The Common Good
February 2009

From Anxiety and Greed to Milk and Honey

by Walter Brueggemann | February 2009

Biblical faith invites us out of self-destruction toward God's generosity and abundance.

So far as I know, the Bible says nothing explicit about subprime loans and the financial implications of such risky economic practice. There is a great deal, nonetheless, that the Bible has to say about such a crisis as we now face. I will comment in turn on a biblical perspective of an analysis of the crisis and a biblical perspective for an alternative economic practice.

While the specifics of the current market collapse are peculiarly modern, biblical perspectives are pertinent because the fundamental issues of economics are constant from ancient to contemporary time, constants such as credit and debt, loans and interest, and the endless tension between haves and have-nots.

We may identify three dimensions of the theological-moral foundations of the current economic crisis:

AUTONOMY. A sense of the isolated, self-sufficient economic individual is deeply rooted in modern rationality and comes to full expression in U.S. “individualism” that resists communitarian connectedness and imagines the individual person to be the primary unit of social reality. Such an individual is completely autonomous, owes no one anything, is accountable to no one, and can rely on no one except himself or herself.

Such a self (perceived almost exclusively as an economic self) is without restraint and is self-authorized to enact Promethean energy to organize life around one’s own needs, issues, and purposes. The autonomous, self-sufficient self takes as the proper venue for life “the market” and understands the market as a place of self-advancement at the expense of all others who are perceived either as rivals and competitors or as usable commodities.

This same autonomy is articulated in the Bible under the rubric of “the fool” who says in his heart, “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1). The capacity to live without the gift or summons of God has immediate practical implications, for autonomy sets the fool over against the neighbor, most especially the poor neighbor. The one who says in Psalm 10:4 “There is no God” is the one who seeks out neighbors for exploitation: “They lurk that they may seize the poor; they seize the poor and drag them off in their net. They stoop, they crouch, and the helpless fall by their might. They think in their heart, ‘God has forgotten, He has hidden his face, he will never see it’” (Psalm 10:9-11).

ANXIETY. But the downside of such theological autonomy is that without the restraint of God, one is also without the resource of God. The self-sufficient person knows down deep that self-securing and self-satisfaction finally are unachievable, because they represent life in a world where no gifts are given. The outcome of such autonomy without allies or support is an endless process of anxiety, for one never has enough or has done enough to be safe and satisfied. As a result, the autonomous person, championed in current economic theory, is caught in an endless rat race of achievement that produces bottomless anxiety—about the market, about performance, about self-worth. The autonomous person in the end has nowhere to put his anxiety except to “suck it up” and keep moving.

In Leviticus 26:36-37, Moses characterizes the anxiety of a person (or a people) cut off from God and fated to a life under curse: “The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall though no one pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though no one pursues.”

Such a person finds threat, danger, and insecurity everywhere. The only sensible response to imagined threat is greater effort that in turn only produces a new round of anxiety.

GREED. The autonomous person, beset by anxiety, can only resolve to do better, to get more, to arrive at full control of the future by full control of the present. The propulsion to greed in an effort to control generates ravenous acquisitiveness, so that life becomes a passionate pursuit of every form of security and self-worth, most particularly through more money.

It is not difficult to understand why those with the most think they do not yet have enough. And those with less imitate the ravenously greedy ones, so that there is collusion between those who have much and want more and those who have little but long for much. This collusion readily produces subprime loans in which creditors see easy interest income and debtors imagine a better life beyond present deprivation. The end is “tearing down barns and building bigger barns” (Luke 12:18) ... until all participants in autonomous, anxious acquisitiveness end as “fools” engaged in self-destructiveness.

My estimate is that this triad of autonomy/anxiety/greedy acquisitiveness is the story of our recent economic collapse. The theological-ethical issue is how to step out of this hopeless, self-devouring process, and how to imagine and enact an alternative way in the world.

THE BIBLE IS ACUTE in its analysis of self-destructive economics. Beyond that, the Bible is powerfully generative in imagining an alternative economic way in the world.

COVENANTAL EXISTENCE. Biblical faith is an invitation away from autonomy to covenantal existence that binds the self to the holy, faithful God and to neighbors who are members in a common economy. The biblical construal of reality concerns a covenantal infrastructure whereby one lives from the mercy of God and in turn responds in obedience to the will and purpose of that God.

For our topic, perhaps the most compelling text is Deuteronomy 15:1-18, the provision of Moses for the regular cancellation of debts on poor people. The purpose of the commandment is to subordinate “money matters” to the future of the neighborhood. On the one hand, the commandment is rooted in the reality of the God who commands, who has delivered Israel from debt slavery in Egypt. On the other hand, the commandment reflects characteristic resistance to such neighborly economics wherein some are “hard-hearted and tight-fisted” (verse 7), not wanting to care for the neighbor. Such resistance is the resistance of the autonomous, but Moses has no patience with such resisters, for the reality of God’s intent for the neighborhood overrides all such resistance.

ABUNDANCE OF GOD. Biblical faith, having vetoed autonomy, is an invitation away from anxiety to the abundance of God. The God of the gospel is the God who keeps giving. At the outset of the Bible, it is God the creator who sets creation into its destiny of fruitfulness, so that the world teems with abundance (Genesis 1:22-25). It is this same generosity of God that shows up in the wilderness where there is no visible life-support system. Here it is the “bread from heaven” that feeds the people without resources, so that everyone had what was needed for a viable life (Exodus 16:17-18). It is, moreover, the same divine abundance that is in evidence when Jesus feeds crowds with 12 baskets of surplus bread left over (Mark 6:42-43), and then seven baskets of surplus bread (Mark 8:8-9).

Whereas autonomous economics begins with a premise of scarcity, biblical faith is grounded in the generosity of God who wills and provides abundance. And here persons who are members of a covenantal neighborhood respond to divine abundance with generous gratitude, willing to share with sisters and brothers. Those who share, moreover, find in ways they cannot explain that more gifts from God are given. The bread multiplies and loaves abound, a miracle never available to the autonomous. In that world of abundance, covetous greed is inappropriate and incongruous. So Jesus can urge his followers: “Do not be anxious ... for your heavenly Father knows you need all of these things” (Matthew 6:25-32).

GENEROSITY. Biblical faith is an invitation away from greed to the neighborly practice of generosity. The champions of acquisitiveness regard others as threats and competitors. But in a covenantal frame of reference grounded in God’s abundance, others are seen to be brothers and sisters whose life is in a community of solidarity that shares the God-given resources for the well-being of all. The Torah of Moses is especially concerned with generosity toward the most vulnerable in society—the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor (Deuteronomy 24:19-22). A biblical ethic affirms that all members of society—including the poor, even the “undeserving poor”—are legitimate recipients of enough to live in dignity and safety, simply because they are there. Thus the righteous person is one who gives to the poor (Psalm 112:9).

It is futile, from a biblical perspective, to engage in disputes about modern theoretical labels such as “socialism” or “capitalism.” The Bible does not linger over such labels, but insists that every available instrument of well-being—government, charity, private sector—must be mobilized in order to mediate the resources of the community for the sake of the common good.

Two important points are evident. First, to desist from the pursuit of more acquisitiveness means that one has more energy for sharing. Second, those who would be effectively generous must utilize many strategic possibilities for sharing that run all the way from face-to-face neighborly acts to a tax structure that serves the common good.

THIS SIMPLE SKETCH suggests that there are, in our present crisis, two large economic possibilities available to us, each grounded in deep but often unrecognized theological assumptions. Given the current failure and challenge, it seems clear that our society must move to an alternative way in economics. In broad outline, this is a move from autonomy to covenantal existence, from anxiety to divine abundance, and from acquisitive greed to neighborly generosity.

This move is the characteristic move of biblical faith. In the New Testament it is the road of discipleship when Jesus summons, “Follow me.” He wills his listeners to an alternative way in the world that has acute economic implications. And behind the summons of Jesus there is the exodus narrative. That “narrative of departure” is a model for the way in which human persons are always called to depart the rapacious, anxiety-producing system of Pharaoh that is grounded in acquisitiveness (see Genesis 47:13-26) to the covenant of Sinai where God’s ultimate commandment is, “Thou shalt not covet” (Exodus 20:17).

The current crisis among us is a moment ripe for an exodus departure from a system of anxious acquisitiveness that is rooted in autonomy. This departure constitutes a radical break that is offered to us in a narrative mode. The reality on the ground is of course more complex and more difficult than the narrative—but no less urgent.

Biblical faith requires that we look our greedy system of economics in the face, and that we linger before God’s offer of “a more excellent way.” And comes then the risk and the deep reliance upon manna given in the wilderness, en route to a better land, a good city, milk and honey (Hebrews 11:16).

Walter Brueggemann is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

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