Walter Brueggemann: The Bible and the 1%

Our great advocate for environmental responsibility, Bill McKibbon, has a wondrously rich suggestive phrasing in Sojourners (Jan. 2021) 16-17. The title of his opinion piece is “Time for Some Class Betrayal.” He observes that the climate crisis is caused by the self-indulgence of the 1 percent, a group in which he includes all who have an annual income of $109,000 or more! He observes that the climate crisis can get relief if:

the richest people should strive to change their habits … the real hope is that some of those same people will actually involve themselves in the battle to change the political and economic structures that keep us burning fossil fuel (p. 17).

McKibbon concludes,

We need, as it were, some class betrayal,
in which some of the 1 percent act against the interest of their own perceived wellbeing and become engaged for the sake of the common good. (I remember that FDR in my childhood, with his social programs, was labeled “a traitor to his class” because he acted contrary to the economic interest of the wealthy class to which he himself belonged.) McKibbon’s call is for just such a reversal of interest and investment.

In response to McKibbon, I have reflected on “class betrayal,” in the Bible.

Let us begin with reference to the 1 percent in the Old Testament, a pyramid of wealth and power atop of which sat the Davidic King. It turns out, predictably, that the kings in Jerusalem were “takers,” just as old Samuel had anticipated:

He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks, and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves (I Samuel 8:11-17).

The master “taker” in the memory of Israel is Solomon who amassed for himself a surplus of cheap labor (I Kings 5:13-16), silver and gold (10:14-25), wives and concubines (11:3), extravagant food for the day (4:22-23), plus an effective tax-collecting system (4:7-19). And his father David before him was surely a taker; we are told that he wanted Bathsheba and “he took her” (II Samuel 12:4). After David and Solomon, the royal dynasty continued its habit of “taking.”

For that reason we are caught up short when we arrive, over 300 years later, at King Josiah (639-609). He inherited wealth and power from that long line of kings. But then we have this remarkable narrative concerning Josiah in which he was disturbed by the finding of a Torah scroll, a scroll most often taken to be some form of the book of Deuteronomy. It is reported that Josiah was stunned and staggered when he heard the commands and the sanctions of the scroll:

When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan, the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of the book, to do according to all that is written concerning us” (II Kings 22:11-13).

If as seems likely, this scroll is the book of Deuteronomy, then the king hears (likely for the first time) the mandates to social justice (see Deuteronomy 16:18) that concern sustenance for the most vulnerable — widows, orphans, and immigrants (see 24:17-22). Because of that dazzling reading from the old tradition, Josiah the king instituted a great religious, social reform that reconstituted Israel as a people of the covenant, that is, with covenantal obligations and covenantal promises (II Kings 23:1-3).

The narrative of King Josiah is indeed dramatic, as it must be. It is inescapably dramatic whenever someone of money and power becomes “woke” to social reality and acts in daring ways against the evident interest of that money and power. That is what Josiah did. He violated his social economic interest. He betrayed his social class. He chose an alternative way of governance that reached beyond the safe, self-protective concerns of his 1 percent.

King Josiah’s bold alternative action opened more historical possibility to his realm and especially to those who had been left out and left behind.

Of course Josiah was a glaring exception in the royal timeline. He was succeeded by his son, Jehoiakim (609-598) after the brief interlude of Josiah’s first son, Jehoahaz (609; see II Kings 23:31-37). Jehoiakim did not share his father’s social vision or social passion and returned to a royal “normal.” He was not amenable to the demands of the Torah. As a consequence, he receives a standard negative verdict from the historian:

He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as all his ancestors had done (II Kings 23:37).

Thus the father broke ranks and betrayed his class of privilege. By contrast his son was safely contained within the ideology of privilege.

The prophet Jeremiah offers a searing contrast between the royal father and his royal son. The prophet roundly condemns the son for his generic avarice:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
who says, “I will build myself a spacious house_
with large upper rooms,”

and who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
(Jeremiah 22:13-15a)

The prophetic indictment includes a generic notion of “unrighteousness and injustice,” and the double specificity of exploitative labor and extravagant housing. The rhetorical question of v. 15a is scathing denunciation; it accuses the king of thinking that having luxurious wood (cedar) permits and equates with the legitimacy of power and privilege.

Jeremiah believes that in a world governed by the God of covenant such self-indulgent exploitation leads to harsh consequences.

Thus the “woe” of verse 13 is specified in verses 18-19 by an anticipation of the scandalous death of the exploitative king:

With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried—dragged out and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem (v. 19).

In order to accent the deep failure of Jehoiakim as king, in the middle verses of this poem Jeremiah pauses to offer two verses concerning the royal father of Jehoiakim, Josiah:

Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord
(vv. 15b-16).

Josiah, says the prophet, practiced “justice and righteousness,” an exact counter to the “unrighteousness and injustice” in verse 13. Josiah’s path of “justice and righteousness” leads him to care for and engage on behalf of the “poor and needy.” That is, the king, propelled by the Torah of Deuteronomy, mobilized royal power to assure economic viability for the disadvantaged, exactly what Deuteronomy requires. And then Jeremiah voices one of the most stunning verses in all of scripture:

Is not this to know me?

The prophet equates care for the poor and needy with knowledge of God! This is how we know God! Knowledge of God is not speculative, abstract, propositional, or theoretical. It is a practice! It is the performance of neighborliness!

This remarkable utterance by Jeremiah provides a model of contrast:

...Jehoiakim reduces his life to control, privilege, entitlement, and extravagance. His is a normal “royal” life in ancient Israel.
...Josiah breaks with that ideology and devotes his royal power to the common good. He does indeed betray his royal class of takers. He does so at the behest of the ancient Torah requirement.

We may consider one other character in this royal drama in Jerusalem. After Babylon’s first incursion into Jerusalem in 598 BCE that the prophet took to be divine judgment (II Kings 24:10-17), Zedekiah was established as the next king (II Kings 24:18-20). He was dealt a very bad hand as the city was devastated by the Babylonians (24:13-17). The narrative in the book of Jeremiah suggests that Zedekiah had an impulse, in the face of the destruction, to imitate his brother, Josiah, and govern according to neighborly Torah.

Perhaps he understood that something radical had to be done in the face of the big challenges that the city faced.

It is reported that the king took the most radical act of the Torah and released debt-slaves from their bondage; he cancelled their debts (Jeremiah 34:8-10; see Deuteronomy 15:1-18). This royal act was a stunning betrayal of his class, for the privilege and power of the 1 percent lives by the management of debt that keeps “lesser people” in their dependent places. Zedekiah was prepared to commit this cancelation of debt and emancipate people from debt and bondage. This action is as astonishing as was that of his brother, Josiah. But then, abruptly, we are told:

But afterward they turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought then again into subjection as slaves (Jeremiah 34:11).

Zedekiah had been almost persuaded to obey Torah, and then was not:

“Almost persuaded” now to believe;
“Almost persuaded” Christ to receive;
Seems now some soul to say, “Go Spirit, go Thy way,
Some more convenient day On Thee I’ll call.”
“Almost persuaded,” harvest is past!
“Almost persuaded,” doom comes at last
“Almost” cannot avail;
“Almost” is but to fail!
Sad, sad, that bitter wail—
“Almost” but lost (Philip Bliss).

We are not told why the king reversed field. Maybe the king faced great pressure to the contrary from his “class.” Maybe the economic loss by emancipation was more than he could bear. In any case Zedekiah lacked the resolve and fortitude to see through the emancipation. He reneged, and in reneging he defied the Torah.

He returned to the “normalcy” of the 1 percent that regards debt management as a proper preoccupation, and that does not flinch from the bondage and suffering of those who could not pay their bills. Zedekiah had a chance to act like his brother Josiah. In the end, however, he opted for the exploitative ways of his nephew, Jehoiakim, ways that are conventional for his 1 percent companions.

It is not a surprise that this renege evokes a prophetic oracle (34:12-22). In the oracle the prophet bears witness to the Torah requirement (v. 14). He commends the king for his almost embrace of Torah obedience (v. 15). And then he indicts the king for “profaning my name” (v.16). It is noteworthy that exploitation of the poor through debt management is equated with profanation of God’s holy name. The equation calls to mind the Proverb:

Those who mock the poor insult their Maker;those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished
(Proverbs 17:5).

The prophet condemns the king for not “granting release” to “your neighbors and friends” (v. 17). (The Hebrew has “brother and neighbor.”) From that comes a torrent of danger to the king and his city. The profanation of God’s name via the exploitation of the neighbor has consequences that even the royal 1 percent in Jerusalem will not escape.

While the books of Kings offers us the royal timeline and chronology, it is the prophetic book of Jeremiah that fills in the timeline with narrative specificity. In that narrative specificity, we see three royal characters of the 1 percent choosing different stances:

...Josiah chose, against his class, the way of neighborly Torah;
...Jehoiakim engages the self-serving ideology of his 1 percent to the disregard of the Torah;
...Zedekiah probes the possibility of Torah obedience like that of Josiah, but then opts, after the manner of Jehoiakim, for the “evil” of the 1 percent.

According to Jeremiah Zedekiah’s royal choice led to disaster:

I am going to command, says the Lord, and will bring them back [the Babylonians] to this city; and they will fight against it, and take it, and burn it with fire. The towns of Judah I will make a desolation without inhabitant (Jeremiah 34:22).

This consequence fills out with specificity the generic “woe” uttered over Jehoiakim (22:13). As the prophetic text has it, the royal 1 percent in old Jerusalem, with its self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing ideology, can imagine itself immune to the risks of history.

Their ideological choice precludes attention to or investment in the common good that is essential to a viable future for the community.

Jeremiah presents Josiah as a “class betrayer.” And now McKibbon calls for more class betrayers. When I read McKibbon I thought, “Yes, that is a good summons.” And then I read that includes everyone with an annual income of $109,000 is of the 1 percent. Imagine, I am a member of the 1 percent!

And perhaps, dear reader, you are as well.

Most of us in the 1 percent do not identify ourselves in that way. And because we do not, we easily imagine that the climate crisis belongs to others. But Bill tells us otherwise. It is a matter of recognizing our class membership; and the way in which we have over time inhaled a great deal of entitlement and privilege. And then it is a matter of letting the social reality of the crisis into our awareness. And then we are left with a future to some great extent in our own hands.

...It could be (after Josiah) a future of solidarity with the poor and needy, and so toward the rule of God that leads to a different life,
...Or it could be (after Jehoiakim) a continuing indifference that continues to do damage to creation, or
...Most likely for most of us, we are not unlike Zedekiah, almost persuaded.

We know what is to be done, but it turns out to be too demanding.

McKibbon echoes a quote from Pope Francis:

In fact, the Earth must be taken care of, cultivated, and protected; we cannot continue to squeeze it like an orange. And we can say this, taking care of the Earth is a human right.

It turns out that it is just like the Torah of Deuteronomy has said:

I set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity (Deuteronomy 30:15).

Nothing life-giving turns out to be easy! McKibbon ends with three “needs”:

We need, as it were, some class betrayal.Or, we need a renewed and powerful uprising of the people whose lives are most stunted and future most degraded.
Or, we need some strikingly successful attempt to build a sense of shared humanity, a real solidarity (p. 17).

Are you like me, “Almost persuaded”?


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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