Walter Brueggemann: Bonds of Affection!

I am lothe [sic] to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, streching [sic] from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. (Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861).

Imagine these words at the brink of war! Lincoln still hoped to avert war. He still believed that the national bonds of unity might be more compelling than the deep divisions so obvious to all. He still hoped. And in his hope he called his fellow citizens to their better selves...their better angels. We may ponder those phrases! “Bonds of affection,” the deep assumption of belonging with and belonging to and belonging for each other! “Mystical chords of memory” that appealed to a bold and courageous past in which there was daring solidarity with intent not only on “a more perfect union,” but freedom from unfair taxation and freedom for Westward expansion for “free soil,” a cause so dear to Lincoln. There had been sufficient solidarity to continue to speak of shared dreams, shared risks, and shared duties. All of that was now at risk, and Lincoln refused to give in. Until the moment of the firing on Fort Sumpter, Lincoln continued to hope that a shared inheritance was stronger than what would drive the nation into a bloody violent war. In the end, the combination of self-assured ideology and economic ambition prevailed over Lincoln’s poetically rendered national unity. Great presidents count on such rhetoric to mobilize our better angels, rhetoric sometimes effective, sometimes disregarded via our smaller ideological agenda.

The phrase “bonds of affection” has drawn my sustained attention as I watched the hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. I could think of three places in scripture where we see the “bond of affection” operating, though you might think of others as well.


The first case of “bonds of affection” in scripture that I cite is the friendship of Jonathan and David. Jonathan is the son of Saul, and therefore heir to that quite unstable throne. But his bond of affection for David overrode his loyalty to his father. At the outset we are told:

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan as bound to the soul of David , and Jonathan loved him as his own soul…Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul (I Samuel 18:1, 3).

Jonathan became an advocate for David in the face of Saul’s great anger toward David:

Jonathan spoke well of David to his father Saul, saying to him, “The king should not sin against his servant David, because he has not sinned against you, and because his deeds have been of good service to you; for he took his life in his hand when he attacked the Philistines, and the Lord brought about a great victory for all Israel (19:4-5).

Jonathan took steps to assure David’s loyalty to him and to his family:

If I am still alive, show me the faithful love of the Lord; but if I die, never cut off your faithful love from my house, even if the Lord were to cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth. Thus Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the Lord seek out the enemies of David. Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life (20:14-17).

In the face of that loyalty toward David, Jonathan nonetheless is fully engaged with his father and his two brothers in the battle against the Philistines. Indeed, he fights to the death in the cause of Israel and in the cause of his father, the king:

The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul (31:2).

Jonathan did not permit his bond of affection for David to distract from his commitment to Israel and to his father Saul.

The measure of their bonds of affection is deeply voiced in the lament on the lips of David who grieves over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. For all his alienation from Saul, David can grieve at the same time for his friend, Jonathan, and for his king, Saul:

For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,

the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more.

From the blood of the slain,

from the fat of the mighty, 

the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,

nor the sword or Saul return empty.

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!

In life and in death they were not divided;

they were swifter than eagles,

they were stronger than lions….

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved to me;

your love was to me as wonderful,

passing the love of a woman (II Samuel 1:21-26).

These deeply moving lines in their eloquence may indeed come from the lips of David. (We may leave aside, for now, the question of whether David and Jonathan had a gay relationship, as the evidence we have is inconclusive). It is enough for us to see that the bonds of affection lasted through many toils and snares, and were not interrupted by the death of Jonathan.


The second scriptural case of the bonds of affection that I cite is in the narrative of Ruth. Naomi, an Ephrathite, had two sons who lived with her in Moab. Not surprisingly, the two sons married Moabite women. The family was disrupted when Elimelech, the husband of Naomi and the father of Mahlon and Chilion, died. After that the two sons died as well, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law all as widows. Naomi resolved to return back to the land of Judah. She urged her two Moabite daughters-in-law to remain in Moab among their own people, as Naomi could not provide for them and they would have no future with her. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, complied with Naomi’s mandate and chose to remain with her own family in Moab. The story turns, however, on the desire of the other Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, to remain with Naomi and return with her to be with her in Judah, in Bethlehem.

In her refusal to accept the counsel of Naomi, Ruth utters one of the most remarkable articulations of thick affection that bound her to Naomi:

Do not press me to leave you 

or to turn back from following you!

Where you go, I will go;

Where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

and your God my God.

Where you die, I will die—

 There I will be buried.

May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well,

if even death parts me from you (Ruth 1:16-17)!

We are given no commentary on this decisive utterance. Nor has anything in the narrative prepared us for this response. Perhaps she even surprised Naomi. The four terse lines concern travel (“go”), residence (“lodge”), community solidarity (“people”), and faith (“God”). The detail is complete and covers every possible aspect of their relationship:
Where you go, I will go;

Where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

and your God my God.

Ruth is committed to that companionship, and upon her resolve the rest of the story depends. Naomi apparently could see that Ruth was exceptionally resolved and made no further attempt to dissuade her from her decision:

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her (v. 18).

What follows is settlement in Bethlehem (1:19), marriage to Boaz (4:13), and the birth of a son, Obed (4:17). It is beyond the dramatic reach of the narrative to notice that from Obed, son of a Moabite, came David, son of Jesse, king of Israel (4:18-20).This outcome is of course reiterated in the genealogy of Matthew 1:5 (see I Chronicles 2:12).

It was the bonds of affection that drew Ruth to Naomi, to Judah, to Bethlehem, and finally to an indispensable contribution to the anticipated royal line. Naomi was wise enough not to disrupt these bonds, and Boaz had no reticence in accepting these bonds of affection that, within the narrative, readily override any problem with Ruth’s foreign rootage. These bonds override what we might take to be a “natural” impediment to Ruth’s resolve. These impediments are overruled by Naomi and Boaz.


The third example in scripture of the bonds of affection that I cite concerns Paul’s intimate connection to his congregation at Philippi. It is often noted that all of Paul’s epistles, it is his letter to the Philippian church that most evidences affection. Most of his congregations were quarrelsome, offended him, or received stern reprimand from him. But not to the Philippians:

It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel…I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it…You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone (1:17-8, 4:10, 15).

It is this congregation more than any other that has been in full and faithful solidarity with Paul. These are his best friends and he can count on them. Thus Paul sprinkles throughout his letter the address, “beloved.” But of course this solidarity Paul cherishes with the Philippians concerns much more than mere friendship. What binds him to them and them to him is their shared commitment to and passion for the truth of the gospel. Thus Paul commends them to a life of glad obedience to the gospel that will enable the congregation to overcome every rift or dispute. Finally he writes to them:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved (4:1).

“Standing firm” is the grounding of their bonds of affection.

In these three instances—David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, Paul and the Philippians—we can observe the force of the bonds of affection to override whatever impediment there may have been to solidarity and friendship.  Thus Jonathan stood with David in spite of a more “natural” bond with his father, Saul. Thus Ruth readily and willingly forewent solidarity with her Moabite family for the sake of companionship with Naomi, the Israelite, a future with a people other than her own people. And Paul was able to find among the Philippians affection and solidarity that moved against the seemingly inescapable tendency of his congregations to compromise in serious ways the mandates of his gospel.


Thus Lincoln’s mighty phrase, “bonds of affection” rings true in each of these relationships. “Bonds of affection,” as Lincoln surely knew, could be powerful enough to contain the centrifugal force of hostility and alienation in his tense circumstance. He uttered the phrase on March 4, 1861, just a short bit before the firing on Fort Sumpter on April 12, 1861 that initiated the war. Lincoln hoped against the facts on the ground. He believed that the “better angels” could override the force of alienation that was already well advanced. In this, Lincoln was deeply and immediately disappointed.

But his hope lingered. Nowhere did it linger more powerfully than in the eloquent romanticism of Walt Whitman. As late as 1900, long after the war, Whitman continues to champion the “bonds of affection” that Lincoln had celebrated. Whitman noticed that the nation, as a state, “could not be held together by lawyers, paper agreements or arms.” He knew that the only coherence that was sustainable for the state was to be found in friendship and affection:

Were you looking to be held together by the lawyers?

By an agreement on a paper? Or by arms?...

There shall come from me a new friendship—It shall be called after my name,

It shall circulate through The States, indifferent of place,

It shall twist and intertwist them through and around each other—

Compact shall they be, showing new signs,

Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom,

Those who love each other shall be invincible.*

Whitman deliberately named states north and states south who had been at war, who will be a commonwealth of affection:

One from Massachusetts shall be comrade to a Missourian,

One from Maine or Vermont, and a Carolinian and an Oregonese, 

shall be friends triune, more precious to each other than all the riches of the earth.

To Michigan shall be wafted perfume from Florida,

To the Mannahatta from Cuba or Mexico,

Not the perfume of flowers, but sweeter, and wafted beyond death.

He deliberately named states north and south who will be comrades, “friends triune.”

This of course is hard to imagine. It is hard to imagine affection now, between Massachusetts and Missouri, between Elizabeth Warren and Josh Hawley. Right now it is difficult to think of examples of congeniality in the Senate between Vermont and Carolina, between “Bernie” and Lindsay Graham. But it is Whitman’s hope. It is Lincoln’s abiding hope. It is the promise of states united in affection. Such affection is a risk, as Jonathan risked beyond his father to David, as Ruth risked past her own family to Naomi, and as Paul risked toward his beloved Philippians. The “bonds of affection” depend upon identification of what is commonly held among us, and insistence that what is commonly held among us is more powerful than what readily divides us.

It is hard to imagine! But that is exactly what the gospel imagines. The gospel imagines that we are bodily creatures, all of us, held in the palm of the hand of the creator (the one who has the whole world in his hands). The more we focus on shared bodily reality (and away from distorting ideology), the more important are those bonds. It is the work of the gospel community to expose the phony force of ideology (right or left!), and to celebrate the common human requirements of compassion, mercy, and justice without which we cannot live. The more the church spends its energy on linguistic quibbles and quarrels over words and disputes about structures and organizational charts, the less power and moral energy it has for its proper missional engagement. Thus when we focus on our shared bodily reality and away from our favorite ideology, it is not so hard to imagine folk from Missouri and Massachusetts, from Vermont and Carolina being commonly concerned for bodily safety and wellbeing, for food, clothing, water, housing, and health. Friendship is the recognition that we all require these same props for wellbeing, every one of us! The matters that divide us are not primary. It may be the work of the church, in quite local settings, to invite conversation about our most elemental requirements, how they are to be delivered and allocated. When the “other” is addressed and taken seriously as “beloved,” as Paul did his friends in Philippi, as Jonathan did toward David, and as Ruth did with Naomi—beloved by us, beloved by God, beloved by those who we have taken as enemy, we may be led to a stunning generosity. Our capacity for affection must not be driven underground by our ideological zeal. When we can maximize our affection toward the beloved of God, we are our “better selves,” led by our “better angels.” That must be what Lincoln had in mind! 

And even as he drew near the end of his presidency, the end of the war, and the end of his life, Lincoln was a hoper:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations. (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865).

Just eleven days after, on March 15, 1865, Lincoln answered Thurlow Weed who had commended him for his speech. He wrote to Weed:

I expect the latter (his second inaugural address] to wear well--perhaps better than—any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world (“To Thurlow Weed,” Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, p. 689).

This is enough to ponder amid our political divisions: “There is a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.” We may bet on the purpose of the Almighty that is marked by affection, friendship, and neighborliness. Whatever contradicts that is open to serious questioning, whether in Missouri or Massachusetts, in Vermont or in Carolina.

*I came to this poem of Whitman through an incidental reference by Parker Palmer, and so located the poem. I have not been able to identify the title of the poem or its place of publication. 


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

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