Walter Brueggemann: Beyond the Spreadsheet

News Item:

After years of dire predictions that failed to pan out, the people who run fiscal and monetary policy in Washington have decided the risk of “overheating” the economy is much lower than a risk of failing to heat it up enough…Many economist have déjà vu when it comes to overheating warnings (“Inflation Fears Fall by the Wayside in the Biden Era,” The New York Times by Jim Tankersley and Jeanna Smialek, February 16, 2012 p. 1).

The linkage between the God of the Gospel and economics is deep, wide, and inescapable. One cannot have the God of the Gospel without the neighborly economy willed by the God of the Gospel. For Roman Catholics, see the social teaching of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum novarum. For Lutherans, see The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation edited by Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee. For Calvinists, see Andre Bieler, Calvin’s Economic and Social Thought.

That linkage nowhere has been made more compellingly than by M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, who shows that our term “economy” comes from the Greek oikos (household) and that God is the ultimate “householder” who provides all that is needed for the “household” of creation:

As a way of correlating God and economy I propose the term oikos. In the broadest sense I will mean by *oikos access to livelihood. The household living relationships of the oikos are the institutional relationships aimed at the survival of human beings in society. Oikos is the way persons dwell in the world toward viability in relation to family, state, market, nature and God. Oikos is the heart of both ecclesiology and political economy* (p. 33).

In order to consider this linkage between God and economy, I appeal to the familiar benediction of Ephesians 3:20-21 wherein the writer celebrates, in doxological cadence, God’s unparalleled capacity for abundant accomplishment:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever! Amen.

This doxological benediction affirms that God’s gracious and generous capacity is beyond every limit of human imagination. God has a limitless capacity to do good and provide good in and for and through all creation. This affirmation recurs in the doxological Psalms:

These all look to you
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are filled with good things. (Psalm 104:27-28)

The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
and satisfying the desire of every living thing. (Psalm 145:15-16)

He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.
The Lord lifts up the downtrodden;
he casts the wicked to the ground.

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.

He covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares the rain for the earth,
makes grass to grow on the hills.
He gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry …

He gives snow like wools;
he scatters frost like ashes,
He hurls down hail like crumbs—
who can stand before his cold”?
He sends out his word and melts them;
He makes winds blow and the waters flow. (Psalm 147:4-9, 16-18).

The “household” of creation is assured an ample provision that outruns every calculation. It belongs to the capacity of the creator God to outrun our best expectations and estimations. God’s generative capacity provides that God’s good creation is a gift that keeps on giving.

It is of course decisively interesting that in the doxological benediction of Ephesians 3:20-21 it is attested that his generous provision outruns all that we can ask. We make our petitions in our need, and find that God answers beyond our need or our petition (see Matthew 7:7-11).

More than that, it is attested that this generous provision outruns all that we can “imagine.” The Greek term noeo suggests not only “imagine,” but “comprehend” or “understand.” If we stay with the conventional translation, “imagine,” this affirmation means that human imagination is too restricted, domesticated, and contained to embrace the expansive wonder of God’s generative capacity.

I can think of two texts in which the narrative shows that the generativity of God requires Israel to reach beyond the limits of its imagination in order to receive God’s abundance. (There are no doubt many other such texts and indeed the “miracles” of Jesus attest that God’s power for life runs well beyond human imagination.)

In the manna narrative of Exodus 16, there is a desperate need for bread and water in the wilderness, for the wilderness is precisely a place without resources (Exodus 16:3). Israel could not imagine such provision in the wilderness. In response to their complaint, “bread from heaven” is given. It is given beyond explanation, and beyond human calculation. It is a gift completely beyond the range of human understanding, expectation, or explanation. It is God’s own gift of the bread of life whereby God’s own gift breaks the grip of the “bread of affliction.”

A second text on such abundance beyond human imagination is the narrative moment in which Elisha and his servant are surrounded by the threatening army of the Syrian king (II Kings 6:8-23). Elisha’s servant can count and can see that the two of them are outnumbered and endangered. But Elisha, a carrier of transformative power, knows otherwise; he bids his companion to see with different eyes. In his faith beyond what he could see, Elisha is able to reassure his servant:

“Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” (v. 16)

A strange claim indeed! But when the servant receives new eyes, he saw:

The mountain was filled with horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (v. 17)

The narrative explains nothing. It leaves us astonished by what is surely “beyond human imagination.”

In both of these narratives concerning bread from heaven and horses and chariots of fire, the power of God is on exhibit that outruns human imagination. That power has an inexhaustible capacity for good gifts, never runs out, never lack resources, never ends in diminishment or in poverty. And that is because God’s capacity is not situated in human scale.

This is the God attested to Job, who has inexhaustible storehouses of resources and provisions that defy Job’s arrogance (Job 38). This God of abundance is unlike any other. There is no one on the creaturely side of the equations — not Moses or Aaron in the wilderness, not Elisha or his servant under duress, and not Job in his consternation — who has such abundance. All others exhaust their capacity and deplete their abundance. But not God! God’s abundance is beyond human explanation or expectation, more than we can ask or imagine!

When we consider the linkage of the claim for God “beyond imagination” to the economy, we intend to debunk the economics of scarcity that dominates our conventional imagination as it has been so compellingly advocated, for example, by Milton Friedman. That economics of scarcity has been eagerly committed to austerity and parsimony. As Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, and Florian Schui, Austerity: The Great Failure, have shown, austerity is most often not an economic argument; it is rather a moral advocacy to make sure that the needy and the indigent (that is, the “undeserving”) do not get something for nothing.

As the recent Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Purdue, has declared in roughly these words, “We don’t want food stamps to make people dependent when they should be working.” Stephanie Kelton, The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy, has shrewdly observed that the flaw in all such reasoning is the assumption that the budget of the federal government is like a family budget in which bills must be paid in order to base a better life on a balanced spreadsheet. The mistaken assumption is that the federal budget operates in the same way as a family budget. As a consequence, says Kelton,

We have been too restrictive in public policy out of unwarranted fear about numbers recorded in the government agency spreadsheet. We have held back progress in science, fought unnecessary wars, kept living standards low, and lived with less beauty than we could have enjoyed. (260-61)

In her very helpful study, Kelton explains why the analogy to a family budget is not applicable. The qualitative difference between a family budget and the national government budget is that the federal government “makes money.” Unlike a family budget, it makes as much money as it needs, and it can never run out of money. For that reason “deficits” do not constitute a dangerous reality in the federal budget, a point made clear by the fact that the only people who ever worry about a deficit in the federal budget are those who want to stop specific actions.

Thus not a “peep” was heard from Republicans concerning the Trump tax cut. Conversely, it is the same for Democrats who only worry about a deficit when Republicans are in charge. Nobody really defends “austerity” when it comes to one’s own favorite projects; notably the defense budget always has a blank check for expenditure.

If we think about the government’s capacity for abundance based on the capacity to “make money,” we may suggest an analogue between the limitless abundance of God and the limitless ability of the government to “make money,” a capacity checked only by the threat of inflation. As God is unlike all creaturely abundance, there is no limit to God’s abundance. As the federal government has no limit to the money it can make, it is unlike every other budgetary entity that is confined to the spreadsheet. Only God is limitless in abundance; only the federal government is limitless in making money.

Kelton moreover, in an appeal to “Modern Monetary Theory,” shows that well-planned, well administered deficits can add in transformative measures to the common life of the republic. Kelton nicely draws the conclusion:

Austerity is a failure of imagination—a failure to imagine how we can simultaneously improve living standards, invest in our nation’s future, maintain a healthy economy, and manage inflation. Trade wars are a failure of imagination—a failure to imagine how we can simultaneously maintain domestic full employment, help poorer nations sustainably develop, lower our global carbon impact, and continue to enjoy the benefits from trade. Ecological exploitation is a failure of imagination—a failure to imagine how we can simultaneously improve living standards, maintain a prosperous economy, and transition human activity so that we are protecting people and the planet. (p. 261; emphasis added)

Kelton invites us to fresh imagination that is, as she says, nothing short of an analogue to the Copernican Revolution in which old assumptions are seen to be invalid and unhelpful for the reality that is in front of us. The reach of such a Copernican Revolution in our thinking about the economy seems to me closely linked to the imagery of “Kingdom of God” in the Bible, that is, an economy where the abundance of the creator God is the order of the day.

This coming “Kingdom of God” is not an escape from history or from economy; it is rather a recalibration of history and economy that do not contradict the will and rule of the God of abundance. The prophetic texts teem with visions of such an abundance:

They shall all sit under their own vines
and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid. (Micah 4:4)

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. (Isaiah 55:1)

I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine on you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the produce of the field abundant, so that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. (Ezekiel 36:29-30)

“The time is surely coming,” says the Lord,
”when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.” (Amos 9:13)

And of course Jesus’ performance of abundance with the bread is a reiteration of the manna story in which there are now baskets of surplus bread (Mark 6:30-44, 8:1-10).

All of these tests entail acts of daring imagination that function to “cancel” old assumptions and invite to new possibility. This Copernican revolution is an act of imagination that summons us to see that all of our old “spreadsheets” of balanced budgets are acts of fear and parsimony. And now fresh economic thinking permits us to be out beyond such spreadsheets.

Thus Kelton poses the question: “Can you imagine a people’s economy?” (259). By her probe, she means to envision an economy that is committed to common well-being in contrast to our present economy (and its assumptions) that are indifferent to common well-being and is ordered to serve only moneyed interests. She asks:

Can you imagine an economy where private enterprise and public investment all combine to raise living standards for everyone?

Can you imagine an economy where every rural and urban community has sufficient health, education, and transportation services to meet the needs of the local population?

Can you imagine an economy that can measure and continually improve the human well-being, not just gross domestic product?

Can you imagine an economy where human activity rejuvenates and enriches all ecosystems?

Can you imagine an economy where nations trade in ways that enhance living standards and environmental conditions for all parties?

Can you imagine an economy comprising a strong middle class with service and labor-based occupations that have good wages and benefits?

Can you imagine an economy where all are ensured a carefree retirement, with all their food, housing, and health-care needs met?

Can you imagine an economy where all manner of research is fully funded, with a steady stream of successful ideas commercialized or rolled out to serve the public? (262-263)

Such acts of imagination are exactly the work of those who have signed on with the God of Abraham and have critical distance from present dominant imagination and freedom to move beyond a spreadsheet mentality.

We have ready at hand a familiar parable of the work of a people’s economy in the film, It’s a Wonderful Life. The banker, Mr. Potter, is a full and compelling embodiment of an economy of spreadsheets that has no interest in common well-being. The plot of the film is to show that a “people’s economy” in neighborly generosity can rescue when the conventional economy of Mr. Potter has failed.

The neighborhood, the film asserts, has adequate resources to redress the colossal error of Billy Bailey and to rescue George Bailey. The people’s economy is subversive and transformative. The film, however, is not more than a parable because it operates at a micro level; what is required now is the same people’s economy at a macro level for which the federal budget is at hand. Kelton shows the way in which such an economy might be organized on a national scale once the fear of the spreadsheet is overcome.

Kelton is clear that the alternative economy, justified in “Modern Monetary Theory,” is an act of imagination. So let us be sober enough to recognize that there are not many venues for such dangerous, subversive imagination in our society. The church (along with allied religious communities) is the only one left for such dangerous work.

What if we recognize that the church community is exactly such a zone for imagination that breaks the grip of the spreadsheet?

The church has the inscrutable text of scripture that has always funded such alternative imagination. It has sacraments that perform before our very eyes the news of ample “bread of life” for abundance. It has proclamation of the news that the economy is under different management. The text, the sacrament, and the word may evoke a people’s economy that may be generous, concrete, and neighborly. These acts of imagination expose our usual assumptions concerning economy are out of touch with human reality. It is impossible to “imagine” that Jesus intended anything less than the deployment of limitless resources of God’s abundance for common wellbeing. Kelton concludes this way:

With the knowledge of how we can pay for it, it’s now in your hands to imagine and to help build the people’s economy. (263)


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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