Brueggemann on the Recession


“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.”


  1. Only an evangelical could write something so dismissive.

    Did you read the whole article? Not only is it faithful to the Biblical narrative in a way that literalists rarely are, it meets the real standard of authority: Does it build up and edify the body of Christ? This article is the most encouraging and challenging thing I’ve read concerning the economic crisis.


  2. James:

    Of course I read the entire article. In fact, I’ve been reading about the relationship between theology and economics since you were in kindergarten. But that’s neither here nor there, except to establish the point that I’m not unthinking on this topic.

    In my opinion, Brueggemann’s analysis is idiotic for several reasons:

    1. Only a Christian socialist would ever analyze the current economic crisis the way he does, which makes Brueggemann’s eschewal of the categories of “capitalist” and “socialist” more than a bit disingenuous.

    2. The current economic crisis requires more than an theological analysis of autonomy, anxiety, and greed. It actually requires, you know, economic analysis to figure out how we got into this mess. If Brueggemann actually engaged in that analysis, he would quickly discover that among the causes were the attempt of government “to mediate the resources of the community for the sake of the common good” through the subsidization of sub-prime mortgage loans to people who otherwise would not have qualified for such loans. This created a moral hazard in which business invested heavily in those loans because, it rightly thought, they were backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. What is sorely lacking from Brueggemann’s analysis is awareness of this basic fact. Or the fact that politicians used the law pressing banks to offer sub-prime loans in order to build political constituencies. One can critique the market side of this equation all one wants, and rightly so. But unless one begins to critique the government side of the equation, one is dealing in good faith with the crisis.

    3. Applying Old Testament economics to modern society is an enterprise fraught with hermeneutical problems. Among other things, OT economics revolves around’s Israel’s inheritance of the land of Palestine from which it could not be disenfranchised. Land could not permanently sold because it had to be held within clan allotments for eternity. Land was the primary capital because the entire economy was agricultural. The Year of Jubilee was meant to equalize that distribution of capital every 50 years. All of this took place within the context of God’s special covenant with Israel. Needless to say, neither America nor any other modern nation has such a covenant with God. Modern economies are not agricultural or clan-based. And Brueggemann completely overlooks the Wisdom tradition of economic thinking which is market-based.

    4. Finally, Brueggemann seems to have bought into the notion that this is an economic crisis of world-historical importance, which it isn’t, not yet anyway. The recession of 1982 was worse. And if the government weren’t proposing to suck over a trillion dollars out of the economy to “stimulate” the economy, we probably would experience a recovery much sooner. The untold story of the recovery plan (under either Bush or Obama) is that the politically connected are redistributing money from the politically unconnected to themselves via their friends in Congress.

    5. One more thing that bothers me about Brueggemann’s eschewal of “capitalist” and “socialist” labels is that these simply name attempts “to mediate the resources of the community for the sake of the common good.” One is driven by markets and exchange. The other is driven by the state and command-and-control. Rather than engaging in high-falutin’ theological analysis, why doesn’t Brueggemann simply answer the question as to which has a better track record of doing precisely what he wants to be done?



  3. George,

    Just because you’ve read a lot doesn’t mean you get to call one of the greatest theologians of your generation idiotic.

    It seems that you jump back and forth between analyzing the excerpt out of context and analyzing the entire article as a whole. When taken out of context the above paragraph seems to put an emphasis on the government’s role in mediating “the resources of the community for the common good” (in reality in mentions the government along the side of charity et al.). And indeed if the focus of the article were simply on the government’s role in the economic crisis, then I could understand some (but certainly not all) of your apparent outrage.

    The article as a whole, however, challenged me not as a critique of government or a polemic against capitalism, but as an appeal for people and mainly Christians to start living more biblically in regards to their money.

    Clearly america is not in a covenant relationship with God, and, despite what Pat Robertson might think, americans are not God’s chosen people. I think we agree on that. However, as the body of Christ we are covenant people. Brueggemann seems to be exploring what implications God’s covenant economics with Israel might have for our covenant and our economics as Christians.

    Yes, applying OT economics to today can be fraught with hermeneutical problems, but concerning yourself with justice for the poor is not only the primary concern of OT economics (including Jubilee economics), it is also one of the most well-attested concepts in both the Old and New Testaments. The ancient Israelites and the Church are repeatedly and in no uncertain terms told to care for the poor, the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. Brueggemann’s article spoke to, and challenged me on that issue–which is THE issue of this economic crisis.

    This article, in my reading, is less about governments and more about covenant and community vs. greed and individuality (and in case you’re wondering I do see those things often being related). It’s about being generous instead of greedy and being willing to rely on others and take part in community rather than to try and go it alone and live the so called “american dream.”

    And, just out of curiosity (as an aside–unrelated in main substance to the article above), how is the Wisdom tradition pro-free market? Are we talking about the Hebrew Wisdom tradition read through the Jewish and Christian lenses, or the Hebrew Wisdom tradition read through the lenses of american manifest destiny and imperialism?


  4. James:


    First, Brueggemann is not a theologian of “my” generation. He’s 36 years older than I am. He’s more a theologian of my father’s generation, in other words, a “hippie.”

    Second, fair enough. My use of the word “idiotic” was idiotic, and a more charitable reading of Brueggemann’s article is possible.

    Third, the Hebrew wisdom tradition I’m referring to emphasizes hard work, thrift, fair weights and measures, and voluntary generosity.

    Fourth, I could go on and on. I guess, based on my family history, I see America as a land of opportunity. Heck, look at the last two Democratic presidents. Both were products of divorce, raised by single parents, in obscure states of the Union. But both rose through dint of hard work and lucky breaks, the breaks made lucky by the hard work. I tend to see America as a land of opportunity for those who choose to make use of it.

    Fifth, capitalism is often considered individualistic and greedy, but I think this is a mistake. (I’m not sure whether you believe this, but it seems to be a general stereotype.) Here’s an example. Last night, my wife, son, and mother-in-law flew from Indiana to Los Angeles on Southwest Airlines. There are numerous carriers they could’ve chosen, but they chose Southwestern because it had the best fairs. Was my wife greedy because she maximized her money by choosing the lowest fair? Or was she being thrifty (a biblical virtue)? Was Southwest greedy by making a profit from selling a plane ticket? To me, it seems too simplistic to call that “greedy.” Why? Because Southwest got my wife to the destination of her choice at a price we can afford and made enough money through selling out the flight to employ people, make a profit, invest in capital improvements, and return dividends to shareholders. If that’s greedy, what’s wrong with greed? Anyone who buys or sells could be charged with greed.

    And how is the entire transaction individualistic? Doesn’t it, instead, depend on a network of trust and dependency? My wife, baby, and mother-in-law were boarded on a plane by strangers, which had been mechanically maintained by strangers and flown and stewarded by strangers, to a city thousands of miles away, where strangers rented them a car and allowed them to drive it a few hundred miles. Capitalism depends on such webs of trust and dependency. The notion that it is individualistic, as if one person could provide all these goods and services without the help of others, has always struck me as a bit strange.



  5. George, you state in your attack on Walter Brueggemann’s article that only a Christian Socialist could analyze the crisis as he does. Well my knowledge of Christian Socialism is rather weak, I do know a little about socialism however. The idea commonly pushed by conservatives that socialism can be defined as any form of government intervention in an economy for the “common good” is simply an attempt to discredit those types of actions. Government intervention per se is not socialism. Barak Obama and Nancy Pellosi and much of the mainstream of the Democratic Party at this time in history support such policies. These people are hardly socialists.

    As far as your contention that Brueggemann was obligated in his article to bring forth a conservative economic analysis of the current economic crisis is simply wrong. After all many mainstream economists do not agree with the arguments that you present. Furthermore while Walter Brueggemann is a world famous Old Testament biblical scholar; he not a modern economist. However I am sure that he is as aware as
    an educated lay person can be of how in general a modern economy works. What Brueggemann very ably attempts to do is to show how the principles of Biblical justice teachings might affect how we morally evaluate the workings of modern economic systems. He is trying to show how those ideas might offer alternative ways of thinking about the economic decision making of modern societies. He thinks that perhaps the justice principle of the Bible may in fact challenge current paradigms of economic thinking.
    You clearly oppose this project. Others such as myself applaud it.

    George I agree with much your analysis of the social context from which much of Old Testament justice teaching originated. However I would disagree with your ultimate conclusion. God’s “special” covenant with Israel was a reflection of God’s ultimate will toward
    universal justice. Yes at that time only Israel was involved within it. I would argue that today all of those nations particularly having a Christian heritage are obligated to similar covenants of justice with God. Of course in the modern post industrial world the covenant only the principles of the old covenant would apply. The modern interpretation of the covenant will have to be relevant to the nature of our societies.


  6. A book I’ve been reading lately, which takes theologians to task for their economic ignorance, is Paul’s Heyne’s “‘Are Economists Basically Immoral?: And Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion.” Heyne originally trained as a theologian then got an advanced degree in economics too. He’s the author of “The Economic Way of Thinking” (now in its 12th edition) and “A Student’s Guide to Economics.” Heyne was a mainline Lutheran turned mainline Episcopalian, a fan of John Howard Yoder, and a proponent of classically liberal economics (i.e., Adam Smith et al). Heyne’s background is a weird combination of points of views, but that’s what makes his essays so interesting. He’s unsentimental about the failure of markets, but he’s also unsentimental in pointing out how theologians routinely castigate markets without (a) understanding how they actually work and (b) how they routinely emphasize the costs of market economies without adequately appreciating their considerable benefits.

    Unlike my arguments, which are blunt instruments, Heynes’ arguments are filled with wit and nuance. “‘Are Economists Basically Immoral?'” would make a great book for Theophiliacs to read.


  7. Glenn:

    As I conceded to James above, “My use of the word ‘idiotic’ was idiotic, and a more charitable reading of Brueggemann’s article is possible.” Mea culpa.

    Justice is indeed an important issue. The relevant questions are: What kind of justice and for whom? Are American poor victims of an injustice? That depends on how you analyze poverty, doesn’t it? And that ties in to whether you think socialism or capitalism offers a better economic diagnosis. That’s why, it seems to me, you can’t simply reject labels. The labels are shorthand for complex ways of analyzing economic conditions and prescribing necessary changes.

    Me? I buy the capitalistic diagnosis more than the socialist one. And I think that the issues are larger than autonomy, anxiety, and greed. As I indicate above, I think the stereotype of capitalist economies as individualistic and greedy is strange, since market economies force people to work together. People often deride Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” comment, but they fail to see its communitarian import, namely, that a person who is self-interested (i.e., interested in improving his material well-being and that of his family) is forced to take into consideration other people’s needs and wants if he’s going to profit by trading with them.

    You’re right about the Democrats. They’re not Socialists. They’re kleptocrats. They’re taking from one group of people to give to another group of people. To be even handed, the Republicans did the same thing, just with a different group of people. The GOP and its culture of corruption got its rear handed to them in the 2006 elections. When voter figure out the special interest giveaways the Democrats are giving to unions, liberal advocacy groups, and favored industries, I think they’ll probably get their rears handed to them as well.

    FWIW, when it comes to economics, I’m increasingly libertarian, which makes me critical of both the Republicans and the Democrats.



  8. George,

    Ultimately I think are economic vantage points are all that far from each other. You call yourself libertarian; I call myself a distributivist following Chesterton, Belloc, E.F. Schumacher, and Wendell Berry (Christians one and all). We are similar in that we know that economic prosperity lies not in centralized government but local communities who are committed to sustaining each other and the earth. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that you go to farmers markets and local food co-ops, and don’t buy Cheap Plastic Crap from Wal-Mart (the anti-christ), or Sam’s Club (the beast), or Cost-Co(the false profit [wink, wink]).

    The fact is all economies and all governments to a lesser or greater extent are built on the backs of the exploited. As Bruggemann himself tells us in his Prophetic Imagination, it has been this way since the Egyptians used Israelite slaves to build their empire, and before. Exploitation is what all economic systems past and present (but not future) have in common.

    Throughout the Torah, the Prophets, the Gospels and the General Epistles (esp. James) the message is the same: God demands justice for the poor, the alien, the widow, the orphan, and the workers in the field. Should we have any regard for economics that don’t place these people at the forefront of concern?

    Rather I think that part of not making Mammon our god is by holding our allegiance to the economic systems of this world loosely; none are perfect; all are sinful. Instead of putting our faith in markets, CEOs and multi-national big-box stores, we pray and we live our lives acting in expectation for the day when Christ returns to set all things right: to bring low the high places, to fill in the valleys; to wreak havoc on the rich who exploit the poor and the bosses who don’t pay fair wages; to bring down everyone who exalts themselves; to make the last first, and the slaves into rulers; to finish what he started when he proclaimed Good News to the poor and declared the Advent of the year of the Lord’s favor–the eternal year of Jubilee. In the words of Oscar Romero, you can call us Communists [or socialists], you can call us subversives, but we know we only preach the subversive Gospel of the Beatitudes which has turned everything upside down! Maranatha!


  9. James,

    You took me back, and I almost had a Pentecostal moment there. Nearly took out my hanky and everything. Good word – Come, Lord Jesus!


    1. In the Midwest, being Stoic people of Scandanavian and German descent; Pentecostals mostly hop lightly or sway enthusiastically rather than do a full-on Pentecostal dance; so I was was swaying enthusiastically to that one James.


  10. James:

    We may be approaching agreement, but without Walmart, Costco, and Big Box stores, my wife and I couldn’t make it in Santa Barbara. The average home price in my neighborhood is 1.25 million. That’s a 50-year-old 1700-square-foot Ranch house, not a McMansion. We pay roughly 25-40 cents more per gallon than anywhere else in California due to a small-economy Get Oil Out (GOO) movement. Small is beautiful when you live in the Midwest, but in Southern California, small is beautiful means we have to shop at overpriced mom and pop stores. Costco and WalMart are saviors under such circumstances.


    P.S. It sounds to me like you would enjoy the book “Crunchy Cons.”


  11. George, let me first say a few words about greed and some other aspects of Brueggemann’s analysis. First I doubt that Brueggemann is stating that the desire of people to live better or more prosperously per se is greed. The desire of people to have more; the desire of people to help their families; the desire of companies to make a profit I myself would not call greed. What I would call greed is when those desires become inordinate to the degree in which they become the center of life and its activities to the exclusion of the interests and need of others. Perhaps we might agree on this. Where we may disagree is in our analysis as to whether this inordinate greed dominates our economic system. I would argue that in general it does. I suspect that you believe that it does not. If I am right then governmental or other forms of communal power must be used to balance out the system so that economic power is subordinated to the demands of justice and the needs of people.

    Now to Walter Brueggemann’s analysis as a whole. What I think that Brueggemann is doing is presenting a purely simplified model of what he believes to be the basis of economic life of modern society. He is purposely leaving out of the picture all of the communitarian virtues, family and religious values that do currently motivate people and make them not greedy, fearful or have a false consciousness of autonomy. Thus he does to some degree simplify the picture of society. He does this I think rightfully because he believes that the dominating aspects and movements of our system are motivated by these false values.

    George, your statement that labels are important because they “are shorthand for complex ways of analyzing economic conditions and prescribing necessary changes.” You are correct in this. I would suggest though that there are more models than you suggest. For example capitalism simply exists. It is no model at all. The fact is that economists have a multiple ways of analyzing capitalist economies. The Keynesian model seems to be dominating in the Democratic Party now. The Republicans seem to stay be fixated in their old Milton Friedman ways. Many more ways exist as well. Socialism? Again I would argue that there are several socialist approaches as well. However the fact is that none of these models, because they have been discredited by socialism’s past or are held by only a powerless few, has any relevance to modern economies. Socialism has seriously self destructed. At this point all that the the people of the Left can do is to howl and self righteously proclaim the wickedness of capitalism. And think not at all.



  12. Glenn:

    I largely agree with your third paragraph. I just wish theologians would quit arguing for socialism. As someone once joked, the world’s last socialist will be a Mary Knoll nun. But whatever.

    Re: paragraph 2. I’ll buy what you say about Brueggemann intentionally simplifying his analysis. By leaving out those communitarian values, however, his simplification becomes a distortion. At least that’s my opinion.

    You’re right that we disagree on how much inordinate greed drives the economy. I doubt that we could settle the debate. So I’ll ask a different question: If you’re right about inordinate greed, why does it follow that “governmental or other forms of communal power must be used to balance out the system so that economic power is subordinated to the demands of justice and the needs of people”? There’s an entire field of economics–public choice theory–that studies how politicians and bureaucracies act in self-interested, not public-interested ways. That’s a serious problem, for it means that we cannot necessarily rely on government to “balance out the system” in favor of the public good. And anyway, who gets to define the “public good”? Is it in the public interest or to the public good for politicians labor over management? Consumers over producers? Leasees over leasors? The reason I ask is because of the Peter/Paul problem that plagues modern democracy: Whoever robs Peter to pay Paul will always have Paul’s vote. When you consider that politicians must win votes and that they do so by promising to take from group A to give to group B (through increased taxes or tax breaks, etc.), how can we rely on government to be an honest broker of the common good? Look at Bush’s TARP funds. What a waste! Look at the Democratic stimulus program passed by the House! What a grab bag of political goodies that will do NOTHING to stimulate the economy. I know this is cynical, but we (and I include myself here) so trust our government to protect us from big bad business that we fail to see it colluding with big labor or big banking or pursuing its own interests as bigger government. How can such a government be trusted to pursue the common good?



  13. George, you are of course right in your statement that government very often behaves in ways that do not support either the demands of justice or the public good. Any one who believes that government
    is necessarily more virtuous than is business is fooling themselves. On the other hand, I certainly do
    believe that government regulations and economic interventions often do work. I would suggest that the people of this nation would be much worse off if government had not instituted Social Security,
    Medicare, or many of the environmental regulations established during the Nixon administration. I suspect you probably have conservative objections to each of these programs. But I believe that they are examples of governmental programs that work.

    I would ask a question. If the people of a nation state come to the conclusion that the unfettered workings of the market does not provide justice for its citizens or promote the public good, what recourse do they have to collectively address the problem but by means of government. No doubt this again takes us back to the meaning of justice. What one man calls injustice another may call justice. George, this discussion has been interesting. I am the owner of Yahoo e-group called
    God’s justice and kingdom. Its link is
    I would like to invite you to join. If you did join you would be the most politically conservative voice in the group and would be out numbered. Some how, however, I doubt that would bother you. Note. I have posted some of
    the dialogue we have been having at the site. I hope that this does not bother you.



  14. Glenn:

    Other than Murray Rothbard, who was an anarchist, libertarian economists agree that government plays a useful regulatory role in the market, preventing force and fraud, printing money, enforcing contracts, etc. They are, of course, far more wary of government intervention into the economy for the simple reason that a government that picks between winners and losers often does so for self-interested reasons rather than public-interest reasons. Protectionist policies, for example, help the steel industry but raise protectionist responses to other American products in foreign nations. It is generally conceded that Great Depression-era protectionism prolonged the Great Depression by closing foreign markets to American goods. So, while I’m in favor of some level of regulation, I’m much more wary of government intervention. Markets are better at picking economic winners and losers than governments are. No one, Rothbard excepted, believes in an “unfettered” market.

    Is Social Security a good thing? I certainly am glad that the seniors in my church have Social Security. Many of them have seen their 401ks decline by 20-30%, and Social Security gives them assured income. So, yes, Social Security is a good thing. By the same token, given the declining rate of workers to retirees, maintaining Social Security and Medicare is going to become increasingly costly to our generation unless fundamental reforms are made. So, Social Security is great is you’re retired, but if you have to pay increasing taxes to support those retirees, it’s not so great. And to be perfectly honest, when I look at the 6-7% (I don’t remember the exact percentage) deducted from my paycheck every two weeks for Social Security, I’d much rather have that money to put into my own accounts. It is mine, after all, and it would be heritable.

    In a democracy, if the people decide to do something, they can do it. The inherent danger is always mobocracy, though. If you rob Peter to pay Paul, you’ll always have Paul’s vote. That’s why the Constitution put any number of checks and balances on democratic action: presidential veto, states represented equally in the Senate, lifelong appointments for judges, federalism so that the 50 states are not merely administrative units of the national government, different tenures for different elected offices, the electoral college, etc.

    But there are other collective forms of action that do not require government and can be effective. Boycott, strike, bully pulpit, investigative reporting, shame. Government is an obviously important but not the only means of collective action.

    One final question: To whom do the people turn if they decide that the workings of the government do not provide justice for its citizens or promote the public good?



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