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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, December 15, 2010

A Prayer for the Foreclosure Crisis

I gave the invocation for a gathering of homeowners and organizers from fifteen states who met with Attorney General Tom Miller of Iowa.  Miller is leading a task force of the fifty state attorneys general who are investigating fraud and abuse in the foreclosure process.  Here is the prayer I offered.

God of all,

We come today with hearts that are heavy, yet hopeful.
Our hearts are heavy because
Your people cry out for the lack of justice.
Still, we come with hope because
We know the God who is a Waymaker.

Give us the clarity of your servant Isaiah
Who named the causes of economic collapse
Twenty-eight centuries ago--
The failed economy of Jerusalem caused by
The treachery of the powerful
Who had lavishly furnished their multiple homes
With the spoils of the poor.

May there be some like that prophet
Who will arise now,
Even from among this gathering,
To call on misleaders to repent
And do justice.

As you called Isaiah long ago,
We now listen to your calling:
"Come, let us argue it out," says the Lord.
Inspire our conversation,
And guide our feet.

Amen.

References:  Isaiah 3:14-15; Isaiah 5:8-9; Isaiah 1:16-18

Overheard in Des Moines

Here are a few things I heard while working on the foreclosure issue in Des Moines this week.

Gina Gates of San Jose, CA, said that her banker said she could get her home out of the foreclosure process if she would give them another $40,000.  When she asked for the agreement in writing, they said, "We don't put anything in writing."  Then they withdrew the agreement on the spot.

Peggy Mears of Los Angeles said, "When Bernie Madoff stole from rich people, he got 150 years on prison.  When bankers steal the homes of working people, they get millions of dollars in bonuses."

Ken Kelley of Antioch, CA, said, "If homeowners make a mistake on their mortgages, we lose everything.  But if banks make a mistake on our mortgages, we still lose everything."

Attorney General Tom Miller of Iowa responded to a question about criminal prosecution of fraud and other crimes in mortgage foreclosures, "We will put people in jail."

Push the Reset Button on Housing

That's what Gerald Taylor of North Carolina United Power keeps saying:  "We need to push the reset button on the housing market."  The economy got thoroughly messed up by the speculative, reckless practices of the mortgage industry.  The government responded by bailing them out.  They got their derivative market reset.  They get to borrow money for virtually zero per cent interest.  AIG got to push the reset button.  GM got to push the reset button.

But the banks don't want to give the rest of us a chance.  In a mess they willingly helped to make, they got off the hook.  The winners got to buy up their competitors for cents on the dollar.  They were allowed to voluntarily find ways to help homeowners, unemployed workers, pensioners whose incomes evaporated, and other victims of the economic crisis.  But they don't want to do it.

They string families along with delays and lost paperwork, offering loan modifications while simultaneously working full steam, even fraudulently, to move the foreclosure process forward.  Attorney General Tom Miller of Iowa says that this dual-track process of promising modifications while fast-tracking foreclosure is "insane."  What sense does it make for a family to get a loan modification proposal from the bank on the same day that the bank sold their house?

Give homeowners the same chance.  Reduce mortgage principal across the board to current market values.  That's right--we need across-the-board principal reductions for homeowners underwater, whether they are behind in their payments or not.  Push the reset button.  Make a market correction.  Why?

1.  Unemployed and laid-off workers, retirees depending on pensions, and many homeowners who bought market-rate homes with the assurance that the market was operating in a rational manner (when almost no one--not even the revered Alan Greenspan--recognized the housing bubble) did not come into financial misfortune because of carelessness, greed, or risky behavior.  They were overwhelmed by the economic tsunami from the collapse of the derivative house of cards.  Getting them on their feet and keeping them in their homes will help stabilize the economy.

2.  Foreclosing on one family, then selling the same house for half-price to another family is pure stupidity.  Without all the human trauma and with less paperwork and financial loss, banks could renegotiate reasonable mortgages for the people who are at risk of foreclosure. 

3.  Neighborhoods and communities where many foreclosures have happened become depressed, forcing down the value of other homes.  This puts more homeowners underwater and creates new risks for foreclosures.  Stabilizing neighborhoods by keeping families in their homes and paying modified mortgages is good for all of us.

4.  The so-called moral hazard of adjusting loans in a way that is beneficial to the borrower is a smoke screen.  If banks were being swindled into letting people off the hook who never intended to pay their mortgages, that would be a moral hazard.  But the true moral hazard came when the mortgage industry turned into the anything-goes-mortgage-derivatives orgy.  Even admitting that some homeowners took stupid risks or failed to do due diligence before borrowing, the risks and benefits of mortgage finance have to be shared.  Letting the banks off the hook for their bad debts while holding small borrowers accountable for their debts is an unjust financial system.

So set the reset button for homeowners.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pillars of the Home Mortgage Business: Fraud, Lies, Theft, and Greed

I know everyone in the home mortgage business is not a thief and liar.  Let me make that plain.

Yet it is clearly the case that the ongoing foreclosure explosion has become a money-and-power-grab by banking executives and major shareholders who will stop at nothing to make sure they don't lose a dime on their crappy mortgages, no matter how many families they have to put out on the street.  First it seemed they were simply unprepared for such a large number of mortgages going underwater.  Then it seemed they were disorganized and careless about people's paperwork.  Of course there was the disingenuous worry about "moral hazard," as if the real moral hazard had not been perpetrated by the financial system that speculated and cast away all standards in order to create more and more billions of mortgage backed securities.  Eventually it became clear that even the mortgage foreclosure cases that were progressing were not undergoing due diligence.  Then cases of "mistaken" foreclosures began to pop up more and more.  Finally, banks began to admit the ways they have been breaking the law in order to prevent loan modifications and recourse against foreclosure proceedings.  What is emerging is a coordinated and willful theft of homes from average homeowners.

So this week organizers from all over the country have converged in Des Moines, Iowa, for a summit on ending the ongoing bank misconduct and lawlessness in home foreclosures.  Gerald Taylor and I represent North Carolina United Power at this meeting, along with people from coast to coast who are fed up with the impunity of banks in the current financial crisis.  Like me, you may wonder, "Why Iowa?"

There are two reasons to meet in Des Moines.  First, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement have a long history of making a difference for working people who are being abused by the powerful.  They are hosting our gathering.  Second, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is the lead lawyer for the national investigation into illegal banking activity in the foreclosure crisis.  He will meet with our group to discuss the ongoing investigation and the possibilities for working together toward a just resolution of this crisis for all parties.

We want three major elements for a just solution. 
  1. Hold banks accountable for real, transparent loan modifications with borrowers before any foreclosure proceedings, including lowering rates, to keep families in their homes.
  2. Mandate principal reduction for owner-occupied homes as a first-line modification tool.
  3. Include remedies for homeowners who have lost their homes to be reinstated as homeowners or financially compensated for the effects of this unlawful, corrupt system.
 We will not solve it with one meeting, but we hope to see another vital step this week.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Family at Thanksgiving

We have had a great Thanksgiving visit this week.  We went to Port Neches to visit the Estes clan at Ruth and Nathan Reynolds' house.  Cousin Gary Reynolds came from Seattle with Paula, his wife, and Dylan his son.  We have not seen them in many years.  Nephew Kenny had a great time talking the music business with Gary, who has a band and a recording studio.  Cousin Buddy Reynolds, Cindy, his wife, Buddy's son Kevin, and grandson Charlie were there, too.  Ruth and Nathan were doing great.

Herb, Marie, John, Ruth, Emily, and Ken joined our family in the drive.  Last night we stayed at Herb and Marie's place in Pearland.  They have put their townhome on the market, and they are planning to relocate to Austin soon.  Follow the link if you want to live on a golf course 15 minutes from the Medical Center.

The chance to get together with family in this way is one of the great blessings of moving to Texas.  This afternoon we go to Salado to be with W.D. and Hugh Delle.  We'll be cooking Thanksgiving dinner with them on Saturday.

We could only talk with Jerene and Jim on the phone.  Thanksgiving without them this year is the sad side of moving to Texas.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Writing in New Places

Spring and summer were hectic with preparations to relocate.  I am going to be living in Austin, Texas (sort of).  Everly, my wife, is now changing the world in Austin.  I am overjoyed to finally be joining her.  I will still, however, be teaching at Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC.  And we are not buying a house yet, so I'm fulfilling my parents' nightmare by moving back in with them at 53.

Education is changing, and graduate education is no exception.  I will be teaching in a hybrid format.  Five times each semester, I will be present in the classroom in Raleigh with students.  The rest of the time will be online, group sessions in my absence, teleconferences, and guest speakers.  I like it better than purely online teaching, which I did this past year with only minimal satisfaction.  There is much to learn to get the right habits to teach students online.  I'm still learning it.

So the truck is loaded, the house here for me to stay in when I travel back to teach, and I'm full of memories, hopes, and wondering about what is coming.  I'll be writing from Austin, Salado, Durham, Raleigh, and who knows where in the coming year.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Not What You Show, But What You Sow

(Preached at Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church on July 4, 2010)

Galatians 6:7-16

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.  If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.  So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
(See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!)
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised--only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.  Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!
As for those who will follow this rule--peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
   
         When the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in the Galatian region, he did not bother with many of the usual formalities and politeness.  It was not a model of careful diplomatic language geared to avoid insult or hurt feelings.  He starts out calling them deserters; then, he moves on to call down a curse from God.  He accuses them of being people pleasers.  After reminding them that he is not afraid to get all up on someone’s face, no matter what kind of big shot that person may be, the he calls them a bunch of fools who are acting like someone has cast a spell on them and turned them stupid.  And he does all of that by the first verse of the third chapter, in what we might call his introduction.  If a preacher had come and said that kind of stuff in her church, my momma would likely have said that she couldn’t believe he had the “gall” to talk that way.  I can hear the whispering as people leave the service, “Of all the nerve!”
         Apparently the Apostle Paul thought there was something seriously at stake in the problems the Galatian churches were struggling with.  Something was going on that could doom their whole existence as a church of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Somehow they had gotten off track so dangerously that they might end up on the wrong road.
         The symbolic issue at the center of the argument was circumcision. For Israel, the people of the covenant, circumcision was a central mark of their identity and faithfulness.  Paul, an heir of the covenant both by birth and by training, was among the circumcised.  Yet he had learned from the gospel of Jesus Christ that he was a chief among sinners, that his righteousness symbolized in his circumcision was as filthy rags when compared to the surpassing greatness of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.  He was struck down by the power of the gospel, shaken and awakened to the new creation revealed in the government-sanctioned murder of Jesus Christ.  The most pious of the circumcised plotted and shared the ugly deed of putting that kind and loving man to death, and this apostle had previously approved of their agenda one hundred percent.
         In chapter two he wrote of this new creation in words dear to many of us.  “For through works of the law, I died to the law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified (I have been executed) with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  (I in him, and he in me.)  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faithfulness to the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  In a new creation, all of us creatures take on a new identity.  Uniting with Jesus relocates our origin, our purpose, and our destiny in the story of God’s redeeming love.
In the new creation, our messed-up order and structures get replaced by a way we did not envision.  It is a way that does not legislate according to bloodline or property or skin color or language or pants or dresses or what is inside them.  Because of our baptism into Jesus, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, not male and female.”  In so many ways we try to make it seem that some are better than others, some more deserving, some more beautiful, some more inherently good, some more dignified, some more valuable.  We want to believe that something about us makes us superior and others inferior.  If we don’t feel comfortable just coming out and saying it, we figure out a way to say it in code.
In Galatia, the church people had let circumcision become a code for superiority.  In that kind of thinking, men who had obeyed the law to be circumcised had reached a higher level of being God’s people.  This focus on circumcision encoded all kinds of political structures into a distorted and perverted gospel.  Since it was primarily those born into Jewish families who would have been circumcised, the Galatian church politics divided them by nationality.  Greeks, who were unlikely to have been circumcised, could be seen as residing at a lower level of the faith. 
From Paul’s description, the fascination with circumcision as a sign of faithfulness in Galatian churches clearly was linked to status.  A group who had a reputation as “pillars of the church” were known as sticklers for the legalism when it came to the law.  When others were envious or overly impressed by these pillars, they aspired to be like them in order to share their rank or status.  If they could get the approval of the pillars, get accepted into the in-group, join the popular crowd, then people would look up to them, too.  The confusion brought on by such political thinking is that getting into the popular crowd means for some people that God ranks them above someone else.  They encoded status and rank onto circumcision.
Finally, because the law prescribed circumcision for males only, the politics of gender relations got mixed up in these churches.  As an aside, let me note that these cultures did not practice female genital mutilation, a tradition wrongly labeled as circumcision with very different effects on health and the quality of life.  The circumcision of which Paul is writing about was a mark on the flesh of a man.  Since they had encoded it with bloodline and rank, by implication women could not achieve the higher rank of the circumcised. 
I think Paul was right to see how the controversy over circumcision had become a ticking time bomb, ready to destroy the churches in Galatia, and perhaps elsewhere.  In the new creation, Paul had come to see that things like circumcision and its political meanings had been unmasked as mere showiness, smoke and mirrors, false pretenses of superiority or blessedness.  He wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faithfulness working through love.”
That is why in this closing section of the letter, Paul has tried to sum it up by saying that it is not what you show, but what you sow.  Showing off your skin color, your language, your gender power, your conspicuous consumption, or even your pretentious piosity amounts to nothing.  Actually it is worse than nothing because it is a false gospel leading us to ruin and degradation.  Putting on a show of faith leads to a dead end.  As Jesus said, “Everyone who cries ‘Lord!  Lord!’ will not enter the Kingdom of God.”  The pretentious Pharisee did not leave his loud and self-important prayer justified.  By contrast, he widow who quietly deposited her two pennies gave the greatest offering, drawing forth praise from our Lord.  Paul was suspicious of people in the church “who were reputed to be pillars.”  He suspected that they went about their lives promoting the idea of their own piety and importance rather than giving the glory to God.
Paul was addressing a problem in his time in which circumcision had become a code word for claiming superiority in the eyes of God.  In our day, circumcision is not a very comfortable subject for polite conversation since it brings our attention to private matters concerning genital organs and painful surgery.  Frankly, circumcision is not something churches in our time and place get in big arguments about.  Maybe that means we can just put the Letter to the Galatians aside and not mess with it anymore.  In that case, I guess I must be finished.
Just kidding!  Although we may not be arguing about circumcision does not mean that we are not still finding coded ways of trying to prove ourselves superior to one another and create a false gospel.  What better day than July 4th to talk about a false gospel?  Frederick Douglass famously called out the white folks in Rochester, NY, in 1852 when they invited him to be their Independence Day speaker.  He pointed out to them the way that the idea of independence and liberty had become empty code for white supremacy.
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?
I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
Douglass could see the idolatry that permeated the celebration of the 4th.  The idea of the United States as the beacon of liberty and the hope for all the nations was an empty idol.  Salvation built on violent domination is a false gospel.
The Apostle Paul claimed that circumcision had become an idol.  Making a “good showing in the flesh” did not amount to anything else than a big show, just like an idol is nothing but a dressed-up piece of wood, metal, or clay.  Nowadays we make our own kinds of idols.  The flag can become an idol.  I first began to recognize this a twenty years ago when there was a public controversy about burning the flag.  Men who were usually stoically unemotional in church became agitated and passionate to the point of weeping over the flag.  More recently, a citizen questioned a presidential candidate’s loyalty to the nation based on whether the candidate made it a habit to wear a flag-shaped lapel pin.  Making a good showing of loyalty to the flag can easily come to substitute for true love of God.
But making a show will not cut it.  Paul says it is like sowing to your own flesh.  It will be good to remind ourselves what Paul means when he compares flesh and spirit.  “Flesh” here does not mean the body.  In this case, flesh means turning away from what God would have us do, as opposed to Spirit which means turning toward what God would have us do.  Sowing to the flesh is devoting ourselves to something less than God’s purposes for us. 
No national emblem, no nation-state and its pretensions as the means of human salvation, deserves our highest loyalty.  The United States of America cannot save us, nor can the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Liberia, or any other throne, dominion, principality or power.  No pumped up image of a nation can give us what we long for. 
Sowing to the Spirit, on the other hand, devoting our whole selves and highest loyalties to God and God’s purposes, will save us.  When we try to rise above others by claiming superiority over them, it is just an empty show.  When we sow to the Spirit we follow in the way of Jesus by bearing one another’s burdens, by not growing weary in doing what is right, by living in faithfulness that works itself out in love.  Instead of greed, licentiousness, hatred, dissension, jealousy, and factions, sowing to the Spirit replaces these vices with the virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Trying to hide our unrighteousness and vice behind a code of self-importance will not make it anything else but filthy rags.  In our day, image has become everything.  Trademarks and brands sell an image as much as they sell a product.  People choose clothing that advertises a brand, announcing to the world, “I’m a Coca-Cola person.” Or I’m an Old Navy, or Abercrombee, or Hollister person.  I’m a Chevy or Ford or Honda person.  I’m an Eagle or an Aggie.  I’m for Duke or Carolina.  We secretly hope that by identifying with a brand we will prove ourselves better than others.  We hold contempt for those who will not come and try to be like us. 
So to be unamerican becomes a grave sin in the eyes of those who sow to the flesh.  Those who speak another language are looked upon with disdain.  Any other nation which would claim for itself a measure of autonomy and dignity that might raise the price of a gallon of gas becomes an enemy.  But “do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.”  Those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind.  Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.  Violence begets violence in a never-ending chain of destruction.  Eventually, the chickens come home to roost.
On this day we may appropriately honor the good done by our foremothers and forefathers.  We may honor ideals of a people without putting our trust in nations and empires.  But more importantly, we may love one another, live in peace with one another, share the joy of human fellowship, be patient with one another’s shortcomings, show kindness rather than claiming superiority, continue doing good to one another without demanding a reward, be faithful to God when the going gets tough, be gentle rather than pushing and shoving our way around, and always keep from elevating ourselves into the place of God.  If we can continue in well-doing, in doing what is right, we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.
May our prayer today be the prayer of the Apostle Paul as he closed out his letter in his own handwriting.  “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”  In praying this prayer, we turn away from the enclosures of race, of nation, of language, of gender domination, and we open ourselves to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.  Following this rule, we promote the peace of God’s people and we allow ourselves to be united to, yea to be grafted into, the Israel of God, beyond all national borders and boundaries, the true humanity.  “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”  It is the pearl of great price, worth all that we have.  May we sow our lives to the Spirit.  May the fruit of God’s Spirit grow in us.  Not what we show, but what we sow.



        

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 12: The Peaceable Household (Oikos)

Isaiah 11:1-11

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.


    On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
    On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.

In another familiar text from Advent, Isaiah 11 speaks of a shoot growing from a stump.  It is a familiar image for anyone who has had a tree cut down in the yard.  Unless it suffered from disease and died all the way down to the roots, it usually keeps sending up new growth every spring.  If you did not want the tree, then you have to keep cutting it back, maybe even digging it out.

Isaiah says that this is the nature of God's judgment.  It is like pruning.  The damaged, diseased, dead, unbalanced, or otherwise problematic parts are cut back to reshape and revitalize the tree.  Christians have long seen this as a Messianic text linking Jesus to the promises God made to Israel.  The Messiah brings a new beginning from the same root of God's love in calling Israel to be a holy nation.

Even without Christological interpretation, the text describes a ruler who is wise, pious, righteous, equitable, faithful, and just.  The ruler will provide justice to the poor and to the meek.  All who would abuse and oppress them will receive swift and harsh judgment.  It is a promise of a different kind of world than the one that has brought the prophetic oracles delivered by Isaiah against Judah.

The lines which follow have inspired the imagination of writers, painters, musicians, and everyday folks through the centuries.  In classic poetic parallelism of Hebrew literature, line after line names a vulnerable animal and a dangerous predator.  The vulnerable are lambs, kids, calves, cows, oxen, and human infants and toddlers.  The predators are wolves, leopards, lions, bears, asps, and adders.  They appear in pairs, perhaps echoing the pairs going into the ark, but this time shockingly from different species who are not usually at peace.  The multiple species also echo the story of Eden, in which the various species lived in harmony.  To reinforce that allusion, it says that lions will eat straw like oxen.

The juxtaposition of the weak alongside the predators reminds the reader of how things have been in Judah.  The powerful have preyed on the vulnerable.  Often, when people describe themselves as powerful, whether it be kings, bankers, day-traders, generals, senators, and such, they compare themselves to predators.  Sport teams prefer mascots like lions, tigers, hawks, eagles, vipers, bears, wolves, and panthers.  It was true long ago as well.  Kings liked to be called lions.  Biblical language reflects this, for example the term "the Lion of the Tribe of Judah" can refer to a king from David's descent.  Chapter 10 refers to the king of Assyria as a "Bull."  But these lines challenge that kind of language.  They speak of a transformation of nature.

These poetic lines provide a restatement in different language of what the shoot from Jesse will bring.  Lions, bears, and adders will become known for their gentleness.  Lambs will have no reason to fear wolves.  Human babies need not scream or run from the presence of poisonous snakes.  The change from business as usual, what the powerful thought of as "natural," will be complete under the plan of God.  Those who were previously predators and those who were previously prey can now live together harmoniously because there must be no oppression of the poor, no twisting of the laws to favor the wealthy, no double standard shaped by money.  When everyone listens and learns the ways of God, it will become clearly rational that together they must make sure there is no one in need among them.  When everyone loves God and the goodness of God's creation more than private control, status, power, and luxury, then finding the way to live together in harmony will again be revealed as the purpose for living.

Clive Rainey, one of the originals from Habitat for Humanity, uses a term that makes some sense here for thinking about economic life.  He says that part of the benefit of Habitat's approach to housing comes from "rooftop moments."  Rainey is referring to those moments when a Habitat homeowner, putting in sweat equity on the home she is going to buy, finds herself alone working on the roof with a church-going banker, manager, or business owner.  As often as not, the pair are of different skin colors.  In those minutes or hours spent working, eventually people who come from groups who almost never have occasion to speak with one another strike up a conversation.  They almost inevitably find their presuppositions about one another shattered.  As they tell their stories to one another, they begin to imagine a world not so divided into the successful and the failures, the rich and the poor, the hard-working and the lazy, the smart and the stupid, the deserving and the undeserving.  I think this is what the wolf and the lamb lying together is supposed to tell us about the household of God.

The Greek word for household is oikos, the same Greek root from which we get our word economy.  An economy, if it is like a household, is a system of provision through interdependence and mutuality.  Everyone is not exactly alike.  All have distinct gifts.  Some may excel beyond others.  But at base, all contribute and all benefit.  When needed, all sacrifice, but as the Apostle Paul says, they do so in proportion to what they have.  Some must contribute and sacrifice more in a commitment to care for each person.  The Peaceable Kingdom is also a Peaceable Household.  They are both Beloved Community.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 11: All People and Nations Standing Before a Just God

Isaiah 10:5-7, 11-15, 33-34

Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger—
     the club in their hands is my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him,
     and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
     and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
But this is not what he intends,
     nor does he have this in mind;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
     and to cut off nations not a few.

"Shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
     what I have done to Samaria and her images?”

     When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride. For he says:

“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
     and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I have removed the boundaries of peoples,
     and have plundered their treasures;
     like a bull I have brought down those who sat on thrones.
My hand has found, like a nest,
     the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
     so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing,
     or opened its mouth, or chirped.”

Shall the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it,
     or the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it?
As if a rod should raise the one who lifts it up,
     or as if a staff should lift the one who is not wood!

Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts,
     will lop the boughs with terrifying power;
the tallest trees will be cut down,
     and the lofty will be brought low.
He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax,
     and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.


The Assyrian imperialism and its widespread destruction of cities, villages, farms, and people, raises theological questions for the Isaiah and the people.  First, the Assyrians are not examples of obedience to Yahweh.  They see the gods of other peoples, including Judah, as idols, as weak deities who will fall before their divine mission.  They pursue greed through conquest.  Assyria and its leaders are also guilty of economic injustice.  Why would God allow Assyria to succeed while judging the sins of Judah and Israel?

Isaiah declares that Assyria's time will come.  They also stand under the judgment of God.  In the meantime, God allows the cycle of violence and greed to work itself out, sowing and reaping destruction.  Assyria does not march across the continent with an understanding of its conquest as the judgment of Yahweh.  For Assyria, it is the demonstration of the greatness of their generals and armies.  Thanks to their own greatness, Assyrian leaders believe they will grasp and carry away the wealth of the nations.  They will plunder all the treasures of the continent and claim it for themselves.  This is the very same sinfulness of the leaders and elite of Judah, expanded to an even more violent dominance and an even more vast landscape.  But God is not "blessing" Assyria.  Assyria will quickly sow the seeds of its own destruction.

Second, in the process of Assyrian conquest, the widows and orphans, the weak and the vulnerable, will also suffer, as stated in chapter nine.  Here in chapter ten, Isaiah offers more insight into this theological problem about the suffering of innocents.  Assyria, while serving as an instrument of judgment, does not act in accord with the will of God.  Imperialistic war, violence, plunder, killing and maiming--these are not the ways of God.  They are the ways of sin.  God is not endorsing violence, but allowing sin to work out its terrible consequences.  Violence comes into the world, not by the will of God, but by the freedom to be greedy, self-aggrandizing, possessive, and hateful that God has allowed to humanity.  This same violence led to the organized use of power to execute the sinless one, Jesus.  God is not pleased to see this violence, but God is willing to endure the violence to which humanity finds itself in bondage.  The struggle of righteousness and justice is to push back the powers formed in violence in the name of those formed in peace and justice.

So Assyria will have its day of judgment as well.  As Dr. King said, “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate.”  That is what seeking economic justice is about.  Someone has to have the sense to say enough is enough in exploiting workers and the poor.  Someone has to stop the destruction, stand in the gap, speak truth to power, lift as we climb.  That is why the prophecies of the Old Testament are always conditional.  There is another way that leads to peace.  Jesus wept over Jerusalem's failure to find that way.  But if the unjust structures stand, the road will lead to a downward spiral of violence.  Pray that the Lord will send workers into the harvest, workers who know the good news of the way of Jesus.

Isaiah and Economic Justice 10: Failing as Public Servants

Isaiah 10:1-4

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth,
so as not to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain?
For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.
In the last few postings, I've written about chapters which don't give much specific mention of the economy.  They speak more broadly of unrighteousness and injustice, of unfaithfulness and sin.  Therefore, I had to keep pointing back to earlier chapters in which the specific sinfulness of the leaders, the wealthy, the elite, even the priests and prophets, focused on foreclosures, usury, unfair wages, violence, and such.  Some of you may have begun to doubt that I was accurately portraying the message by overemphasizing the economy.  Just in time, we turn to chapter ten.

One of the important features of economic oppression is the cooperation of public officials.  Sometimes, they just look the other way and don't enforce the laws that would protect the weak and honest.  Often, they write laws which fail at equity.  One of the favorite tricks of lobbyists and lawmakers is to advocate reforming the law, only to use the pretense of reform as a way to give benefits to the economically powerful.  A regulatory board may be established to oversee chemical companies, but then the chemical company executives and their lobbyists get appointed to the board.  Farm bills may promise to help the family farmer, but almost all of the financial benefits goes to large industrial factory farms.  The new Medicare prescription drug benefit included a provision that the government would not regulate the price of the drugs, a huge benefit to the pharmaceutical companies.

Isaiah charges head on into this very problem occurring in his day.  He calls the laws themselves "iniquitous decrees."  He says the rulers are writing "oppressive statutes."  What is the result?  They are robbing the poor, turning aside justice, despoiling widows, and preying on orphans.  The laws are stacked against the vulnerable.  For this reason, the rulers will face judgment.  They will have to run from their palaces and offices to hide among the prisoners and the dead, hoping no one recognizes them.  God will not hold back the invaders.  How the mighty have fallen!

They will have to leave their plunder behind.  Someone else will claim it.  Even if they try to hide it, they will not have it to use.  An unjustly structured economy is abhorrent to God.

Throughout the long history of the church, even back to the apostolic era, the issue of just and unjust laws has been a critical matter for Christian ethics.  Whether it be Peter before the Sanhedrin, Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or many others, it was clear that Christians must not obey unjust laws.  In fact, they must disobey them.  At times in the modern age, it seems that a new hermeneutic of divine right of regimes has replaced the discernment process concerning just and unjust laws.  In the U.S., which has always had a self-image as God's Country, the commitment of church people to always obey the civil laws has been powerful.  The confusion between Christian ethics and the ethics of American culture have been so intertwined that most people cannot name the difference.

It was a critic of the church, Henry David Thoreau, who revived the tradition of resisting unjust laws during the Mexican War, when he argued for civil disobedience because the war tax was supporting an unjust war.  Martin Luther King, Jr., and others revived the discernment process of identifying just and unjust laws, and he advocated with Thoreau, the Bible, and the Christian theological tradition the duty  to disobey unjust laws.

When unjust economic structures oppress the poor and impoverish the vulnerable, Christians have a duty to rise up and seek to change those structures.  The laws which support those structures must be repealed, revised, and reformed.  Working outside the system and with the system are both legitimate paths by which the church seeks to establish a Jubilee economics under the guidance of God.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Reverse Flow: Flip-Flopping the U.S. Economy

One feature of economic systems, as in ecosystems, is the flow of resources from one region to another.   For instance in an ecosystem, nutrients flow up the food chain.  If pollutants get into the system, they flow that direction too and concentrate in the top predators.  Rivers flow downhill, winding wherever the ridges and ravines of the landscape guide them, carving out their paths as they go.  In economic systems, money and wealth also flow through winding, complex paths.  Economic systems are human constructions, although the more complex they become the less direct control people have over them, for good or for ill.  People and organizations regularly intervene in the flow of resources in an attempt to redirect their flow.  Sometimes they do this with an eye toward the common good, but other times with an eye to personal gain.

There is an interesting history of redirecting the flow of rivers.  One of the more famous cases is the Chicago River, which used to flow into Lake Michigan.  As the city and its industry grew, the river became more and more polluted, and its toxic flow into Lake Michigan put poisons into the water supply of Chicago.  Eventually, a plan to reverse its flow through industrial canals so that it eventually flowed into the Mississippi Basin helped preserve the waters of Lake Michigan.  Of course, it means the sewage and pollution flowed somewhere else.

The Soviet Union, known for its massive statist vision of industrial progress, long debated and planned for reversing a portion of the flow of Siberian rivers whose waters were "wasted" by emptying into the Arctic Ocean.  Regions with growing industry, agriculture, and population could use the water better for the benefit of the Union.  The internal debates dealt not only with the methods and costs of water transfers, but also on the affect on the climate, especially in the northern regions.  Many argued that the reversal of waters would lead to a shorter growing season and colder winters.  Eventually the plans were dropped, although the mayor of Moscow has revived the idea to reverse a portion of the flow of the Ob river to serve other regions.

China has planned numerous water redirection proposals in order to deal with its growing industrialization and population needs.  Russia fears dams and canals in China will bring desertification to some of its important industrial and agricultural regions.  India and Bangladesh face even greater fear of ecological and economic damage from a plan to divert water from the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra River to the Yellow River.  Some of the most densely populated regions of the world are watered by the Brahmaputra, which flows east along the northern side of the Himalayas in China before turning south, then west through Nagaland and Bangladesh.  China's plan would send much of this water north and east, eventually thousands of miles away into Bohai Bay off the Yellow Sea, not far from Beijing and in the direction of Korea.

The point of talking about river reversals is that in each of these cases, some who had the capacity to redirect the flow of water did so, although not necessarily to the benefit of all who could be affected.  As China and India compete for industrial growth, and as each deals with a history of population growth, water becomes an ever more precious commodity.  The capacity to control the flow of this resource can become a path to survival and prosperity for some, and for impoverishment and death for others.  Even the powerful central administration of the Soviet Union could not amass the social and political power within the nation-state to reverse the flow of water resources according to its vision of a new society.  The Chicago River's transport of sewage benefits many people, but pollutes the Mississippi River basin and potentially many urban and rural water supplies as it crosses Illinois.

Various parties, even those who claim to believe in free markets, are constantly evaluating the flow of resources in the economy and trying to think of ways to redirect the flow.  It is fairly accurate to conclude that those who insist on doctrines of the free market conveniently interpret freedom to be their own freedom while limiting the freedom of others.  They organize, spend, lobby, and manipulate to bend the laws governing economics in their favor and against the interests of those they consider their opponents or adversaries.  Many seek monopolistic structures whereby they can become the de facto market regulators in place of government regulation, or with the assistance of government regulation. 

An examination of the economic policy changes and their results in the forty years since 1980 ends up looking much like reversing the flow of rivers.  Paul Krugman's column, "The Old Enemies," of a week ago spurred me to see this comparison.  Here is an excerpt.

If you really want to know what’s going on, watch the corporations.

How can you do that? Follow the money — donations by corporate political action committees.

Look, for example, at the campaign contributions of commercial banks — traditionally Republican-leaning, but only mildly so. So far this year, according to The Washington Post, 63 percent of spending by banks’ corporate PACs has gone to Republicans, up from 53 percent last year. Securities and investment firms, traditionally Democratic-leaning, are now giving more money to Republicans. And oil and gas companies, always Republican-leaning, have gone all out, bestowing 76 percent of their largess on the G.O.P.

These are extraordinary numbers given the normal tendency of corporate money to flow to the party in power. Corporate America, however, really, truly hates the current administration. Wall Street, for example, is in “a state of bitter, seething, hysterical fury” toward the president, writes John Heilemann of New York magazine. What’s going on?

One answer is taxes — not so much on corporations themselves as on the people who run them. The Obama administration plans to raise tax rates on upper brackets back to Clinton-era levels. Furthermore, health reform will in part be paid for with surtaxes on high-income individuals. All this will amount to a significant financial hit to C.E.O.’s, investment bankers and other masters of the universe.

Now, don’t cry for these people: they’ll still be doing extremely well, and by and large they’ll be paying little more as a percentage of their income than they did in the 1990s. Yet the fact that the tax increases they’re facing are reasonable doesn’t stop them from being very, very angry.

Nor are taxes the whole story.

Many Obama supporters have been disappointed by what they see as the administration’s mildness on regulatory issues — its embrace of limited financial reform that doesn’t break up the biggest banks, its support for offshore drilling, and so on. Yet corporate interests are balking at even modest changes from the permissiveness of the Bush era.

From the outside, this rage against regulation seems bizarre. I mean, what did they expect? The financial industry, in particular, ran wild under deregulation, eventually bringing on a crisis that has left 15 million Americans unemployed, and required large-scale taxpayer-financed bailouts to avoid an even worse outcome. Did Wall Street expect to emerge from all that without facing some new restrictions? Apparently it did.
His comments made me look back again to refresh my memory of the tax rates of the federal income tax.  In preparation for war and in time of war, during the late 1930s through the 1950s, marginal tax rates for those earning high incomes stayed around 90%.  Those earning and amassing great wealth were expected to pay most of it back into the system to support military families, war efforts, road building, crime prevention, agricultural infrastructure, small business support, unemployment, assistance to the poor--including children, widows, and others.  It was only fair that a system which prospered because of the hard work of the masses would structure a downward flow of resources from those who were benefiting most from the economy toward those on whose backs those benefits had grown, and to those who were most vulnerable to the harsh effects of economic processes.

It would be remiss not to remind readers that the lower tiers of everyone's income are taxed the same.  As a person's income rises, the higher tiers of that income become taxed at higher rates.  For most of the twentieth century, the federal tax rates had many tiers.  As one's income rose, one paid a lower tax rate on the lower amounts, then progressively higher rates on the additional amounts.  It made for complicated math, but it made good sense for trying to strengthen the entire economy.  There are still several "tax brackets," but the percentage differences are much smaller than they used to be.

In the prosperous 1960s, the top marginal tax rate declined to the 70% range, where it remained until 1981.  Having moved beyond World War II and the Korean War, having repurposed industry away from the build-up of conventional war materiel, the U.S. revised the taxation system to allow those at the top of the economy to retain three times as much as they previously had of their marginally high incomes.

Starting in the 1980s, the top tax rates dropped drastically.  The reasoning was that so many tax loopholes and exemptions existed, the people in the highest brackets were mostly avoiding paying those rates.  If loopholes and exemptions could be eliminated, then maybe they would end up paying their fair share with lower tax rates.  Ever since that time, people whose income is higher than 80% of the nation have paid a significantly lower portion of their income in taxes.  Yet they have grown to pay a larger share of the total federal tax bill because their incomes have increased four times faster than the lower income portion of the population.

Thus the last part of the twentieth century witnessed changes in the flow of resources within the U.S. economy.  Ross Perot's famous "giant sucking sound" was redirecting the flow of wage income away from U.S. workers and toward overseas workers, not merely in the Americas, but also in China and other Pacific economies, and even a few African economies.  On the taxation front, the wealthiest U.S. taxpayers now had to pay only half of the percentage of their marginally higher incomes than had previously been the case.  A major policy for redistribution of wealth was fully underway, with the help of government policies on trade, taxation, and labor.  But these were not the only massive wealth transfers happening.  Another regulatory change also redirected the flow of resources.

Usury caps had for centuries helped to prevent overconcentration of wealth among a few.  Keeping interest rates at relatively low levels slows the transfer of wealth from the lower-income groups toward the wealthy lords of finance.  As interest rates rise, debtors find it harder to get out of debt.  The history of sharecropping, company towns with company stores, tenant farming, and other such systems illustrates again and again that the power of lenders has to be held in check for the benefits of the economy to accrue in a fair and just manner.  Usury laws imposing interest rate caps are one of the best methods to do this.  But around 1980, a series of changes in law eliminated the regulation on interest charged by banks, credit card financiers, and other financial institutions.  The massive growth of consumer credit, the housing bubble, and many more destructive trends have led to huge transfers of wealth from average workers toward a financial elite through bonuses, short-term gains, and eventually through bailouts of the banking, finance, and insurance industries.

On one side, changes in tax policies reduced the flow of resources toward shared benefits and the common good.  In the middle, the flow of resources to U.S. workers stopped growing or declined, as wages flowed overseas.  On the other side, the income of low- and middle-income people began to flow into profits for the financial industry through a system designed to keep people perpetually in debt through high interest rates, exorbitant fees, and deceptive policies.  Like reversing the flow of a river, the resources stop going where they used to.  Instead, they go elsewhere to benefit a few and harm others.  This is not an argument for never meddling.  It is an argument for making decisions with the good of all people in mind.  That is what the biblical teachings on economic life tell us:  put in place economic structures that will prevent permanent indebtedness, harsh economic class divisions, and rewards for manipulating money markets.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 9: Blinded by Greed

Isaiah 9:8-16

The Lord sent a word against Jacob,
    and it fell on Israel;
and all the people knew it—
    Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria—
    but in pride and arrogance of heart they said:
“The bricks have fallen,
    but we will build with dressed stones;
the sycamores have been cut down,
    but we will put cedars in their place.”

So the Lord raised adversaries against them,
    and stirred up their enemies,

the Arameans on the east and the Philistines on the west,
    and they devoured Israel with open mouth.
For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.

The people did not turn to him who struck them,
    or seek the Lord of hosts.

So the Lord cut off from Israel head and tail,
    palm branch and reed in one day—

elders and dignitaries are the head,
    and prophets who teach lies are the tail;

for those who led this people led them astray,
    and those who were led by them were left in confusion.


The ninth chapter of Isaiah begins with a familiar advent passage.  It celebrates the end of oppression and the coming of a wise and just ruler.  This ruler will be born for greatness and receive titles of honor such as "Prince of Peace."  Peace, Justice, Righteousness--this is the way of God which Isaiah announced.

The second half of the chapter warns the reader not to expect this blessed revolution just yet.  Even though judgment has already begun to befall the people of Israel and Judah, the leaders and the elite have not listened.  It is just as chapter 6 said.  They will look but not understand.  Having felt the sting of judgment, the people in charge decided to "speak their blessing into existence."  Against all evidence, they said they would build fancier houses and restore their woodlands with even more luxurious trees.

As the earlier chapters of Isaiah have shown, the only way they will build fancier houses and enrich their lands is by further oppressing the poor.  They have not sought to know the Lord better and to understand what would please God.  They have not comprehended God's love for justice.  All they have thought is that they deserve to live the high life, so they will do what it takes to get back to it.

Again, the misleaders have appeared.  Elders, dignitaries, and prophets who teach lies have led the whole nation astray.  They are bringing on the judgment of God, not listening to the faithful message which calls Israel to be a nation in which all people share in the bounty of God's creation.

After the quoted text, Isaiah hits the hard part of the judgment.  It deals with the suffering inflicted on the whole people.  Some have created unjust structures and benefited from others' hardships.  The others were left with confusion.  Judah's leaders had build an unjust and corrupt system.  Such a system comes from the basest motives of selfishness, lust, and greed.  In a world designed around selfishness, lust, and greed, everyone is trying to gain an advantage and use whoever they can to fulfill their insatiable corrupt desires.

Further toward the end of the chapter it says that they devoured their own kin.  Manasseh and Ephraim fought each other, and they both turned on Judah.  Scheming, stealing, fighting, killing--the sins of oppression grow ever more evil and deadly.  Everyone pays the price, even widows and orphans who did not bring it on themselves.  Any sign of weakness gives someone else permission to crush and plunder.  That is what will happen when Assyria and Babylon get ready to pounce.

What Isaiah is describing happens in our workplaces.  It happens in our neighborhoods.  It happens on the City Planning Commission, at the country club, in the board room, at the elite restaurants.  It happens anywhere that people stop thinking of the vulnerable and start thinking of ways to leverage their connections to gain from the unsuspecting and unrepresented.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 8: Watch Out for Immanuel

Isaiah 7:14-17, 23

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.  The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria. . . . On that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns.

Isaiah 8:5-8

The Lord spoke to me again:  Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and melt in fear before Rezin and the son of Remaliah; therefore, the Lord is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks; it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over, it will reach up to the neck; and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.

Isaiah 8:9-10

Band together, you peoples, and be dismayed;
     listen, all you far countries;
gird yourselves and be dismayed;
     gird yourselves and be dismayed!
Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught;
     speak a word, but it will not stand,
     for God is with us.

Isaiah 8:13-14

But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.  He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Isaiah 8:17-18

I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.  See, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.


Chapters 7 and 8 revolve around the fear of impending war and the sign of Immanuel.  All the way back to the canon of scripture, Christians have read the Immanuel saying in 7:14 as a promise of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  There are many intertextual reasons to read it that way, and I would not want to disagree with that reading.

However, when we overlay the Christological interpretation of Isaiah with sugary sweet images of a sanitized and quiet baby Jesus ("no crying he makes"), we are likely to forget that there are multiple levels of meaning in a text.  Attentive reading of chapters 7 and 8 within the whole range of the opening chapters of Isaiah ought to stir up more than the "Aaaaawwwww" that a newborn baby elicits from us.

First of all, before the coming of Jesus and the theological interpretation of his life by the church, people who read these chapters did not apply them to Christmas.  There was no Christmas during those half a dozen centuries.  I do not doubt that the text can take on Messianic significance, but Jesus' behavior and words depicted in the Gospels ought to make clear to readers that there was a great variety of opinion concerning just what the Messiah would be, how the Messiah would come, and what the Messiah would do.

Second, the identity of the sign of Immanuel in these passages remains ambiguous.  One vector of interpretation can move toward a figure who by God's power would restore justice.  These sayings about the child seem to indicate a delay.  This is what the early Christians saw in this text as a Christological foreshadowing.  Yet the abundance of meaning in the text is striking.  It goes on to indicate that God will send a leader to deal with the rumors of war between Syria, Israel, and Judah.  It seems to be saying that the King of Assyria is this leader.  God with us can mean the devastating invasion of the Assyrian army.

It is not a prosperity gospel text.  It says that when God is with us, the result can be the destruction and disappearance of massive wealth, to be replaced by weeds: briers and thorns.  This judgment is not only for Judah, but also for Israel, Syria, and all the nations.  Continuing in their injustice, their warmaking, their pillaging of one another, their greed--these ways will lead to their destruction.  They can scheme, plan, gird up, and pronounce, but God is with us and nothing they do will stand.


God is with us, but we are apparently mistaken if we expect that God's presence entitles us to blessings.  God may turn away from us in disgust at our unjust, uncaring use of possessions.  As Jeremiah says, just because the Temple is in Jerusalem does not mean that corrupt people are protected by some sort of high-tech force field.  The God who is with us is the one we ought to dread when we have trampled the poor, put their spoils in our houses, taken their dwellings, and built idols of opulence.

Getting back to the Christological and Messianic reading of the text, we have to remember that Jesus' birth was not in the Mayo Clinic Obstetrics wing.  It was in a cattle barn.  He started out in a refugee family, living among people as an immigrant.  The king tried to kill him before he could grow up.  And even when he had grown up into his Messianic calling, the people in power quickly figured out that he was not what they wanted as a Messiah.  He had too much critical to say about oppression.  He wanted people with excess to realize that it did not belong to them, but to the poor.  He talked about instating the Jubilee practices.  So all the Gospels tell us that very early in his ministry, the powerful began to plot to kill him.

What I'm getting at is that God with us was not good news to Herod.  It was not good news to the rich young man.  It was not good news to scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Herodians.  It was not good news to Rome.  Zaccheus saw and understood this good news.  So did Matthew, Peter, and Mary.  But when the council, the rulers, the wealthy, the powerful, the clergy, politicians, and the high and mighty got their national guard and army to arrest and execute him, the ones who saw hope in the sign of Immanuel had to have patience and wait to see what would come.

So if you hear Immanuel is going to be in town, you'd best watch out.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 7: Not Seeing the Writing on the Wall

[I'm trying to put aside the distractions and get back to more regular writing again.  Entry 6 in this series appeared on February 16.]

Isaiah 6: 5-13

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost,
     for I am a man of unclean lips,
     and I live among a people of unclean lips;
yet my eyes have seen the King,
     the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  The seraph touched my mouth with it and said:
“Now that this has touched your lips,
     your guilt has departed
     and your sin is blotted out.”
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
“Whom shall I send,
     and who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
     keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
     and stop their ears,
     and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
     and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
     and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:  “Until cities lie waste
     without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
     and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
     and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
     it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
     whose stump remains standing
     when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.

The calling of Isaiah the prophet in the temple, when he saw the Lord high and lifted up is a well-known passage.  Moreover, in the modern mission movement, the response, "Here am I.  Send me," is a key point of missiological reflection.

Many readers remember the rest of the passage in chapter six, but it is not as familiar.  Moreover, for those who struggle with intellectual conundrums concerning predestination and free will, the text is sometimes troubling.  It says that Isaiah's job is to give this message of judgment, which the previous chapters have shown to be based on economic injustice, but that people will not listen.  In fact, it seems to say that Isaiah does not want them to listen and understand.

Frankly, I find little justification for the kind of interpretation which claims that there is some sort of necessary period of destruction that has to happen before the people will get the message.  It is not necessary in any philosophical sense that this time of destruction must come.  So God is not stopping their ears or muddling their reasoning.  Nor are they part of some historical determinism which must pass through requisite stages before arriving at a new condition.

What Isaiah's calling warns him about is that even though people begin to see evidence of their injustice and their downfall, they will continue to assert and believe that they do not need to change.  It is saying that people who see the failure of their systems and structures will look upon it and then demand to continue doing the same thing, or even to do more of the same kind of thing as the way out of the problem.

If foxes have been guarding the hen house, then lets put foxes in charge again.  If deregulated banks, deregulated trading in financial instruments, mortgage writing with no attention to the future, and usurious interest practices have gotten us into a mess, it seems logical that some changes need to come.  Yet many call for leaving it all the same, or getting government even farther away from its duty to protect those with less power and money.

Whether listening to speakers at Dick Armey funded rallies, to Sarah Palin turning a wave of fame into a cash bonanza, or to Glen Beck making it all up as he goes along (such as claiming any church which talks about social justice is not a real church), many have believed that any kind of reform is in some way a plan to destroy the nation.  Another way to see and not understand is to put the same people in charge of the U.S. Treasury and the Economic Advisers who oversaw the housing bubble and 2008 crash and claim they never realized it was coming.  Or Congress and others keep listening to the heads of major financial institutions say they have to pay big bonuses to keep "talented" employees who "wheeled and dealed" us into a recession.  At a time when rational and moral impulses would lead toward fair and practical regulations of the financial system, many cry out against it.  They see, but they do not understand.  They hear, but do not comprehend.

If they have their way, then the cycle of bubble and bust that has dominated the US economy since the 1980s will continue, and eventually worse results will lead to greater devastation than the Great Recession of our time.  Then, the voice says, they will get it. 

But it does not have to be that way.  Prophecies of judgment are contingent, and can be avoided if people change their ways.  If not, someone else will figure out a way to take advantage of the weakness of a powerful economy, and all will come crashing down to be rebuilt.

Even then, God has not abandoned the people.  Even the stump of a tree can be the seed of redemption.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Last weekend at the Shaw University graduation we sang, as always, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Fore some time now, I have been able to sing this song without checking the printed words. When I first began teaching at Shaw in 1994, it was a song with which I was only vaguely familiar. At our convocations and commencements, roughly three times a year, I got practice singing this James Weldon Johnson anthem.

The words of this song have inspired many writers in Black studies. Various phrases have become book titles, such as "Lift every voice" or "Stony the road we trod." Singing it as a white man in the midst of people of African descent has certainly stirred reflection on the different point of view my skin color and heritage casts on the lyrics. No line more consistently stands out to me as being sung with a different meaning by me and the person next to me than, "We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered." White or black in the U.S., the generations have trodden a bloody path, but the relationship to the bloodshed is not the same. That's part of singing this song for me.

Shaw University is the place I learned to sing this song and learn its significance. The 2010 commencement is the last time I will sing it together with my colleagues at Shaw. I pray that what I have learned will continue to grow in me as I move on in my pilgrimage.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Fair Wages and Florida Tomatoes

I joined the campaign to get Kroger to work with the CIW to insure that the tomatoes they sell are picked by people who are paid a fair wage. Some of you have been working on this campaign for several years, dealing with Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, and others. Sojourners contacted me about the Kroger effort, so I used their model letter and added some thoughts of my own. Here is what I sent. I hope many of you will also write to Kroger.

I am a regular Kroger shopper at the 1802 NorthPointe Dr. store in Durham, NC. I like your store brands and your selection of produce. I use the Kroger Plus card and tolerate the self-checkout system.

Twenty-four years ago when my first child was born, we spent the last few evenings waiting for the onset of labor by walking in the Kroger store near downtown Grand Prairie, Texas, including the night before he was born. So I am a fan of Kroger stores.

One of the favorite foods in our family is the tomato. At Kroger, I buy heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, tomatoes on the vine, locally grown tomatoes, and more. We keep them stocked for sandwiches, salads, and snacks.

As a Christian and a conscientious consumer, I want to be reassured that the workers who pick the tomatoes sold in your stores are paid fair wages and have decent working conditions. I therefore ask The Kroger Company to partner with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to guarantee that tomato growers are compensated and treated fairly.

I believe everyone is created in the image of God and deserves to be treated with dignity. Yet Florida's tomato pickers currently have to harvest more than 2.5 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage for a 10-hour workday. Some pickers have even been held in modern-day slavery rings. I encourage The Kroger Company to work with CIW in confronting and overcoming such horrible exploitation.

Getting this issue resolved to make life more just for tomato pickers has been slow. Targeting Mt. Olive Pickles to help the cucumber pickers was more focused. But tomatoes are not distributed with a national brand. Only the grocery stores and restaurants have the national influence that can change the way tomato pickers are treated.

I have so far participated in boycotts of Taco Bell, McDonald's, and Burger King in the process of getting them to insure that they buy tomatoes from sellers who have paid the pickers a fair wage. I have returned to each chain to buy food in response to their partnership with CIW.

I would rather not boycott Kroger, but this issue is very important to our family. I hate paying premium prices at Whole Foods for products that are not any better than those at Kroger, but I will do it. I hate shopping at the crowded, lower quality Food Lion stores, but I will do it if your much larger national chain will not do your part for the tomato pickers to have a better life.

Please don't make me do this. I know that you have worked with unions for workers in the past, and I hope you will recommit yourself to giving workers a voice and a chance.

Yum Brands, McDonald's, Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway, and Bon Appetit are already partnering with the CIW to improve wages and to uphold a code of conduct for fair working conditions, including zero tolerance for any form of modern slavery. I urge The Kroger Company to do the same.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Evangelism and Evangelicalism

I read an interesting post on the "Call and Response" blog from the Faith and Leadership program at Duke Divinity School. Louis Weeks wrote about the accessibility and usefulness of the term Evangelical among Presbyterians and mainstream Protestants. He took note of what he sees a changes in the way that many Protestants view the word.

To some extent, he is describing a certain blurriness of the previously demarcated border between more conservative and more liberal Protestants, Presbyterians in particular. I agree that this concept is in flux among Protestants (and among some of a new generation of Catholics, too), so I offered my own thoughts on the way that Baptists (should I say baptists?) have use and understood the terms evangelism and evangelicalism during my lifetime. Here is what I had to say.

Growing up among Baptists, there was ambivalence about the term evangelical because it implied certain views of church and state which depart from the free church tradition. They liked the term evangelistic, however, and pressed us all to learn to tell our testimony and the plan of salvation whenever the grace of God presented the opportunity.

Yet in both uses of the term, one describing a verbal witness seeking a verbal response (evangelism) and the other describing adherence to a version of Reformed confession with a biblicist or fundamentalist flavor, seem to me to be theological misdirections.

What is evangelism? We all know to answer that it is sharing the good news. The next question which arises must be, "What is the good news?" I would offer that like much of modern North American theology, the concept of evangelism has been domesticated and perverted by modern Western culture.

As John Perkins noticed in the 60s and 70s, most churches he encountered had a very narrow view of "the gospel." One thing that was certain in the dominant streams of theology, especially among many evangelicals, was that the gospel was NOT about the social conditions of human existence. Jim Crow and widespread poverty were something else, perhaps related to missions, but not to the gospel. The "real" work of the church was the gospel of personal forgiveness and eternal life.

This is only a piece of the gospel. Perkins says we must bear the whole gospel to the whole person and the whole community. To see this holistic picture, I recommend looking to the Gospels to see what Jesus was talking about when he used the word "euangelion." Luke 4 is one of the key examples: good news for the poor, liberty for the oppressed, a path to wholeness for the marginalized lame, blind, and vulnerable, and a troubling challenge to the injustices of the day. This kind of good news makes clear that God is at work for the good of humanity whom God loves, in this life and the next.

We need to recover these words for the church, but we need a richer, biblical understanding of them or recovering them will merely perpetuate the shortcomings of the domesticated, malformed churches of the age of the modern nation-state.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why 10% in 10% Is Enough?

My friend and colleague Dan Rhodes posted an article on the "10% Is Enough" campaign over at the "Call and Response" blog of the Faith and Leadership program at Duke Divinity School. In a few paragraphs, he offered an brief overview of the campaign and some of the reasoning behind it. One comment chastised him for not providing an adequate analysis of the economics of consumer credit, its risks, and its basic operational principles. Dan gave a good response, acknowledging that in the short piece he could not cover everything. He also added some additional historical economic factors which are necessary to keep the discussion from pretending to be merely a technical discussion of "laws of economics." I am including here some comments I added to his post.

For centuries, banks were very profitable businesses operating under usury caps. Why are banks in our day so much more inept? Not all banks in the world charge high interest rates for credit. Why are US banks so much more inept at doing business?

We know that "risk" is calculated using benchmarks and tables and actuarial information based on certain assumptions. Of course, the assumptions may include demographic data and statistical probabilities that many can agree upon.

These assumption also include an assumed "cost of doing business" that includes the irrational exuberance of contemporary stockholders wanting short-term profits, the arrogance of CEOs with 8 figure packages, and big bonuses for executives known as "talent" who helped to bring about the economic crash. Consequently, none of the big banks is willing to name a rate of interest they believe to be too high. When asked by Congress if 36 % was too high, not one bank president would answer.

Wells Fargo/Wachovia recently introduced a new "product" for its customers. They will advance money at the end of the month to help a customer get through. Down the street from the bank, the little storefront calls this a "payday loan." Wells Fargo/Wachovia offers this "service" for an annual interest rate of 120%.

So if the banks want to be forthcoming about their cost of doing business, and if they will consider outside analysis of where they are spending frivolously, then we will be in a position to discuss what rate it would take to keep credit fair for customers, profitable for banks, and safe for everyone.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Different Regions View the President Differently

I don't pay much attention to opinion polls. I certainly don't think they are the clearest way to the truth. Yet they can be worth thinking about at times. I am more inclined to look at them when a trusted source passes them on to me.

I get regular reports from Chris Kromm of the Institute for Southern Studies. He is good about finding material that much of the press ignores. He also publishes good investigative studies.

Here is some disturbing research from a polling source that he reported on the way that citizens view the performance of President Obama.

Region

Favorable

Unfavorable

No Opinion

Northeast

89

8

3

South

26

70

4

Midwest

61

37

2

West

60

38

2

Rest of USA

69

29

2

He added that the South has the highest percentage of African Americans, and that African Americans continue to overwhelmingly (95%) give favorable evaluations of the President. That makes the figures from the South even more stark. Only a tiny part of the Favorable ratings are among whites in the South, yet in other parts of the country whites much be responding very differently. I find it hard to believe that the economic and political interests of whites (conservative, moderate, or liberal) are so different in the South than in other regions. That makes it seem that race must be the deciding factor in this data.

Sometimes we think we are making progress on race. But then again . . . .
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