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;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.
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.”