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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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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Open Hearts Mean Open Hands, Part 1

During the early summer I was working with a group of scholars to prepare a theological reflection on the economic crisis. I posted the resulting document in several parts. This document was distributed to bank executives, along with a document prepared by a muslim scholar from North Carolina which explains the economic commitments of Islam and its opposition to usury.

Another purpose of the "Theological Reflection on the Economy" was to create conversation in churches and provide encouragement to pastors to preach on economic issues. As part of that purpose, I prepared a sermon on the economic crisis which I have had several opportunities to preach in the past month. The last occasion was a Service of Prayer and Public Witness hosted by my church, Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, at the instigation of Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, Jr. A number of other churches and ecumenical groups joined with us on Wednesday, Sept. 23 for the service. A Jewish Rabbi and a Muslim Imam were on the program to read from their scriptures and bring remarks concerning the economy and usury.

What follows here and in the next two posts is the text of the sermon preached that night.

Deuteronomy 15:1-11
Acts 4:31-35

If you take some time to read a newspaper, listen to the news on the radio, or watch the news on the television, you can’t help but hear people talking about hard times. Or maybe I should say, you can’t help but hear people arguing about what we ought to do in these hard times. The latest version of the argument is about health care and health insurance reform. Different interest groups and political camps have different views of how to organize the system of access to health care, and they are calling each other idiots and Nazis. On a recent Saturday outside the Capitol in Raleigh, hundreds gathered to demand health insurance reform now. Across the street, people tried to shout us down, saying, “No ObamaCare.”

Stretching the truth and even flat-out lies are daily fare in this shouting match because billions of dollars and millions of lives are at stake. At the rally I mentioned at the Capitol in Raleigh, Rev. Dr. William Barber, known to many of you both as a preacher and for his work with the North Carolina NAACP, delivered one of the best lines on this matter. He said it in response to the disinformation an fear campaign that is claiming government committees will be deciding which old people can live and which must die. Barber said, “There is not a death panel in the current proposal; there is a death panel in the current system.” Right now, corporate insurance managers make decisions to deny claims, drop coverage, and delay payments that can mean life or death, work or disability, survival or bankrupty in the lives of people like you and me. Some of you may have heard about another great big lie. After a rally in Washington, DC, a few days ago, the rally’s promoters intentionally put out a press release with a photograph of crowds on the Capitol Mall from another event, an event held in 1997, to give the impression that their crowds were 10 times as great as they really were. Everyone who has been on the gravy train in the out-of-control health system wants to keep that train rolling.

People whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the exploding costs and inequities of the current health system have had enough, but these people have trouble getting their voices heard. They are too busy working extra jobs to stay ahead of the bill collectors. Or they have become homeless and are just trying to figure out how to recover from losing their home to foreclosure by the bank. Or they are too sick with an untreated illness to speak up. Some are just too discouraged by the number of hard-hearted, tight-fisted people they have run into.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this health care access mess we are in, starting with insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, then moving on to various institutions, health professionals, and government officials. And the economic problems of health care are just one part of our economic woes. Bad thinking, bad leadership, bad values, and bad morals have spread like the untreated cancers of the uninsured throughout our economic system. The current recession was directly caused by loose, shady, exploitive practices in credit and finance, and by lots of wishful thinking that it would all work out even if the risks people were taking were far beyond what prudence would allow.

Hard economic times place people and institutions in jeopardy, whether it be from health care costs, credit crises, pay cuts, or layoffs. Not only is there plenty of blame to go around, today there is also plenty of pain to go around. You and I have seen the results up close. People are losing their homes. Banks are closing. Businesses are failing. Workers are losing jobs. Families are uprooted. People are crying out for a solution. This week, some people say the recovery has arrived, but we sure don’t see it in our neighborhoods and workplaces.

What kind of a economic recovery 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? Every taxpayer’s money. But who is an economy supposed to benefit? (I’ve got a lot of questions, folks. May I ask some questions here?) Who says billions can bail out executive jobs but nothing can bail out the jobs of common laborers and clerical workers? Who says tax dollars can pay off banks’ bad debts, but the average taxpaying citizens are on their own to dig their way out of debt? Debt relief for millionaires and homelessness for working people—that’s not the kind of economy we believe in. That is like saying Jesus came to announce the Jubilee, to proclaim the Year of Remission, to offer the forgiveness of debts, BUT . . . BUT . . . but then qualified the announcement by telling us only bankers and brokers and insurance executives are eligible. All I can say is that this topsy-turvy, smoke-and-mirrors, hocus-pocus economy is messed up.

I want to spend a few minutes recollecting the route we took on the way to this economic train wreck.Is it all right to break things down tonight?

One 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 there were others who actually could afford their mortgages, only to find that the crashing market in home values left them paying double the value for a house that had originally been overpriced in an inflated market. The accumulating effects of a weak economy led to workers losing jobs, and without jobs they also could no longer meet their mortgage payments. In other cases, because of adjustable rate mortgages or balloon mortgages, many people found their payments increasing at the very time when they were taking pay cuts, losing work hours, and even losing their jobs. Now the total number of mortgages in trouble was relatively small compared to all the ones that were doing fine, but the fear of bad loans and bad debts began to spread like a panic.

People became concerned about many other forms of debt, from the high finance of hedge funds to the average person’s credit card debt. 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 and retirement funds, their homes, and their investments lose a third or a half of their value, not to mention the ones who lost everything to swindlers running Ponzi schemes. Add to those the people who have lost health insurance coverage and built up mountains of debt for medical care.

When the economic situation became too severe to ignore, government officials recommended a massive bailout of major financial institutions, with the claim that saving them would save us all. Institutions who had operated in an ethereal world of trading worthless paper for empty promises were treated as the foundation and backbone of the economy. For millions of Americans, however, the recovery of these institutional Leviathans has not had the intended ripple effect. We have not been warmed by the glow of their cash-burning recoveries.

The idea was to stabilize the financial system by providing cash to banks and other financial institutions who were threatened by bad loans. However, the banks and financial institutions took our money and held on to it, or they used our money to prop up only their executive bonuses and stockholder profits. The cash infusion to financial giants did not slow down the pace of foreclosures on home mortgages that keep putting hardworking families out of their homes. Again, I have to quote from Rev. Dr. William Barber, who said, “You can’t break the bank, then rob the bank, then say there ain’t no money in the bank.” In other words, that bailout money was not intended for a small, smug, self-important group of financial genius posers who believe they are entitled to bonuses even when they fail miserably. It should be for the lenders and the borrowers who are in trouble. The bailout did not pump up the economy or reverse the plummeting employment statistics. It did not ease the pressure of indebtedness on the wage-earning public. To the contrary, credit card companies pressured their small borrowers with new and harsh credit terms and fees, and consumer interest rates soared to loan-shark heights.

So I’ve taken a little time to recall how the economic situation got so bad. We are all very capable of making a mess of our lives, and sometimes a few people can bungle things up for the rest of the people. Our collective failures can accumulate to the point that it sometimes seems there is no way out of our trouble. One solution may seem to introduce a whole new set of problems.

Continued in next post . . .

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