Walter Brueggemann: Stay Safe!

A local church in our town has this on its street sign:

Love God

Love Your Neighbor

Stay Safe.

The first two imperatives, of course, are the primary commandments of Moses (Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 6:5) and of Jesus (Mark 12:28-34). The third imperative that occurs nowhere in Moses or Jesus is with reference to the risks and dangers of the Covid-19 virus. They are all there together on the church sign.

I have been shocked by the unambiguous contradiction between the first two and the third mandate.

Concerning the third mandate, all of us want to be as safe as we can be. That is why we use masks, get vaccinated, and social distance. Clearly, however, neither Moses nor Jesus bid his followers to focus on such safety. Exactly the opposite. Consider:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).

The Bible is filled with accounts of those who set out to love God in full ways. It is that mandate that caused Abraham to leave his homeland, that caused Moses to confront Pharaoh, and that caused the prophets to address kings with mighty warnings and great threats. The champion obedient risk-taker in the New Testament has to be Paul:

I am talking like a madman — I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked, for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked (II Corinthians 11: 23-7).

Safely, anyone? Indeed we have a catalogue of those who “by faith” acted out the mandate of Moses.

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make clear that they are seeking a homeland … Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

It is that same mandate that has evoked brave, risky behavior over the centuries in the church. Indeed the saints are those who have not “stayed safe.” While we have such dramatic cases of heroic actions, some of that same obedience is local and risk-running, even if it is mostly not heroic.

At a recent dinner party in our local church among those present were three older couples. One couple had adopted a disabled child who had been abandoned. Another couple has initiated and sustained a regular program of care and food for disadvantaged people, a program that continues to feed about a hundred people in our town every day. A third couple has devoted much of their retirement to gardening that provides food for the food program.

None of these couples has “played safe” with their time or energy or resources. They have been about obedience to that first commandment. They would not have undertaken these ventures if they had been playing safe.

In like manner, the imperative to love your neighbor is not a directive to stay safe. Of course the mandate is not to love our neighbor when it is convenient or safe. It is to love your neighbor as you love your own self, in every season and in every circumstance. That mandate has indeed caused obedient people to act out the very agenda of the Son of Man when he comes in his glory. You know the agenda:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a  stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me (Matthew 25:35-36).

These are not zones of safety.

Rather, they are areas of life that are disordered and disadvantaged, and subject to violence, deception, and exploitation. But that is where neighbors are to be found. And when it is not hands-on contact, it may be policy formation to the same end; or it may be contribution of monetary resources to sustain such actions and policies.

Neighboring that has substance and staying power is not a safety pageant.

It turns out that those who take these two commandments seriously are not and cannot stay safe. That of course does not mean we should court danger for the sake of danger, but only in order to be obedient to these commands.

It is wise, then, to recognize that this third mandate of the church sign is of a different ilk. It is not definitional for our faith in the way that the first two commands are. It belongs to a different universe of discourse. The problem with the church sign is that it does not and cannot distinguish between two very different universes of discourse. The first two imperatives are elemental and constitutive for the life of faith. The third is only an awareness that we should, in our obedience, be as “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16) about the risks we run in obedience to God and neighbor.

The reality for many of us is that we are so wise and calculating that we never run the risk of real obedience or enter vigorously into the zone of neighborliness.

Given that reality, it is a time in the church to think about how to be “innocent as doves,” naive about the possibilities of faith in the world. The church is not and will not be sustained by those who “stay safe.” It is and will be sustained by those who embrace the first two commands and risk safety for the sake of God and neighbor. No doubt the roster of faithful people in our tradition is a procession of those who did not stay safe, who had more in common with doves than with serpents.

Risks must be run, generosity must be performed, forgiveness must be enacted, and hospitality must be embraced.

None of these is playing safe. There is no doubt that this is what Moses and Jesus had in mind. They never mentioned safety. Maybe we should add a clarifying footnote to the church sign at the church, in order to distinguish between real commandments and our knee-jerk caution.


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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