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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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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?

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