Brueggemann argues there is a deep “contestation” between two voices in Israel’s narrative about God and how to best order society. First, there is the stagnant, memo-like rhetoric of Pharaoh where production and profit take priority over people (Ex.5:7-9). This “Royal Consciousness” infiltrates Israel’s imagination through King Solomon. The Royal Consciousness continues with the “urban elite’s” attempts to domesticate Israel’s God by silencing the poor (I Kgs. 4; 6; 10). Here Brueggemann’s “royal consciousness” resembles Karl Marx’s “false consciousness,” as both ideologies are blinded to the injustices that create and sustain the stratification of society. Brueggemann’s contemporary analogue for the Royal Consciousness is the ideology of U.S. consumer-capitalism, baptized in the waters of American exceptionalism.
The Alternative Community of Moses:
The opposing voice that stands to make claims against royal ideology finds its origins in the Exodus narrative and the character of Moses. Brueggemann’s liberationist hermeneutic develops out of his insistence that the Exodus is God’s “primal revelation.” The narrative of Exodus reveals God’s preferential option for the poor and God’s (violent!) disdain for oppressive regimes. Moses and the liberated slaves imagine God to be a free-agent, capable of forming a community out of things that do not yet exist in order to nullify the things that are (Rom. 4:17). While Pharaoh’s commandments orbit around increasing production (make more bricks) and silencing the cries of laborers, Moses’s alternative community is organized around worshiping the God of liberation who elects slaves to cast down the powerful. Acts of justice like this call for prophetic celebrations of singing and dancing. It is Miriam,the older sister of Moses, says Brueggemann, who leads the Exodus movement with her daring poetry, inviting the people to celebrate their liberation from Pharaoh’s ruthlessness. It is songs like Miriam’s that invite the faith community, and society, to imagine an alternative which confronts the royal consciousness.
Prophecy as Poetry:
A cornerstone of Brueggemann’s theology is his claim that prophetic utterance is poetic utterance. The prophets are not predictors, nor are they good liberals. Rather, the prophetic vocation, and the act of prophecy, is dependant upon poetry that artistically pits God’s shalom against the false peace of the powerbrokers (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). The poetry of the prophet finds its locus in the prophet’s solidarity with the “uncredentialed nobodies” and her attentiveness to the voice from “elsewhere.” Brueggemann’s Christian leanings push him to suggest this voice emanates from YHWH. Yet, it is critical to note Brueggemann is not dogmatic about this position, as he is open to non-Christians and even “secularists” receiving a “prophetic word.” Brueggemann’s main criteria for a prophet is they speak truth to power in artistic yet daring ways. So for Brueggemann, Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith is perhaps the preeminent example of a modern prophet in the vein of Miriam.
Consumer-Militarism & “The Other” (Totalism vs. Infinity):
Brueggemann surmises prophets like Smith are needed as the global political scene is held hostage by U.S. imperialism. Poets speak into this context hoping to break this imperialism advanced by technology, pseudo-therapeutic advertising, rapacious consumerism, and brutal militarism (including the presence of, and violence from, the police). Brueggemann frames this imperialism within Emmanuel Levinas’ competing terms of “totality” and “infinity.” The “totalizing” ideology of the American Empire is dedicated to excluding “others,” such as LGBTQ persons, Muslims, immigrants, Blacks, etc., for the sake of maintaining the status quo. Brueggemann offers a variation on Levinas’s term of “totality,” opting instead for the term “totalism.” Brueggemann offers this variation to signal the inherent exclusionary bent present in consumerism. The antidote to this totalism is a posture of infinite embrace, wherein society embraces “the other” with scandalous hospitality.