Walter Brueggemann: On Gerrymandered Texts

We all know about gerrymandered congressional districts. Whenever they can, Republicans and Democrats skew district lines, misrepresent social reality, and so grasp for disproportionate measures of power and influence. In the wake of that reality of which we are all aware, I want to consider here the “gerrymandering of biblical texts,” my phrase for biblical texts read aloud in the congregation that boldly and openly skip over verses in order to accent other verses the pastor believes the church most needs to hear. This is a common practice in non-lectionary congregations, but it is also a practice common enough in the lectionary itself. Case in point: Just recently I was at worship on “All Saints Sunday.” The chosen non-lectionary reading for the day was Revelation 22:12-21, a quite appropriate text for the Sunday with its articulation of the ultimate promise of the Gospel. In our hearing, however, we were allowed only verses 12-14, 16-17, and 20-21, a sure sign of gerrymandering.

The parts of the text we were permitted to hear were glorious and wondrous in their offer. The God who speaks and promises to come is the Alpha and the Omega (vv. 12-13). Then in verses 16-17 it is Jesus who speaks. He issues a three-fold “Come,” an invitation to “the water of the tree of life.” Finally, “the one who testifies” promises to come soon with a blessing of grace for “all the saints” (vv. 20-21). The sum of these chosen verses is a generous welcome to all for the riches and wellbeing of life to come presided over by the generosity of God. The invitation is an offer to “everyone,” except that we may notice that even in verse 12 which was read, the God who comes soon will “repay according to everyone’s work.” Read apart from the verses skipped over, that is such a minor note that we scarcely notice it.

When I saw printed in the bulletin for Sunday that the text was “gerrymandered,” I was curious about the parts of the text that were held back in silence. Of course I was not terribly surprised by what I found. In verse 15 (skipped over!), there is a sharp contrast between the “blessed” who are given access to “the tree of life” and the others who are characterized as “dogs, sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, and idolaters,” all of those who live fake lives. 

Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood (v. 15).

This negative catalog fairly closely shadows the Ten Commandments. I could readily see why a pastor would not want to read these lines aloud in the church. Not only are the lines quite polemical, but they just might encourage self-righteousness among the “blessed.” The other verses also skipped over are verses 18-19. 

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book (vv. 18-19).

These verses constitute a warning about anyone who tampers with the Book of Revelation, “the prophecy of this book.” The warning is two-fold: don’t add to it; don’t take away from it. Those who “add” to it will get the plague on them; those who “take away” from it will have taken away from them a share of “the tree of life in the holy city.” The penalties are severe: Don’t do it! Let the text stand. It may be that there is some wee irony in that the pastors who left out these verses are among those who “take away” from the text. Well, of course no one wants to read aloud such severe stuff; and besides that, there is not a single person in the congregation who has an iota of interest in editing the book of Revelation!

As is almost always the case, this gerrymandering of the text is in order to leave out the hard parts, so that we are left with an all-welcoming, all-embracing offer of the goodness of God without any exceptions or any noticeable ground for exclusion. This is indeed free grace! Even if it might risk the extreme of “cheap grace.”

I get it that no pastor wants to read aloud the hard stuff; neither do I. I get it that no congregation wants to hear the hard stuff; neither do I as a congregant. And so we gerrymander, innocently attentive, with regularity. And we are left with a cushy gospel of love, sweet love. No exclusions in the end!

If ever such gerrymandering needs to be justified, we rightly say that our norm is not “scripture.” Our norm is the “gospel.” And if parts of scripture do not serve the gospel they can be readily silenced. And so we often make that judgment. But such subjective judgments might leave us uneasy, especially if we were to ask what the text is really about. Thus I want to suggest that a welcome alternative to gerrymandering the text is the good hard work of teaching. Thus the interpreter might take the trouble to start with the text, and show the congregation what is at stake in the text.

We know that the Book of Revelation is written by and for the church when it was under heavy assault by the Roman Empire. In the face of pressure for trusting in and living out the gospel, members of the early church were subject to harsh treatment from the empire. As a result, many Christians readily compromised with the demands and expectations of the empire, not blinking at compromising the gospel. The Book of Revelation was written to urge Christians under threat not to compromise their faith, but to have the courage and tenacity essential to faith. If we begin with this awareness, then the initial warning of verse 12 (over which we have skipped) makes sense.  “Everyone’s work” concerns obedience to the gospel…or not. And thus it turns out that the catalog of condemnations in verse 15 concern the “falsehood” of selling out to Rome. The piling up of condemnatory terms in verse 15 is not to be taken with specificity, but is a cluster of terms concerning those who have compromised their faith. It follows that those who “add” to or “take away” in verses 18-19 are those who want to gerrymander the faith concerning the hard either/or that the church faces vis-à-vis Rome. Thus the entire text is a contrast between those who have kept faith and those who find faith too demanding and so compromise. This is a very different point from the generous proclamation that all (on All Saints Sunday!) are offered an easy welcome, regardless of “everyone’s work.”

The point of taking the text seriously is surely not to scold people. Rather, it is to help people in the church understand the demanding circumstance of Christians in the ancient world of Rome, and then to articulate the demanding circumstance of the church in our current social context. Of course our current demanding circumstance is not so sharp and clear—all the more difficult to notice it! But in truth we current Christians in United States society are indeed placed in a demanding circumstance:

  • We are invited to the easy life of consumerism that lets us be self-preoccupied;
  • We are tempted to privatized, individualized capitalism, a force that shows up concretely and unmistakably in our current unjust health care system.
  • We are beset by a pax Americana in which, like ancient Rome, we can imagine that our imperial military reach is an unmitigated good;
  • We are confronted by a long-standing unyielding policy and practice of racism (that in my neighborhood concerns Native Americans as much as it concerns Blacks).
  • We are tempted to economic fear, so that even in the relative affluence of the congregation we are sobered by pressures that are unrelated to our actual financial circumstance.

All of these issues—to which others may easily be added—are powerful reasons to compromise the gospel, and so to impede the missional work of the congregation.

The text is an invitation, negatively, to resist and refuse such compromises. It is an invitation, positively, to remain faithful to the claims of the gospel, even against the stress of dominant opinion.  The text is a promise to the “blessed” who will let the refrain of “the prophecy of this book” ring in our ears, a ringing that reminds us of our baptismal vocational identity. The other point I want to accent is that it is better and more responsible to do our work of interpretation that moves from an ancient context demanding faith to our contemporary context demanding faith, than it is to gerrymander. It is better, because it more clearly serves our sense of calling to be who we are “in Christ.”Gerrymandering the text is in general to avoid the hard work of interpretation, and to offer a gospel that comes without demand. The church is ill-served by such a
procedure, because gerrymandering is a practice of leaving out some of what must be said and what must be heard in the church.

  • Gerrymandering is not unlike an honest conversation between love partners when we do not say what hurts because it is easier not to say that. Thus “I forgot.”
  • Gerrymandering is not unlike being honest with a therapist, but finding it too hard to say something out loud, and so to present in favorable light an acceptable self, and to say, “Oh, I forgot.” 

Gerrymandering is a willful forgetting of what can be said and often must be said in the church. The church is to receive “the whole counsel of God,” not simply the preferences of the liturgist or of the congregation itself (Acts 20:27).

We are, in the United States, in for tough days in the church. We might better prepare the church for those hard days to come by articulating the gospel in its fully generous and demanding scope. The church is ill-served by scripture reading that let us imagine that the Holy One is indifferent to the choices we make and the risks we run or refuse to run. Sometimes, of course, the church is to be nourished with the milk of the gospel that is for babies (I Peter 2:2). But sometimes what is required is a full diet of the truth of the gospel that is harder to swallow than sweet milk. I suspect that in many cases the church is more ready to receive the fullness of the gospel than we preachers are wont to offer. The “grace” on offer in the last verse of the Bible is not cheap grace. It is for “all the saints,” those who have had a chance to answer to the call of the gospel that is sometimes issued in hard circumstance. Let the church have an ear to “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church,” every syllable of it (Revelation 2:7). It is likely the case that a church that often gerrymanders the text will have among its company many who are “luke warm” (Revelation 3:16).


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