worship and trust in powerless idols become like the idols they worship, powerless and inanimate. The idols have no agency; those who worship them come as well to have no agency. I do not conclude that my neighbor is a worshipper of idols. But I do conclude that she has willingly signed on for a world in which she is neither permitted nor expected to exercise agency. She understands herself to have no role to play in the shaping of the future that is to come upon us.
I fear, moreover, that the Church’s singular insistence upon grace from God has become “cheap” in the sense that it seems not to consist in a call to or offer of agency. In the Psalm we have:
...The negative: worships idols … become like idols;
...The positive: worship the God who freely does what he pleases … (implied) become free like the God of freedom.
The covenantal-prophetic tradition of the Old Testament to which Jesus is an heir is an invitation to agency as a part of the human role in covenant. One can see in the symmetrical statement of Deuteronomy 26:17-19 the assumption that YHWH’s covenant partner has an active role to play in the life of the world. On the one hand, YHWH has agreed “to be your God” (v. 17). On the other hand, Israel has agreed to be YHWH’s “treasured people” (v. 18).
The role of this treasured people, in the horizon of Deuteronomy, however, is not a one-dimensional, blind, unthinking obedience.
As the book of Deuteronomy makes clear, being responsive to YHWH “statues, commandments, and ordinances” requires active interpretive engagement and decision-making about the concrete shape of fidelity. Thus, the covenantal tradition of Deuteronomy posits Israel as a community at work in order to generate an alternative future.
Indeed, if one considers the commandments concerning socio-economic justice, it is clear that responsible obedience is subversive of the status quo, for it concerns debt cancellation (15:1-18), loans without interest (23:19-20), prompt payment of workers (resisting wage theft) (24:14-15), and a generous safety net for the disadvantaged (24:17-22). This is no ordinary preoccupation with “religion.” Rather, it is the enactment of an alternative social reality. Thus, the big imperative in Deuteronomy is “choose”:
**Choose* life so that you may live.* (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Israel has alternatives from YHWH that require agency. It can choose the idols of the status quo impotence, or it can choose a covenant life in sync with the creator God.
And, of course, it is not different in the prophetic tradition. The prophets characteristically declare that disregard of covenantal stipulations can only bring big trouble. The recurring prophetic indictment is that Israel has refused to enact the agency in performing an alternative world. The prophets regularly conclude that the failure to perform that agency can only bring disaster, even upon the “chosen” people. For good reason, the prophets summon Israel to return to covenant and to enact of covenantal agency:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evils of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil;
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
If you return, O Israel,
says the Lord,
if you return to me …
and if you swear, “As the Lord lives!”
in truth, in justice, and in righteousness,
then nations shall be blessed by him,
and by him they shall boast. (Jeremiah 4:1-2)
If he does not eat on the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and clothes the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice … he shall surely live. (Ezekiel 18:6-9)
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)
These are all calls for agency!
It is not, of course, different with Jesus who is situated in the covenantal-prophetic stream of Israel. He sent his disciples out with a mandate:
Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. (Mathew 10:8)
Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)
This set of imperatives closely echoes Jesus’ own performance, as in Luke 7:22. This set of imperatives intends that his disciples should open new futures for those whose present circumstance is skewed toward despair. Clearly, the disciples are empowered and expected to exercise agency in generating new social possibilities.
As I was thinking about agency toward newness, I read Mary Doria Russell’s book, A Thread of Grace: A Novel. Her book is a remembrance of the way in which generous Italians of every stripe protected Jews in the midst of the Holocaust. Russell has an elder, Iacopo, deliver this reflective affirmation:
The sages offer us a way to understand the terrible times when we are driven into exile, when we are beaten and enslaved, when we are killed with less thought than that a shochet gives chicken. The Holy One has made us His partners, the sages teach. He gives us wheat, we make bread. He gives us grapes, we make wine. He gives us the world. We make of it what we will — all of us together. When the preponderance of human beings choose to act with justice and generosity and kindness, then learning and love and decency prevail. When the preponderance of human beings choose power, greed, and indifference to suffering, the world is filled with war, poverty, and cruelty. Bombs do not drop from God’s hand. Triggers are not pulled by God’s finger. Each of us chooses, one by one, and God’s eye does not turn from those who suffer or from those who inflict suffering. Our choices are weighed. And, thus, the nations judged. (158-159)
The accent of this statement is on the human capacity to choose a better future, one of risk and of generativity. The either/or of the elder, Iacopo is clear enough:
...Either: justice, generosity, kindness,
...Or: power, greed, indifference to suffering.
Each choice will inescapably yield futures.
That sense of agency is compellingly reflected in verses in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. In the song, Israel celebrates a great victory over the Canaanites. It reports that at the village wells (“watering places”) the victory is told and retold:
There they repeat the triumphs of the Lord,
the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel. (v. 11)
What interests us is the poetic parallelism that characterizes the triumph:
...The triumph is fully a work of YHWH (to God be the glory!)
...The triumph is the work of Israel’s peasants.
The song affirms that both are indispensable. No victory without the agency of YHWH. But also, no victory without the agency of the peasants. It is a both/and, not an either/or. Israel characteristically understands that futures are created by human agency, the agency to which God’s people are summoned in both the law and the prophets.
We may wonder, then, why my neighbor refuses the manifest future-creating chance of mask wearing and why the one who posts the road signs chooses to eschew human agency.
Well, for one thing, it is easier! It avoids all risk, all venture into an ill-defined possibility. That choice (no doubt made unwittingly) is a decision for a changeless status quo world in which no real future is expected or thought to be possible. The refusal of agency is to opt for an abiding present tense of impotence and helplessness. And of course that option is variously encouraged by powers that prefer that we should rest in impotence. It is of course the case that “cheap grace” declared by the church can be a bid for abdication and resignation.
If however, we are those who worship the God who “does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3), we are in the image of that God and not in the image of any impotent idol.
That reality calls us to exercise freedom for the sake of newness according to the intent of the God whose image we perform.
I suggest, then, that it is the work of the church and its ministry to invite, summon, and empower members of the body of Christ to embrace agency in generating alternative futures. It is not obvious how that work of invitation, summons, and empowerment is to be done. But surely it has to do with the recognition that God’s world is not fixed and closed, but is a creation underway toward newness. The recovery of the theme of creation as an open-ended process is crucial. In that context, effective human agents,
...Are deeply rooted in memories that attest, remember, and treasure old performances of agency, both divine and human;
...Are transformatively located in a world that is under promise, so that faith is indeed the work of seeking “a new country” that is our true “homeland” (Hebrews 11:14-16). That “homeland” is not about life after death, but concerns the coming of God’s new creation so that God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
...Are skilled in doing social analyses that effectively connect the dots of money and power.
In the covenantal-prophetic-apostolic tradition, ministry is the process of permitting members of the body to accept agency for themselves and for their neighbors. In that world, there is no cause — and no excuse! — for abdication or resignation. In the world of the gospel, we are not fated like “Medes and Persians.” We are, rather, as the beloved of God, destined toward wellbeing. We need only choose that wellbeing in active, daring, wise ways. That is how we may live and prosper in our present “land of promise” (see Deuteronomy 30:20).
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.
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