Acting Out Our Hopes and Yearnings

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Listening to Walter Brueggemann, it is impossible not to feel a sense of history. At 76 years old, as arguably the preeminent Old Testament scholar of our day, Brueggemann has written more than 58 books, many about the prophets of old. To hear him talk is to become convinced that you’re listening to one of those prophets, someone delivering a message directly from God. At a recent conference at Truett Seminary in Waco, TX, where the topic was prophetic preaching, I sat under his teaching for two days with a sense of reverence and gratefulness for the opportunity, and a growing understanding that what I was hearing would shape the way I approached the scriptures in future readings.

My first introduction to the work of Dr. Walter Brueggemann was back in 2003, with the release of a collection of his prayers, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth. I was helping out with Michael Card’s radio program at the time, and Mike had bought a stack to give copies to his friends that were coming by to do interviews for the program, friends like Sara Groves and Steve Green. After flipping through a copy, I immediately ordered one for myself, along with several copies to give away. I have since used it in various studies I’ve been a part of over the years where something different is needed to start us off, and am always moved by his words, always find a glimpse of the kind of person I want to be in the space between his words.

The second Brueggemann book I bought was The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness, and it has resided on my bedside table for the last four years, providing frequent encouragement and nudgings toward truth, a means that God has used to help me realign my priorities with His. Last Sunday morning, with a hot breakfast of farm-fresh eggs whipped and baked into a frittata in front of me, fresh mozzarella grated over the top of it, and a cup of espresso in my hand, I reread-for the tenth or twentieth time-one of my favorite sermons in the book, “What You Eat Is What You Get.” The text Brueggeman starts with is Proverbs 15:17, Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it, and with its discussion of the far-reaching impact of the choices we make, I thought the end of this sermon was an apt passage to highlight here on the Rabbit Room, particularly in light of our discussions of movies like Food, Inc. and the work of Wendell Berry.

We live between the nostalgia of what might have been, and a promise of what will surely be, when all are invited, the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame, the unacceptable, and us. All are welcomed, all at peace, all rejoicing, all loved, all fed, and just greens.

The wisdom teachers dare to assert that one of these meals is better than the other. There are choices to be made about diet, and one choice is not as good as another. Maybe we will conclude that herbs are not better than ox. In the world of social reality, however, what the proverb knows is that you cannot have only herbs or only ox. You get a whole world with each food, because food is a social reality in a social context. You cannot have just herbs or ox. You will get beef and strife, or greens and love, because what you eat is what you get. In choosing food we choose our style, our context, and our company, and our way in the world. In selecting our food, we act out our hopes and our yearnings. We tilt our life toward some satisfaction. One is better than the other-herbs with love, ox with strife-because herbs with love lets us be who we in fact are, lets us live as God would have us live, lets us be who we most yearn to be, in peace, safe, in love.

The choices of ox and herbs, of greens and beef, of love or strife, are not little family choices made in private when you go into the kitchen. They are big, far-ranging public choices concerning foreign policy and budget and land reform and dreams. We do not pick our food just before dinner. We pick our food by how we value life, and how we build policy and how we shape law, and how we arrange money, and how we permit poverty and hunger in a land of abundance. The proverb might envision life in the palace with too much meat, and the peasants with none. Perhaps the proverb is a picture of the wealthy man and Lazarus, or of wealthy North Americans overfed and Latin Americans at risk without land. Perhaps the image is of empty tables in the dust of Soweto and luxury stores in Johannesburg, perhaps of kosher affluence in Jerusalem and empty rice bowls in the Gaza Strip. We choose our food and we choose our life. We sit at the table, somewhere between nostalgia for the good old days and hope for what God has promised, somewhere between what might have been and what will surely be. And we make a choice. Mostly we choose our future not with our minds thinking clearly, but with our stomachs and appetites and ambitions, making or not making time to care, or time to love, or time for strife.


15 Comments

  1. Brian

    I don’t mean to dispute Brueggemann’s conclusion about the need for us to be aware of the wide-ranging consequences of our lifestyle choices, but does Prov. 15:17 really support that point? Isn’t the scripture cited simply saying that love is better than hate, no matter what one’s circumstances are? Doesn’t it mean that the abject poor who live with love are better off than the most comfortable who live with hate? To my ear, it leaves open the option that the loving rich are better off than the poor who live with hate. The point of the verse does not seem to me to be a blanket assumption that meat is bad because it inherently and in all situations requires the oppression of the poor (“beef and strife”). Nor do I read in 15:17 that the heavenly wedding feast (or the ideal meal in this world) will consist of “just greens”.

    The interpretation that I’m reading in this Brueggemann quote bothers me for two reasons. For one, it tries to make the text say something that I (unless you can show me how) don’t see in the text itself. But two, any time I read that all we have to do to bring justice into the world is go to the right store, buy the right kind of organic food, eat from local farmers, etc. it seems painfully obvious that, though these things might be helpful and godly things to do, they’re missing the point. This verse from Proverbs, in particular, says the point: Live With Love. It doesn’t matter what you’re eating, or where it was grown, or whether it cost a lot of money (as much organic does), but if you are living your life with Love. If you’re a perfect vegan who raises all your own food with 100% organic methods, but have not Love, you’re just a clanging gong… or something like that.

    Am I missing the point here? Can someone help me understand this better?

  2. Peter B

    Maybe he’s just dwelling too much on the food-choice portion of it when what he’s really trying to address is the state of our hearts; I’m not really sure. My mind wants to take what he’s saying and align it with the true intent of Scripture, but his opening statements make that interpretation difficult.

  3. LauraP

    I did not read this as literally as you guys. Maybe I need to read more of the context, but I was thinking in terms of what we choose to take for ourselves – “less” with love or “more” with strife – not so much organic greens or Omaha steak. Choosing “herbs with love lets us be who we in fact are, lets us live as God would have us live, lets us be who we most yearn to be”. So we should make a conscious choice, not just go with our appetites. “We pick our food by how we value life, and how we build policy and how we shape law, and how we arrange money, and how we permit poverty and hunger in a land of abundance.” If we take the “best” portions for ourselves at the cost of not loving our brother enough to see that he also has something to eat, have we chosen wisely? Or just gone with our own ambition to gain “the best” for ourselves? Do we really have “more” if it comes at the price of enmity? I agree that’s stretching the text, but I liked considering the points I thought Brueggeman was trying to make.

  4. Scott Baker

    No, Brueggemann isn’t stretching or misreading scripture here. The key is understanding his hermeneutical method and recognizing that he uses Proverbs 15:17 as a beginning point for a broader message. He does not assert that the entirety of his message is wrapped up in that one verse. For Brueggemann, scripture is not to be read in that manner. No one verse would or should be abused in that manner. We shouldn’t expect to read a verse in scripture and come away with an instruction to go organic. Rather we should be impressed by the deep themes of scripture that enunciate principles. What Brueggemann is saying is that the Wisdom Teacher is not drawing a realistic or practical dichotomy; he is instead posing a tension that has further implications and should inspire further thoughts. The sermon that Brueggemann then offers is some of those further thoughts as inspired by the deep themes of scripture. Proverbs 15:17 is merely a launching point.

  5. Jesse D

    I can’t say as I see this as reading into the text – it seems to me to be applying the text to the motif used within it. While the principle in the proverb may have a wider application than Brugemann gives, he is applying it to food itself: how does the idea of placing love above riches carry itself out when it comes to what we eat?

    I think, Brian, that it’s often very easy for us to draw the lines simply and say that “we just need to love.” That’s absolutely true, and I’m not disagreeing with what you’ve said, but I think that Brugemann is pushing us to think further about what that means. It’s the difference between living in naivete, deliberately not thinking about the impact that some of our agricultural/foreign policies have on the lives of people elsewhere, and loving knowledgeably, educating ourselves about poverty and its causes and choosing not to contribute to the systems that exploit others.

    I think that’s what Brugemann is driving at – not that this verse is talking about love and foreign policy, but that he is pushing us to a more knowledgeable way to love our neighbor. You’re right in saying that eating vegan without love is like a clanging gong. But it’s not an excuse for someone not to consider more deeply how best to love the world.

  6. LauraP

    Scott – I liked what you said about deep themes of scripture. I think that is certainly how we are supposed read the Bible. At the same time, my experience makes me wary of too far a departure from the starting point. Not saying Brueggeman does that, only that I am cautious.

  7. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    What Scott said.

    Also: I started to include a disclaimer in the post itself clarifying that Brueggemann is using “vegetables” and “fatted ox” the same way the writer of this proverb is, as two contrasting things to make a point, and not trying to argue for vegetarianism, but I figured I would clarify it in the comments if it came up. This excerpt is also just about 20 percent of the sermon, so those who have a problem with what they see as a narrow focus might not feel that way with the full sermon. My intent was to provide this excerpt as a teaser of Brueggemann’s writing, hopefully to encourage more people to check him out. Sorry if the lack of context proved a distraction.

    Brian, you said: “any time I read that all we have to do to bring justice into the world is go to the right store, buy the right kind of organic food, eat from local farmers, etc. it seems painfully obvious that, though these things might be helpful and godly things to do, they’re missing the point.”

    The thing is, I don’t think Brueggemann is arguing anything like that. If we pray and believe “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” then part of that process is to act on it. We don’t bring the Kingdom here by our actions, we act as we think God would have us act because the Kingdom is here, we live in the tension of the now and not-yet. Or as Brueggemann wrote, “We sit at the table, somewhere between nostalgia for the good old days and hope for what God has promised, somewhere between what might have been and what will surely be.” And that certainly involves caring about how our actions effect others.

  8. David H

    I took my kids to Washington, DC two years ago. As we were walking from the convention center to The Smithsonian we passed a place where several people were banging on drums and walking on the sidewalk.

    My youngest daughter wanted to know if those were street musicians and if we could go over and see if they were putting on a show. She thought the giant inflatable animal at the center of their festivities must indicate something fun was happening.

    The animal was a rat. I knew immediately it was a protest of a non-union work-site.

    Funny thing was, a day later I read a news story about the protest. Seems the construction workers union was protesting an employer who hired non-union people, including illegal immigrants. Standard stuff, except the reporter had done some interviewing of the people involved in the protest because they looked a little sketchy. Turns out the union didn’t want to pay its people $20 an hour to picket, so they hired homeless persons and — yes — even a few illegals from a street corner at $7.50 per hour.

    Spin the clock forward to a few days ago when the legislature of Arizona passed a law designed to help combat illegal immigration.

    Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer said the law “represents another tool for our state to use as we work to solve a crisis we did not create and the federal government has refused to fix.”

    I couldn’t help but wonder: Who or what created this problem if “we” didn’t?

    In order to figure that out I asked why illegal immigrants come to the United States. The answer is fairly simple: jobs.

    But what jobs? Twenty years ago, most illegals worked in agriculture. Of course, only a few years before that they weren’t called illegals, they were called “migrant workers.”

    Today your average illegal immigrant is more likely to work in construction, low-end manufacturing, cleaning services or food preparation. Walmart has been cited a number of times for whole-scale hiring of illegal immigrants and, during the building boom in the D.C. suburbs, many builders hired significant numbers of undocumented workers.

    Here in New Jersey, until a couple of years ago, there were street corners in many towns where average people would, on a daily basis, hire crews to construct patios, build a back-yard shed, or mow the lawn.

    However, to a large degree, these are not jobs being fought for by legal American workers. And even if they were, a 2007 economic report to the National Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out that level of illegal immigration to the US waxes and wanes in direct correlation to the US employment rate. When there are more jobs, there are more illegal immigrants trying to get into this country.

    Now, back to that verse.

    To me Proverbs 15:17 doesn’t say greens are good and meat is murder. Having grown up poor and spent some time with people who lived on a predominantly rice diet, the verse suggests that the best food in the world may be worse than common, daily fare if the former comes with hatred and the latter with love.

    Furthermore, I’m not at all sure Brueggemann was suggesting that strife always accompanies beef or that ox is inherently less holy than home-grown vegetables. I’m not sure he or the writer of the proverb were talking about food at all, except in a metaphorical sense, as Stephen has aptly clarified. So feel free to substitute other terms that designate consumptive opposites when reading the next line.

    “In the world of social reality, however, what the proverb knows is that you cannot have only herbs or only ox. You get a whole world with each food, because food is a social reality in a social context.”

    Brueggemann goes on to say that we don’t simply put metaphorical food on the table or, to extend the metaphor, TV sets in the den or cars in the driveway or water on the lawn in some way that is divorced from everything else going on in the world. These are not exclusively private choices.

    “They are big, far-ranging public choices concerning foreign policy and budget and land reform and dreams. We do not pick our food just before dinner. We pick our food by how we value life, and how we build policy and how we shape law, and how we arrange money, and how we permit poverty and hunger in a land of abundance.”

    But it isn’t just what we consume int this country. Beyond that we have set the standard to which the rest of the world aspires. It isn’t simply that with 5 percent of the world’s population we eat a quarter of the world’s resources. We also tell all the other aspiring consumers in the world that they should have the same appetite.

    The message seems to be: Don’t worry about love or hatred, peace or strife. Step up to the counter and make them give you what you want.

    And we do this without thinking. We didn’t make this mess.

    Brueggemann seems to believe that despite our thoughtlessness, we are not simply the victims of our diet, passively becoming what we eat. Even if we refuse to consider our choices, what we eat is what we get.

    In other words, the consequences follow unavoidably after the choices.

    “In choosing food we choose our style, our context, and our company, and our way in the world. In selecting our food, we act out our hopes and our yearnings. We tilt our life toward some satisfaction.

    “Mostly we choose our future not with our minds thinking clearly, but with our stomachs and appetites and ambitions, making or not making time to care, or time to love, or time for strife.”

    Neither Brueggemann nor the proverb tell us what to do. The Bible verses simply makes an apt observation. The modern scholar, in the excerpts shown here, simply embellishes the aphorism.

    We choose our food and we choose our life. Simple as that.

    How we choose or what we choose in this time, in this world, in this nation isn’t as easy as living in poverty or shopping at Whole Foods or protesting immigration laws in Arizona. Every choice carries a whole world of consequences and few individual choices will change the world.

    The only guidance for deciding offered by either wise man is in the option of seasoning for the meal, which suggests that when we look for what to choose our focus shouldn’t simply be what looks best on the plate.

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