Archives For Economics

6008952208_80ed84260d_mOver Memorial Day Weekend, I participated as a pilgrim at the Taize gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. During part of our time we selected small discussion groups in which to reflect on the intersection of Christian worship and the systemic poverty and injustice of the rez.

Unbeknownst to me until much later, the facilitator of my small group was Ched Myers.

Who? (You might wonder)

Ched Myers is a biblical scholar and a Christian mediator. He’s the author of perhaps the best biblical commentary of the last few decades- and one of my favorites: Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.  BSM 20th

One of Myers’ chief critiques is the propensity among believers to spiritualize and thus neuter the message and ministry of Jesus. If Jesus’ Gospel is about the world to come the here and now can breath a sigh of relief. Fortunately, as long as Christians are stuck with the image of state-sponsored torture as our primary symbol we’ll continually be reminded that our Savior, despite our wishes to the contrary, is a thoroughly political figure.

A “spiritualized” interpretation of the references to Jesus’ ministry and gospel as “good news to the poor” misses the ways in which Jesus addressed the concrete, spiritual and material realities of his time and, specifically, of the peasant Jewish community of which he was part.

“Only a real debt-cancellation and land-restoration could represent good news to real poor people,” says Ched Myers.

Many scholars, including Myers, have noted that Jesus seems to have regarded himself as one who proclaimed and brought a new season of jubilee such as that mandated in the ancient Jewish law. The text from Isaiah that Jesus quoted and declared fulfilled at the synagogue in his hometown when he began his ministry is itself a reference to the jubilee year from the ancient Jewish law.

Many have also noted the relationship between the way in which Jesus talked about the forgiveness of sins and the forgiveness of debt. This is seen most clearly in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer with its pleas to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”   

“The gospels agree,” says Myers that “Jesus’ first substantive clash with the authorities arose as a result of his practice of ‘unlicensed’ forgiveness of sins, which has clear Jubilee overtones.”

Richard Horsley has offered a helpful account of the relationship between forgiveness of sin and debt in the context of first century rural Galilee.

There are indications …that the people…may have been blaming themselves.  Insofar as they were suffering hunger, disease, and poverty, it was because they had sinned, by breaking the covenant laws.  They were therefore now receiving the curses.  This is surely what Jesus was addressing in this forgiveness of sins in connection with healings (as in Mark 2:1-12).   In addressing the people’s self-blame and despair, therefore, Jesus transforms the blessings and curses into a new declaration of God’s assurance of deliverance for the poor and hungry and condemnation of those who were wealthy, almost certainly because they were expropriating the goods of the peasantry.

To announce forgiveness of sins is truly good news for those who are literally poor.

Jesus not only sought to lift the spiritual burden associated with poverty, but also to transform the material relationships that produced that poverty.

Myers indicates for example that

“Jesus’ Jubilee orientation” is seen not just in his forgiveness of sins/debts but also in: 1) his instructing the disciples to “to help themselves to field produce” justifying it with “his punch line: ‘The Sabbath was created for humanity’” (Mark 2:27); 2) “his efforts to rebuild community between socio-economically- alienated groups” such as tax-collectors (Levi, Zaccheus) and the debtors they exploited; 3) and his call for radical restructuring at all levels, from the household (Mark 3:31-35) to the body politic (Mark 10:35-45).

Myers regards “table fellowship” both in Jesus’ practice and in his storytelling as the typical venue chosen by Jesus to illustrate his Jubilee claim that “first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).

Meals lay at the heart of ancient society: Where, what, and with whom you ate defined your social identity and status.  Thus the table was the “mirror” of society, with its economic classes and political divisions.

In the extended banquet story of in Luke 14, Jesus systematically undermines prevailing conventions and proprieties which advocating a new “table” of compassion and equality.  The opening episode deals (not surprisingly) with a dispute over the Sabbath practice (Luke 14:1-6).

Next comes Jesus attack on the dominant system of meritocracy, with its hierarchies, prestige posturing, and ladder-climbing, and his invitation to “downward mobility” (verses 7-11).

He then offends his host by criticizing his guest list, rejecting the reciprocal patronage system of the elite and calling for a focus upon “those who cannot repay” (verses 12-14).

The series concludes with Jesus pointed little fable about an exemplary host who finally understands the bankruptcy of meritocracy and decides instead to build a Jubilee community with the poor and outcast (verses 15-24).

In the light of these and other “Jubilee footprints” in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Myers finds it not surprising that the early church practiced what he calls “Sabbath economics” as exemplified in the story of radical sharing of property among believers in the aftermath of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first day Pentecost.

And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved [Acts 2:44-47].

Christian conviction is that God promises a comprehensive fulfillment of human existence in the universe.

Salvation includes our souls and our bodies, our individual and our collective or corporate existence.

Jesus’ primary metaphor for speaking of salvation was a political one, “The Kingdom of God.”

It was an economic metaphor as well.

We are bold to proclaim that among the promises of God to us is this: the situation of mass poverty and gross material inequality that reigns now shall not be when God reigns.   

And where God reigns even now in the world that he so loves, that poverty and inequality is being transformed in justice.

 

IMG_0516As you might know, I just returned from the Highlands of Guatemala, a place whose staggering beauty is rivaled only by its systemic poverty.

Making the transition back to home from a place where clean water and a flushing toilet are literally a PIPE DREAM always leaves me feeling……?

Indicted?

And why would that be?

Probably because, despite what Glenn Beck would have us think, the biblical witness is clear—from the exodus, through the Hebrew prophets, to Jesus himself—that God acts for and calls us to liberation of the oppressed.

Theologians call it God’s ‘preferential option for the poor.’ Meaning, God attends particularly to the plight of the poor, the most vulnerable, and exploited and expects his people to do the same. To this we might add now that effectively responding to the needs of the poor and oppressed is a moral priority for those who seek to live in faithful relation to God.

Further elaborating this point, is a piece written by Dr. Barry Penn Hollar, with whom I collaborated on a Christian Ethics book a few years ago:

The story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt is central to this claim.  The exodus was and remains the fundamental, identity-shaping experience of the Jewish people.  It is the focus the Passover festival, which to this day roots Jewish identity in the experience of liberation by the almighty hand of God.  We who are Christians remember that it was in the context of the Passover festival that Jesus began the festival that is our fundamental, identity-shaping experience: the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.

At the center of the Exodus memory is an insight about the very character of God: God’s compassionate sharing of the experience of oppression.  “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters,” God says [Exodus 3:7].   This is not a detached and disengaged awareness. Rather, God says, “I know their suffering.”  The Hebrew word “to know” is used with reference to sexual intercourse or intimacy.  It implies a sharing of the experience to which it refers. God knows and shares their suffering. Moreover, it is an awareness that leads to action.

The verse continues: “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.”

This portrayal of God as one who shares the suffering of the poor and oppressed and acts to deliver them is consistent throughout the Old Testament.

Amos, Isaiah, and Micah were noteworthy for their insistence that injustice and oppression was a religious issue or a matter rendering the peoples’ relationship to God faithless and their worship inauthentic.

Consider these words from Isaiah:

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow [Isaiah 1: 15-17].

And listen to Amos:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream [Amos 5:21-24].

Finally, consider Micah:

 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God [Micah 6:6-8]?

Let’s be honest:

Can we consider the statistics of the world’s poverty, the global reach of our national influence, the degree to which the international economy is organized for our benefit, and doubt that these words apply to us?

Is all our worship, then, no matter how sincere and doctrinally proper, a sham?

When we stand to praise God—lifting our hands and our voices in air-conditioned sanctuaries with cushioned pews, dressed in finery that has been produced by women’s hands in factories whose conditions are unknown to us—does God, in fact, despise it all?

Despise us?

However you answer, you have to at least admit: there’s sufficient cause to wonder.

 

2004 banksy_christOkay, the title is just to get you to click over.

Yesterday I posted about Pope Francis’ recent comments critiquing the West’s idolatrous ‘worship’ of the free market.

You can read the post here and the Pope’s own words here.

No sooner did the post post than I got email after email lambasting me NOT (as expected) for praising the Catholic Church and its office of a Teacher among Teachers.

No, the emails all but tarred and feathered me for endorsing the ‘extreme,’ ‘fringe,’ and ‘anti-freedom’ views of ‘Marxist, Socialist liberalism’ seeking to ‘destroy the Tea Party.’ 

I won’t even take the time to note the discontinuity between those last three adjectives: Marxism, Socialism and Liberalism.

Pope Francis- I think we can all agree by virtue of being elected Pope- is definitely NOT liberal.

In fact, theological training has it uses. I can say with some authority that Francis was only speaking from the historic (Augustinian) Christian tradition.

Quickly then:

According to Augustine, both the Protestant and Catholic Church’s most important thinker, we are creatures made to desire an end (telos).

As creatures, God and God’s Kingdom is the End to which we’re properly oriented. Because we’re end-driven creatures, human freedom is different than how we typically define it in modern America.

Culturally, civically and especially economically we tend to think of freedom in the negative; that is, freedom is the absence of coercion.

Thus, the ‘free market’ is a market without any external controls or values imposed upon it.

“Freedom,” in such a context, is not directed to any End.

Or rather, it’s directed to whatever End the individual decides.

 

For Christians, however, freedom isn’t defined negatively as something that exists in the absence of coercion.

Freedom isn’t freedom from something; freedom is freedom for something.

Freedom is freedom for the Kingdom.

In other words, as telos-driven creatures we are free only when we are directed towards and participating in the Kingdom, only when we’re wrapped up in God’s will, and only when our systems of life together- our politics and our economics- contribute towards that End.

When people and their systems are no longer directed towards or participating in God’s End, the Kingdom, you effectively strip the material things in creation from God’s goodness. They no longer have the purpose for which God gave them. They no longer have any meaning- like a paintbrush without ever having a canvas.

Think of the pervasive sin of consumerism and the praise of the ‘free market’ as an end in and of itself.

BELIEFS-popupAs modern Augustinian, William Cavanaugh says:

“All such loves are disordered loves, loves looking for something worth loving that is not just arbitrarily chosen.

A person buys something- anything- trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine (by which he means our having been created to desire the Kingdom). And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing and he has to head back to the mall to continue the search.

With no objective End to guide the search, his search is literally endless.”

We tend to think of sin simply as a private act we do to break one of God’s rules. We think of sin as an individual free act that violates God’s honor.

Sin is anything but a free act and it’s not always or even primarily about individuals.

Sin is a disordered love that upsets the God-given trajectory of our lives. Sin is a privation of goodness in our lives. And sin is corporate and systemic. 

In a very real way, the more we sin the less human we become, the less real. 

And a free market system for its own sake, one that either exploits the global poor or turns a blind eye to them, one not directed towards the End for which we’re all created, will only succeed in reducing all of us to unreality.

A feeling, let’s be honest, we all feel a hint of every time we go shopping.

Only a market that is free not from controls but for the common good can point toward and participate in God’s Kingdom.

And I salute Francis (his chosen name should’ve been fair warning) for pointing that out.

 

BELIEFS-popupI recently posted a reflection vis a vis Karl Barth on ‘Why I’m Not a Catholic.’ 

I took some crap from my Catholic brethren for being unfair to the Holy, Mother Church.

To do penance for that post I thought I’d mention a recent story that is indicative to me of what I take to be the greatest gift the Catholic Church presently offers the world.

In case you missed it, Pope Francis recently spoke about the need for global financial reform “along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. Money has to serve, not to rule” Francis said.

The new Pope went to excoriate Western society for its relationship to money and its worship of the free market, saying the worship of the golden calf of old, has now a new image, “in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.” 

You can read the rest of the story here.

To get back to my reason for writing, Pope Francis’ strong words against unfettered capitalism remind the world that though the Catholic Church advocates against abortion and homosexuality it (the Catholic Church) does not fit into the  ‘conservative’ category, at least as its given to us in American culture. The very same seamless garment of life that prompts the Church to protect the unborn provokes it defend the prisoner and the poor.

The Pope before him took a dim view of America’s unprovoked war in Iraq and the current Pope just reminded everyone that the Church’s understanding of economics is both older than Milton Friedman and at odds with him.

And, to my mind, that’s the best thing going about the Catholic Church right now.

While all Christian bodies self-present as a global church, seldom do they meet that assertion.

My own Methodist tradition IS a global stream of Christianity yet that stream is comprised of myriad rivulets and eddies, with each taking the character, perspective and loyalty of their nation and culture. So in the United States we have United Methodism and in Korea we have the Korean Methodist Church and so on.

People called Methodists are not a singular global body with a unified witness.

We’re more like managers and employees of a franchise lacking a CEO.

What United Methodists, for example, say about a particular issue- conservative or liberal- inevitably sounds like what any one else from the United States would say, Christian or not.

jefferts-schoriNo where is this more true and obvious than with the situation in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican “Communion.” In case you missed it, (story here) the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA) used the holy day of Pentecost to cast the Apostle Paul (you know, author of most of the New Testament whether we like it or not) aside as a ‘bigot’ using the Book of Acts of all things to make her case.

One would think she could used a text actually authored by Paul for the one formerly known as Saul gives ample ammunition the cause. While I may have sympathies with the issue behind her sermon even someone who agrees with her on the issue of sexuality must admit the ethnocentrism inherent in her perspective, for to liken one’s position to a fresh outpouring of the Spirit is to put those other sincere Christians who disagree in what sort of light?

While I acknowledge all the flaws and imperfections in the following, I nonetheless believe:

Only the Catholic Church with its bishop among bishops, who is beholden to no other government, politics, military or culture, offers a voice free to be, firstly and thoroughly, Christian.

This is why, I think, on issue after issue, from war to sexuality to torture to economics, the office of the Pope is so routinely ‘all over the place,’ refusing  easy secular categorization.

Pope Francis’ words on economics would get pilloried (actually probably yawned at) as ‘Occupy Wallstreet’ language if a United Methodist had said them.

Fact is, he’s just speaking Christian. 

That Francis’ words on economics sound ‘political’ to us (or even ‘partisan’ when on another’s lips) is but an indication of how we’re more captured by our politics than we are by our Great High Priest.