Walter Brueggemann: The Possibility of Good Government

In his remarkable, important book, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (2020), Kurt Andersen has traced the planning of a political party to take over the government. Near the end of his book, Andersen lists eight claims in the playbook that he believes generate their action. It is my intention in this and following weekly blogs to take up each of these eight claims and, if accurate, to consider how we may in good faith respond to them. I have no doubt that a careful pointed response to each of these distortions is an effort worth making. I will take up each claim in turn. 

The first claim is that government is bad. The proposition is uninflected and without any limit or qualification. It means “all government.” Specifically, it means the present government. The claim has no doubt come from those who imagine themselves to be self-made, self-sufficient and self-secure, and who regard any government action as simply an unwelcome intrusion on their self-made lives. Such a sentiment, of course, disagrees with any government regulation that in every case is seen to be an inappropriate check against limitless self-aggrandizement. The claim was given popular articulation by the genial comment of Ronald Reagan who asserted that the nine most terrifying words are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Andersen notes that in this same speech Reagan also bragged about the billions of federal dollars he had given to farmers, not wanting us to notice that the government did indeed help farmers. But the sweeping claim about the government is posturing, and is not meant to be taken seriously or literally, because many folks of every political persuasion benefit greatly from the government.

In response, our work is to make the case that not all government is bad, and that we can (a) distinguish between bad government and good government, and (b) that we may work to assure and effect good government. As a basis for a response, I suggest an appeal to the prophetic declaration of Ezekiel 34:2-24. At the outset, we may recognize that it is a long-standing practice in the Near East (at least as early as Hammurabi) to utilize the metaphor of “shepherd” to refer to ruler. Thus the imagery of “shepherd-sheep” in this chapter of Ezekiel refers to government, specifically the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem, and the designation of Israel in the imagery as the “sheep” that are cared for by the “shepherd” king.

The first part of the prophetic declaration is a description of the “bad government” in Jerusalem, a long series of Davidic kings who acted in self-serving ways to the detriment of “the sheep”:

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourself with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them (vv. 2-4).

The statement manages to allude to the duties and failures of the royal government while still staying inside the imagery of shepherd-sheep. The shepherds have been preoccupied with self-serving and self-indulgence, and so have neglected the proper duties of governance. The duties include feeding the sheep, strengthening the weak, healing the sick, bringing back the strayed, that is, a viable economy with no one left behind, a good security system, and effective health care delivery. These are the staples of good government. But the Davidic dynasty has failed in all of these duties, because it has been self-serving in greedy ways.

The outcome of such failed, self-indulgent government, says the prophet is a “scattering” (v. 5), that is, destruction, exile, and displacement. In prophetic rendering it is the greedy failure of government that has resulted in the terminal crisis of displacement in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. The “wild animals” of verse 8 refers to the marauding forces of Israel’s enemies, notably the Assyrians and then Babylonians. Thus this government is bad!

But it need not be so. Government is not intrinsically bad. Good government is possible when the “shepherds” get their minds off of self-gain and give attention and priority to the wellbeing of the sheep. Thus the prophetic declaration moves beyond the condemnation of the failed government of the Davidic regime, and anticipates a new effective, reliable government that will lead to security, prosperity, and wellbeing. The prospect for good government is the resolve of YHWH who declares that “I, myself” will be the shepherd (v. 11). What follows in verses 12-16 is a guideline for what constitutes good government, an inventory that reflects YHWH’s own resolve for good government in Israel. This is what a good government will do:

I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice (Ezekiel 34:12-16).

The declaration pertains to Israel displaced in exile, so that the work of the shepherd government is to recover and restore the sheep that have been dislocated. The work of good government is restoration, with particular attention to the lost, the injured, and the weak. The work of this government is nothing less than restorative justice for the sheep that have been abused by bad, neglectful government. At the end of this statement Ezekiel steps outside the imagery of shepherd-sheep to speak of justice, for one cannot speak of good government without a passion for restorative justice, that is, preoccupation with the requirements of the needy, weak, and poor.

Two other affirmations are made by the prophet at the end of this text. In verse 20-21, the prophetic declaration exhibits an awareness of the crucial social differentiation between the powerful and the vulnerable. In the imagery of “shepherd-sheep,” the powerful who exploit and prey upon the vulnerable are seen as “fat sheep” who act in greedy, selfish, aggressive ways to secure more than a fair share of the available food:

Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide… (v. 21).

The aggressive verb, “push” and “butt,” witness to aggressive socioeconomic action of the most exploitative kind. The “good shepherd”= good government consists not in being a passive umpire, but in weighing in effectively and decisively on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. Thus good government sides with the vulnerable, a clear articulation of “God’s preferential option for the poor.” In order to reset the socioeconomic equation, we may imagine that the shepherd’s corrective action takes the form of something like reparations, in order that the “weak sheep” might share a fair share of the resources of the community.

Finally, in verses 23-25, the prophet mentions the human king, David, the anticipated heir of the dynasty who will be the “good king,” the leader of a restorative regime. Until this point in the chapter, we can see that the new good governance is the work of God. God engages in “direct rule” when human kings have failed and reneged on their leadership responsibility. But lest this oracle lack historical specificity, these final words make clear that the work of good government is the work of human governance. It is human work to exercise good governance. And good governance consists in protection of the weak, the strayed, the lost, and the vulnerable from the predation of the powerful. It is the work of the Davidic king to do the work of restorative justice. The same point is reiterated in the royal Psalm 72:

For he delivers the needy when they call,

the poor and those who have no helper.

He has pity on the weak and the needy,

and saves the lives of the needy.

From oppression and violence he redeems their life;

and precious is their blood in his sight (Psalm 72:12-14).

Christians will read this Davidic reference in Ezekiel toward the governance of Jesus. And indeed the New Testament attests that Jesus enacted the alternative governance of the Kingdom of God. Jesus engages in restorative action toward the vulnerable who have been the victims of an aggressive regime:

The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them (Luke 7:22).

Jesus does the work of the anticipated good Davidic king.

But of course we read this charter for good government in Ezekiel beyond the direct rule of God, beyond the historic role of the Davidic dynasty, and beyond the specificity of Jesus. We read this charter for good government with our reference to our own political institutions and circumstances. The conclusion toward which this prophetic charter presses is that not all government is bad; good government is possible. Good government requires that those with power and leverage may use their energy toward common wellbeing that entails restorative action for those “left behind.” Bad government, of which we have plenty, occurs when the leverage of government is mobilized for self-advancement and self-gain. It is for good reason that the left behind—including many people of color—hope and work for a strong government that can weigh in on social inequity, and do restorative work for the sake of the lost, the strayed, the injured, and the weak. There is, in like manner, good reason for those with self-serving leverage to want a weak and ineffective government in order to be unencumbered in their capacity to “push and butt” without restraint. Such interests, in the words of Grover Norquist, want a government the “size of a bathtub.” The argument about the work and size of government is not a disinterested conversation. It concerns the capacity of a good government that can restrain the forces of exploitative greed. When the pushing, butting “fat sheep,” with sharp horns, control much of the government, this, as the prophet knows, leads to the “scattering” of the weak and the vulnerable. The insistence of Ezekiel is that such destructive government will fail. We can indeed choose otherwise and insist upon another sort of government that is not predatory. But that will require that “lean sheep” insist upon otherwise. In imagining the alternative, Ezekiel will not call the good expected human ruler a “king,” but only a “prince” (v. 24). The real and final king is the Lord of restorative justice, in whose service good government will engage. The church must bear witness to the possibility of good government and guide the sort of discernment that will result in such restorative government.

Walter Brueggemann

August 2, 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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