Walter Brueggemann: Providential Tyranny

“Providence” is the claim that all creation “proceeds under the fatherly care of God the creator” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III 3, 3). Barth of course uses the patriarchal language of his time; he might even better have written, “the motherly care of God the creator.” Providence is the affirmation that God’s governance is not primarily exhibited in spectacular dramatic acts (miracles, “mighty acts”), but in the slow steady maintenance of the well-being of the world.

Such governance is, perforce, hidden and does not call attention to itself; it is nonetheless the sine qua non for a viable life in the world. The hiddenness of God’s rule does not admit to the direct exhibit of the agency of God, but affirms that God’s agency is nonetheless operative. Thus, for example, we can see in the great doxology of Job that there are hints of God’s agency, but the matter is in reticence left largely unexpressed:

Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where one lives,
on the desert, which is empty of human life,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?

Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.

(Job 38:25-30)

This hiddenness is something of a relief for those believers who are scandalized or embarrassed by the direct agency of God, and who do not want too readily to credit God with active verbs.

In his masterful exposition of the theme of “providence,” Barth appeals first of all to the narrative of Genesis 22, the near sacrifice of Isaac in which it is affirmed:

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place, “The Lord will provide,” as it is said to this day. “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided” (v. 14).

The term we render “provide” is in Hebrew “see” (ra’ah):

The word “providence” requires clarification. It is derived — and this derivation is materially important — from Genesis 2:14 — the passage in which Abraham called the spot where he had been prevented from offering up Isaac, and where God’s path and man’s had so unexpectedly crossed … In this passage “to see” really means “to see about.” It is an active and selective predetermining, preparing and procuring of a lamb to be offered instead of Isaac. God “sees to” this burnt offering for Abraham … The Lord is never absent, passive, non-responsible, or impotent, but always present, active, responsible, and omnipotent. He is never dead, but always living; never sleeping, but always awake; never uninterested, but always concerned, never merely waiting in any respect, but even where He seems to wait, even where He permits, always holding the initiative. In this consists His co-existence with the creature. (Barth, Church Dogmatics III 3, pp. 3, 13)

God makes “provision” (pro-video = see before) for our creaturely needs, seeing ahead of time what is required for our well-being. It is from “pro-video” that we get “provide, provision, and providence.” Thus the catechism:

How does God constantly prove himself to be the Creator?

God constantly proves himself to be the Creator by his fatherly providence, whereby he preserves and governs all things.

What has God done for you?

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that he has given me and still preserves my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, also food and clothing, home and family, and all my possessions.

What does God still do for you?

God daily and abundantly provides me with all the necessaries of life, protects and preserves me from all danger.

Why does God do this for you?

God does all of this out of sheer fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on my part. (Evangelical Catechism 19-20)

(Yet again we have patriarchal rhetoric. It is obvious that maternal expressions would better serve the content of these affirmations.) The scripture cited by the catechism in support of these affirmations include these verses:

He will not let your foot be moved,
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

(Psalm 121:3-45)

The eyes of all look to you,
And you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing (Psalm 145:125-16).

“Providence” is the claim that God governs the world to make it a venue for safe, secure well-being for all creatures. This innocent trust in God’s goodness is given wondrous voice in the hymn, “God will Take Care of You”:

Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you;
Beneath his wings of love abide, God will take care of you.
God will take care of you, through every day, o’er all the way;
he will take care of you, God will take care of you …
All you may need he will provide, God will take care of you;
nothing you ask will be denied, God will take care of you…
No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
lean, weary one, upon his breast, God will take care of you.
(The United Methodist Hymnal 130)

I have been thinking about “providence” as I have been reading about “meritocracy,” the notion of a society governed by those who have exceptional ability and have arrived at their power, wealth, and influence solely by the merit of their ability.

Building on the work of Michael Young, The Rise of Meritocracy, Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, has traced the way in which the notion of “merit” has eventuated in social arrangements exploitative of those who have lacked power, wealth, and access.

Sandel nicely sketches the connection between the theological notion of giftedness and the secular notion of success that depends on being gifted with certain characteristics. All of such success is an outcome of God’s generosity. But already with the Puritans (who performed a mediating function), the notion of a free gift of grace began to be modified into a dialectic of grace and merit, a dialectic notion of helplessness and self-help. In the end,

The ethic of mastery and self-making overwhelmed the ethic of gratitude and humility…Gradually and haltingly but unmistakably, the Protestant belief in Providence…became a way of providing spiritual sanctions for the economic status quo…Providence implicitly underwrote inequalities of wealth. (Sandel 41, 43)

It turns out, in such reasoning, that the results of “merit,” wealth, and power, are not only signs of grace, but they are “deserved” and “earned”:

These days, we view success the way the Puritans viewed salvation — not as a matter of luck or grace, but as something we earn through our own effort and striving. This is at the heart of the meritocratic ethic. It celebrates freedom — the ability to control my destiny by dint of hard work — and deservingness. (Sandel 59)

Having such advantaged wealth and power long enough, one can readily imagine that it is deserved.

Sandel offers a compelling riff on the way in which “deserved” has entered our political vocabulary in order to assure those who “have” “deserve” what they have in disproportion; beyond that assurance it is also the recognition that there are the “deserving poor” who “merit” support.

The unspoken but quite real counterpoint of this vocabulary is that there are indeed “undeserving poor” who do not help themselves and who therefore are not “entitled” to any social support.

And of course, it is those with “merit” who have the ability to sort out “the deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor,” a sorting out that most often has distinct racist overtones. The notion of “deserving,” moreover, has reached into consumer advertising in order to affirm that we consumers “deserve” a special product of ease or luxury.

This mode of reasoning goes further to identify the “deserving poor” who have ended where they are “through no fault of their own.”

They are not to be blamed for their status, and so “deserve” some help. It is amazing that a political appeal on behalf of those “who through no fault of their own” most often turns out to be a particular targeted segment of the electorate.

It is, moreover, curious that the verdict of “through no fault of their own” does not lead to any critical reflection on where the fault may lie if not with “them,” that is, with a predatory economic system that exploits those who lack “merit.”

Three outcomes arise from this self-serving, self-congratulatory reasoning.

First, such reasoning leads to hubris among those who imagine they “deserve” extras (three scoops of ice cream!) since they have “earned it” and “it is mine.” Such hubris has enormous political implications, for those with “merit” have disproportionate political clout and are “entitled” in a special way that leads not only to economic advantage but to political access and eventually to huge tax breaks.

“Merit” turned to hubris is shameless in its drive for “more” at the expense of the neighbor.

Second, the counterpoint of such shameless arrogance is to assure humiliation among those who lack such “merit.” Whenever possible the ones with “merit” do what they can to blame the victim, to let the “left out” and “left behind” blame themselves for their sorry state. That in turn evokes deep resentment against the “merited” who ostentatiously imagine their success yields entitlement.

Third, such a contest between hubris and humiliation leads to the erosion of the common good, to a fear that the “undeserving” might get something for nothing, and to a kind of greedy selfishness of entitlement that only leaves more people behind and breeds social conflict. Thus Sandel judges,

The meritocratic faith does not deliver the self-mastery it promises. Nor does it provide a basis for solidarity. Ungenerous to the losers and oppressive to the winners, merit becomes a tyrant. (Sandel 194)

While this is an over-simplification, it is easy to see how meritocracy has generated the kind of resentment upon which many feed, and which eventuates in social violence. Such a system of “merit” inevitably yields cynical conclusions:

This triumphalist aspect of meritocracy is a kind of providentialism without God, as least without a God who intervenes in human affairs … The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but God helps those who help themselves. (Sandel 42, 58)

I suggest that one biblical text that pertains directly to this drama of merit is the parable of Luke 12:13- 21. The question posed at the outset of the text concerns the issue of who is entitled to financial resources (inheritance).

Jesus refuses to be a probate judge to adjudicate a family dispute. Rather, he segues from a question of financial resources to a reflection on covenantal reality. His first terse response to the question promptly sets the key words out in front:

Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. (v. 15)

He offers three terms that the brother who posed the question had not entertained: greed, abundance, possessions.

The parable that follows factors out these three terms. Abruptly, there is a rich man! He was a rich man engaged in agriculture. He was a prosperous knowledgeable farmer. He had land that produced “abundantly.”

We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand;

he sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
the breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,
Then thanks the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love. (“We Plow the Fields and Scatter,”
The Presbyterian Hymnal, 560)

The farmer relished his abundance. He wanted to keep it all, to store it up. He savored every grain of wheat from his productive property. He was able, moreover, to imagine that such lavish produce was his own doing.

But finally he pauses to reflect. He said to himself! He had no one else to talk to. His abundance had isolated him. No doubt his expansive real estate meant there were no near neighbors … no neighborhood (see Isaiah 5:8-10).

He hosted a party all for himself, isolated in his greedy wealth. He was not, however, alone as he imagined he was. Amid his greedy aloneness, the voice of holy reality crowded in on him. That voice “from elsewhere” first of all calls him by his right name: “Fool.” He thought himself smart, even wise. He no doubt kept up with the best agricultural journals. He was surely smart … but a fool. He was a fool because he failed to reckon with the given realities of his life. He failed to recognize that the land was itself a gift that kept on giving because it was God’s creation sustained with rain and sunshine.

He failed to recognize that abundance is a communal asset, not a private possession. He failed to consider what it cost to be “rich in things and poor in soul.”

He failed to acknowledge his own penultimate status was as a creature along with other creatures gifted by the creator. And because of his failure, his relished greed was a tool for his own self-destruction. He thought he “merited” all that he had; but his wealth was misdirected … not “toward God!” (v. 21), not toward his creator who “gives them their food in due season,” and not toward neighbors who require food and drink. He misconstrued his place in the providence of God, and so he had deformed God’s providence into merit. He likely was committed to neo-liberal economics and resented the undeserving “brothers” who wanted access to his surplus.

Not for nothing does Luke follow this story with Jesus’ instruction concerning anxiety, food, clothing, and life (Luke 12:22-31). In this paragraph the raven has no “storehouse or barns,” so unlike the man who needed “bigger barns”! (v. 24) (On storehouses for surplus grain, see Exodus 1:11.) 

The parable (Luke 12:13-21) and the instruction (Luke 12:22-31) together summon to an alternative life, and they summon especially those of us laden with “merit” to an alternative life that is beyond the destructive interaction of hubris and humiliation.

The pastors, teachers, and interpreters in the church face our common life that now very much consists in a violent and vigorous interaction of hubris and humiliation. Indeed, it is plausible that many of the pastors, teachers, and interpreters in the church (myself surely included) are among those who have fostered their lives through “merit.”

The task of such persons, I suggest, is not to spend much energy warning church folk about such greed, for mostly greed does not pertain to church folk on a very large scale. Thus the task is not an exercise in “morality.”

Rather, I suggest that this narrative of “meriting” and its loathsome outcome, in our teachable moment, is an opportunity to teach the faithful to see more clearly the force of merit, to see more acutely the hubris that largely drives public policy that assigns wealth and leverage to the “merited,” to see without blinking that it is exactly such “merit” that has fueled the resentment and evoked the violence that now occupy our body politic.

The interpretive task is to call attention to the ways in which our “Puritan” legacy of “work hard, get ahead, save” nurtures folk who can secure themselves and imagine they are self-made and self-sufficient.

Along with such discerning social analysis, the church has available its conviction about God’s providential care that gives good gifts that refuse to be transposed into property or possession. They remain gifts, and gifts are for sharing.

The correction to our skewed social landscape is the awareness that we all live by God’s grace; the wealthy few are not self-made but depend upon an infrastructure of good gifts that are given and not earned. This general providence is affirmed in the words of Jesus:

For he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)

Our social reality, however, has skewed that grace-filled reality:

It rains on the just and on the unjust fella,
but the rain hits the just fella
because the unjust has taken his umbrella. (Charles Bowen)

The neighborhood is in the umbrella business. It is, moreover, neighborly work to assure that all the neighbors receive and benefit from God’s good gifts.


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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