Sunday, May 27, 2012

Biblical theology and the debate about rites of blessing: An interview with Walter Brueggemann

In November 2002, JULIE A. WORTMAN, editor/publisher of The Witness magazine, interviewed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann to get his perspective on whether churches should approve rites of blessing for the lifelong, committed relationships of same-sex couples. 

Julie Wortman: The Episcopal Church’s 2003 General Convention will be considering a proposal that rites of blessing be developed to support “relationships of mutuality and fidelity other than marriage which mediate the Grace of God.” When I asked if you’d be willing to offer your perspective on whether such rites of blessing should be approved, you said that you were just an “exegete” and that maybe we’d want to talk to someone with a “larger horizon” on the issue. What did you mean by that?
Walter Brueggemann: I just think that after you do the Bible stuff, there are people who know the whole ethical tradition of the church better than do I. The arguments can’t just be made out of the biblical text as such, but they have to be made in the context of how the church has handled the Bible in many other ethical questions.

Julie Wortman: But I’m told your views are views that the “movable middle” takes seriously. Maybe a big reason is that you’re a scholar who writes accessibly, which many scholars don’t, but it seems likely that it is also because you’re a biblical scholar whose social and political views are grounded in Scripture and ancient tradition. Is it your experience that Scripture is the chief authority for moderate Christians, and is it the chief authority for you?
Walter Brueggemann: The answer to both of those questions is, “Yes.” It is the chief authority for moderates and it’s the chief authority to me as long as one can qualify that to say that it is the chief authority when imaginatively construed in a certain interpretive trajectory. I incline to think that most people, including the movable moderates, probably make up their minds on other grounds than the Bible, but then they are uneasy if it collides with the Bible or at least they have an eagerness to be shown how it is that the Bible coheres. I don’t think, on most of these contested questions, that anybody — liberal or conservative — really reads right out of the Bible. I think we basically bring hunches to the Bible that arrive in all sorts of ways and then we seek confirmation. And I think that I’m articulate in helping people make those connections with the hunches they already have.

Julie Wortman: Do you think lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (lgbt) folks are sinners?
Walter Brueggemann: Yes, like we all are. So I think that our sexual interpersonal relationships are enormously hazardous and they are the place where we work out our fears and our anxieties and we do that in many exploitative ways. So I don’t think that gays and lesbians and so on are exempt from the kind of temptations that all of us live with.

Julie Wortman: Is their struggle for full inclusion in the life of the church a justice struggle?
Walter Brueggemann: Yes. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said that the arc of history is bent toward justice. And the parallel statement that I want to make is that the arc of the Gospel is bent toward inclusiveness. And I think that’s a kind of elemental conviction through which I then read the text. I suspect a lot of people who share this approach simply sort out the parts of the text that are in the service of inclusion and kind of put aside the parts of the text that move in the other direction.

Julie Wortman: And what do you do with those other parts?
Walter Brueggemann: Well, I think you have to take them seriously. I think that it is clear that much or all of the Bible is time-bound and much of the Bible is filtered through a rather heavy-duty patriarchal ideology. What all of us have to try to do is to sort out what in that has an evangelical future and what in that really is organized against the Gospel. For me, the conviction from Martin Luther that you have to make a distinction between the Gospel and the Bible is a terribly important one. Of course, what Luther meant by the Gospel is whatever Luther meant. And that’s what we all do, so there’s a highly subjective dimension to that. But it’s very scary now in the church that the Gospel is equated with the Bible, so you get a kind of a biblicism that is not noticeably informed by the Gospel. And that means that the relationship between the Bible and the Gospel is always going to be contested and I suppose that’s what all our churches are doing — they’re contesting.

Julie Wortman: You’ve done a lot of work on the Hebrew prophets. What do you think we can learn from the prophets about justice in this particular issue of lgbt people and their quest for justice?
Walter Brueggemann: As you know the prophets are largely focused on economic questions, but I suppose that the way I would transpose that is to say that the prophets are concerned with the way in which the powerful take advantage of the vulnerable. When you transpose that into these questions, then obviously gays and lesbians are the vulnerable and the very loud heterosexual community is as exploitative as any of the people that the prophets critiqued. Plus, on sexuality questions you have this tremendous claim of virtue and morality on the heterosexual side, which of course makes heterosexual ideology much more heavy-handed.

Julie Wortman: Yeah. This makes me think of an interview you did with former Witness editor Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann about four years ago in which you said, “The church has made a centerpiece of our worship how bad we are.” It sort of connects with the virtue thing. Can you say something about that again?
Walter Brueggemann: That’s a judgment I make of my Calvinist liturgics tradition. I never have that feeling in Episcopalianism — even though there’s a regular confession of sin, it doesn’t seem as weighty as a Calvinist confession of sin. But I incline to think that the weight of God’s graciousness readily overrides our guilt and what we ought to talk about is God’s grace.

The other conviction I have is that, on the whole, I don’t think people are troubled by guilt in our culture. I think they are troubled by chaos. And therefore most of our talk about confession and forgiveness is beside the point. The reason that’s important to me is that I have the deep conviction that the adrenaline that gathers around the sexuality issues is not really about sexuality. It is about the unarticulated sense people have that the world is falling apart.

The anxiety about chaos is acute among us. Obviously, 9/11 makes that more so, but it was there before that. The world the way we have known it is passing away from us and I believe that people have taken the sexuality issue as the place to draw a line and take a stand, but it’s not a line or a stand about sexuality. It’s about the emotional sense that the world is a very dangerous place. Sexuality is, I think, one way to talk about that.

Julie Wortman: That opens up for me something that I heard Peter Gomes say recently about young people at Harvard who are hungry for a life of sacrifice and service. Does that connect with what you’re talking about?
Walter Brueggemann: I would have some wonderment about whether it’s that clean and simple. But people are becoming aware that the recent practices of material consumption are simply destructive for us and they do not contribute to our humanness. And the more people that know that, the more encouraging it is.

Julie Wortman: What I was thinking is that the sexuality debate seems so beside the point, given the church’s call in these times.
Walter Brueggemann: Yeah. Well, in my own [Presbyterian] context, I have the sense that continuing to argue about sexuality is almost a deliberate smoke screen to keep from having to talk about anything that gets at the real issues in our own lives. I think the issues are economic and, you know, many of the great liberals in my church don’t want to talk about economics. The reason for that is many of us liberals are also into consumption in a big way. So this is something else you can talk about without threatening them.

Julie Wortman: What’s the nature of blessing in the Old Testament? How is it used there?
Walter Brueggemann: It’s used in a lot of ways, but I believe that the primary meaning is that it is the life force of creation that makes abundance possible. If you look at the recital of blessings, for example, in Deuteronomy 28, it’s about very mundane material matters. May your livestock prosper. May your bread rise. May your corn grow. So I think it has to do with abundance,  productivity, the extravagances of the material world. And a curse then, as in Deuteronomy 28, is that the life force of vitality is withdrawn from us and our future just kind of shrivels up.

Julie Wortman: Is that different from the way Jesus would use it in the New Testament? Especially thinking about the Beatitudes?
Walter Brueggemann: No, I think the Beatitudes are exactly that way when it says, you know, blessed are the peacemakers. I think this means the life force of God’s creative spirit is with people who live that way. And that they are destined for abundant well-being. So when you talk about a ritual of blessing, it is the church’s sacramental act of asserting that this relationship will be a place in which God’s generativity is invested.

Julie Wortman: So why do you think folks balk at the idea of rites of blessing for same-sex relationships that are free of promiscuity, exploitation and abusiveness and that are marked by “fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection, respect, careful honest communication and the holy love that enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God,” as they did at the Episcopal Church’s 2000 General Convention?
Walter Brueggemann: I think it’s very complex and it’s about anxiety and all of that, but in the light of what I was saying, I think it’s a moralistic judgment that people like this are not entitled to well-being. And therefore for the church to sacramentally guarantee well-being for these  people is an unearned gift that falls outside the moral calculus. Now in Presbyterianism the question that’s sometimes put to theological articulation is “too many people are being saved!”
You don’t want all these people saved. That’s called universalism. I think it’s the same calculus that is articulated by Job’s friends, that only the obedient are entitled to well-being. If these relationships are understood to be an act of disobedience, then the church ought not to be asserting well-being for them.

Julie Wortman: So there’s a logic to the balking?
Walter Brueggemann: I think it is a logic. I think it’s a logic that’s rooted in fear and it’s rooted in resentment. It is parallel to welfare reform in which the undeserving poor ought not to get food stamps. Now, morality does matter and living obediently and responsibly is important. But that is always in tension with the other claim we make that the very fact that we exist as God’s creatures gives us some entitlements.

Julie Wortman: As a person who bases what he thinks on Scripture, what would you say the biblical standards are for relationships?
Walter Brueggemann: Well, I think fidelity. It takes a lot of interpretation, but it’s basically to love God and love neighbor. And the first neighbor I suppose we love is the one to whom we make these holy vows. So that has to do with relationships that are honorable and just and faithful and reliable and all that neat stuff. Then you can argue out what all that means. This is relational thinking. But the sort of thinking that you can establish out of the Book of Leviticus, where so much of this anti-same-sex blessing stance comes from, involves a substantive material sense of contamination that has nothing to do with relationships. To this way of thinking there is a palpable poison that is turned loose in the community that must be resisted. People who think this way cannot take into account the relational dynamics that we’re trying to talk about. That way of talking about physical contamination is deeply rooted in the Bible, though, which is a problem.

Julie Wortman: There are people who say the situation of lgbt people is analogous to that of the canary in a coal mine.
Walter Brueggemann: I’ve said that in the city homeless people are the canaries, but I think that’s right about lgbt people. A general principle is that whoever is the most vulnerable is the canary. That is, it is always the test case about whether we are following Jesus. And then if you extrapolate to say that gays and lesbians are the most vulnerable in this issue, then they are indeed the canary.

Walter Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. He has been interested in the interpretive issues that lie behind efforts at Old Testament theology. This includes the relation of the Old Testament to the Christian canon, the Christian history of doctrine, Jewish-Christian interaction and the cultural reality of pluralism. He is the widely read author of many books and articles, including Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress Press, 1997) and Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World, Patrick D. Miller, ed. (Fortress Press, 2000).

(This interview first appeared in the November 2002 issue of TheWitness magazine,

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