Walter Brueggemann: The Ethical Dignity of the Other

Enrique Dussel, an Argentinian-Mexican scholar and critical commentator, has published a rich stream of books. Unfortunately, much of his work has not yet been translated into English. One of his books that has been translated into English is The Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of “the Other and the Myth of Modernity (1995). In this book Dussel takes up the crucial critical notion that historical significance and cultural development has its rootage in Europe. The history of the world writ large, moreover, is the slow, deliberate process by which European historical significance and cultural development flowed to the West, to Africa, eventually to Asia, and to the “invention of the Americas” as a European project. It was a movement that arrived under the flag of “modernity” whereby Europe imposed its power, order, and interpretive categories on the rest of the world. That imposition was a brutal enterprise. The movement proceeded by:

colonialization that sought the wealth of the world (gold!) to the advantage of Europe;

enslavement as it reduced indigenous populations to the cheapest, most exploitative labor force, and

genocide that was free, with the essential blessing of the church, to eliminate populations that were an impediment to European progress and hegemony.

The conclusion that Dussel draws is that Europeans, in their imposition of intellectual, political, and interpretive categories on the rest of the world, were wholly unappreciative of local, native cultures and learning. That lack of appreciation led to the conclusion that “other peoples” were the unacceptable “other,” that is, different in ways that were therefore unfamiliar, unwelcome and dangerous. Thus European modernity had at its rootage the dismissal and/or elimination of the “
other” that did not meet European expectations and requirements. Such dismissal and elimination variously could take the form of colonialism, enslavement, or genocide. Thus the backside of European Enlightenment rationality is barbarism toward the “other.”

Dussel traces the workings of what he terms “the triangle of death” through which Europeans produced arms and other tools, exchanged them on the western coast of Africa for slaves, and then traded the slaves in the New World of the Caribbean for gold, silver, and tropical products. The proceeds of such trade were then deposited “in the banks of London and the pantries of the Low Countries” (p. 123). And then Dussel adds wryly:

Thus modernity pursued its civilizing, modernizing, humanizing, Christianizing course (123).

After he offers this exposé, Dussel proposes a very different history of the world that began in the Fertile Crescent, moved through Asia and Africa, and came only very late to the West, and thus to Europe. This course of world development was not fixed so grossly on profit, and so is not characterized by the same violence of colonization, enslavement, and genocide. Thus Dussel insists that the world can be rendered very differently, outside of the controlling categories of European hegemony.   

At the end of his book, Dussel reflects on what is required in order to counter this violent reductive modernity in which the “Invention of the Americas” is embedded. On the one hand he observes that this European notion of modernity presents a strange contradiction between “rational emancipation” under the force of reason that opens new possibilities for human development.  On the other hand, at the same time, uses its myth of modernity to justify an “irrational praxis of violence” toward the other (136). When the two parts of this contradiction are held together, as they have been in long-running practice, Dussel observes that the essential constitutive features of modernity, including sacrificial violence, “are those of the conquistador” (137). The way to counter this contradiction, Dussel concludes, is to deny the innocence of such predation, and to affirm the alterity of “the other”:

This Other encompasses the peripheral colonial world, the sacrificed Indian, the enslaved black, the oppressed woman, the subjugated child, and the alienated popular culture—all victims of modernity’s irrational action in contradiction to its own rational ideal (137).

 And then Dussel comes to his important affirmative statement:

The discovery of the ethical dignity of the Other purifies Enlightenment rationality beyond any Eurocentric or developmentalist communicative reason and certainly beyond purely strategic, instrumental rationality (137).

I linger over Dussel’s acute analysis and moral urgency because the tale of Western brutality toward the other is not past history. It is current practice among us. The players have somewhat changed, but not very much. Our society continues to license and practice dismissive violence toward the other who shows up among us variously as Blacks, Asians, gays, Muslims, or anyone else who does not fit the claim of white male Western hegemony. It is the “ethical dignity of the other” that is most urgent among us that requires a full recognition that the other is indeed other for us, but that such difference need not be received as threat. The most extreme form of other as threat is the ignominious theory “replacement” by the “other” that evokes fear and, soon thereafter, violence. Thus we face a fearful social context in our recent and present history:

…of colonization as a form of conquest;

…of enslavement as a form of subjugation, and

…of genocide as a form of elimination.

It is all contemporary to us! And every component of it is marked by violence!

It is the work of the church to be about the “ethical dignity of the other.” In order to address this task with sustained intentionality, it is acutely necessary that we examine our own history and inheritance. When we do that, we discover that the Bible yields a very mixed scorecard on the matter of the “other” and the ethical dignity of the “other.”

First, there is a powerful strand of the Bible that is elementally opposed to the other. We do well to pay attention to these texts, and not disregard them or explain them away. The “purity laws” in Leviticus and in Deuteronomy 14, for example, aim to protect the covenant community by fending off the participation of the other. In the catalogue of Deuteronomy 23:1-6, the “other” is excluded specifically by identification, including those with “crushed testicles,” (likely eunuchs), bastard children, and the Ammonites and Moabites. In these latter cases the reason given for exclusion is a particular historical memory; we may guess, however, that the grounds for exclusion are broader and more complex than the reason given. The identification of historical enemies, moreover, is given severe expression in the case of the Amalekites:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

The extreme case of exclusion is the reiterated mandate to enact total destruction (herem) on Israel’s enemies:

You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 20:17-18, see Deuteronomy 2:34, 3:6, 7:2, Joshua 2:10, 10:28-40).

The ground for all of this exclusionary vigor is the claim that Israel is God’s chosen people who can retain and protect their peculiar status as holy only by severe and ruthless action to fend off those who would compromise or intrude upon that singular status. There is no doubt that the severity of these urgings is very much entangled with historical, ideological, and ethnic claims. But the sustenance of the status as holy requires articulation with a singular focus and with a kind of “theological innocence.” Thus the conviction of being God’s “chosen people” brings with it the mandate and readiness to perform severe exclusion. These two factors, chosenness and severe exclusion, come together in Israel’s tradition:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you—and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them… For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 6). 

There can hardly be any doubt that this ancient ideology of violent exclusion—expressed as enslavement and extermination—provided an ideological prop for the same practices in the modern period as the West, in its “chosenness,” performed colonization, enslavement, and genocide on populations that were judged to be less worthy and so readily disposed of.

Second, the theme of radical hostility toward the “other” is of course countered in other places in the biblical tradition. It is this alternative trajectory of neighborly generosity to which the church regularly appeals. It does so, moreover, most often in ways that pretend the tradition does not include the more violent strand of ideology. That violent strand is countered by a more generous appeal to live in peace with one’s neighbors who are not members of the covenant. Thus even in the catalogue of Deuteronomy 23 allowance is made for the Edomites and the Egyptians who, after a time, may be accepted into the community (vv.7-8).

It is perhaps Isaiah 56 that most sweepingly advocates for the welcoming inclusion of the other. This chapter stands at the beginning of a restoration program after the exile (III Isaiah) that voices a vigorous alternative to the exclusionary posture of Ezra. After the initial summons to “justice” (56:1), the text indicates in turn the inclusion of “eunuchs” (vv. 3-5) and “foreigners” (vv. 6-8). The readiness to include “eunuchs” has been taken as a deliberate, intentional refutation of the exclusion in Deuteronomy 23:1 concerning those with “crushed testicles.” It is plausible that “eunuchs” refers to those who submitted to castration in order to receive advancement in a foreign court, thus compromising the status of Israel as a “holy people.” In this rendering, however, that willing submission to foreign advancement is taken as no barrier to admission to the community of covenant. In like manner, the welcome offered to foreigners flies in the face of “purity” that aims to exclude everyone and anything that is “foreign.” Thus the God attested here is the God who gathers all into the community so that all may participate in worship together through the offering of sacrifices and the offering of prayers:

These I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Thus says the Lord God,

who gathers the outcast of Israel,

I will gather the others to them besides those already gathered (Isaiah 56:7-8).

Isaiah 66:18-21, moreover, envisions a great ingathering of those scattered. In this case, the ingathering concerns “your kindred,” that is, Jews. But the vision moves in the direction of radical inclusion.

Third, thus, Isaiah 56 functions as an important articulation of alternative to the exclusiveness of our society. The same move toward inclusion of those who are a “stranger” is a major urging in the tradition. A mandate to welcome the stranger can be traced through the Bible. In the wondrous text of Deuteronomy 10:12-22 the key summons to Israel in the culminating imperative is this:

You shall love the stranger,

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).

It cannot be any more direct than that. Love the stranger! Love what is strange! Love what is unlike us! Embrace what is other. The Israelites could remember their own past history as “strangers.” And we can recognize in our own context that almost all of us are immigrants from immigrant families. Almost all of us came to this land as outsiders, many without resources. This insistence of Moses is echoed in the singular mandate in Hebrews:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:1-2).

Here the verb is “show.” The mandate to “show hospitality” recurs in the ethical mandates of the early church. Thus a bishop is to be “hospitable” (I Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:8). But here hospitality is toward “strangers.” This text is often taken as an allusion to the narrative of Genesis 18 wherein Abraham and Sarah entertain angels whom they do not recognize, but who bestow on the aged couple a great blessing that gave them a new future. There is a recognition that alternative futures may indeed be given by those who are strangers who must, at first glance, be avoided. But the mandate is obvious. Here there is no fear of the other, only a readiness to receive the stranger who is, every time, a potential gift giver.

Fourth, perhaps the extreme form of the embrace of the other is found in Galatians 3:28:

There is no longer Jew or Greek,

there is no longer slave or free,

there is no longer male and female,

for all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

This text, commonly taken as a baptismal formula, affirms that the transformative Lordship of Jesus Christ will overcome and obliterate all of the markers that make one “other.” Thus in Christ the church is able to see, in and through the Lordship of Jesus Christ, that the otherness of the stranger is overcome and not defining.

I am aware that baptism can and has been readily “weaponized” to impose the strict, close governance of the church. But when it recognized that baptism is not a “church prop” but a means of grace, it can and does permit us to receive the world differently, not as a company of adversaries who act out otherness, but as those who live and love under the leadership of grace.

Thus we may trace through the Bible these twin trajectories of exclusionary hostility toward the stranger and welcome embrace of the stranger that may culminate in baptism. This is not, to be sure, an evolutionary scheme as though we were “improving.” It is rather a recognition that all of these options are on offer to us all the time and throughout the sweep of scripture. We can choose variously, either to embrace the other, or to exclude the other, either hostility or solidarity.

This matter of the “other” is now urgent in our society. We are currently in a season of hostility toward the other, most vigorously expressed in an “ideology of replacement” that sees the other as threat to the purity and priority of whites, and even more, white males. There is no doubt that the “other” constitutes a major crisis in our society as “people of color” become more expressive among us, as the hegemony of white supremacy is under assault, and as gender options are everywhere available among us. The sum of all of these “otherings” jeopardizes old patterns of control and security. Through the eyes of the gospel, however, these alternative forms of human presence may be seen as gifts of newness to be received with appreciation.

Dussel’s writing is so to the point concerning modernity (that is, white Western domination) with its long running capacity to embrace a ringing notion of freedom and hostility toward the other, a contradiction that is the basis of our society. We have for the most part been able to live with this contradiction without paying notice to it. The tension between the exclusion of the other and the embrace of the other is everywhere present among us. It is present in the biblical text; it is present in our civic community; it is present in the church. No doubt Dussel has it exactly right. It is the ethical dignity of the other on which our future depends. It is important that the church weigh in on this important matter with vigorous articulation as it surfaces among us in so many of our communities. The church’s business is exactly the news that God mandates love and welcome toward the other. We have known this since the Apostle Paul led the church toward welcome of Gentiles. The current “outsiders” who play the role of Gentiles are those who are unlike white male Westerners. The missionary work of the church is to summon us to welcome the other. In this work we happily have as allies Jews who, after the manner of Emmanuel Levinas (Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, 1969) know that it is in the “face of the other” that we receive the ethical truth of our life. Obviously we cannot see into the face of the other unless the other is present to us and we are present to the other. Much of the bickering around Jesus had to do with the face of the other who could evoke fear and hostility but who, with him, rather evoked a welcome expressed as forgiveness, hospitality, and generosity. The alternative history of the world sketched by Dussel is most remarkable. It may turn out that those who have so long been “first” in history and culture turn out to have been the “last.”

We will work with each other, we will work side by side;

We will work with each other, we will work side by side;

And we’ll guard each one’s [man’s] dignity and save each [man’s] pride.

—Walter Brueggemann

July 29, 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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