“God’s Own Passion
for the Neighborhood “
A Review of
Journey to the Common Good.
by Walter Brueggemann.
Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith.
One of the things that we have worked really hard to do as Englewood Christian Church over the past two decades is to gather our neighbors for conversation on imagining what the common good for our neighborhood might look like. So when the city of Indianapolis declared our neighborhood and the surrounding ones as a “redevelopment zone” several years ago, we played a key role in gathering neighbors to craft – over the course of a year – a specific plan for how we wanted to see our neighborhood improved in a way that would minimize gentrification and not drive out the neighbors who presently live here. We work with our neighbors in this way because we believe that God is at work, redeeming creation, and that this work of redemption unfolds primarily through the faithfulness of church communities who imagine and discern God’s redemptive work in their specific places. With these convictions and the experiences of our church community at the forefront of my mind, I was very eager to read Walter Brueggemann’s ideas in his newest book Journey to the Common Good.
I have read a number of Brueggemann’s previous works and have resonated with the basic points of his theological vision as expressed in these books. In particular, I have a deep appreciation for his emphasis on the people of God (as a community) in God’s redemptive work, on the conversational relationships between God and the people of God (see his recent book An Unsettling God), on the importance of imagination in discerning God’s leading (see The Prophetic Imagination), and finally, on the significance that he places on land and place in the mission of God (see The Land). All of these convictions are ones that are essential to our life together at Englewood Christian Church.
At the beginning of Journey to the Common Good, Brueggemann observes: “We face a crisis about the common good [today] because there are powerful forces at work among us to resist the common good, to violate community solidarity, and to deny a common destiny. Mature people, at their best, are people who are committed to the common good that reaches beyond private interest, transcends sectarian commitments, and offers human solidarity” (1). From these initial convictions onward, I knew that this was going to be an important book. Brueggemann structures the book around three Old Testament stories that he believes are essential to discerning our way forward as churches today toward the common good of God’s redemption. These stories are that of the Exodus, of Jeremiah (and of Solomon and the Jerusalem establishment that Jeremiah would prophetically decry) and finally of Isaiah.
The first two chapters of the book – based on the first two of the Old Testament stories listed above – were compelling and delightful to read; Brueggemann moves seamlessly back and forth from Old Testament narrative to present day ethics. In the first chapter, Brueggemann recounts the Exodus story – including, along the way, a fresh revisioning of the significance of the ten commandments as the basis of an alternative social ethic that is not rooted in scarcity, fear or oppression. He summarizes his retelling of this biblical story with three strikingly relevant points for today:
- Persons living in a system of anxiety and fear – and consequently greed – (as the Israelites did under Pharoah) have no time for the common good. Defining anxiety focuses total attention on the self at the expense of the common good.
- An immense act of generosity is required in order to break the death grip of the system of fear, anxiety and greed. (God delivers the Israelites and sustains them abundantly in the wilderness).
- Those who are immersed in such immense gifts of generosity are able to get their minds off themselves and can be about the work of the neighborhood. (28-29, parenthetical statements added to clarify the connection to the OT story).
Brueggemann further elaborates on the relevance of these points for today, observing that in Western culture the power of scarcity is experienced primarily through “entitled consumerism…in which we imagine that something more will make us more comfortable, safer and happier” (29-30). The Church, Brueggemann argues, is at its best the people who are freed to work for the common good: “When the church only echoes the world’s kingdom of scarcity, then it has failed in its vocation. But the faithful church keeps at the task of living out a journey that points to the common good.” (32).
In the book’s second chapter Brueggemann recounts how Solomon perverted God’s mission for Israel and established in Jerusalem a kingdom built up on the essential elements of wealth, might and worldly wisdom. As Israel’s story progresses, the task falls to Jeremiah to make sense of the destruction of this Jerusalem establishment in 587 BCE (a sort of “9/11 crisis” for the people of Israel). In Jeremiah’s poem (Jeremiah 9:23-26), Brueggemann observes the prophet specifically countering the wealth, might and wisdom of Jerusalem with the action of God that is rooted in:
- hesed (“steadfast covenantal solidarity”)
- mispat (“justice that gives access & viability to the weak”) and
- sedaqah (“righteousness as intervention for social well-being”)
These three virtues of God’s character form a called cadence, “a minority voice of subversion and alternative” Brueggemann observes, to which we are to march as God’s people.
The book’s third and final chapter is more technical in its biblical scholarship and additionally the lessons that Brueggemann draws here are more general. As such this chapter is a more challenging read than the previous two. Brueggemann here tells the story of Isaiah as a call for the people of God toward:
- Membership (who is covenantly committed?)
- Vision of the reconciling mission of God
(through which the previous 4 practices are understood)
The book concludes with an afterword that reflects on the themes of the book in the context of the immediate present (the Obama presidency, post-economic collapse). Brueggemann offers some keen insights here, including: “Richard Dqwkins’s atheism notwithstanding, the truly toxic atheism is the assumption that neighborliness is an elective in a world of acquisitiveness.” (120) He concludes on a reflective note:
These three chapters together bear witness to the urgent contemporaneity of the biblical tradition. I believe that this exposition, insofar as it is faithful, attests that a biblical perception of reality is urgent for the imagination of the public community, especially if that public imagination has been enthralled for a very long time in the claims of Enlightenment rationality. While there are huge gifts given in that rationality, what we cannot derive from the account of Enlightenment rationality is demanding, generous neighborliness grounded in God’s own passion for the neighborhood. (121)
Brueggemann’s work here is itself a work of prophecy, helping us to imagine the way forward toward “the common good” that is the ultimate redemption of God. Journey to the Common Good is essential for churches who dare to resist the ubiquitous temptations of wealth, might and worldly wisdom, and who seek God’s transformation of their specific neighborhoods. Brueggemann offers a scriptural call for all churches to move in this direction, and his words come as sweet encouragement to churches who already caught a glimpse of this redemptive vision and are starting to take baby steps in this direction. Although sometimes a bit challenging in its form as well as its content, Journey to the Common Good is one book that all churches cannot afford NOT to read!
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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