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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bailout 16: Thoughts on Describing the Problem

As mentioned earlier, I am working on the problem of analyzing the current economic situation in light of biblical and theological concepts related to Jubilee, the Sabbatical year, the denunciation of usury, etc. Below are a few short paragraphs in which I have tried to describe the problems of the economy in order to begin this sort of analysis. Obviously, this is a work in progress.

1. Hard economic times place people and institutions in jeopardy. In 2009, there is plenty of pain to go around. People are losing their homes. Banks are closing. Businesses are failing. Workers are losing jobs. Families are uprooted.

2. Some call the economic woes a credit crisis. Some focus on the housing price bubble. Others emphasize the irresponsibility of financial institutions eager to sell “creative” investment products. Still others highlight the complexity of financial instruments divided, bundled, and resold again and again so that no one is sure who owns what. Many recognize that consumption had outpaced income, and too much of the economy depended on overextended debt. Others criticized the deregulation of financial institutions which allowed them to take inordinate risks with other people’s money.

3. A major part of the problem had to do with a collapse of home prices. Loans had been written with the assumption that housing values would rise steadily and without interruption. Some people borrowed more than they could afford, but others who could afford their mortgages found that they were making payments on a mortgage for an amount that was up to twice the new value of their home. They could not afford to keep paying double for a house that had originally been priced in an inflated market. In a weak economy, workers losing jobs also could no longer meet their mortgage payments.

4. All these mortgage problems led to a crisis of confidence in the mortgage-based securities and the financial institutions investing in them. As the seriousness of the mortgage problems became apparent, the more people became concerned about many other forms of debt, including credit card debt which has grown exponentially. A crash in the stock market followed up the crash in home prices, and many people who had thought they were in good financial shape now saw their pensions, their homes, and their investments lose value dramatically. People losing health insurance coverage were building mountains of debt for medical care.

5. When the economic situation became too severe to avoid, former Treasury Secretary Paulson and Federal Reserve Chair Bernanke recommended a massive bailout of major financial institutions. With only a bare sketch of a plan, the engines of government shifted into high gear to authorize transferring hundreds of billions of dollars directly to banks and other financial institutions to prop up their endangered portfolios of assets.

6. Their idea was to stabilized the financial system by providing cash to banks and other financial institutions who owned securities based on delinquent loans. They said that this would set things in order so that banks would be willing to lend money to grease the wheels of commerce. However, the banks and financial institutions took the money and held it. It did not slow down the pace of foreclosures of mortgages. It did not pump up the economy. Homeowners kept losing their homes with no relief. Credit card companies pressured small borrowers with tightened terms and higher interest rates.

7. What kind of a solution leaves giant banks standing while the average worker’s life gets harder and harder? That is not a solution. It smells like collusion. Whose money bailed out the banks? Who is an economy supposed to benefit? Who says billions can bail out executive jobs but nothing can bail out labor jobs? Who says tax dollars can pay off banks’ bad debts, but the average taxpaying citizens are on their own? Debt relief for millionaires and homelessness for working people—that’s not the kind of economy we believe in.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday Meditation

I was listening to the prayers and readings today at the Good Friday service, and I was reminded of the words of Jon Sobrino and others who speak of the poor being crucified every day. Jesus, a poor man who became a threat to the ruling powers, was executed on a Friday. Crucifixion is a method of execution. To crucify is to put someone on a cross in order to kill them. It was done to punish criminals and exterminate enemies of the regime. Maybe we would be clearer on what happened that day if we changed to the word execution.

The "Jews," by which the gospel writers mean the rulers and elders of the Jews, were aligned against him with the Romans who were always eager to keep conquered peoples in their place. (It is a misreading to take this text as an attack on all Jews. Jesus' defenders and his accusers were all Jews, and he himself was a Jew.) According to John 19, they had a back-and-forth exchange with Pilate about what to call Jesus. Pilate said he was their king. They answered, "We have no King but the Emperor." Both Pilate and the Jewish power elite--the Sanhedrin, the Chief Priests, the leaders of the Pharisees, the lackeys of the Idumean king--disavowed Jesus as King.

Yet the gospel goes on to say that Pilate had a sign made to post on the cross, which said "The King of the Jews." The Jewish leaders were angry about it, but Pilate would not change it. The sign prophesied what neither of them believed. Jesus was crowned King of the Jews, a covenant people. This covenant people, signified by the vine, was not welcoming all nations to be grafted into the vine of Israel. So if Jesus was not the king of the Roman and Jewish powers, then whose king was he?

Jesus was lifted up on that day as king of those who are poor and suffer. Those whose wealth and power he challenged had rejected him. He was lifted up as the one who resists the torture and oppression of the powers in the name of the ones who suffer. He was the second Adam who overcame the failings of humanity. He demonstrated God's love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, he died for us.

The atoning work of Jesus is sometimes portrayed as a metaphysical, otherworldly accomplishment. Jesus, it is said, came into the world to die. But a critical turn has been made in theological reflection in the last part of the twentieth century. A renewed conviction has emerged that Jesus came into the world to live. Above all, Jesus came into the world to save. Jesus' life was an atoning life. His death interrupted that life without defeating it. Even facing and enduring death, Jesus' life of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly persevered.

Rather than an inevitability, Jesus' death was a contingent event in history. God's incarnation into the historical life of humanity did not somehow exist above or outside of history. Within real historical events, a real human being was caught up in the agendas of real people and real powers. The ruling parties of Jerusalem tortured and executed Jesus in a willful act of violence to terrorize his followers and to silence his voice. Jesus suffered execution in a willing act of submission and obedience to the law of love. He refused to join a violent system and perpetuate the chain of violent acts. He refused to renounce the Jubilee revolution he had proclaimed. Thus, he received the verdict of his hell-bent persecutors.

From the foundation of the world, God has willed that humanity's story be the extension of loving community in mutual submission one to another. Jesus, as the incarnation of the eternal Word, from the foundation of the world has willed this incarnation of loving servanthood, pouring himself out that creation may fulfill its destiny. This atoning work, his embodiment of the Reign of God in justice and love no less than his willing submission to execution and his victory over sin, death, and the grave on Easter, reaches to all of God's creatures, and especially to those who continue to be ground under the feet of oppressive power. For this reason, we call the remembrance of this terrible day Good. May the grace of Jesus' sacrifice bear you through to the celebration of his victory.
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