Walter Brueggemann: The "Ands" of the Gospel

In her remarkable book, Silver, Sword & Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story, Marie Arana summarizes and reviews the tortured (and torturing!) history of Latin America since the arrival of the first Europeans. The three components of her title (that organize her book) make reference in turn to:

...“Silver”: The passionate ruthless drive for gold;

...“Sword”: an intense readiness for brutal violence, and

...“Stone”: the powerful grip of the Church and earlier organized religion as a durable ideological justification for greed.

The story, as is commonly rehearsed, is an account of how European power and greed overwhelmed and domesticated the extant populations of Latin America.

This power established the rule of greed, put in place in the sixteenth century that remains largely intact and in effect today.

On the final page of her book, Arana notes that we have largely seen Latin American history “from the eye of the invader, from the perspective of conquest” which has produced “a long litany of iniquities [that] lie at the heart of the Latin American narrative” (p. 362). Against that European bias, Arana insists that we must pay greater attention to the indigenous culture and history, so that must be a study of “ands”:

The story of Columbus and the Taino. The story of Cortes and … the Aztecs. Pizzaro … and the Incas. Cabeza de Vaca and the Guarani. Spain and its colonies. The tinpot dictator and his unfortunate casualties. The Roman Catholic Church and the pagans. The vast world economy and the coveted veins that lie dormant in the earth. (362)

Having stated the “ands,” Arana goes on to insist:

But it is the “ands,” the second parties to each dyad, that reveal the underlying and often more enduring aspects of the story: it is the Taino, the Aztec, the Inca, the Guarani, the colonies, the pagans, the casualties, and the veins that lie dormant in the earth that tell the deeper tale. These are the constituent parts that, however trampled, remain deeply imprinted on the region’s psyche.

Strong ideological forces have led us to disregard and downplay the second part of the “ands.”

Now required is a rediscovery and new appreciation of the parts of the “ands” that we have not noticed.

Arana’s accent on the “ands” has led me to think about the “ands” of the gospel that require a rereading of faith. In what follows I consider some of those “ands” that have occurred to me while readers may think of many others. From the Old Testament, here are three such “ands” that strike me as important:

Israelite and Canaanite.

Our wont is to follow the dominant storyline of the biblical text and focus singularly on Israel with hardly an afterthought about the Canaanites. Even if we took the simple claim that Israel displaced the Canaanites, we are still left with the fact of displaced people that lingered in the memory of Israel as a result of ideological violence. But of course the Bible, in addition to the story of wholesale displacement, also acknowledges that the “conquest” was not as clean and absolute as that. In Judges 1, it is reiterated that Israel “did not drive out” the Canaanites. They remained in the land. They continued to exist as a very distinct population.

Thus, even given the powerful ideology of a “chosen people” who were “given the land of promise,” the text bears witness to the fact that “other people” with their own claim to the land are present in the biblical text. These “other people” in the text function variously as a threat to the faith and as a resource for faith and culture; Israel obviously borrowed very much from the Canaanites. The notion of a “clean sweep” of the land, moreover, has served well the Euro-American narrative that the early “American settlers” came to a land that was eagerly received and necessarily made “empty” of its early population.

Of course the facts are very different, for the memory and the continuing presence of an “unwelcome” population can only be denied in and through an illusionary ideology. That unwelcome population cannot be denied by Euro-Americans concerning Native Americans, any more than Israelis can persuasively deny the continuing reality of a Palestinian community with its own claim to the land. The “and” of “us” and “other” requires much greater attention than a singular ideology of chosenness has permitted, both in the Bible and in the U.S. cultural history that is dominated by Euro-American notions of “superiority.” It is the “others” who come after the “and” that insist on greater attention and appreciation.

Israelite and sojourner.

In the Bible, sojourners are those who lived among the Israelites but who were without tribal membership and who were therefore vulnerable and without social protection. In the same chapter of Leviticus where we find “the second great commandment” (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; see Mark 12:31), we get another startling commandment:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

The community of Israel was never to be “a pure community” consisting only in its own kind. It has always had to deal with “outsiders” who did not “belong.” It was easy enough, given the ideology of chosenness, to dismiss the presence and claim of the “non-eligible others.” The text, however, would not permit such exclusivism or dismissal of the other. Not only does the commandment preclude oppression of the other; it mandates “love” for the sojourner as for self, the same formulation as for the neighbor in the better known verse 18. The mandate for such generous policy and practice is the memory of Israel as vulnerable sojourners amid Egyptian oppression.

The point is made clear in Exodus 12:48-49 in which a sojourner is admitted to the Passover celebration, and so is given access to Israel’s narrative of emancipation:

There shall be one law (torah) for the native and for the alien who resides among you. (v. 49)

Israel could never be without the “other.” It is easy to see what happens when the subject after the “and” is eliminated from the horizon of the chosen. Then the claim of Israel can become exclusionary and can deny to the other both dignity and security. The subject after the “and” keeps Israelite exclusionary passion in check. When the matter is taken more generally, the “and” precludes racist superiority, and any illusion that “we” are the only ones there, or the only ones who have legitimate rights and claims.

Wolf and lamb.

The remarkable anticipatory oracle of Isaiah presents a series of “and” pairs:

Wolf and lamb,
leopard and kid,
calf and lion,
cow and bear,
lion and ox,
nursing child and asp,
weaned child and adder. (See Isaiah 11:6-9).

In each pair, one member is an aggressive predator; the other in each case is a vulnerable subject as potential prey. The prophet, however, imagines a creation that is fully reconciled in which the strong and the weak, predator and prey, are fully at peace with each other. Without the “and,” we might imagine a world in which predators prevail and the more exposed subjects live in endless vulnerability until they are devoured or destroyed. That presumed world, in the horizon of the poet, however, has no future. It has no future because the “spirit of the Lord” will be embodied in actual governance marked by righteousness, equity, and faithfulness. The outcome of this poetic anticipation is an absence of hurt. The insistence on the “and” is a guarantee that we will not accept the premise of predator/prey as “normal.” Such a practice, wherever it occurs, is recognized as quite abnormal and without sustaining power.

These three cases of “and” (Israelite and Canaanite, Israelite (citizen) and sojourner, wolf and lamb), bespeak a world that refuses ideological closure and any simple reductionism. The insistence on the pairs keeps open the socioeconomic possibility for every creature present. Any attempt to erase this presence is a violation of Torah.

The matter of course is not different in the New Testament. I deem the triadic formulation of Galatians 3:28 to be the richest “and” text in the tradition. The struggle for Paul in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians is how Jewish Christians who keep Torah and Gentile Christians who do not keep Torah can live together in community. In Galatians 3:28, to be sure, the specific formulation is “no longer, no longer, no longer.” The point, however, is that the gospel community is always both/and, because both parties belong to, are claimed by, and welcomed by Christ. Both parties before and after the “and” are heirs to the promises of Abraham.

There is no longer Jew or Greek.

There is both Jew and Greek. The struggle in the early church was whether Gentile Christians who did not keep Torah would be first class members. Paul is unwavering in his advocacy of inclusion that would readily challenge the priority of Jewish Christians who kept Torah. The point of torah-keeping is for Paul a non-issue, because the overwhelming reality of the gracious governance of Christ overrides all such distinctions. From the outset, the church has always been busy trying to sort out such distinctions and to establish orders or hierarchies of authority, privilege, or entitlement. Against such seductions, Paul asserts a non-discriminatory “and” that refuses all such classification.

The church community includes both Jews and Gentiles. Gentiles cannot be lopped off after the “and.”

Free and slave.

Slavery was a long practiced socioeconomic arrangement in Paul’s world as it continues to be in the modern world. The issue of slavery is even more acute in the United States economy because of the additional factor of race. At base, slavery is an assumption that some are more properly assigned to hard labor and others are certified to the ease and surplus produced by that hard labor. Beneficiaries of such arrangements go to great lengths to dress up and justify that duality in all kinds of ways, but basically it is a cultural-economic insistence that some are entitled and some are not. Paul is unconvinced: not so in Christ! Not so in the ancient world where Paul lives. Not so in the contemporary world of huge economic inequality. Not so in the present surge of white supremacy among us. Not so amid our pathology concerning immigration. Not so in the world of sex trafficking. Not so, because the truth of the gospel has demolished all such self-serving arrangements and all such economic incongruities. In Christian community, it is both slave and free, both creditors and debtors, both those long privileged and those long subjugated. Whenever the church participates in those old dismissive distinctions it transgresses its true nature and the will of its Lord. Paul’s insistence is uncompromising.

Male and female.

Much like us, Paul lived in a world where male privilege and male authority were well established and taken as normal. Indeed, much of society continues to be a “male only” enterprise without any “and.” But not so in Christ! In the gospel, it is always male and female, or better, female and male. Thus, there is in the gospel as voiced by Paul an insistence on gender equity. Richard Hayes has it just right:

Paul is echoing the language of Genesis 1:27: “male and female he created them.” To say that this created distinction is no longer in force is to declare that the new creation has come upon us, a new creation in which gender roles no longer pertain. (Richard Hayes, “The Letter to the Galatians,” NIB XI 273)

(It is curious that Hayes elsewhere still allows the statement of Romans 1:26-27 to trump this claim when it comes to LGBTQ persons.) I have no doubt that in gospel vision that the “and” of Paul extends to all such persons.

Mary McGann, The Meal that Reconnects: Eucharistic Eating and the Global Food Crisis, shows that the table practices of the early church parallel the triad that Paul asserts:

Inclusive table practices were serious challenges to the hierarchical structures and inequalities of Roman society; Christian slaves, freedmen, and slave owners reclined together; men, women, Jew, Greek, and Gentile shared food. Viewed as a new world order by gathered Christ-followers, these customs would have been judged by local Roman agents as seriously disordered practices. (50)

It is the case, of course, that the “and” that Moses taught and Jesus performed and entrusted to his followers has often been distorted and interrupted. It seems evident that such distortion and interruption happen whenever there is a claim of privilege, entitlement, or chosenness. The claim of chosenness, unless it is seriously circumscribed, will every time lead to a distortion of the “and” of the gospel (see Walter Brueggemann, Chosen: Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict). We are able to observe such distortion and disruption of the “and.”

It is the critical work of the church to expose all such distortions of the “and” of the gospel. It is the further work of the church to bear witness to and to embody a community of “and” that can and will effectively embrace both,

...Jew and Greek,

...Free and slave,

...Male and female.

This accent upon the “and” of the gospel has immense implication amid our economic inequality, our racist assumptions, and our pathological fear of immigrants.

Indeed, this “and” touches every great issue that is before our public body.

The enduring tradition of “ands” is made possible and urgent for Paul because of his expansive conviction about the Abrahamic tradition that is a free gift of God’s promise. With Abraham, God has initiated a novum in human history. All the later attempts to draw lines of exclusion are futile because the promise to Abraham is broad, deep, and unconditional. For good reason Paul can assert about the God of Abraham that he is,

The God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (Romans 4:17)

As a consequence, the embrace of “and” extends as far as Paul is able to imagine.

It is surely the case, as Arana judges, that we will not grasp the import of the history and culture of Latin America until we pay close attention to the “second parties to each dyad.” Our work in faith now is to pay attention to the second half of the dyads … Greeks, slaves, females … and all the others who are easily dismissed after the preposition. Arana concludes concerning Latin America,

Until Latin America understands how its people have been shaped, sharpened, and stunted by those iniquities, the crucibles of silver, sword, and stone will continue to write its story. (362)

Matters are not different beyond Latin America where most of us live. We also have a narrative of silver, sword, and stone. Our work is to tell another story of our common life that is not defined by or contained in gold, violence, or ideology. In order to tell that other story, we must attend closely to the “second parties to each dyad.”


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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