About Me

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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, 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.




No Opinion

















Rest of USA




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 . . . .

Consumer Reports and Health Care

I suspect that almost all my readers have at some time turned to a reliable source for information about the safety, reliability, and value of a home appliance, a car, an electronic device, a computer, a packaged food product, or even a mutual fund. One such source stands out for its fairness, thoroughness, independence, and reliability: Consumer Reports, published by the Consumers Union. We know their ratings by the familiar circles:
On the other hand, we have also probably made choices based on a friend's preference, celebrity association, or what "a guy who knows a guy" said. Some of those choices have come back to bite us. That's why we learned to go to a reliable source.

So when the internet, the airwaves, the cable networks, and the water cooler talk is full of all kinds of ridiculous claims about health care reform, we need a place to turn. Some say the proposals will solve all our health care problems. Does anyone really believe that? Others say to adopt these proposals will set us on the path of becoming like Soviet Russia. That is also preposterous. So where can we go to hear from someone who is looking out for consumers? Glen Beck? Ken Olbermann? I don't think so. Both of them are trying to sell us something, to get their fingers in our wallets.

That's why when the Consumer Union provides a report on health care reform, I am interested. They are not trying to play with my emotions or trick me with a sleight of hand. They have in mind specific proposals that can help consumers, and others that can hurt us. They tell about both.

And the Consumers Union says that key elements of health care reform will make a big difference to help the masses of us who are drowning in rising health costs. Take a little time to look at what they say about requiring insurance companies to do things such as
  • "Spend at least 85% of your premium on health care (at least 80% if you buy an individual policy or get your plan from a small employer), or rebate you the difference." That would stop them from robbing consumers to pay huge executive salaries.
  • "Openly compete against each other for your business based on better care and price."
  • "Clearly list what they charge, and what they cover, so you can easily comparison shop on the Internet."
They go on to say, "Of course, the industry is terrified that these controls will stop their greedy practices. Maybe that’s why they’ve been spending millions on lobbying and scary ads to make sure you don’t get these and other guaranteed benefits in the health reform bill." For specific information about how the current proposals will keep costs down, look at their paper on Oversight of Insurance Companies, Control Over Costs.

For more good information, go see their proposals about health care reform at their Consumer Reports Health website.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 6: Upside-Down World

Isaiah 5:20-23

Ah, you who call evil good
...and good evil,
who put darkness for light
...and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
...and sweet for bitter!
Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes,
...and shrewd in your own sight!
Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine
...and valiant at mixing drink,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
...and deprive the innocent of their rights!

One of the great theological truths of Christian and Jewish faith is the sinfulness of humanity. With all our limitations, we seek, with the typical humans Adam and Eve, to behave as if we are unlimited in our capacities, as if we could claim the place of God.

Human beings are limited creatures. We exist in time and space with limits. We can't be everywhere. Our lives are short compared to human history, and we can't be in all eras. Our limitations in time and space contribute to a circumscribed capacity for knowledge. While we may stretch our thinking across centuries through reading and conversation, we will not have all knowledge.

Caught in these limitations, human beings afflicted by the misdirected desire for control, for domination, for limitless pleasures, and many other temptations, abuse the good desires that should draw us toward a life of beloved community. We create corrupted cultural visions of social existence in which some must dominate others, bending the masses to their will, rather than cultural visions of mutual benefit, love, and justice. Enclosed in our moments of time, we claim that what exists here and now is what must be. We twist rationality to justify the wealth of a few and the suffering of many as divinely ordained.

That's what Isaiah saw when he said that the economically powerful call evil good and good evil. When the stock market drops because unemployment has dropped below six percent, the financial elite is calling good evil. When a company's stock rises because they dissolve agreements to pay pensions or eliminate medical benefits for workers, that is calling evil good. Too often, public discourse aims to convince us that we live in "Oppositeland." In Oppositeland, it may seem bad to you that real wages are going down for decades, but if you were smart like these economists and financiers, you would see that the multitudes are better off with less. In Oppositeland, if you send troops overseas to invade other countries, that is the work of the Department of Defense, not the Department of War. You think it is dark in here? No, it is light. Losing your job is bitter? But we got our bonuses, so it must be sweet. The banks got a bailout so we could boost the economy. So we boosted the economy by keeping the money for our own executives and shareholders, even though you still don't have a job. We always do what is right because what is right is what we do.

These are the words of those who are wise in their own eyes. The live in luxury, drinking their $20, $50, and $100 bottles of wine. They gain status by having certain bottles in their wine cellars. They throw cash around with politicians to make sure that their unjust economic practices are perfectly legal. They praise the free market when they never really want it to be free. They write the rules to protect themselves and cry for a bailout when they mess it all up. If someone says that a free market means that the ones who messed up the credit system should bear the costs, they say, "No, we can't bear it, and the entire economic system will collapse." So is the free market good or evil? I guess it depends on what it is doing to you.

The NRSV starts these statements with "Ah!" The KJV translation may be more helpful in this case to give the effect: "Woe unto them . . . ." Oppositeland's rulers had better listen. Woe is on its way. Some people of Thessalonica, who had vested interests in Oppositeland, said that Jesus' followers were "turning the world upside-down." In Ephesus, the economic elite organized to protect their wealth against Paul's message of good news of the Way, brought to those who had previously set their hopes on handcrafted gods. As many preachers have said in my hearing, Paul was bringing a message to an upside-down world: God has shown the Way to get the world turned right-side up.

I'll quote another singer this time, Ken Medema, Flying Upside Down.

All of your life you have been learning
Every kind of way to get ahead.
"You've got to build yourself a future."
Those are the words your daddy said.

Now there is another calling.
It's telling you to change your mind.
It tells you finding leads to losing.
It tells you losing lets you find.

Turn it over; turn it 'round.
Raise the humble; free the bound.
Down is up, and up is down.
Does the world look different to you
When you're flying upside down?

The bottom line of your survival:
You'd better take care of number one.
You don't want to hurt nobody,
But you're gonna do what must be done.

There's a message on the wire,
And you've ignored it in the past.
It says the least will be the greatest;
It says the first will be the last.
Yeah, the first will be the last.

Turn it over; turn it 'round.
Raise the humble; free the bound.
Down is up, and up is down.
Does the world look different to you
When you're flying upside down?

Economic Justice: Blaming the Unemployed

Ever since the famous tirade from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange last summer, there has been a veneer of respectability for the argument that claims entitlement for the financial industry and its beneficiaries and blames the unemployed "losers" for the economic crisis. Ever vigilant to find poor reasoning in writing about the economy, Dean Baker makes note of a column in the New York Times for continuing this pattern of blaming the victim.

First, Brooks highlights a disturbing statistic:

Don Peck reports that last November nearly a fifth of all men between 25 and 54 did not have jobs, the highest figure since the labor bureau began counting in 1948.

This level of unemployment reveals that much is not right with an economy built on wage-paying jobs.

Then, he goes on to talk about the toxic effects of unemployment.

Long-term unemployment is one of the most devastating experiences a person can endure, equal, according to some measures, to the death of a spouse. Men who are unemployed for a significant amount of time are more likely to drink more, abuse their children more and suffer debilitating blows to their identity. Unemployed men are not exactly the most eligible mates. So in areas of high unemployment, marriage rates can crumble — while childbearing rates out of wedlock do not.

A period of economic prosperity built on a dotcom bubble or a housing bubble is highly deceptive, because under the guise of broad prosperity, wealth may be increasing for a few and declining for most. What appears on paper as wealth becomes a means of massive wealth transfer. When the bubble pops, the paper wealth is gone for those who did not get their payoff early. The collapse of paper wealth then sets the entire economy into a downward spiral, and the workers are the ones who lose their jobs, their health insurance, their retirement pensions, and their opportunities. Whatever debts they have incurred, based on the assumption of steady income, become impossible to pay off. Then, they lose their homes.

Brooks does not focus his attention on these issues of financial management and speculation which created the conditions for a crash. Baker points out that he grasps after a cause rooted in the workers.

For decades, men have adapted poorly to the shifting demands of the service economy. Now they are paying the price. For decades, the working-class social fabric has been fraying. Now the working class is in danger of descending into underclass-style dysfunction.

I guess this is how many people believe it all works. Family farmers lost their farms because they adapted poorly to the shifting demands of the monopolistic practices of agribusiness (subsidized by government). U.S. industries laid off their workers and shut down because they adapted poorly to the shifting demands of sweatshop industry and wages of desperation. Now working men are to blame for adapting poorly to an economy in which financial experts played fast and loose with their fiduciary responsibilities toward the common good. And now that they are so stupidly unemployed because of their moral failures, they will begin destroying their families.

John Stossel gets on the bandwagon by blaming California's bankruptcy on labor contracts which provide pensions for retired workers, a system set up to be self-perpetuating. This has been the trend of the past decade: to see that the money set aside for pensions could become money in the hands of overpaid executives and stockholders bent on short-term gain. So Stossel lets the critics of labor win the day as they pretend that workers' retirement pay is causing the economic crisis. How about blaming golden parachutes and bonuses for credit default swaps? Go back and get that money, not the money promised to people who put in three decades or more keeping the economy running.

I'll give Dean Baker the last word here.

Working class men are ill-prepared to deal with the effects of incredible economic mismanagement that has made them its primary victims. It has been conscious policy of David Brooks and his peers to weaken welfare state supports, making income and well-being almost entirely dependent on employment. Now, because David Brooks' highly-educated peers are incompetent economic managers, millions of working class people (disproportionately men) are facing extended periods of unemployment.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Haiti's Debt

The ONE Campaign delivered again on what they are very good at.

They mobilized the masses influence world leaders concerning a critical issue affecting the poorest people on the globe. Many of us join them in the prayer and hope that wealthy nations and institutions will contribute to Haiti's recovery by forgiving debts.

Keep up the good work.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 5: Forcing People from Their Homes

Isaiah 5:8-10

Ah, you who join house to house,
...who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
...and you are left to live alone
...in the midst of the land!
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
...large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
...and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah.

The foreclosure crisis in which we are wallowing in our time is not the first one ever to happen. Isaiah brings it up as one of the main issues of economic injustice in his day. We know how the system works. Some people who have control of large amounts of money finance home construction and offer homebuyers mortgage loans by which they can move into a house before they can pay for it. If all does not go according to plan, the homebuyer may lose everything, including the home. All the while, the creditor was making money hand over fist from the interest on a long-term loan.

Mortgage loans and interest are not inherently evil. In a prosperous economy they can give workers access to home ownership with enough time to earn the money and pay for a home. Yet when the economy is not so strong, the system can lead to disaster for the homeowner. Moreover, when an economy moves step-by-step down a path of greed and injustice, homeowners may be put at a great disadvantage, shifting more and more risk onto them.

For instance, in an economy in which health costs have risen rapidly and growing numbers of workers become uninsured or underinsured, one illness or injury can lead to loss of income, loss of job, enormous debt, mortgage foreclosure, and bankruptcy. The bank adds another house. In another case, when businesses export jobs overseas and leave entire towns and neighborhoods without opportunity for earning a wage, people lose their homes. The lender adds house to house. When industrial farms use their political influence and polluting ways to undercut hard-working farmers, old family homes, farms, and lands are lost. The wealthy add house to house and add field to field. Entire towns, neighborhoods, and subdivisions may be emptied of occupants, until the foreclosed homes occupy all the land and there is no room for anyone else. The wealthy financiers are left alone to live in the midst of the land.

So around Phoenix and Las Vegas, in Los Angeles and Seattle, in Florida, Ohio, and Michigan, surely many large and beautiful houses are without inhabitant. The gimmick in such a system is to "get mine, and get out." Many mortgage bankers believe they have done this. For insurance, they got the government to bail them out so that whatever they lost in the crash was reimbursed to them out of our pockets. But at some point, somebody has to bear the cost of getting mine and getting out. Isaiah says that the cost will ripple to the point that the productive economy will diminish to near nothing.

The point is to fix this before it gets so bad. Find a way to get people into homes and keep them there. An economic system can't stand on this kind of self-serving injustice.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Narrating the Story of Consumer Debt in the US

An interesting narration of the story of how consumers in the US came to be so heavily in debt appeared recently in the group blog Credit Slips. Kevin Leicht points out that real wages peaked in 1976. Since that time, the economy based on mass consumption has shifted its funding from good wages to open credit. As workers faced the exportation of industry, the decline of wages, and the shift from paying workers to paying executives, the economy depending on consumption had to find a way to keep its engine turning. Credit cards and borrowing were the replacement of a decent wage. Of course, this system ultimately took on the same characteristics of feeding on the very people on whom it depends.

This unsustainable economy has become a smash and grab system that will keep producing bubbles from irrational exuberance. The inevitable crashes will repeat as long as the idiotic assumption remains that a just economy is one in which the few are free to bleed the many until a "market correction" solves the problem. A better economy cannot come without some form of consumer protection which places guardrails and lane markers on the economic highway. Otherwise the behemoths will continue to "take their half in the middle" and push everyone else in the ditch.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 4: Misleaders

Isaiah 3:12b-15

O my people, your leaders mislead you,

….and confuse the course of your paths.

The Lord rises to argue his case;

….he stands to judge the peoples.

The Lord enters into judgment

….with the elders and princes of his people:

It is you who have devoured the vineyard;

….the spoil of the poor is in your houses.

What do you mean by crushing my people,

….by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts.

Isaiah 3:18-24

In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarfs; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the garments of gauze, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils.

Instead of perfume there will be a stench;

….and instead of a sash, a rope;

….and instead of well-set hair, baldness;

….and instead of a rich robe, a binding of sackcloth;

.instead of beauty, shame.

Isaiah 3 continues to point out the instability of the conspicuous wealth of the powerful in Israel. One part of the chapter comments on the wealthy women who love to show off their finery while constantly shopping for more. But this is not strictly a criticism of women. It is about one of the visible features of a system in which the wealth of has grown so far beyond the level of human need that it becomes primarily a measuring rod within a competitive structure of status and power.

In this text, it is the most powerful, the same ones who by social delegation should be most responsible, who receive the greatest attention. The leaders have brought about this problem. The elders and princes have brought the nation to this desperate economic situation, yet they do not even see the problem. They lie to themselves and to everyone else to justify a system organized around fulfilling their insatiable greed. Of course, what they are doing is right since it is working for them; moreover, if what they are doing is right, it is by their logic good for all.

At the heart of their sin is deception. They mislead the people, and ultimately come to believe their own deceptions. They foment confusion about economic matters which anyone should be able to understand. They create technical language and lengthy regulations full of caveats and qualifications in order to conceal their intentions. They work in backrooms to strategize the path to their self-interest, then dress it in empty platitudes of the common good. We might recognize this in the marketing of subprime mortgages. We might hear echoes of their deceptions in the cunning secrecy of credit default swaps. We may know of what they speak in the hidden fees and traps of consumer credit. We may continue to hear the deception in the claim that capping interest rates will make it impossible to loan money to lower-income people, as if high interest rates are transforming them into becoming more creditworthy.

The prophet does not mince words. The vineyard image bears rich significance here. First, it is a symbol of a prosperous and good life. To have a thriving vineyard is to be blessed with wine at one’s table as well and with a valuable product for trade. But equally importantly, a vineyard is an image of Israel as the Lord’s planting and cultivation of a people (5:1ff). God has tenderly and conscientiously cared for the vineyard. But rather than Israel blossoming and bearing rich fruit as a people, the ones who should have cared for the vineyard have stripped it bare and left it in ruins.

The image gives way to a very concrete indictment. After saying they have devoured the vineyard, the prophet explicates the symbolic language. Their fullness and fatness comes from despoiling the poor. Their wealth is the product of oppression. Their mansions are framed and decorated by the rightful possessions of the poor. Their wealth is not derived from their virtue. Their only expertise is in being good criminals and hiding their crimes. This is what God despises.

Ultimately, the prophet claims that their appearance of greatness is ephemeral. They will lose it, and this oracle spares no detail. Perfume, sash, hairdo, robe, and all other trappings of beauty will soon be gone. In their place will come a stench, a raggedy piece of rope, a hairless head, sackcloth for clothing, and shame. This kind of economic system cannot sustain itself. Moreover, God demands justice. A prophet must rise up to speak the truth.

One last quotation from the Bruce Cockburn song, “Call It Democracy,” may help us see.

See the paid-off local bottom-feeders

Passing themselves off as leaders.

Kiss the ladies. Shake hands with the fellows:

Open for business like a cheap bordello,

And they call it democracy.

Isaiah and Economic Justice 3: Oppression and Idolatry

Isaiah 2:7-9, 18, 20-21

Their land is filled with silver and gold,

....and there is no end to their treasures;

their land is filled with horses,

....and there is no end to their chariots.

Their land is filled with idols;

....they bow down to the work of their hands,

....to what their own fingers have made.

And so people are humbled,

....and everyone is brought low—

....do not forgive them!

The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,

....and the pride of everyone shall be brought low;

and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.

On that day people will throw away

....to the moles and to the bats

their idols of silver and their idols of gold,

....which they made for themselves to worship,

to enter the caverns of the rocks

....and the clefts in the crags,

from the terror of the Lord,

....and from the glory of his majesty,

....when he rises to terrify the earth.

Isaiah 2 links together the sins of idolatry and economic oppression. A major theme of prophetic literature is the distinction between the Lord and the gods of the nations. The people of Israel are called to be a sign of God’s purpose for humanity throughout the world. They are blessed so that through them, all nations will be blessed. At the heart of such blessing is to know that the Lord is a good and just God. Therefore, the prophets often write that God will act “for the sake of my name.” “Name” is not strictly an arbitrary label applied to an object here. It is more like the idiomatic English use in the phrase “my good name.” God has a reputation to uphold, and if God’s people display to the world a society built on social oppression and violence, then it seems that the Lord is just one more prejudiced tribal deity looking to help out some cronies.

One aspect, then, of idolatry is the devotion to gods who one hopes to manipulate for personal favor or gain. The idolatry of Israel involved worshiping gods who might deliver protection from a worker’s uprising or a competitor’s advantage. Such gods might offer an exchange or a deal—in return for worship and obedience, a bumper crop to be sold for unjust gain. These gods might offer to increase the landholdings of their devotees, giving tacit blessing to driving the poor from their lands through sharecropping and usurious practices. The Lord is not willing to be known as the god of this kind of people. The Lord will not be tossed in with the gods of oppressors. The Lord will not be manipulated.

Another aspect of idolatry is its link with self-centeredness and pride. One criticism of the idols in this oracle is that they are themselves the creations of human hands. People are bowing down to worship products of their own making. What they are worshiping is not a god in any traditional sense. They are, as Adam and Eve, longing to become gods themselves and usurp the place of the Lord. Having plenty of gold or silver allows them to commission and purpose beautiful sculptures of deities. It is a reminder of the way that the people at Mt. Sinai brought their wealth to Aaron to shape for them a god of their own making.

This oracle cites their haughtiness and pride as the seed of their downfall. They rationalize their self-idolatry on the basis of their treasures and military might. They believe that their appearance of wealth and power means that they are in charge of their own destinies. But soon, these illusions, so perfectly visible in the mansions and idols of silver and gold, will become useless. Instead, they will flee to the caves and cliffs, finding their delusions of deity have become worthless.

Those who believe their ill-gotten gain is salvation have much to learn about the Lord, who is just, holy, and good.

Again, a few lines from Bruce Cockburn, “Call It Democracy,” offer a contrapuntal melodic line.

Sinister cynical instrument

Who makes the gun into a sacrament—

The only response to the deification

Of tyranny by so-called "developed" nations'

Idolatry of ideology.

North, South, East, West—

Kill the best and buy the rest.

It's just spend a buck to make a buck.

You don't really give a flying f---

About the people in misery.

IMF (dirty MF)

Takes away everything it can get,

Always making certain that there's one thing left:

Keep them on the hook with insupportable debt.

Isaiah and Economic Justice 2: The Blood of the Poor

Isaiah 1:12-18

When you come to appear before me,

....who asked this from your hand?

Trample my courts no more;

....bringing offerings is futile;

....incense is an abomination to me.

New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—

....I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;

....they have become a burden to me,

....I am weary of bearing them.

When you stretch out your hands,

....I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers,

....I will not listen;

....your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves;

....make yourselves clean;

remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;

....cease to do evil,

....learn to do good;

seek justice,

....rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

....plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out,

....says the Lord:

though your sins are like scarlet,

....they shall be like snow;

though they are red like crimson,

....they shall become like wool.

Isaiah 1 functions literarily as an introduction and a preview. It provides insight into the complaint that the Lord has against Israel. Unlike the Former Prophets’ focus on temple loyalty, this oracle challenges the whole practice of temple worship. Temple worship is pointless and useless in the eyes of God if it is not accompanied with a life worthy of God.

Much of the language is general, speaking about sin and evildoings, yet there are a few specific indications of what these sins consist in. The first example comes in describing their posture of prayer, with hands stretched out to God. God will not look upon them or listen to their prayers because their “hands are full of blood.” Whose blood does is on their hands? Where have they found to drench their hands in blood? It is the blood of the poor.

The powerful and wealthy who frequent the temple with displays of public piety are the ones who are oppressing the poor. They come to the temple convinced that their prosperity comes from God’s favor. They are so mixed up about who God is that they want “the day of the Lord” to come quickly (see 5:18-19). They are sure that whatever God is about to reveal will be for their benefit. They completely misunderstand what it is to be the people of God.

How can we be sure it is these people and this evil that Isaiah is addressing? A few lines further the oracle gets specific again. After telling the audience of this oracle to wash and cease to do evil, a list of actions makes the message very clear. “Seek justice. Rescue the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow.” This first chapter draws attention to the evil that is making God detest temple worship. The people with bloody hands are unjust. They are oppressing their sisters and brothers, or benefiting from oppression and standing by while the weak and marginalized go hungry, are beaten, lose their homes and possessions, fall sick, and die. In a well-recognized trope, the orphan and widow are held up as the “poster children” of the vulnerable among Israel. Isaiah is confronting the violent system of economic oppression.

A few lines from a contemporary prophetic text by Bruce Cockburn, “Call It Democracy,” may help to elucidate what is at stake in this passage.

Padded with power, here they come—

International loan sharks backed by the guns

Of market-hungry military profiteers,

Whose word is a swamp, and whose brow is smeared

With the blood of the poor;

Who rob life of its quality;

Who render rage a necessity

By turning countries into labour camps,

Modern slavers in drag as champions of freedom.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 1: Introduction

With occasional discipline, I have been reading a few verses from Isaiah to start my workday, starting from the beginning of the book. I have been struck by the way that economic oppression was the key target of Isaiah's message.

Of course, I had seen this sort of theme in Isaiah before, especially from chapter 58. But through most of my life as a scripture reader, I was not inclined to notice the centrality of themes of economic justice. The stories in the narrative sections of the Old Testament, the Former Prophets, emphasize the temple worship and sins of idolatry, and few readers are skilled in linking prophetic texts to the quick summaries of history included in Samuel and Kings.

A careful reader might notice at times that the Former Prophets take a position against relying on violence for power and against abusing the common people. Yet even the stories of Solomon, Rehoboam, and Jeroboam tend to shift attention away from the rise of slave labor and princely wealth and toward the relation of the king to the temple.

Modern readers are not inclined to think of economic injustice when we think of idolatry. We are too schooled in the marketplace model of faith, wherein there is a competition for members among various enterprises hawking religion. In this model, we quantify success by numbers of converts added to lists, and we diminish the fruition of conversion in moral formation and community transformation.

But this look at Isaiah is reminding me that if we are true worshipers of the Lord, then we must learn to recognize the economic injustices that offend our God. Toward that purpose, let me make note of a few examples in my reading thus far. I make no claim to be comprehensive. In the coming days I will post comments on the following texts: Isaiah 1:12-18; Isaiah 2:7-9, 18, 20-21; Isaiah 3:12b-15; Isaiah 3:18-24; Isaiah 5:8-10; Isaiah 5:20-23; Isaiah 8:1-4; and Isaiah 10:1-2. All selections are from the NRSV.

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