Streaming: Part 3, Sacrifice as Economy

Okay, enough about what I said at Streaming, what did Walter Brueggemann have to say?

Walter spoke twice, dwelling on the conference theme of "Mercy Not Sacrifice." After Walter spoke I did my two talks. And then we both sat down with Mark Love and talked about how our material connected and informed each other. That hour-long conversation was a whole lot of fun. A lot of people felt it was the highlight of the conference. (Go here for pictures of Walter and I talking with Mark.)

(Before going on Jana wants me to tell this story. I wasn't going to but she's insisting.

At the start of our conversation Mark asked Walter to respond to my material. Walter started with, "Richard Beck is so damn interesting!" I quickly quipped over the microphone, "Jana, write that down." Jana calls out from the back of the room, "I got it on video!" Laughs all around.

So I got that going for me. Walter Brueggemann thinks I'm damn interesting. The feeling is mutual. He's pretty damn interesting himself.)

So what did Walter talk about?

Interestingly, he started with Karl Marx.

Given the psychological thrust of my material Walter decided to think about sacrifice from an economic angle.

The thrust of his argument was that the sacrificial system being critiqued in Hosea 6.6 and echoed by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew--"I desire mercy, not sacrifice"--was deeply implicated in economic injustice and exploitation. Where I connected sacrifice to purity Walter connected sacrifice to the marketplace. Specifically, he argued that the sacrificial system in the Old Testament became increasingly commodified and then co-opted by the ruling elites. The sacrificial system of Israel then became a location of economic and political exploitation. According to Walter the word sacrifice is a "cipher for a social system of leverage and control."

The most startling part of Walter's presentations was when he left the Old Testament and began to make applications to our modern context. Specifically, he argued that nothing much has changed. We are still living within a commodified world where sacrifices continue to be made. The question Walter asked was, Who has to make these sacrifices? and Who benefits from these sacrifices?

Then as now, the ruling elites don't have to make many sacrifices. More, they tend to be the ones who benefit from the sacrifices made by those lower on the ladder. As Walter noted, "top down authority does not mind sacrifices from below." When management has to make "sacrifices" it usually means firing workers on the floor.

Walter gave a powerful example of this. We honor those who make the "ultimate sacrifice" in risking their lives in military service. But where do these soldiers come from? The lower classes. Sacrifices of blood are being offered to preserve a vast capitalistic-militaristic complex. But these sacrifices tend to be made by primarily by the poor to benefit the rich and powerful.

(Let me give another example. If you are a "too big to fail" bank and you make a bad investment decision you get bailed out. Such a bank isn't called upon to make a sacrifice. But if you are a home-owner  and you made a bad mortgage decision then you get foreclosed on and called and irresponsible idiot. We insist that the home-owner is sacrificed, financially and reputationally. Banks don't have to make sacrifices. But the little people who owe the banks do.)

Walter went on to say that interrupting the system of sacrifice is "the knowledge of God." This is a knowledge that comes from below. Rather than a system run by commodification and greed the knowledge of God points us to something truly disruptive: gratitude. The only sacrifice YHWH wants is a thank offering. Walter pointed us to Psalm 50:
“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
I will testify against you, Israel:
I am God, your God.
I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices
or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?

“Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
YHWH owns everything. YHWH needs no material sacrifices. The only sacrifice necessary is a thank offering. This is the knowledge of God. An economy of gratitude that prophetically interrupts the economy of greed--the commodified world of economic exploitation where the poor continue to be sacrificed for the sake of the powerful and rich.

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24 thoughts on “Streaming: Part 3, Sacrifice as Economy”

  1. My legalistic, capitalistic mind wants to ask what a sacrifice of gratitude would look like. I am personally struggling with the idea of tithing to my local church because it seems to me that most of the cost in running a church is to make the givers comfortable. This seems to fit Dr. Brueggemann's theory. I could be wrong. We are often told that giving to the local body is a sacrifice. I would be interested to know your take on Romans 12, making our bodies a living sacrifice.

  2. Thanks. If you run with these ideas, bring in an economist to help you out. Marxist-influenced Biblical scholars are often too quick to equate a system in which taxes were literally paid by the poorest people, and literally went into the coffers of the richest people, with a system in which rich people are being criticized (perhaps rightly) because they are not paying enough to give food/ medicine/ services to poor untaxed people. (I, for example, have seldom made enough money to "pay" taxes on tax day--for most of my life I have received more back than I put in.)

    Similarly, Marxist-influenced Biblical scholars may be too quick to equate a system in which poor people are conscripted to make the "ultimate sacrifice," and a system in which they choose to pursue economic mobility by joining an army in which they hope to be paid without ever actually fighting.

    Perhaps my point is simply that our society, with its welfare system and its progressive taxes, has taken some real (if inadequate) steps toward defining sacrifice as the commitment of those with more resources to share into a system that daily gives real help, real support, real options, to those with fewer resources. If so, our society can provide good examples of what most prophets (even Hosea) thought the sacrificial system was for--a shared way of buying into a system that ultimately gives more help and hope to the poor. And doing so, not with resentment or entitlement, but with gratitude.

  3. Been there, done that, Mike.  I no longer tithe to a local church but to international agencies which help those in need, particularly children.  When we tithe to our church, we tithe to ourselves I think.  At least that's my personal opinion.

  4. I've agonized over this, from both sides. Tithing my very small salary to a church that had far better amenities (speaking only of the building) than I could afford for my home. And being a preacher whose salary was paid, in part, by the tithes of blue collar workers who (I know) worked harder than I did for their limited money.

    International agencies aren't perfect, either (what is?), but it's a question worth asking.

  5. In my case, my local church is aging and declining and somewhat out of my immediate geographical area.  I no longer attend though I am still on the membership roll.  I found that as a single, introverted elderly woman I did not fit into the clique that operated the church.  I felt that my small monetary contribution would be more valuable in helping my local food bank and contributing to agencies such as the Mennonite Central Committee.  Which I happily do.

  6. Hi doulos41, 
    When I researched the tithe, its original intent in Deuteronomy 14:22-29, I realized how churches I've attended have abused this teaching. It boiled down to two things, really: a thanksgiving meal once a year (vs 23-26), and providing for those who had no land and/or income (widows, aliens, orphans, Levites), vs. 27-29. The NT has pretty much the same story, as every time the NT church took up a collection, it was about meeting real needs of real people in real time. Not buildings, not programs, not professional staffs. The whole "bring the whole tithe into the storehouse" (Malachi 3:20) is often misconstrued to mean the church, when it really was about a local food bank (Deut. 14:28-29).

  7. This is where I part ways with Brueggemann, primarily because his image of people in the various classes is so static, such a snapshot.  His account does not reckon with the fact that there is a lot of inter-class mobility, especially here in America, and certainly much more here than in the true aristocracies.  So, here, many of the people who now enjoy the privilege of NOT having to sacrifice much used to be people who were sacrificing quite a lot to move up, economically speaking.  In America, among a few other places, it's still possible to move from the sacrificing class to the safer managerial and executive classes.  Likewise, we draw our Captains from the ranks of our Majors, our Majors from the ranks of our Lieutenants, our Generals from the ranks of our Colonels, etc., so that those who are now Generals have often distinguished themselves in combat at the platoon level where the most frequent sacrifices are made.  Call it what you will - I believe you used the term "soul-crushing meritocracy" at one piont - but these classes of people are dynamic, not static, in America.

  8. Sure. But local food banks have buildings--they have programs--they have staffs. I'm not as sure as you are that local churches are doing a worse job at "meeting real needs of real people in real time." But I share your searching through these questions.

  9. At one church we were members of -- and one of the church secretaries pointed this out when the budget committee came in to the SS. make their presentation for adopting the multi-mill budget -- the same amount was set aside for actually helping people as for the postage to send out the personally engraved giving envelopes. 

  10. Ouch. Ouch ouch ouch.

    BTW, although much is unforgivable in the church, I do like to stand up for it.

    For example, take the preacher's salary in a country church. Are we paying for (essentially) entertainment--the public speaking that happens Sunday morning?

    Or are we paying for the other 35 hours (at least) of the preacher's work week, hours of sitting at the side of hospital beds, visiting nursing homes, spending time in trailer parks with kids who are essentially raising themselves, being a comfort and hope to orphans and widows? And, of course, that preacher is not alone in doing those things--he's encouraging other church members to join in all-of-the-above, thus helping facilitate a community that now logs hundreds of person-hours a week "actually helping people."

    I could give money to that church--or I could give money to a warehouse that simply hands out cans of tuna?

    Just giving the other side. Dollars and cents never tell the whole story. But yes, our churches need to confront this critique head-on and should NEVER spend more on ourselves than on helping our neighbors. Our "work days" should NEVER spend more time/ effort on the sanctuary than they do on the homes of the poor. Everyone I know who is part of a church is really working on this, and we need to be spurred on to work even harder.

  11. (1) Class mobiility is a red herring: the bottom suffers for the top, even if the membership changes.
    (2) It doesn't even happen that much in the USA.

  12. Well, in the same church, a six-digit salary was justified for the pastor "because his Ph.D would entitle him to 'so much more' in an academic setting, that we have to pay him thus." 

    Flashback 10 years, to when we were in the Air Force, and receiving taped sermons from Denton Bible Church, to which we listened faithfully.

    Now flash forward to that same Abilene church. Sitting in the pew, listening to the exact same sermon, word for word, illustration by illustration, including the original pastor's characteristic "spleen" reference. So those six digits were actually paying for plagiarism, as no attribution was given whatsoever. Guess he never thought anyone would catch him at it. 

  13. Again, ouch.

    I'm interested in this plagiarism issue, which I've run into from time to time in some of the largest (richest, best educated) churches.

    I personally hated the "How much money would I make elsewhere" argument for paying my salary as a minister. On the other hand, our family did decide to move into academia in part because it was a more attractive job, so I guess I don't have much room to complain.

    Keep agitating.

  14. BS.  As recently as 2007, the U. S. Treasury was reporting some astounding mobility here from quintile to quintile.

    And to the extent that mobility has been decreasing, we might as well point to increasingly redistributive policies as being among the forces reducing the gradients that drive income mobility.

  15. Further, the red herring argument is itself a red herring.  "Suffering" in the United States can mean a lot of things that the poor in other nations would give their limbs away (or, alternatively, wade across the Rio Grande) to enjoy.  That is not to deny that there is some legitimate suffering here, but when "suffering" means that I can no longer buy any new chrome bling for my 24s if I want to feed my children, or even vice-versa, we're off in never-never-land.

  16. From the Federal Reserve in St. Louis:

    "Thus it is clear that over time, a significant number of households move to higher positions along the income distribution, and a significant number move to lower positions along the income distribution. Common reference to “classes” of people (e.g., the lowest 20 percent or the richest 10 percent) is quite misleading because income classes do not contain the same households and people over time.Another problem with drawing inferences from the census statistics is that the statistics do not include the noncash resources received by lower-income households—resources transferred to the households—and the tax payments made by wealthier households to fund these transfers. Lower-income households annually receive tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for housing, food and medical care. None of these are considered income by the Census Bureau. Thus the resources available to lower-income households are actually greater than is suggested by the income of those households as reported in the census data.At the same time, these noncash payments to lower-income households are funded with taxpayer dollars—mostly from wealthier households, since they pay a majority of overall taxes. One research report estimates that the share of total income earned by the lowest income quintile increases roughly 50 percent—whereas the share of total income earned by the highest income quintile drops roughly 7 percent—when transfer payments and taxes are considered."

  17. My small town food bank is housed in a church basement free of charge and staffed solely by volunteers. It is not sponsored by the hosting church, but is a community effort actually serving two small towns.  My former church would not support it because that would mean cooperating with people from suspect "liberal" churches.  Be ye not unequally yoked with unbelievers......and all that.

  18. Doulos, you obviously know different churches and church people than I do. My experience in two different churches over 35 years involvement is that they are poor at visiting the sick, especially the chronically ill, and flunk out on being a help and comfort to widows and orphans.  I'm a long term widow who experienced these things and I see and hear of what others are going through all the time.  Sure, we might visit when someone is in the hospital for surgery, but when they are ill at home for months at a time or wading through grief while responsibile for raising a couple of children, the church is so often absent.  The book of James tells us that true religion is coming to the help of widows and orphans in their hardships, and that involves more than a casserole the day after the funeral. 

  19.  That is the fundamental problem qb, those who would argue against mobility (especially in this country) and for a Marxist type economy have no real and salient data to support the claim. A quote by Milton Friedman sums up nicely the entirety of a Marxist economy - "One of the greatest mistakes is judging policies and programs by their intentions rather than by their results." Marxism as a governmental system is a sophism, sounds good but cannot work no matter how many different ways you try it. However, as a general, voluntary concept within the church community the ideas have strong biblical merit! But again it must be non-compulsory.

  20. In a ladies' class at the same church, one lady needed assistance to buy her young daughter eyeglasses. Our class petitioned the church to assist her. We were told they'd "take it under consideration." But they apparently decided not to help. That was when I started to realize, "These are OUR tithes and offerings they're withholding. And we don't get a say in helping someone truly in need?"

  21. Yes, my experience also is that the church is very poor at all of these things.

    But I don't know of anyone who isn't poor at all of these things. And I don't know of anyone else who helps someone like me (who is also poor at these things) slowly and painfully become better at it.

    In the midst of a busy, selfish life--why have I spent as many hours as I have with widows, why have I given as much money as I have to orphans, why have I helped pay other people's rents as often as I have? Why have other people helped me as much as they have? Who is responsible for more schools, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and visiting programs, in the 6 countries I have experience in around the globe?

    I think the answer is the church. Even your volunteer-run foodbank is run out of a church basement, and I'm guessing the volunteers are church people. I'll agitate for the church to do its job better, to fail less often--and to join in with food banks, international agencies, and everyone else. But I won't give up on the church as a powerful force for helping real people, in real time.

  22. I think the point of this criticism of our economy is that the idea of having to choose between "New  chrome bling for my 24s if I want to feed my children, or even vice-versa(sic)" is really only a question posed to those at the lowest rungs of society. I've gone to college with people who have phrased this question but never have had to ask it to themselves.  I've worked with people who did have to ask the question once but no longer do because of opportunities that were more luck (or blessing?) than personal achievement, but now they phrase the question to those who didn't make it up with them.

    I get that God blesses us, and I understand that blessing is to be enjoyed, but I cannot see how people I know can justify a 200,000 a budget of living expenses for their family when people in our country are starving for food and for opportunity.

    Beck once wrote an article about how any life lived is a life of moral compromise.  The extremely wealthy using that wealth for themselves rather than others is morally compromised in the same way that me not giving away my heart to someone who needs a transplant is morally compromised - in absolute terms it is a sin.  At the same time, however, there are some choices that can be made that are much easier to make than others.  Giving my life away would be very hard, but I don't see how learning to live on $30,000 a year while giving the rest of your salary away to those in need is that hard, or difficult.Yes there is mobility, and yes we're more mobile for lower classes, but being a little bit less of a sinner doesn't make sin any more justifiable.

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