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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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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.
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