From Biblical Narrative to Economic Policy

By Brueggemann, Walter | National Catholic Reporter, August 21, 2009 | Go to article overview

From Biblical Narrative to Economic Policy


Brueggemann, Walter, National Catholic Reporter


The following is an abridged version of a talk given July 30 in Cincinnati at the Celebration Conference on Effective Liturgy.

In the Bible Israel always has the hard work of transposing its treasured narrative memory into contemporary practice. It keeps treasured narrative memory and contemporary practice together by sustained acts of liturgical imagination. That liturgical imagination, regularly performed, is designed to raise the question from mesmerized children, "What is this about?"

"You shall tell your children that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt'" (Exodus 13:8).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The exchange of child and parent is designed, via Passover, to make a compelling encounter between what is remembered and what is performed.

The treasured narrative memory of Israel is so familiar that we scarcely notice that it is not really a "religious" memory. It is a political economic memory about the time when we were slaves in Pharaoh's Egypt. Israel can remember the oppressive circumstance when we were nothing more than instruments for the acquisitive economics of Pharaoh (Exodus 5:4-19). We were busy making bricks in order to build pyramids that would bestow grand immortality, and busy building granaries where Pharaoh could store and exhibit his economic monopoly as he controlled the world's food supply. We remember the pain and the sweat and the resentment and the anger and the foul smell of the huts in which we had to live.

We are able to remember that there was a dramatic contest between the intelligence community of Pharaoh (now called "magicians") and the daring challenge of Moses, who had no credentials. We had heard about the contest that played to a draw. Some of us trusted Moses, many doubted him and some simply refused. The ones who trusted followed him in that dark night of death, reached the waters and crossed. The memory was sealed as Miriam and the other women danced the dance of YHWH, the God of economic emancipation: "The Lord will reign forever and ever" (Exodus 15:18).

We headed out to a new world, and departed Pharaoh. The memory, so vivid to us, culminated at Sinai. We assented, in a blank check, to the new rules of YHWH, because we knew they would be better than the old quotas of Pharaoh (Exodus 19:8). Right from the mountain we heard the holy voice of the covenant speak to us 10 times about the love of God and love of neighbor (Exodus 20:2-17). We pledged our loyalty and in that instant were converted from a company of weary slaves to a people summoned to neighborliness (Exodus 24:3, 7). It was a transformation wrought by the holy power of YHWH, but we gladly signed on.

This is the narrative memory we deeply treasure. We treasure it so much that we teach our kids and we regularly perform it in order to recall why this night is different from all other nights. It is the night of death and of new life. It is the night of departure. It turns out to be the event of abundant bread. And before we finished, the narrative led us to new promises and pledges of loyalty to neighborly justice. The trek from slavery through abundance to covenant is one we made in wonder. And we keep making it, always again in wonder. And every time we perform it well, it is yet again an awesome miracle that we can hardly trust.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

ANOTHER VERSION

It turns out, for us, that there is a familiar version of that narrative memory shared by Catholics, Protestants, Jews and secularists in the United States. It continues to be a narrative of departure from religious oppression for a better economic opportunity, and the replay features YHWH as the God of liberty and the new community of possibility. We can recite stories about Columbus and the Mayflower and Jamestown and the Pilgrims and the Puritans and the "city set on a hill," and we have no doubt at all concerning our national connection to the God of the promised land:

   O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
      whose stern impassioned
      stress
   A thoroughfare for freedom
      beat across the wilderness! … 

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