“Through worship, prophetic word, and protest, we are called to expose oppressive social realities and insist: It could be otherwise.”
by Walter Brueggemann
From biblical times, those in authority have claimed that their hold on power is legitimate and rational. The claim is hard to counter, especially in “good times.” But the Bible directs that we look behind the slogans and the shibboleths to see whether the way things are is the way they ought to be. A single conviction fuses all forms of protest: It could be otherwise. From slavery in ancient Egypt to genocide in Nazi Germany, from segregation in the United States to exploitation in Asian sweatshops, people have stood up and said: It could be otherwise. The message still echoes in the streets of Seattle, Paris, Washington, and Quebec–proclaimed by voices, feet, signs, bodies. Those with a vested interest in “how it is” do not want to hear this message. They point to the social givens of age-old institutions (“the way we’ve always done it”), of current ideologies (“the demands of the market economy”), of future developments (“in an age of globalization”), and insist that all is inevitable. Those who benefit from the status quo are content to agree. Those who do not benefit are too busy surviving in spite of the social givens to have time for dreaming of a different way. But faith has never been about sluggish contentment or bare-bones survival. Faith is about sufficiency–shalom. And as long as some have too much and others not enough, faith must look the social givens squarely in the eye, publicly declaring that their structures, systems, ideologies, and policies are neither immutable nor unassailable. The Old Testament is a crucial resource for such a public expression of faith– specifically its depiction of the monarchy in ancient Jerusalem. Along with the temple, the Jerusalem monarchy was the most defining and characteristic institution of that society. It lasted four hundred years, drawing political legitimacy from a divine oracle (2 Sam. 7:12-29) and theological-ideological legitimacy from the frequent use of “forever” (seven times in this passage alone). This extra-political claim overreached the monarchy’s political reality, even as it sought to place the royal power arrangement outside the vagaries of history and beyond any subverting criticisms. Nowhere is this convergence of political reality and ideological claim better embodied than in the monarchy of Solomon, who is remembered in Israel as the quintessentially effective and successful king. The ancient world had no concept of market economy or multinational corporations, but Solomon comes as close as the Bible gets to an ideology of globalization. He is an international trader who worked on a large scale to immense effect. Thus the story of Solomon offers an appropriate metaphor for critical public theology, and illustrates one way that the Bible speaks to the social givens.
According to the biblical tradition, Solomon’s governance was an impressive political-economic achievement. Coming at a time when the two major powers, Egypt and Assyria, were in decline, Solomon’s reign was peaceful and stable, allowing him to devote his considerable energy to economic development. The prosperity of the regime approached self-indulgent luxury: “‘Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy” (1 Kings. 4:20). This “eating and drinking” that resulted in “happiness” is described in boastful detail: “Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors [bushels]
of choice flour, and sixty cors of meal, ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl” (1 Kings. 4:22-23). The source of these supplies, we are told, is a rational, carefully designed taxation system that divided the land into twelve districts, each providing the royal provisions for one month (4:7-19). Solomon matched this internal achievement with the external feat of turning his small territory into a major economic center that received “tribute” (taxes) from “all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt,” netting him nearly fifty thousand pounds of gold a year (4:21; 10:14). The remarkable accomplishments of Solomon and his impressive international reputation are caught anecdotally in the “economic summit” he conducts with his trading partner, the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-10). While the two leaders may be more-or-less equal partners, the narrative is clear that Solomon is in every way the more impressive figure who (quite literally)
“took her breath away” (10:5). How much of this portrayal is authentic no one can say. But the biblical narrative is unabashedly celebratory and affirmative. It is, in fact, a stunning piece of political propaganda. But if we are serious about the public dimensions of faith, we will not be so naive as to accept such sloganeering and advertising at face value, even in the Bible. The economic extravagance of the regime did not fall from heaven, but was produced in familiar ways–through deep social costs. The reports lead us to look for clues about those who produced the wealth but did not perhaps benefit from it. Thus in reading this ancient claim (or any contemporary claim), to ask questions is to look beyond the pretense to the harsh human reality that the claim may conceal. In the biblical text, the harsh human reality is that Solomon represents and leads a privileged social class that–surface rhetoric notwithstanding–is economically exploitative, having organized the economy for its own benefit at the expense and disregard of others. The first clue is in 1 Kings 5:13, where we read that “Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel.” This hardly squares with the earlier claim that everyone in Judah and Israel was “happy” (4:20). To be sure, the text later modifies who was conscripted by saying it was the people “who were still left in the land, whom the Israelites were unable to destroy completely,” and assures us that “of the Israelites, Solomon made no slaves” (9:21-22). That the sources disagree is itself a disclosure of the awkwardness of explaining the data. In any case, this much is clear: the grand achievements of Solomon are based on a policy of coerced labor in which powerless peasants work for little or no pay in order to produce wealth enjoyed by others.
A second clue to an elite classism is hidden in what the Queen of Sheba exclaims when she sees Solomon’s extravagance: “Happy are your servants who continually attend you” (1 Kings 10:8). This assertion recognizes that the “happy ones” are limited to the elite entourage of the royal apparatus. These privileged few enjoy an immensely high standard of living–but at the expense of productive peasants who are kept securely invisible. Thus, the ideology proclaims a completely inclusive prosperity, but the text hints at a deep class distinction in which the oppressors use the tax structure and forced labor–even slavery–to service the special interests of the powerful. The public sensibility of ancient Israel presents the claimed reality of the Solomonic regime in all its extravagant success. In the very act of that presentation, however, the narrative also provides a critique to show that the royal ideology is something of a cover-up of the true economic situation of Israel under the royal regime. Beyond that critique, the public sensibility of Israel also keeps alive–likely through liturgical reiteration–a visionary alternative that insists the “social given” of monarchy does not need to stay as it is. It could be otherwise. The most poignant voicing of that alternative vision is Psalm 72. This psalm–one of just a pair attributed to Solomon (the other is Psalm 127)–alternates between two dominant themes. In verses 5-11 and 15-17, it hopes for, prays for, even seems to assure the success, longevity, and expansiveness of the royal dominion. Indeed, it ends on a high note of optimism about the king that we have come to expect: “May his name endure forever.” But a counterpoint precedes each of these honorific sections. Verses 1-4 and 12-14 affirm the divine conditions and prerequisites for this royal success, longevity, and expansiveness. Here, the prayer is for God to grant the king “justice” and “righteousness” (v. 1). The beneficiaries are the poor, the needy, the weak, the victims of oppression and violence. The psalm envisions a royal governance in which the political and economic power of the “social given” is devoted to the well-being of those who have no social power of their own. Both the Solomonic narrative and the Solomonic psalm present a deep tension between an exploitative economy where some live luxuriously off the labor of others, and an envisioned economy in which the powers of the exploitative class are redirected and mobilized for a genuine communal future. Together, these texts operate as both critique and alternative, exposing what is unacceptable and exhibiting what might be and is willed by the God who legitimates the dynasty.
Today, in the midst of social givens that have come to believe their own press releases, the burden of faith is to publicly “expose and exhibit” those givens–to expose their unvarnished impact and to exhibit their untried alternatives. This is no easy task; the power of social givens–evidenced in the enduring admiration for Solomon–is all-encompassing. Unmasking them requires a body of citizens who have not accepted as immutable the dominant ideology and its resulting power arrangements and distribution of goods, but rather who are determined to de-absolutize them and to refute their claims of inevitability. As in ancient Israel, so today, this crucial task of critique and alternative needs to be practiced in a variety of ways. I suggest three: liturgy, prophetic utterance, and direct political action. In ancient Israel, high liturgical practice pertained to the Jerusalem temple. But taken more broadly, liturgy was any stylized scripting that imagined reality within the categories of faith. When done with intentionality and courage, any contemporary liturgy–from freewheeling prayer service to stately Eucharist, from silent waiting to pulsating vocalization–can provide an alternative scripting of social reality. We need a greater awareness of this, a greater sense that the way we worship is more than just an expression of our relationship with God. The way we worship is also an announcement–first to ourselves, then to the world–that our symbolic actions are calling into question the way social reality is carried out, and are expressing what, from a faith perspective, may in fact be more real. It is in these symbolic expressions that old forms are discarded and new forms initiated–a power that mere words and actions lack. Prophetic utterance emerges from the Solomon narrative in the person of Ahijah, who appears immediately before the death of Solomon to announce (and effect?) a coming radical displacement of the social given of monarchy (1 Kings. 11:29-39). With his roots deep in the old sanctuary of Shiloh, Ahijah is a bold, uncredentialed outsider, an unwelcome, somewhat “unreal” voice of dissent who directly subverts the social given. His announcement–that because of Solomon’s disobedience God will tear asunder the unity of the twelve tribes–initiates a tradition of dissent in Israel that will echo through the Assyrian assault on the northern kingdom and the Babylonian decimation of Jerusalem and deportation of its residents. In the end, that most basic of all givens, the possession of the land, will vanish as well. Today’s prophetic voices need to sound the same call for a covenantal economy of justice for the marginalized. We need to raise again the shrill warning–subsequently vindicated in Israel–that a social given, when it is inattentive to the marginalized, cannot in the long run be sustained. The God of the covenant, who wills another kind of social power, finally will authorize that alternative, an authorization before which self-serving social givens are helpless.
Finally, the practice of critique and alternative was carried on in ancient Israel through direct political action. After Solomon’s death, the overworked Israelites approached the new king. Unlike their ancestors in Egypt, these exploited workers asked relief, not release: “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father . . . and we will serve you” (1 Kings 12: 4). But Rehoboam, the new king, in a decision that recalls Pharaoh’s withholding of straw (Exod. 5:7-8), demands more work, not less. That’s when the unthinkable happens: The Israelites stop working, putting an end to the given that the powerful can oppress the powerless with impunity. They then withdraw to the north, all ten tribes of them, and set up a new kingdom, thus smashing the more entrenched given–that the monarchy would last “forever.” In our own day, bodily resistance to exploitation continues. We saw it in the civil rights movement; we see it in workers who opt for “nothing” instead of toiling for the “something” that their overlords are convinced should satisfy them. We see it in these daring young (and not-so-young)
protestors who put their bodies at risk in defiance of the authority that is the product and the protector of the givens. We hear it in the voices that refuse to stop asking: “Who benefits?” “Who pays?” “Who suffers?” In the eyes of faith, our own social situation is a replication of the ancient givens–the same uncomprehending ideologies; the same pain that goes unheeded; the same attentive, destabilizing God. The enactment of liturgy, the utterance of prophetic dissent, and the bodies put at risk, are all of a piece; they reinforce each other. And together they insist: It could be otherwise.
>From The Other Side Online,