A Pastoral Perspective
We are a nation of choosers: paper or plastic? Small, medium, large, or super? Fries or chips? Organic or conventional? Having a choice has become a staple of the American dream. Political agendas of all flavors are sold on a platform of choice—everything from private school vouchers to health-care reform. More choice is always the preferred value.
The choice offered in Deuteronomy does not sit well with people like us swamped by choices. Actually “offered” is too generous—Deuteronomy does not offer a choice so much as require that a particular choice be made: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God … then you shall live…. But if your heart turns away … you shall perish” (vv. 16-18).
Most Christians do not like these kinds of pronouncements. They make God sound too autocratic or in conflict with the free grace we have come to expect from Jesus. Given today’s reckless pronouncements of televangelists who have applied this brand of conditional theology to everything from hurricanes to AIDS, it seems safer to steer clear of judgments altogether since we cannot know God’s role in such things.
However, the choice and its consequences are clear to the Israelites: Choose covenant, receive life; reject covenant, choose death. Choose covenant, gain land; reject covenant, lose land. Choose covenant, receive blessing; reject covenant, receive curse.
Schooled in a society that shops around for a “wider selection,” we resist any effort to have our choices limited. We resist having our choices cut, because it threatens the illusion of our autonomy—the central value of our culture. We cannot imagine God as a credible player in the world in which we live, demanding obedience that must be chosen if we are to have a future. We hesitate to agree that divine sanctions operate against the independence and unrestrained consumption that mark our day.
The truth, according to Deuteronomy, is that there will be hell to pay for the choices we make when those choices run counter to God’s covenantal obligations. We know this is true in the lives of the people we counsel. Promises are violated in marriages. Destructive secrets erupt from the places where families hide them. Irresponsible financial decisions run their ultimate course. The predictable destruction that lies in the wake confirms that there are severe consequences for violating covenantal norms.
We know this is true of congregational life. Conflicts arise in the absence of healthy leadership, words are exchanged, sides are taken, splits occur. It takes years for these congregations to leave the pain and isolation of congregational exile. Some never do.
Perhaps our resistance to this kind of counsel is not simply a concern about God’s beneficence, but our wish to live as though God were not so demanding of the choices that we make. Perhaps we have been led further astray than we first imagined. Perhaps we have bowed down to the gods of choice more often than we have been willing to admit.
Of course, misfortune is not necessarily connected to God’s judgment. Neither is every material blessing a byproduct of faithfulness. The book of Job attests to the danger of universalizing the Deuteronomic formula in every place, in every life, in every time. Bad things sometimes happen to good people. Good things sometimes happen to bad people. Yet, as Martin Luther King reminds us, the moral arc of the universe does bend toward justice. Deuteronomy claims it bends that way by design.
Walter Brueggemann has examined God’s relationship to four superpowers in the Old Testament. He concludes that the break that occurs in the power of empires is always credited to God’s activity. “Where Yahweh is not obeyed, a decisive break occurs in every individual life and in the life of every community or state. No power can live defiantly in the face of Yahweh’s sovereignty.” Our choices are not always what they seem.
The flip side of these ominous warnings is that God desires for the community to be blessed. God desires life, not death. God hopes that Israel will make the right choice, for faithfulness. The right choice means blessings for the entire community, not just for some. The right choice means a home not just for God’s people but for resident aliens as well. The right choice means economic policies that leave enough for everyone. The right choice means an equitable distribution of resources. The right choice means life—this is what God desires for us.
In times of expanding power—economic, political, and otherwise—the prophets often warn Israel that covenant violations cannot be sustained. In times of exile, the promises of land for the landless, hope for the hopeless, and life for those who keep God’s ways have been announced.
Said differently, when people are hurting from the wounds of their own hands, we voice God’s hope for restoration. God does offer a future beyond exile. When people are thriving, we voice God’s demand for faithfulness as expressed by our relations with our neighbors.
God has chosen to draw us into this covenant. It is this choice that makes life possible.
Andrew Foster Connors