Kairos/Conversation Two

Commentaries on the essay below:

Hak Joon Lee: “The Radicality of a Covenantal Imagination”

Reflections on A Covenantal Imagination

William Johnson Everett [Bio]
William Everett

I have entitled my recent collection of selected essays A Covenantal Imagination: Selected Essays in Christian Social Ethics (Wipf and Stock/Resource Publications, 2021). These essays, written over a period of thirty years, contain not merely a gradual elaboration of my understanding of the possible meanings of covenant for Christian ethics, but, even more, the development of a way of imagining the world and our actions within it. I have engaged not only in the cultivation of a system of thought but of a lens through which to see and indeed create new images for encountering the world around us.

The work of imagination is intrinsic to the work of ethics, because an ethical argument, like imagination, asks us to conceive of something new, something that arises out of our freedom to act. I will never forget the comment of an ethics colleague when I told him that I had set out into a new venture of writing historical fiction. His reply was to say, “But Bill, you’ve always been writing fiction!” So it is with the work of ethics.

Imagination, with its aesthetic dynamic, is not just about envisioning new possibilities for action, it also brings together the emotional, motivational, and inspirational symbolism crucial to ethical action. The question is not merely one of asking how should we act, but of forging an answer that brings us into action, not just in the moment but over the long periods of time necessary to build up ethical habits, character, and institutions. Imagination, by coalescing our thought and emotions into vivid symbols, helps create the entire culture of ritual and vision that sustains institutional legitimacy. All of these dimensions are signaled by my use of the term “covenantal imagination.”

What then is this covenantal imagination? How did it emerge in my work and how might we describe it? While the covenant image had always been present in my own ecumenical Baptist heritage, it was awakened by James Luther Adams as I worked with him as student, advisee, and assistant in the late 1960s. In particular, he drew attention to the role of covenantal thinking in the theo-political arguments of the English civil war of the seventeenth century and to the way it could connect his emphasis on voluntary association with the organic emphasis on coherence and coordination of a body politic, not to mention of a church.[1] Moreover, this sense of covenantal mutual responsibility was anchored not in some “natural” bond of ethnicity or nation but in a transcendent moral framework, a law, permeating and shaping human history.

My own work began with an inquiry into the metaphor (Adams would call it a “root metaphor”) of the body for imagining the church and large-scale organizations and societies. What were the origins—psychologically, historically, religiously—of such symbolism as “the Body of Christ,” the “body politic,” and the corporation? I set out on an inquiry into the roots and reaches of an organismic image of human life. Standing in the shadowy background of my incipient ethical criticisms of this image was a powerful concept that lifted up the centrality of human action to form free agreements, construct novel associations, and create history through a dynamic of promise, infidelity, forgiveness, and new promises. It was the rich image of covenant. But this image, as you can see in the succession of my essays, emerged only slowly to claim center stage in my work. It did so initially when I had to wrestle with our relationship to the land, the very body of earth that sustains and embraces our life.

My struggle toward a fuller covenantal perspective was assisted by another set of concepts. These were ideas of public, republic, and “publicity,” much of which was greatly influenced by the work of Hannah Arendt. These concepts arose from classical sources as well as the long journey to republicanism in Europe, England, and America. At the core of this perspective is the image of the actor, indeed of multiple actors, struggling to give expression to their own consciences while struggling for ways to live together in largely uncoerced and non-violent societies. This emerged as the civic republican ideal over against the organic ideals of a society embodied in the monarch, who was himself (or herself) a kind of image of Christ, the eternal body. The life of citizen action in a republic—or an ecclesia—emerged sharply distinguished from that of membership in an all-embracing body of society. The re-weaving of covenantal ideas and civic republican thought resulted in my book, God’s Federal Republic: Reconstructing our Governing Symbol (Paulist 1987; Wipf and Stock, 2019), which stands behind a number of the essays in this volume.

Covenantal ideas can be seen as a way to re-cast this classical tension between organic membership and free association. Ethical concerns about the land were a logical place to begin to work out a covenantal perspective that could deal with both the organismic claims of nature and the historical reality of how humans were transforming the planet in a destabilizing way. Covenant, it is clear, is a set of mutual promises, and, indeed, because of the biblical origins of our understanding of this concept, they are promises rooted in the divine initiative itself. They are grounded in the Prime Actor of creation—God. My first step was to lay out the parties, or partners, to covenant as I found them in the biblical literature and in the historic uses of covenant, especially in thinkers influenced by the sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant Reformation.

At first I listed these partners as God, nature, persons, and society. It was only later, in my work on God’s Federal Republic, that I turned to a more biblical list of God, people, and land. “People” could itself be differentiated into persons, corporations, and societies. In either case, the covenantal image here involved “nature” or “land” as an active partner in the covenant, not just as “properties” at the disposal of the human divine partners. That God and land are active agents in the covenantal processes of life and history might be outside the horizon of most secularists, but this image of agency for all the partners in creation began to become crucial not only to my full covenantal imagination but also to those struggling with the complexities of a changing planet.

As these initial sketches of a covenantal imagination began to emerge, I was also wrestling with how to imagine the complex ecological reality that lay beyond the flat image of “nature” or “land.” I found a powerful instrument for this work in the image of the “oikos,” which I spelled out with considerable elaboration in a series of articles. Like the image of “public,” the oikos became a lattice of ways that covenant bridged the divide between organic process and free human action. By “oikos” I meant the ensemble of family, household, religion, and land that emerged in the agrarian cultures of the Mediterranean at the dawn of human history. In this ancient world, the biological demands of human reproduction, domesticity, ancestral cult, and land ownership were tightly bound together, usually under a patriarchal order. This oikos gradually differentiated over time into the oikos worlds of economy and ecology, with family and sexual life, as well as religion, relatively isolated from both. In this time of differentiation covenantal bonds went from those which were largely inherited to those which were constructed in a process of ever-freer association. Human association moved from one bound by nature and tradition to one demanding historical processes of covenant-making. The oikos that had once been seen as given, unchangeable, and natural became a covenantal reality.

Thus, the images of “public” and “oikos” came to be partners of my covenantal imagination. The construction of these two realms of human life could be seen as the continually changing outcome of covenantal processes involving the primary actors of God, people, land. In this dynamic process the classic opposition many scholars saw between “nature” and “history” could start to be reworked in a way that might open up approaches for confronting the ecological crisis that was starting to penetrate our consciousness in the late twentieth century.

One element of this reworking of nature and history lay in exploring two different forms of covenant—traditionally seen as hierarchical and egalitarian. This is the difference between the “suzereignty” covenant behind the God of Israel offering a covenant to the people of Israel and the friendship covenant of the New Testament’s Johannine view of Jesus’s “new covenant” with the “new Israel” of the church. You could almost equate these two types with hierarchical covenants of natural necessity and egalitarian covenants of human association. However, my emerging covenantal imagination pressed my understanding of the dynamics of decision and promise-keeping in the direction of understanding two covenantal dynamics: one of received tradition and one of human promissory action in the present.

The received covenants of life (“the way things are”) do not compose a fixed eternal stone but are always the ingredients of new possibilities. Nature is not natural in the sense of eternally necessary but is the received deposit of the past, with inherent possibilities of change. And the covenantal work of the present is not entirely free. It emerges in a reception and reworking of the past. Both dynamics are constituted not only by humans in interaction with the agencies of “land,” but also with a transcendent partner who is both the active “memory” of the past (God the Father in Christian parlance) and the spirited energy of free action in the present (the Holy Spirit, in this trinitarian image of God). This, at least, is one way of working out the meaning of the presence of a divine partner in the covenantal processes of life.

I came to call this covenantal dynamic of God, people, and land the “full covenant.” From this standpoint a covenantal imagination is always looking for the presence of all these partners and dynamics, both as the basis for engaging in covenantal action and also as a critical standpoint for assessing covenant-like actions in ongoing social life. One of the principal concerns I developed in this regard was to distinguish between the contractual language so often attached to covenant in our history and the full covenantal work arising in the covenantal imagination.

Contract, whose power derives in part from essential components of the covenantal tradition, is an agreement between two parties for their individual self-interests. It is upheld not only by appeal to their personal honor and interest but to the coercive and ajudicatory powers of the state. A full covenant, on the other hand, attends to the purposes of the wider community of humans and “nature” as well as of the creative powers upholding life itself. This expansiveness means that covenant always entails entrance into a world of possibilities not controlled by the human partners. It is in this sense open-ended. The marriage covenant is often cited as our most recognized example. Here, too, of course, contractual language, a heritage from ancient Rome and even the ketubah of Babylonian Jewish life, continues to reduce the marriage bond to a contract in service of the individuals’ interests.

A covenantal imagination directs us to the wider network of implicit promises sustaining any viable contract. It lays out institutional as well as cultural commitments that must be in place for more limited contractual relationships even to function in the society, not to mention the wider ecology of our agreements. This is especially important as we struggle with various agreements, pacts, contracts, and covenants to sustain our response to the global ecological challenge.

At this point let me return to the historical dimension of a covenantal imagination. In particular the historic context of covenant-making (and re-making) is not simply a chronology of events and changing conditions. In its biblical origin covenant arises in a particular memory of creation, infidelity, grace, forgiveness, new covenant and reconciliation. It is this particular sense of the historical that has shaped my covenantal imagination. In brief, it runs like this. Creation, that is, the origin of things, is already a joining together of transcendent power and intent. There is an ineluctable purpose, a driving love, within the creative origin. It is the frustration of this purpose, of this love, that I sum up in the word infidelity. We experience it all the time in our personal and corporate life, as well as our relationship to land/nature. The turning point comes with a realization of the miracle by which we have been sustained in spite of our infidelity. This is what we call the work of grace. Whether it is in the immense reality of sunrise and sunset or the growth of new grass where a holocaust of war had incinerated everything for miles around, we experience new creation. This begins the process, indeed the possibility, of renewing or re-making the old covenant. It begins with the work of forgiveness in response to the realization of the grace that has sustained us through the wilderness of infidelity. It is the work of starting anew. It is in the process of reknitting this covenantal network that reconciliation emerges—the capacity to share in life together. Covenant-making is a work of claiming a common future out of the carnage of hostility and alienation.

This is indeed a substantive, indeed a religious perspective, in that it is drawn from a long-rehearsed biblical narrative. It stands as an invitation to others, who may not share that tradition of interpretation, to live into a common history in some way on the basis of their own sense of graceful history. It is an invitation to enter into a work of imagination of their own, offering a drama into which they might enter in order to engage in the work of covenant.

As I reflected on these lineaments of covenant I became deeply involved in the South African experience of reconstructing a world after apartheid, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the center of this effort. Some of the articles in this book of essays point to various dimensions of this effort. One image came to the fore that embodies the historical paradigm of covenantal life—that of the journey. In one article I spelled out various mythic images of journey—the exodus, quest, pilgrimage, wandering, homecoming and the like. Each of these contains a sense of origins and outcome that structures what reconciliation means for those on the journey. These are stories, like those of the Trail of Tears, South Africa’s Great Trek, or Mao’s Long March, out of which many people have wrested covenants, though they may not call them such, which have forged bonds of nationhood and even global purpose.[2]

The image of the journey has even been extended to the universe itself, as in the work of Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker.[3] Here we find an effort to construct a journey myth that can potentially germinate a new covenant grounded in the world-saving purposes we so desperately need in the face of the rapid climate change caused by our own inadequate earlier covenants and our infidelity to the purposes of our creation. The contracts, pacts, and constitutions necessary to this task require an adequate set of covenants to ground them. That is what I see to be the work of a covenantal imagination.

  1. For a sense of Adams’s perspective on covenant see some of his essays in An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (ed. George K. Beach, Beacon: 1991), esp. pp. 234-255, 359-65.
  2. In order to re-imagine this complex covenantal perspective I wrote an “eco-historical” novel, Red Clay, Blood River, which was published in 2008. The narrator of the story is earth’s self.
  3. Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (Yale University Press, 2014).


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