Commentary on “Reflection on A Covenantal Imagination” by William Everett
The Radicality of a Covenantal Imagination
by Hak Joon Lee [Bio]
William Everett’s “Reflection on A Covenantal Imagination” is his mature self-reflection on his life-long academic research of covenant. At the same time, it offers a useful guide and theological commentary for his recent book: A Covenantal Imagination: Selected Essays in Christian Social Ethics. Bill’s essay presents a rich reflection and stimulating ideas on a covenantal imagination that serves as an overarching theological framework of his Christian social ethics. As a person who shares with Bill the same academic interest in covenant, and a person who has learned from Bill’s scholarship, I wholeheartedly welcome the publication of the book. I am honored to be part of this conversation with Bill, who is one of the leading Christian ethicists on covenant ethics. This conversation in this platform has an additional meaning for me because I was mentored at Princeton Theological Seminary by the late Max L. Stackhouse who was James Luther Adams’ student, a former president of the JLA Foundation, and an editor of Adams’ book On Being Human Religiously.
The publication of Bill’s book is highly timely as it reminds us of the importance of covenant for our common life, especially when scholarly and public interest in covenant seems to be waning or the idea of covenant is suspected by young people due to its complicity with Western colonialism and racism. However, as Bill claims, covenant is a governing symbol of modern democracy, constitutionalism, and human rights, and in my observation, the very decline of civic life, decay of institutions and their leadership, and polarization of politics have exactly to do with this erosion (in fact, the amnesia) of covenant as a way of common life. In the West, a covenantal way of life (which “attends to the purposes of the wider community of humans and ‘nature’”) is now domesticated into contract, and its initial transformative impulse is quenched by the idolatry of money and power, or at least bridled by professionalism, institutional bureaucracy, and the expert culture of security and power. While sharing certain features with contract, according to Bill, covenant is more than a contract—an agreement between human partners alone. Covenant includes God and nature in its default membership. Beyond its immediate parties, covenant is accountable to God, nature, and other humans. Covenant cannot be completely controlled by human design and plans alone because of its open-endedness and futuristic orientation toward God’s promise.
Without the rich soil and moral thickness that covenant provides, democracy and its institutions gradually lose their vitality—spiritually emptied and morally atrophied. Likewise, cut from its covenantal root, contracts cannot properly function anymore; they rather become a tool of a few rich and powerful for their control and exploitation; the poor and marginalized have no choice but to succumb to their contracts out of desperation. Consequently, our social relationships are litigious or even fraudulent (it is okay if the law is not broken). For our civil society and the res publica to work properly, they need a moral ecology that covenant provides. In this distressing moral milieu, Bill’s current essay invites us to revisit and reflect on the current malaise of our culture in light of the ancient symbol of covenant, and invites us to the collective work of ethics to figure out a new direction together.
I want to focus my reflection on the title and topic of the essay: a covenantal imagination. In a popular mind, “covenant” and “imagination” do not naturally correlate because covenant is typically understood narrowly as a binding structure of agreement (e.g., a marriage covenant) without any meaningful distinction from contract, or broadly as social creeds, while imagination connotes exploration of something unknown, which is usually exercised in the situations of radical changes or crises. That is, imagination is a unique human exercise of a spiritual, moral, mental, and emotional longing characteristically called for when the natural–the taken-for-granted rhythm of a moral life–is questioned due to major conflicts (e.g., World War II), powerful social movements (e.g., the Civil Rights Movement), radical cultural changes and structural transformations (e.g., globalization and digitalization). In short, whereas covenant connotes a structure, imagination indicates a search.
Hence, by putting covenant and imagination together, what does Bill want to achieve? What does covenantal imagination mean?
For Bill, covenant and imagination are intrinsically connected through their equally shared commitment to human freedom and novelty. Covenant is based on the ancient human longing to “live together in largely uncoerced and non-violent societies,” while imagination is a quintessential exercise of human freedom—a search for new possibilities; it is a language of the future. Furthermore, as the exercise of human freedom, Bill claims, “the work of imagination is intrinsic to the work of ethics.” That is, imagination is an indispensable aspect of practical reasoning that attempts to find new solutions to ethical problems humans face in a changing society. If covenant indicates a structure reached through the free consent of the participants, then imagination is its necessary process, along with a discursive process that negotiates differences of imaginations and arguments in reaching the agreement.
Then what is a covenantal imagination? A covenantal imagination is a constitutive process in the work of ethics, signifying people’s ongoing shared endeavors and commitment to conceive of something new for the common flourishing of all lives. It arises from a passion for freedom, justice, right order, and common flourishing.
My understanding of a covenantal imagination is not so different from Bill’s in its core assumptions. I accept Bill’s creative integration of covenant and imagination, and appreciate Bill’s expansive interpretation of covenant and its connection to the work of ethics. However, I want to share several observations of my own. These observations are not a critique but rather insights on the topic from my own distinctive social location as an Asian American in conceiving and exercising a covenantal imagination in current social contexts.
Covenant, in the Bible, embodies two deep human longings or imaginations—both liberation (deliverance) and restoration: both freedom from and freedom to. A covenantal imagination, in its biblical impetus, is not static, nor just mending of the status quo for its improvement; it is radically liberative (even revolutionary) that confronts the distorted and unjust social orders and structures; however, it is also restorative in the sense that it offers new disorientation, and dreams wholeness, shalom, and a just and inclusive reciprocal community where love and justice kiss each other. I think Bill’s claim also implies this dramatic plot of covenant: “Covenant-making is a work of claiming a common future out of the carnage of hostility and alienation.” Importantly, covenant mediates these longings constituting the dramatic plot of God as the protagonist of history. A covenantal imagination, as I see it, operates from liberation to full restoration (shalom), and that is why it is radical. These two poles offer the structure and continuity for the exercise of a covenantal imagination.
As Bill may agree, a good covenantal imagination is a divine inspiration. It is not solely the work of Christian ethics, but also the work of the Spirit. Our covenantal faithfulness and openness are the free space where the Spirit generously blows and ignites our new passion. And for Christians, covenant is the site where the divine Spirit and human longing encounter each other. At the same time, I want to note that human imagination, like any other exercise of human freedom, is precarious in history due to human depravity and corruption. Not every imagination is morally acceptable; imagination could be a mere fantasy like the narcissistic imagination of the Rich Fool in Jesus’ parable (Luke,12:13-21). More dangerously, it could be the expression of collective ambition, even an imperial desire for domination or a corporate desire for endless accumulation of profits and monopoly. Human imagination needs to be guided by God’s purpose, sanctified by the Spirit, and screened by a communal discursive process within a faith community. We see the egregious – in fact, shameful – misuses of a covenantal imagination, for example, by Puritans in the US and Dutch settlers in South Africa, whose ill-conceived imaginations led to genocide, slavery, segregation, and apartheid, in the name of their tribal, ethno-racial covenants with God.
Related to the above point, Christians need to clearly specify which covenant they are referring to when they mention “a covenantal imagination.” As we know, there are a number of divine covenants in the Bible, and each covenant has a different purpose, scope, and partners. There are covenants that include the entire humanity and the earth (the Creation Covenant, the Noahic Covenant, and the New Covenant of Jesus), while there are the covenants that are confined to a particular people or a person (the Sinai Covenant and the Davidic Covenant). The problem of Puritans and Dutch settlers was that they heretically misappropriated covenant for their own existential situations and colonial agendas. Resorting to the Sinai Covenant, they imagined themselves as a new Israel, a chosen race, commissioned by God to conquer, subdue, and establish God’s city in the “new” lands. A covenantal imagination turned into an Anglo-Saxon imagination, a Dutch imagination, and then to a white imagination of domination, privilege, and exclusion of others. For Christians, the New Covenant of Jesus is the final, normative, and thus binding covenant, not the Sinai Covenant. While fulfilling (not replacing) the Sinai Covenant, the New Covenant of Jesus is inclusive, egalitarian, nonviolent, and eschatological. It does not allow room for colonialism, racism, sexism, and patriarchy (See my book, Christian Ethics: A New Covenant Model [Eerdmans, 2021]).
Finally, I’d like to briefly explore the meaning and significance of a covenantal imagination in our own context. We live in a turbulent time characterized by constant changes, mobility, and fluidity generated by the interrelated forces of globalization (the compression of time-space), digitalization (technological innovation), and an aggressive and competition-driven global neoliberal economy (commodification, consumption, and competition). This radicality and scope change is unprecedented to the extent that it disrupts the basic sense of trust, belief in truth-finding, and the legitimate authority of institutions, which constitute the backbone of civil society and democracy. The crisis is comprehensive enough to touch four major realms of human life itself: agency, community, democracy, and governance, which I briefly discussed in my book, God and Community Organizing: A Covenantal Approach (Baylor University Press, 2020).
The result is growing pains—not only physical but also emotional and psychological—
endless conflicts and violence, the spread of despair and nihilism, and rising numbers of depression and suicide. Social pathology of demagoguery, cultural narcissism, and political polarization run deep enough that we now believe different sets of truths and facts, information that is channeled through our own echo chambers. Furthermore, our planet is on fire due to several centuries-long ruthless exploitations of nature justified by unbridled capitalism. However, rich and powerful governments of the world have failed to address the climate crisis despite the ongoing warnings of reliable scientists from decades ago. With this demise of democratic civil society, community, and moral agency, the climate crisis is a major threat to our common life, even our very existence.
Hence, we are now forced to look for a new way of life, a new exodus from the increasingly unbearable conditions of life seeking different possibilities. That is, we are now called to mobilize a new covenantal imagination to save ourselves and the planet from this crisis, and re-envision and reclaim our common life on a new moral foundation and path.
However, this imagination is not an ordinary imagination. We need a covenantal imagination that has the power to reframe the questions and challenge accepted assumptions, and helps us to find a different trajectory of common life. A new covenantal imagination should be revolutionary in its moral contents (commitment to justice, rightness, and care) and global-planetary in its scope, given the global nature of our existence and the global scope of the threats. Without this global covenant-making, there will be no common future for humanity, but only endless, self-destructive competition, conflicts, and violence. As is the work of communal ethics, such an imagination should be inspiring and compelling enough to mobilize our ideas, volitions, and emotions into a common purpose, refurbish the symbols and rituals, and reenergize our spiritual devotion and passion for justice, and social institutions. In short, we need a radical but compelling form of a covenantal imagination.
This means that this global covenant-making should not be a mere expansion of the current form of Western democracy and capitalism, far from its implicit complicity with a white racial covenant that glorifies the white race as a normative race and whiteness as a sacral quality. It should be noted that one of the reasons that covenant is being discredited in the West is the loss of its radical social imaginary power due to covenant’s co-option to white racial covenant and capitalism. Covenant now needs to be cut from this alliance and instead be genuinely free and egalitarian, inclusive of biotic rights and economic rights.
A covenantal imagination in the current situation is to see the future as Abraham and Sarah did—a new life in a barren womb (a seed of blessing for the entire humanity); it is also to envision a newly flourishing planet as Noah did even at the face of a catastrophic disaster, the flood. In the Bible, major covenants were introduced exactly at the critical turning points of history: after the flood (the Noahic Covenant), after the fall of the Tower of Babel (the Abrahamic Covenant), the departure from Egypt (the Sinai Covenant), the transition to kingship (the Davidic Covenant), at the end of the Exile (Nehemiah and Ezra), and finally at the time of the displacement, division, and exploitation of Jewish people under Roman Empire (the New Covenant of Jesus). The New Covenant expanded the horizon of God’s reign and the membership of God’s people to the eschatological level by including all peoples and the entire creation. In other words, at least in the Bible, covenant is not primarily the symbol of stability and the status quo, but a mechanism of societal reinvention and transformation that copes with a massive crisis of a community.
This task of creating a new history through a covenantal imagination might feel overwhelming, but a covenantal God of the Bible is a faithful God whose thoughts and ways are higher than ours. God’s Spirit is already working in history by challenging us to ask and seek God’s reign and righteousness, energizing our spiritual and moral wills for the renewal of the global community. In response to our cry of “how long?” God’s answer is still: even if my deliverance “seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Habakkuk, 2:3). With faith in God’s covenantal faithfulness, we continuously engage in a new imagining of our future together, which is in fact our prayer and earnest invitation of the Spirit to lead us!