Monday night I checked off a big item on my bucket list. I met Walter Brueggemann. (For those of you wondering, I readily admit I was every bit the theology-nerd fanboy I’d hoped I wouldn’t be when I turned around and saw him sitting in the seat behind me just before he got up to lecture. Seriously, it was pathetic.)
In commemoration of the occasion, I’ve been reflecting on the influence Brueggemann’s theology has had on my own understanding of what God is doing in the world. Although I’ve only come to his work in the last six years, he has left a deep and indelible mark on my life. One of the primary ways he has reworked my imagination is in terms of scarcity and abundance. Beginning with the first time I listened to his “Food Fight and Faith” lecture, these categories have really worked me over in pretty fundamental ways.
When God created he created a world characterized by abundance and blessing. The birds of the air and the fish of the sea swarmed and filled the skies and seas. Humankind was commanded to fill the earth, subduing it and taking as their starting place the Garden where an abundance of food and provision was at hand. This abundance, however, was counteracted by the scarcity of a world in which sin had let death loose. In the end of Genesis 3, God describes how the world now will be and a paradigmatic part of that world is now scarcity, with the attendant anxiety that we will not have enough. (Adam’s curse that he will work the ground by the “sweat of his brow” and the earth will fight back with thorns and thistles is testament to this.) With the rejection of life (rooted in God) comes the fear of not having enough.
As such, in typically Burueggemann-esque language, we can note that Pharaoh controls all the goods of Egypt but has nightmares about running out (Genesis 41). He enlists Joseph to ensure a secure future and Joseph accomplishes this (for Pharaoh, anyway) by creating a monopoly over Egypt’s resources, money, and people (Genesis. 47). This progression of scarcity and fear ultimately leads to greed and then “violence against disposable people” – first the people of Egypt and then the Hebrews.
For Brueggemann, this cycle of scarcity, fear, greed, and violence is paradigmatic for the world we live in. This becomes a “totality” – the sum total of our experience, outside of which we cannot imagine anything else “working.” This is just the way things are in the real world. Borrowing from the work of people like Randy Harris, James Bryan Smith, and Richard Beck I’ve tended to talk about the same reality in terms of fear and power.
Against this “totality” – the realm of what is possible within the bounds of the way the world works – the kingdom of God provides an alternative reality in which God calls us back to his original intentions, which includes a return to blessing an abundance. Powerfully, Israel is called out of Egypt – who controls all the bread, and all the meat, and all the water – into the wilderness where they quickly conclude that they will die. They do this only to find that outside the reach of Pharaoh, outside the possibilities of the way things are, God does impossibilities and provides abundant bread, meat, and water.
Dealing with what God can do outside of our systems of scarcity and violence stands to have a profound impact on the way one does business in the world. These (im)possibilities have been a major meditation of mine over the last few years and I want to explore them more in coming posts.