Rebuilding the Foundations: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture

Rebuilding the Foundations: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture

by John Brueggemann, Walter Brueggemann


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In this unique volume, father-and-son team Walter and John Brueggemann take a close look at our fractured American society and suggest ways for improvement. Using six themes identified by some scholars as the moral foundations of societycare, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctitythey examine the unsustainable patterns of our contemporary society and reveal how those patterns played out in the ancient world of the Old Testament. Brueggemann and Brueggemann demonstrate how comparing the current state of these moral foundations with what God wanted them to be can help us better respond to the challenges of today. They assert that achieving any significant change will require the work of all of us and will be grounded in a vision of neighborliness. Rebuilding the Foundations will inspire readers to reorient toward a better way of living, both for themselves and for all living things.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780664262655
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
Publication date: 02/16/2017
Pages: 202
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

John Brueggemann is Department Chair and Professor of Sociology at Skidmore College. He is the author of Rich, Free, and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America and Inequality in the United States: A Reader.

Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of dozens of books, including Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, Journey to the Common Good, and Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Read an Excerpt

Rebuilding the Foundations

Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture

By John Brueggemann

Westminster John Knox Press

Copyright © 2017 Walter and John Brueggemann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-664-26265-5



JB: Have you ever gone for any extended time without water? Food? When you do, it is hard to think about anything else. Certainly not homework, electoral campaigns, win-loss records, or updating your status. Not even love. Taking care of our bodies is the most fundamental necessity in human society on which most everything else depends. The problem of care revolves around securing this basic building block for moral order.

The key here is that a critical mass of individuals have their material needs sufficiently met. The primary basis of this goal is elemental. Without physical sustenance, a person cannot function, and nothing else matters much. If enough people are not adequately cared for, all of the contributions they would make for the group go unmet. In our context, think about what would happen without the work of farmers, doctors, teachers, police, clergy, or firefighters. What happens when parents do not parent?

At the most fundamental level, material security is an objective experience. You have enough calories to eat to live another day. But at some point after basic needs are met, the perception of such security becomes a subjective matter. We calibrate our needs in relation to the comparisons we associate with other people. If a person feels relatively deprived, disappointment follows. And sustained disappointment leads to disengagement. If enough people feel they are not getting what they need, the cohesion of society collapses. Relative poverty (or inequality) hurts the poor, of course, but it also costs the affluent by weakening institutions (e.g., distrust in politics) or burdening institutions (e.g., health care, criminal justice) (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009). In other words, psychological well-being requires a certain confidence that the group to which one belongs is concerned with the security of that individual. In The Social System, Talcott Parsons describes this issue in terms of the "biological prerequisites of individual life, like nutrition and physical safety. ... These minimum needs of individual actors constitute a set of conditions to which the social system must be adapted" (1951, 28). The absence of such conditions is not functional.

There is a pattern in contemporary American society whose roots are so ancient, even prehistorical, that some people think it is an unchanging aspect of the human condition. It is the impulse to hoard resources. There is no culture without an economy. And every society has some kind of stratification system in which economic resources and opportunities are unevenly distributed to members of that society. Some are able to accumulate more assets than others.

The inequality resulting from class structure appears to many to reflect some kind of "natural" order. This perspective certainly has some merit. Individual ability and effort obviously contribute to one's life chances. Between two people in identical social circumstances, the more able one is more likely to thrive. On average, smarter, hardworking people accrue more economic resources than others. But such individual characteristics are themselves complicated. We have to consider intelligence, physical strength, work ethic, ruthlessness, honesty, and other innate and learned individual capacities. Plus there are various other factors in addition to personal qualities, which is to say, social circumstances are rarely identical across society. The different circumstances magnify the impact of various individual traits. Physical strength mattered more in Sparta than it does in Silicon Valley. A capacity for speaking different languages is more advantageous in India than it is in Indiana.

More generally, we see across cities, regions, and countries enormous disparities in the distribution of resources not based on individual ability. In other words, the capacity of individuals across such boundaries is not as varied as the inequality. Just because Finland has fewer citizens living in extreme poverty or extreme affluence compared to Brazil does not mean that there are proportionally many fewer really dumb or really smart Finns.

To consider the inequality immediately visible before us today as somehow normal and inevitable is to yield to a parochial, ahistorical sense of the world. Every society in the history of humanity has inequality, yes. But there are vast differences between the most egalitarian and the least egalitarian. Natural resources, technological development, education and credentialing processes, governance, taxation, social welfare, health care, internal and external security concerns, kinship networks, civic organizations, and cultural norms all represent social variables that affect how a stratification system will work.

Ancestral Maoris in New Zealand had a much more egalitarian economic system than that of contemporary, industrialized New Zealand, though their average material quality of life was lower due to less technological development. In the apartheid era of South Africa, or in Saudi Arabia today, a single characteristic greatly curtails a person's opportunities (race in the former case and gender in the latter). So there is always inequality. But it varies in important ways.

The United States has the highest rates of poverty — both in absolute and relative numbers — in the industrialized world. We have more income inequality and do less about it by way of government taxation and transfers compared to other industrialized countries (Gould and Wething 2012; Brown 2012).

The superrich control the vast majority of wealth. A recent Oxfam International report (Hardoon 2015) indicates that the richest 1 percent of people in the world own nearly half of all the wealth. In the United States, the top 1 percent owns 42 percent of all wealth. The true elite within that group, the top 0.1 percent, owns 22 percent (Saez and Zucman 2014).

A lot of those people are creative, hardworking, and determined. In some sense, they deserve big rewards. But a lot of them are not in the former group and do not deserve such rewards. We know that somewhere in the neighborhood of half of the richest Americans have inherited significant amounts of money (see Collins and Yeskel 2005; Moriarty et al. 2012). In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty argues that the normal pattern in free market capitalism is for the gains from inherited wealth to outpace the gains from earned wealth. That is, people who inherit wealth, on average, get richer faster than those who work for a living. In effect, the default trajectory is growing inequality. The only way that arrangement can be disrupted, Piketty indicates, is through state intervention. That was an important factor behind the growing equality in the United States during the three decades that followed World War II. Progressive tax rates and robust social welfare programs contributed to the most egalitarian and prosperous period in our history (see Frum 2000).

That some people who inherit wealth sometimes earn even more does not change the fact that the playing field is not fair. "I have inherited nothing," 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney proclaimed (Pareene 2012). For some reason he thought the million dollars of stocks his father left him did not count, probably because it constitutes such a small portion of his current holdings. Over time, he did secure an enormous fortune. Needless to say, though, a million-dollar start-up fund is hardly nothing, especially in the context of a low 15 percent capital gains tax. Not to mention the value of other forms of inherited capital, such as educational opportunities and social networks.

We might wonder if it matters that a few have much more than they need. When asked why he keeps giving public speeches, some of which pay up to a half million dollars, former president Bill Clinton said, "I gotta pay our bills" (Rucker 2015). Hillary Clinton explained that they were "dead broke" when they left the White House, with millions in legal debt, even though Bill Clinton made more than $18 million in speaking fees in the two years after he left office (Merica 2014). What is clear, though, is that some have less than they need. In 2013, the U.S. Census reported that 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty. That equals 45 million people. The poverty rate for children under 18 was 20 percent. This basic fact translates into inadequate food, lousy living conditions, poor health and dental care, inferior education, scarce access to computer technology, unsafe neighborhoods, meager job prospects, little political leverage, and limited legal recourse.

Something as fundamental as food has rippling implications. Inadequate nutrition translates into inadequate education, which leads to inadequate employment, which leads to inadequate food, and so on. More generally, new research demonstrates that the psychology of scarcity is burdensome indeed. It turns out that scarcity literally distracts the mind so significantly that it cannot pay attention to other matters. Thus food insecurity becomes psychological insecurity and intellectual insecurity (Mullainathan and Shafir 2013).

At a certain level — remember, one in five American kids is poor — this leads to societal insecurity. Why should a person who has only known scarcity — in terms of food, housing, health care, education, political influence, police protection — trust those in positions of authority? Taken one step further, why should leaders trust those who do not trust them? Why should affluent people trust poor people who do not trust them? And so on. At a certain level, scarcity tears apart the fabric of society.

In the most productive country in human history, however, material scarcity is far from inevitable. This is not only about fairness but also about care, because extreme affluence and extreme poverty are in fact linked. One issue here, contrary to even the most basic market logic, is that compensation and productivity have been decoupled. This has always been true in terms of wealth, which is largely distributed by way of inheritance. A child born into a rich family did nothing to earn his own wealth, just as a child born into a poor family did nothing to earn her own poverty — at least not when they started out (see Moriarty et al. 2012; Chetty et al. 2014).

Increasingly, though, the separation of pay from performance also applies to the "earned" income of adults, which has been beneficial to a few and harmful to many. "From 1978 to 2013," the Economic Policy Institute reports, "CEO compensation, inflation-adjusted, increased 937 percent, a rise more than double stock market growth and substantially greater than the painfully slow 10.2 percent growth in a typical worker's compensation over the same period" (A. Davis and Mishel 2014). Some people make less because others make more — not just because they add value. That is, if certain people are compensated above the aggregate level of productivity, that pay has to come from somewhere, which is to say a portion of the workforce has to be compensated below the average level of productivity. And it is not about performance, because some are paid more even when they are not productive. In many cases, including the recent recession and recovery, falling tides do not lower all boats and rising tides do not lift them.

A few still deny or downplay the facts of contemporary inequality (see, for example, Winship 2015; Rector and Sheffield 2011; Dorfman 2014). Many folks, however, are simply unaware of the extent of social inequality. For instance, most Americans imagine that wealth inequality is less extreme than it really is (Norton and Ariely 2011). Moreover, they think the distribution of wealth should be even more level than it is (Page and Jacobs 2009).

Likewise, few have full knowledge of how government-run social programs and tax policy tend to favor the affluent (Mettler 2010; Hacker and Pierson 2010). And many do not realize that the United States has some of the lowest tax rates in the industrialized world (Page and Jacobs 2009). The overall value of the retirement benefits exemption, health insurance exemption, and the mortgage interest deduction, all of which disproportionately help affluent families, far exceeds the combined value of food stamps, unemployment insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and housing vouchers (Mettler 2011).

For anyone who genuinely studies the issues, it is clear that some have a lot more than others and that poverty is a very hard reality. Intentionally designed institutional and cultural arrangements reproduce this situation with some consistency.

The real debate is about our reactions to that, about the values and feelings we attach to such differences. To what extent is our level of social inequality acceptable? "I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler," Donald Trump declared in 1990, "it's literally going to cease to exist" (Plaskin 2016). Different countries make different choices — as the well-documented and highly variable rates of inequality across industrial nations illustrate. The real question is whether our current situation is aligned with our deepest sense of who we are as a society.

We still hear self-serving arguments that American poverty is not only OK but something to be celebrated. The richest member of Congress, Darrell Issa, asserted in 2015 that one of the things that makes America special is that "we have been able to make our poor somewhat the envy of the world" (Luhby 2015). In the same interview, he extolled the opportunity in America compared to third-world countries and suggests that if workers here want to be paid more they need to produce more. Aside from his funny use of the word envy, he compares apples to oranges and ignores the fact that the average American worker is being underpaid relative to productivity. It is also worth noting that the "opportunity" that makes us special has declined significantly in recent decades. Consequently, low-income families who are citizens in other industrial nations can count on more support and more opportunity than those in this country (Reeves 2014; Stiglitz 2015).

This acceptance of contemporary poverty may be a common view. It is certainly an opinion expressed frequently and forcefully by certain pundits and politicians. But such complacency is contrasted by the arguments of most experts and by the attitudes of the majority of citizens. Gallup reports that only 31 percent of Americans think money and wealth in the United States are distributed fairly. Some 63 percent believe money and wealth should be distributed more evenly (Newport 2015). Majorities of Republicans and Democrats alike support more progressive taxation to support government programs oriented toward education, childhood poverty, food insecurity, and health care (Page and Jacobs 2009).

Collectively, our practices generate an unnecessary and growing level of material insecurity, do not match our ideals, and represent real trouble in terms of the problem of care. If we do not care for the bodies of people, society is not viable.

WB: As we have just read, market ideology puts the squeeze on cheap labor in a way that seems sure to produce a permanent underclass of those who can never catch up (Berthoud 2010). While market ideology per se is a modern phenomenon, the practice of squeezing cheap labor is a very old and persistent problem. In ancient Israel, reflected in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, that "squeeze" featured interaction between peasant agricultural workers who lived in subsistence and the urban elites (kings, priests, scribes) who lived well from the surplus wealth appropriated from the produce of peasant labor.

The book of Deuteronomy is the great manifesto in the Bible for socioeconomic, political justice. That tradition understood very well that unjust economic practices generated inequality that resulted in insecurity for the peasant producers of wealth. The tradition sets out to articulate an alternative economic vision that is theologically grounded (that is, grounded in what they took to be God's intention) in which the peasant producers of wealth and the elite beneficiaries of that wealth were perceived as "neighbors," people with a common stake in a viable economy that would generate material security for all participants. The tradition has a vivid memory of the exodus emancipation whereby the slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt who had been squeezed by Pharaoh for more production had been emancipated from that exploitative labor market by YHWH, the God of emancipation. That propelling memory for the tradition of Deuteronomy features both the memory of exploitation and the surge of emancipation. It is that double-pronged memory that permits the tradition of Deuteronomy to assert as motivation for an alternative economy, "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt" (15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22). Unsaid but clearly implied: and therefore act differently for the sake of the neighborhood so that such an economy of inequality does not again emerge in Israel.


Excerpted from Rebuilding the Foundations by John Brueggemann. Copyright © 2017 Walter and John Brueggemann. Excerpted by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
Introduction, 1,
1. Care, 7,
2. Fairness, 30,
3. Liberty, 50,
4. Loyalty, 80,
5. Authority, 105,
6. Sanctity, 132,
Conclusion, 166,
Works Cited, 197,

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