Walter Brueggemann: There are Conspiracies and Then There are Conspiracies

We have become inured to seemingly pervasive political response to find “conspiracy” at every level of opposition. Many readily assume that there are hidden and secret powers lurking around voting machines seeking to overthrow the legitimacy governance, whether it may be “the deep state,” interference from Venezuela, or the anti-Semitic tropes of money clustered in Hollywood.

I was thinking about these eager illusionary accusations when I began to read The Age of Reform by Richard Hofstadter, the great historian at Columbia University. The book concerns the “progressive” political movement in the United States from 1890 through the New Deal. Writing in 1955 (at the peak of McCarthyism), Hofstadter wrote:

At the so-called grass roots of American politics there is a wide and pervasive tendency to believe—I hasten to add that the majority of Americans do not habitually succumb to this tendency—that there is some great but essentially very simple struggle going on, at the heart of which lies some single conspiratorial force, whether it be the force represented by the “gold bugs,” the Catholic Church, big business, corrupt politicians, the liquor interests and the saloons, or the Communist Party, and that this evil is something that must be not merely limited, checked, and controlled, but rather extirpated root and branch at the earliest possible moment (16-17).

Hofstadter offers this as a recurring theme that marks the political life of the United States. And now some in our nation thrive on such a notion. I suppose the positing of a conspiracy is a way to deal with (explain!) the forces that prove too powerful to manage or control among those who appeal to “conspiracy.” It is certain that such a charge of “conspiracy” serves to draw attention away from the actual realities of socioeconomic political life.

Given that current propensity and the more general analysis of Hofstadter, I decided to consider “conspiracy” in the Bible, that is, the secret plotting to overthrow established governance. In the political memory of ancient Israel, there are numerous charges of conspiracy. I have decided to focus on three usages of the notion of conspiracy.

Number One

First we may recognize that there are numerous reported actions of disruptions in the royal period, most particularly in the Northern Kingdom that lacked any legitimated dynasty. Thus Baasha versus Nadab (I Kings 15:27), Zimri verses Asa (I Kings 16:9), Omri versus Zimri (I Kings 16:16), the servants versus Joash (II Kings 12:20), the people versus Amaziah (II Kings 14:19), and Hoshea versus Pekah (II Kings 15:30). The only instance of conspiracy in Judah to the south was the people against Amnon and his short unhappy reign (II Kings 21:23-24).

Of all these challenges to established governance, the most extended and interesting crisis is the case of Jehu against Joram. The narrative takes its time in reporting the actual killing of the king by Jehu (II Kings 9:14-26). And even in the report, the killing itself is portrayed as a settling of scores concerning the earlier action of the Omri dynasty (Ahab and Jezebel) against Naboth:

Lift him out, and throw him on the plot of ground belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite; for remember, when you and I rode side by side behind his father Ahab how the Lord uttered this oracle against him: “For the blood of Naboth and for the blood of his children that I saw yesterday, says the Lord, I swear I will repay you on this very plot of ground.” Now therefore lift him out and throw him on the plot of ground, in accordance with the word of the Lord (II Kings 9:25-26).

The killing is justified because the regime was heterodox in its religious practices (v. 22), and because Naboth must be avenged.

Beyond the narrative itself, however, the conspiracy to overthrow the dynasty of Omri (Joash), we are told in the preceding that Jehu acted at the behest of the prophet Elisha who anointed Jehu to overthrow the regime:

Thus says the Lord the God of Israel: I anoint you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel. You shall strike down the house of your master Ahab, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord. For the whole house of Ahab shall perish; I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah. The dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and no one shall bury her (II Kings 9:6-10).

The overthrow is thus said to be prophetically authorized. In his response to the killing of the king, moreover, Jehu gladly and openly claims legitimacy for his action:

It is I who conspired against my master and killed him (II Kings 10:9).

This is a remarkable narrative without parallel in the Old Testament that marks a major disruption of established governance in northern Israel. The dynasty of Omri, we know, had been remarkably successful in trade and military power. But according to the religious fanatics gathered around Elisha, that success and prosperity were ill-founded and untenable for serious Yahwists. Thus, according to the narrative, the conspiracy that ended the dynasty was done in the name of and at the behest of YHWH and his prophet. But then, I suppose that every serious conspiracy claims high ground, if not theological, then at least political or historical. Remarkably, John Calvin ends his Institutes with this final verdict:

But in the obedience which we have shown to be due to the authority of governors, it is always necessary to make one exception, and that is entitled to our first attention, that it do not seduce us from obedience to him, to whose will the desires of all kings ought to be subject, to whose decrees all their commands ought to yield, to whose majesty all their scepters ought to submit (Institutes of Christian Religion, Book IV, chapter XX, pp. 804-805). 

Calvin then quotes Acts 5:29:           
We ought to obey God rather than men.

And then he concludes:

Christ has redeemed us at the immense price which our redemption cost him, that we may not be submissive to the corrupt desires of men, much less be slaves to their impiety (pp. 805-806).

Of course it is a very long way from Jehu, Elisha, and Naboth to Geneva. Nonetheless the testimony is consistent. There is a place for such “conspiracy” against governance that is, in the end, illegitimate and to be rejected. The narrative of II Kings 9-10 that concludes with a bloodbath of the entire royal family (II Kings 10:1-10), occupies a central place in Israel’s royal memory. It is a merciless narrative that attests to the tricky insoluble interface of faith and power, of governance and loyalty. Thus the “conspiracy” of Jehu is treated by the narrator as different in kind from the many upstart conspiracies that had no such prophetic grounding. But since the prophetic grounding for Jehu’s action happened in private, this “legitimate conspiracy” looks from the outset like all the others. In the report YHWH is said to be a destabilizing force.

Number Two

Two other uses of “conspiracy” in the Old Testament may claim our attention.  In Jeremiah 11:1-13, in the cadences of the tradition of Deuteronomy, the prophet articulates Israel’s failure in covenant with YHWH.  The prophet first reiterates the reality of the covenant (vv. 1-6). But then he asserts that the people have broken the covenant and have brought big trouble on themselves:

Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but everyone walked in the stubbornness of an evil will. So I brought on them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do, but they did not (v. 8).

That single verse voices both the verdict and the consequence of broken covenant. But then, in what follows, the matter is further explicated. The violation of covenant with YHWH is said to be a “conspiracy” against the legitimated rule of YHWH, a rule legitimated by the covenant oaths stated above. The conspiracy against YHWH is delineated:

Conspiracy exists among the people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors of old, who refused to heed my words; they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken the covenant that I made with their ancestors (vv. 9-10).

The consequence of their disobedience is a great “disaster.” Thus the prophet utilizes the political imagery of “conspiracy” in order to delineate the theological infraction that has immense consequences. It is as though there were a “secret plot” to abrogate the rule of YHWH. This is a quite astonishing use of the notion of conspiracy.

Number Three

The other prophetic usage that has drawn my attention is the dramatic encounter of the prophet Amos and the priest, Amaziah, at the royal shrine in Bethel (Amos 7:10-17). The narrative begins with the priest’s dramatic charge against the prophet:

Amos has conspired against you [the king] in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,

Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile away from his land (v.11).

Amaziah proposes that Amos has secretly plotted to overthrow the legitimated governance of Jeroboam. (It is to be noted that Jeroboam II belongs to the dynasty of Jehu mentioned above. So quickly has that new dynasty initiated by Jehu come to success and prosperity, and hostility from the voices of critical Yahwism!)  The great-grandson of Jehu is now under prophetic indictment. In fact, however, Amaziah’s charge misrepresents the words of Amos. He charges that Amos threatened the person of the king. In verse 9, however, Amos has spoken of a “sword against the house of Jeroboam,” not against the person of the king. But in mounting a charge of conspiracy against Amos, the priest does not quibble with such detail. It is enough, for the royal priest, to dispose of Amos as a dangerous, unwelcome, and illicit voice. The defensiveness of the royal house and its priest easily portray Yahwistic truth-telling as conspiracy against legitimated governance.  It is easy enough for prophetic truth-telling to be dismissed as treasonable utterance. In the same way Jehoiakim would later shred prophetic words, as though by shredding them he could silence prophetic truth-telling (Jeremiah 26:23).

Concluding Thoughts

It is evident that the notion of conspiracy can be turned in various directions, as the actual overthrow of legitimated governance (II Kings 9-10), as theological indictment for the rejection of the rule of YHWH (Jeremiah 11), or for the dismissal of prophetic truth-telling (Amos 7). Given the plasticity of the term, it is no wonder that Hofstadter can use it to describe the near paranoia that continues to recur in U.S. political rhetoric. It is enough, in our own contemporary moment, for those who are dissatisfied and made unhappy by the newly emerging multi-racial culture, to entertain convenient notions of conspiracy in order to cope with emerging social reality which they cannot manage, control, or even understand. As the crisis of our democracy grows ever more acute, we may anticipate more such talk of ominous, unidentified forces that threaten the vanishing status quo.

My thought is that the truth-telling vocation of the church is to attest the claim of the gospel as a means by which to adjudicate every claim of conspiracy. The norms of the gospel are not complex or obscure, even if they are difficult. It is first to love God, to trace out the truth of God that consists in “justice, righteousness, compassion, steadfast love and faithfulness” (see Hosea 2:19-20). This characterization of God belongs to none of our preferred ideologies or idolatries. Thus the church is not called to be progressive or radical, liberal or conservative, but only to tell the truth about God who will not be contained in any of our favorite pettiness. It is, second, to love neighbor—the widow, the orphan, the immigrant—all those who lack advocate or resource. Such attestation of love of God and love of neighbor stands over against our every conspiracy to overthrow the rule of God by idolatry or by ideology (see Jeremiah 11), and against every false charge of conspiracy against prophetic truth-telling (see Amos 7). The enterprise of love God and love neighbor can and must be extended toward the public processes of our society. When we do so, we are able to “follow the money” and to see where and how and in what ways money weighs in order to skew truth-telling. It belongs to the truth-telling work of the church to sort out the ways in which money can be easily confused with wisdom, virtue or legitimacy. Hofstadter concludes his reflection on conspiracy with these words:

It is widely assumed that some technique can be found that will really do this [extirpate root and branch], though there is always likely to be a good deal of argument as to what that technique is (17).

When the matter is closely considered, however, no special technique is required. All that is required is love of neighbor that goes with love of God. All the rest is distraction. The church is no party to special techniques. It has only that mandate that pertains in every circumstance. As I write this, Donald Trump Jr. is reported to have said to a Turning Point USA crowd on December 19 that Jesus’ mandate to “turn the other cheek” has “gotten us nothing.” Just so! The work of the church is “to get us nothing,” but to bear witness to the kind of life that permits neighborly wellbeing. That claim is as old as the Deuteronomic work of Jeremiah. It is as simple and straightforward as the utterance of Amos at Bethel. It continues to be the truth entrusted to us—not complex, not hidden, and not conspiratorial.

Walter Brueggemann

December 29, 2021


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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