Walter Brueggemann: Strange Business

Here is a new word you may not know, “schismogenesis,” that taken literally means “originated in a split.” It as coined in 1935 by Gregory Bateson (“Cultural Contact and Schismogenesis,” Man 35 (1935) 178-83). I learned it by reading, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021). These authors, following Bateson, characterize the term in these words:

Bateson coined the term “schismogenesis” to describe people’s tendency to define themselves against one another. Imagine two people getting into an argument about some minor political disagreement but, after as hour, ending up taking positions so intransigent that they find themselves on completely opposite sides of some ideological divide—even taking extreme positions they would never embrace under ordinary circumstances…People come to define themselves against their neighbors. Urbanites thus become more urban, as barbarians become more barbarous…They will all definitely exaggerate their differences in arguing with one another...Each society performs a mirror image of the other. In doing so, it becomes an indispensable alter ego, the necessary and ever-present example of what one should never wish to be (56-57, 180).

In speaking of Indigenous peoples on America’s West Coast, they write:

The more the uplanders came to organize their artistic and ceremonial lives around the theme of predatory male violence, the more lowlanders tended to organize theirs around female knowledge and symbolism—and vice versa (245).

We can observe this same tendency in our society as some seek to delineate “good Americans” in contrast to immigrants, gays, or Muslims. In an exaggerated form, we can see it in the readiness of people to relocate in order to be in a “Red” or “Blue” social context. The tendency is well advanced in our society as differences are sharply exaggerated in order to make distinctions. None of this is more poignant in our society than the fact that vaccines and masks became totems for tribal identity. in “Masks: Angry Up in Northern Michigan,” Ron French (Record-Eagle 3/7/2022) reports on a meeting in Traverse City in which adversaries about masks and vaccines lined up on opposite sides of the room and screamed at each other. The participants in this destructive interaction likely did not know they were performing Bateson’s “schismogenesis”!

The same propensity to difference through exaggeration is operative in the Old Testament, as is evidenced in the “purity codes” of the Torah; see for example Leviticus 11:1-47, Deuteronomy 14:3-21. The intent is to distinguish a “holy” people from all other peoples. In Deuteronomy 23:1-8, the list of the excluded, stated with forceful vigor, pertains to those with crushed testicles (perhaps those who accommodated imperial powers by becoming eunuchs, on which see Isaiah 56:3-5, bastards, and the Moabites and the Ammonites. In the first two instances, no reason for exclusion is given; perhaps it was assumed the reason was evident in social shame. But concerning Moabites and Ammonites, the reason for exclusion is a quite particular narrative memory. Curiously, at the end of the list of exclusions, exceptions are made for the Edomites and the Egyptians who may be admitted if they are the third generation. Everywhere the point is to protect the identity and preeminence of the hosting people, an identity and preeminence assured by the exclusion of the others. It does not take much of an extension of this reasoning to establish supremacy and superiority of a “holy” kind.

In the face of Bateson’s telling term and its fear-filled operation among us, I have been thinking about the remarkable declaration in Deuteronomy 10:17-19. (Notice that it is this same book of Deuteronomy that hosts the purity code of 14:3-21 and the list of exclusions in 23:1-8):

For the Lord our God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribes, who executes justice for the orphan and the widows, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).

In this quite remarkable text we have an extraordinary doxology concerning YHWH. YHWH is praised and celebrated as “God of gods” and “Lord of lords” who presides over the divine council. But then abruptly amid verse 17, the exclamation moves from theological affirmation to a quite particular economic matters, no  bribes that could only be paid by the wealthy, sustenance for the widows and orphans (those without male advocates in a patriarchal society), and love of strangers, that is, embrace of those “unlike us.” That “love of strangers,” moreover, is quite quotidian and practical, concerning food and clothing.

This statement traces the movement of YHWH from the realm of the gods to the sphere of welfare for needy human persons. One can see in the Christian tradition, how this “descent” of God from the heavenly to the earthly sphere is performed in the life of Jesus “who emptied himself” and became obedient to death (Philippians 2:7-8). It is the wonder of Israel’s faith that (long before Jesus) the preoccupation of the creator God with creaturely wellbeing was taken to be definitional.

And then the text moves from affirmation to imperative: “You shall also love the stranger.” The narrative basis for the command is that “You were strangers is the land of Egypt.” But the ground for the imperative is that Israel shall be “like God,” like the God who loves strangers! Israel is to do what God does and what God has done for Israel.  We notice that in verse 16, moreover, the text appeals to the practice of circumcision, a defining mark of difference (!), as a ground for obedience that replicates God’s way in the world. What a mouthful!

Thus we can see that in the very book of Deuteronomy that contains the purity code (14:3-21) and the catalogue of exclusions (23:1-8), we have a mandate to “welcome the strangers” that is an imitation God. Thus within the Book of Deuteronomy itself a principle tension for covenantal faith is articulated, a tension between welcome and schismogenesis, a welcome of the other and an exclusion of the other as a mark of identity. This tension is so poignantly voiced by Martha Nussbaum, in her book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future. She takes up the work of Samuel Huntington who has anticipated that we are headed for a deep conflict between “The West” and Islam. In his book, The Coming Clash of Civilizations Huntington assumes that the clash will be vigorous, violent, and dangerous. Contra Huntington, Nussbaum has studied the matter with reference to the conflict of Hindus and Muslims in India. She concludes that the most elemental “clash” that Huntington describes is not “out there” between tribes or nations or religious groups. It is rather a “clash within,” thus the title of her book:

We need not reject his [Gandhi’s] insight that a “conflict of civilizations” is in the last instance always internal, an attempt to deal with the shame and fear of being human…The real “clash of civilizations” is not “out there,” between admiral Westerners and Muslim zealots. It is here, within each person, as we oscillate uneasily between self-protective aggression and the ability to live in the world with others (333, 337).

Thus the “clash within” is “within each person” as it is “within” the Book of Deuteronomy.

This awareness is a profound insight into our psychological processes of self-securing protection. It is also an important tool for pastoral work, and an identification of the hard work the church must do, namely, to assist each of us in identifying and processing the tension “within” concerning exclusionary self-protection and openness to the other. The ground for exclusion as self-protection” is some “law,” some measure of “righteousness” that the “other never reaches. The capacity for welcome is the inexplicable gift of grace, an acknowledgement that all of us and each of us are grounded in unmerited love, mercy, and care from the Holy One. And we are, so Nussbaum, engaged every day in processing that tension that we may do in crude or quite sophisticated ways.

I was led to this exposition by an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, “I will Never Stop Welcoming the Stranger” (February 23, 2022), the rabbi for Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. The rabbi and his congregants experienced the assault of a gunman from whom he and his congregants eventually, after a long stand-off, escaped unharmed. The rabbi has reflected on this searing experience. He understands the assault, stand-off, and escape belonging, as a dramatic whole, to the trajectory of “welcoming the stranger.” He said:

The command to care for the stranger is mentioned at least 36 times in the Torah, the first give books of the Bible—more than any other mitzvah. It’s mentioned so often because we need the reminder, because it isn’t natural. It is hard. Just getting past the notion of fearing the stranger is a big enough hurdle.

Cytron-Walker avers that ”current reality” is an endless procession of vigils and “gathering after gathering of mourning” after intentional acts of hate and violence. But then he writes:

I believe with all my heart and soul that we can—and must—change that reality. That goes back to caring for the stranger-caring enough that we’re willing to meet and talk with those who are different from ourselves. Caring enough to know that while our experiences may not be the same, and that we will probably disagree, we are human beings with something to teach and something to learn. That is not easy. And right now, it feels countercultural. Many parts of Judaism are countercultural—especially the instruction that we do what is right, not what is easy. When it comes to the care with which we are supposed to treat other people, those teachings cross religious and cultural boundaries.

This year we have witnessed an impressive generous welcoming of the stranger concerning the refugees from Ukraine. Such an out-pouring of generous welcome is a measure of what is possible for us. But of course such an extraordinary act is evoked only by the extraordinary crisis in Ukraine. For the most part, such generous welcome is not operative among us, certainly not in loci where there is fear of those who are “unlike us.”

Wading into this common ambivalence is clearly the work of the church. That work runs across the span from honest conversation to policy advocacy to fresh theological reflection. The case has to be made, over and over, that the God of the Gospel is not tribal or national, and is not allied with any racial or gender “purity.” It is the truth of this God, shared by Jews and Christians (and well beyond those communities), that the great creator God is immediately and intensely in solidarity with the “unlike,” with those who are unlike us.

It is not a surprise that “the stranger” shows up as a player in the formation of wellbeing in the parable of Jesus:

Come, you who are blessed by the Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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 in prison and you visited me (Matthew 25:34-36).

The list of indispensables for a working workable creation is offered: food, drink, welcome, clothing, care, and visitation. The “big six” of those requiring attentive generosity include the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. It is easy enough to see that Jesus gets this basic list from the Book of Deuteronomy. And the book of Deuteronomy derives its inventory from the transformative acts of God who is “down and dirty” with food, drink, welcome, clothing, care, and visitation. 

The work to be done by faithful human agents derives from the disclosure of God in the Torah and subsequently, in the teaching of Jesus. This “revelation” belongs on the lips of pastors, on the tongues of congregations, in the budgets of the church, and in the policies of the state. “The stranger” is the litmus test of sustainable wellbeing. The fear of the “unlike” needs to be identified and named. We need practice in acknowledging and processing our fear in the community. We need models of risk running. We have texts of truth-telling that must be endlessly parsed among us. We cannot make our way into wellbeing by being “schizoid” about our neighbors. That kind of fearful engagement has never worked. It will not work now. That is why we are summoned to “a more excellent way.”

Walter Brueggemann

March 8, 2022


Walter Brueggemann is 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.



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