One person gives freely, yet gains even more;
another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.
A generous person will prosper;
whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.
People curse those who hoard grain,
but they pray God’s blessing on those who are willing to sell.
Whoever seeks good finds favor,
but evil comes to those who search for it.
Those who trust in their riches will fall,
but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.
Those who trust in themselves are fools,
but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe.
Those who give to the poor will lack nothing,
but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.
When the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding;
but when the wicked perish, the righteous thrive.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Romans 13:6-7
As I wrote in my last post,
“The laws of Israel were set up to make sure that the rich never became too rich to need God nor the poor too poor to live without stealing (Proverbs 30:7-9). The law was designed to make sure everyone had enough to live with dignity.”
In the times of the writing of the Old Testament, without question, relative economic parity was a big part of what justice/righteousness meant. So it remains. A society where a few people are very rich and most people are either quite poor or in fear of becoming poor, is, from the point of view of the biblical writers, an unstable, unclean and violent society which lacks much of what is needed to be a righteous nation, let alone be considered God’s “city on a hill,” an example for the rest of the world. To be sure, most Christian communities in the last 1500 years in western culture have not built on the biblical principle economic equality, at least outside of the monasteries. The U.S.A. was not built on solid Christian economic principles but on a hybrid foundation of Christian, Enlightenment/deist and Greco-Roman ideas. This left a legacy of mixed economic practices and motives. Were we a society which sought the common good, and which preserved common wealth? Somewhat. Some states, e.g., Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, even call themselves “Commonwealth” rather than “State.”
In recent years, however, some of the nation’s early “social commons” underpining has been swept away by an international corporate worldview in which only money and profit have any value. The popular culture saying which describes the Western European and North American ethos today is something close to “I’ve got mine; too bad about you.” In the biblical story, such a motto could never have been adopted by the righteous in Israel. Such words typified life among the Amorites, perhaps, or in wretched Moab, but never among God’s people. In short, many of the economic practices of those nations which God threw out of the promised land or forbid to enter it, have become the ways of this nation, the U.S.A., in the early 21st century. We have increasingly become the violent place where only money gets its way and where righteousness is trampled underfoot. In recent decades, our culture’s greed-filled, individualistic motive has driven gain and loss to a point where many societies historically have gone out of control.
Modern findings, not surprisingly, bear this out. Recent studies have shown that societies with huge gaps between the rich and the poor are places of domestic violence, high divorce rates, high suicide rates, high morbidity (extreme poor health) rates and even high rates of infant mortality. The U.S. — no surprise here — leads the world in all these problems as well as in a yawning gap between the richest 1% and the poorest 20%. In the past three decades millions of Americans have fallen from the middle class into the ranks of the poor as international corporations have shipped their jobs overseas.
Jesus talks about what happens when a society enters into the cancerous stage where hearts grow cold and all norms and allegiances are thrown over for the sake of lust for money, status and power:
“When an evil spirit goes out of a person it travels over dry country looking for a place to rest. If it can’t find one, it says to itself, ۢ‘I will go back to my house.’ So it goes back and finds the house empty, clean, and all fixed up. Then it goes out and brings along seven other spirits even worse than itself, and they come and live there. So, when it is all over, that person is in worse shape than in the beginning. This is what will happen to this generation” Matthew 12:43-45.
We live in such a time when greed, unchecked, has become a cancer in our world. Our society knew a smaller greedy spirit at the turn of the 20th century in the era of the “robber barons.” That spirit was banished or at least reigned in during the days of progressivism, the Great Depression, the rise of labor unions and the New Deal. The trend to a traditional evil society with a few rich and many poor was so reversed that by the 1950s, most American families could own a home, buy a car, take a yearly vacation, provide post-secondary education for their children, all on one steady income. When Mom and Dad sold the home and retired, they could live with dignity on (usually) Dad’s guaranteed benefit pension and Social Security. This good, middle class life was not available to most of those of color and it was certainly not the way of things in most of the world, but it was true in the U.S., Canada and much of Europe and Japan, the so-called “First World.”
Those days and the rise of the American middle class are long-gone. To return to my analogy drawn from Jesus’ parable, the greedy spirit has returned from the wilderness of the third world where huge disparities had existed for the past few centuries and it has brought back seven greedy spirits even more evil than itself. We are becoming a crazy, out of whack society where 1% of the people at the top now own half of all wealth and receive almost 20% of all annual income and where 20% of the people at the bottom own less than 5% of the wealth. This is an almost unprecedented situation in this nation. This is a far greater gap between the rich and poor than exists today in Europe or Japan. It is a greater gap than existed in the decades just prior to the Great Depression.
So now a moderately progressive President (a conservative by the standards of the Republicans, Nixon and Eisenhower) is under attack by those with the radically libertarian views so current today. Indeed, he has even been labelled a socialist! Actually, this tells us more about those who hurl such silliness than it does about our fairly conservative and corporate-leaning president. Back in the day, the John Birch Society called President Eisenhower a communist! Well, the crazy Birchers are back, seven-fold. Ironically, in the last 30 years, there has been a socialist (government-driven) redistribution of wealth. Taxes have been used to drive wealth upwards and the middle class is flat on its back and disappearing into the ranks of the poor with every short-sold, underwater house and every bankruptcy due to overwhelming medical bills (in the only major nation on earth that does not have national, universal health care). The middle class has seen their jobs disappear overseas, stolen away by corporate leaders whose only loyalty is to their own bottom lines and profit statements. Country First!? Yeah, right. Stolen away? Stealing? Yes, legal stealing has been going in the U.S.A. on at a rapid and accelerating pace for over thirty years. Laws have been passed and used to take from the poor and middle class and give to the rich. There is more than one way to steal.
In this respect, the U.S. is in no way a unique nation. Governments, in league with small elites have been legally stealing people’s livelihoods for thousands of years. When Herod the Great came to power in Israel, installed as king by the order of the Roman emperor, Augustus, he implemented in Judah, Samaria and Galilee the same policies which the Romans had used to efficiently strip each nation they conquered of its treasure. Herod tripled Israel’s taxes. Then he tripled them again and then again. And when almost no one could pay, he provided government-financed money lenders to offer loans with variable rates of interest. And once the people had signed on, he raised the rates until no one could even keep up with the interest payments. Then, in his “compassion,” he offered new terms. People could sell themselves into indentured service until they had paid off their notes by working as sharecroppers on what had formerly been their own land. And how long would that take, you ask? Why, only the rest of their lives and their children’s lives and the lives of their grandchildren. And what would these families have to show for three generations of unremitting toil? They would be free of debt; landless and without any way to make a living, but free of debt. Is it any wonder that Jesus looked at the crowds of stooped and broken people who flocked to him and cried out, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” Matthew 11:28-29.
Lest we make the mistake of thinking Herod was an evil genius for devising such an effective way of legally stealing all the wealth of Israel for himself and his Roman overlords, Herod was no innovator but he was a good copycat. What Herod did was what the Romans had done in province after province. That is why in Jesus’ day, 80% of the people of the empire were slaves or indentured servants. Herod did in Israel what the Romans had done all over the world. In fact, the Romans were no great shakes themselves when it came to creativity. They just improved on the practices of a dozen or so empires before them. Since early times, empires have had an upper crust of about 3-5% of their population; another 15-18% middle class, people who owe their prosperous but insecure positions to the elite, and around 80% of the people who are poor, enslaved, destitute and living on the very margins of existence, “one paycheck from disaster.” And how did the Romans impoverish most of their subjects? Through the application of law. Historians in the modern centuries have loved to talk about the Romans as the people who developed a wonderful and just system of laws. So they did, but their vaunted Roman justice only applied to Roman citizens, only a slightly larger group than the elite 5% who controlled all the assets. Roman law swiftly, powerfully and efficiently, made paupers of the rest, people with no legal rights whatsoever. There is more than one way to steal.
And so we learn that massive redistribution of wealth, when done on a huge scale can be conducted in a perfectly public manner and virtually no one utters a word of protest. Witness, for instance, the transfer of billions of dollars from the U.S. treasury, money backed by Chinese notes, to be repaid by all U.S. taxpayers, which went to bail out several banks, insurance companies and investment groups during the final six weeks of the second Bush Administration. Although amnesic commentators regularly claim it was the corporate moderate Obama that so raided our treasury with the assistance of the wall street people of his administration, it was the dim bulb, “W” Bush who was led by the hand of his Wall Street wizard, Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, to give away your money and mine to Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Morgan Stanley and AIG. There is more than one way to steal.
There is another kind of theft which has gone on right under our noses for over thirty years, somewhat more like Herod’s moves (the Romans were never bald-face and brash pirates on the scale of Paulson and his boy, Bush). The Republican Eisenhower Administration rebuilt the post-war nation and initiated the gigantic interstate highway system. They did so by taxing the rich at a 91% tax rate. By today’s dollars, everyone in the nation in 1954 who earned more than $3,000,000.00 (then, $260,000.00) a year, got taxed on the “more than” dollars at the rate of 91%! (See why the Birchers called Eisenhower a communist!) John Kennedy, a very rich man, lowered the top rate to 73% but tightened up some loopholes, assuring that the revenues would still pour in for roads and schools and bridges, sparking the greatest expansion of private and public wealth in the nation’s history up to that time. The government spent money it had on physical infrastructure and on human infrastructure through the G.I. Bill. This contributed to the massive expansion of the middle class and in the U.S., at least, “the rising tide did lift all [OK, most] boats.”
The top rate rose and fell over the next few administrations, Republicat and Democran alike. It was not until 1981 that a new president, guided of course, by the firm, “wise” hand of his Secretary of the Treasury, Donald Regan, fresh from Goldman Sachs, got Congress to lower the top individual U.S. tax rate to 36%. Ever since then, the rate at which the rich have been getting richer has gone through the roof and the disparity between the rich and the poor, which had narrowed considerably during the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, has become an ever-widening chasm, with the vulnerable on the edge of the middle class falling in like so many clueless, hapless lemmings. Theft by law. Big, massive, out-in-public grand larceny by law. A huge shift in wealth, just like Rome had done, up, into the hands of the few.
“But, wait, Trace!” you may be thinking (or even shouting) at this point. “Didn’t that money belong to those people? Wasn’t it their money which was being taxed?” Well, isn’t that what “the Gipper” said out on the campaign trail? “It’s your money, after all, and I am sure you can find better things to do with it than the government!” Remember that line, those of you who were around and politically conscious in 1980?
The problem is, as the Scriptures teach, not all of the money I make or you make should be ours to keep. Not all of my money does me good if I keep it, and keeping it should not be my choice so that society can thrive. Some of everyone’s money belongs to the group, to the whole, to the poor and to the commons. The prophet Haggai scolded the people when they complained that God had forgotten them. ‘Of course he has turned his back on you and refused to bless your fields. You have not pooled your resources to rebuild his house, the temple!’
In the next generation, Nehemiah had to rally the people of Jerusalem to rebuild their common wall around the city, at the people’s expense, for the sake of the whole nation. Some of our money, everyone’s money and especially the money of the wealthy who benefit the most from the commons, must be contributed to the commons or else the entire society falls, like a bridge, into the Mississippi River and people get hurt or killed and everyone becomes afraid.
So no, Mr. Reagan (or no, Mr. Reagan’s speech writers, Peggy Noonan and Peter Robinson) I cannot find better things to do with some of my money than build (and repair!) the lanes and bridges of the interstate highway system, built with my grandfather and father’s (grudging) tax dollars. I, as an individual, if I have too much money, will not be smart and invest it in new businesses to cause the mythical trickle-down (which you foolishly predicted would make the economy grow). I will be stupid and greedy like many and invest with Bernie Madoff, or worse, I will invest in hedge funds –legalized, Wall Street gambling — which will disappear into the ether; trillions gone overnight, all having done nothing at all for the people of this nation; just bad bets on bad bets.
As I wrote in my last post, laws like the second harvest and the Jubilee and others were all, “based on the idea that all Israel were members of a society together, that some of what anyone earned belonged to [all the] others and if they failed to share it, they made themselves wretched and poor in the eyes of God (see, for instance, Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Proverbs 11:24-26, 28, 28:26-28, etc.).”
Is there any hope? Can we turn this mess around? Our legislators, regardless of party, know they are elected using money they receive from the wealthy and they will not cross their masters. Ours has become a government of the wealthy, by the wealthy and for the wealthy. Is there any hope for us? Well, what do you think? It depends on what we mean by “us.” There is always hope for those who have become a part of the story of God. As the apostle John says so clearly, Do not love the world… Everything that belongs to the world – what the sinful self desires, what people see and want, and everything in this world that people are so proud of – none of this comes from the Father… The world and everything in it that people desire is passing away; but those who do the will of God live forever I John 2:15-17 (GNB).
The word “world” in John’s writing is not the whole creation; it is not the earth. It is the system of social, political and economic order which is imposed (usually) by an empire on the earth. When John wrote, he declared the brutal, oppressive Roman Empire’s days were numbered. They were. We may also celebrate the eventual collapse of the international corporatocracy that grips the earth in our day. It shall not stand. It can not stand. Nothing which so devours the earth can fail to be judged (Revelation 11:16-18).
Which means we do not want to be living out of the imperial spirit and the hope of the empire when it falls. We do not want to be found helping to rebuild its version of the Tower of Babel when it comes down. We want to be found safe in the lap of our Abba, doing what we can in the midst of the society to empower, “You shall not steal!” power-side-out, into, “Help others have enough to stand on their own as also generous participants in God’s new kingdom-community!” We need to have hope and to act on it. There may or may not be hope for our nation, but even now, we can warn and witness and seek to regain “government of, for and by the people” before it “perish[es] from the earth” and we can build for what comes afterward.
Father God, it has never been easy to be your people on the earth and when we have made it easy through compromise with the spirits of the day, we have simply deluded ourselves. Either that, or we have denied our part in the society and have run from the work of transformation to which you constantly call us. You meant the earth to be a place where everyone had enough and no one had too much or too little. We live in a world (you know Lord, and we are learning) where a very few are busy gathering up more each year and most have barely enough or not even enough to get by. Forgive your people, Lord, for sometimes blessing the problem and usually shirking our prophetic task. Have mercy on us, God, for the sake of the work of your Son. Help your people, Lord, to find their voices, their hope, their imaginations for what this world could be like and some day will be like. Help us to find ways, wherever we are, to use the Spirit-power which is within our communities to help others have enough to live as you intended it to be. Give us grace to face this day, we pray in the name of King Jesus. Amen.