American Spring: Jesus Occupies “Wall Street”

December 20, 2011 § 13 Comments

The most direct correspondence between Occupy Wall Street and the good news Jesus brought to the people of Judea is his occupation of the Judean national bank/treasury/currency exchange on ‘Palm Sunday,’ an episode usually called the ‘cleansing of the temple.’ I treated this astounding act of civil disobedience in my other blog, BibleMonster, in a series on The Politics of Passion Week. That series presents part of a chapter in a book I am writing tentatively titled Good News for the Poor: Planks in the Platform of the Commonwealth of God; the chapter is titled The Economics of Redemption in the Common-wealth of God. If you’re interested, here is the link.

A Living Economic Testimony: Jesus and Debt

October 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

I see five sources from which Friends can draw guidance for a living economic testimony:

  1. First, of course, is the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and
  2. the work of Friends who have already been called to a ministry of economic justice. Then there’s
  3. scripture,
  4. the writings of Friends,
  5. the other testimonies, and finally,
  6. the social sciences, especially, of course, economics.

In this entry, I want to look at one area in which Christian scripture has a lot to offer: Jesus and debt.

In my first American Spring entry, I said:

This is one of those areas where having your Quaker roots firmly planted in Christian scripture really pays off (though not, sadly, roots in traditional Christian theology). Economic justice was the very heart of Jesus’ mission. The synoptic gospels offer enough planks in the platform of the kingdom of God to build a movement on, or to base your testimony upon. This foundation for what I like to call the commonwealth of God is incredibly rich.

Here I want to explain what I mean by “Economic justice was the very heart of Jesus’ mission.”

In the gospel of Luke (chapter 4), in the very first words Jesus utters in his public ministry, Jesus defines what being the christ, the messiah, means to him: he—the christ—brings “good news to the poor”.

He has just come back home to Nazareth from his sojourn in the wilderness after his baptism. The local rabbi invites him to be the guest reader and expositor of Torah on the coming Sabbath. Jesus chooses the opening lines of Isaiah 61:

The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me,

because Yahweh has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the poor/oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor.

Then Jesus sits down and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

After some back and forth hubbub, the passage ends with a riot: some members of the congregation (people he knows intimately) seize him to throw him off a cliff, the first action in a stoning if there is a wall or cliff to use, apparently for blasphemy. Jesus escapes. His message has had an incendiary affect on at least some of his listeners in his own home town. What is this inflammatory message?

In line two of the passage from Isaiah, “anointed” is messiah in Hebrew, christos in Greek. Jesus is declaring himself the messiah. And what does the Christ do? He brings good news (evangelion) to the poor/oppressed (the Hebrew word ani means both things). And what is that good news? Release from their poverty and specifically, their debt.

“The poor” are people who have lost their family farms to foreclosure and can no longer support themselves. Usually, they are forced to become day laborers; sometimes they become debt slaves, working off their debt with labor according to the rules set forth in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, sometimes even working on their own farms as indentured sharecroppers. “Brokenhearted” is an idiom that means just this: the condition of someone who has lost his family’s ‘portion,’ his inheritance—his (sic) family farm. (This passage uses ‘parallelism,’ the poetic device in Hebrew poetry in which the second line of a doublet reiterates the idea in the first, often with a deeper or more specific nuance: spirit upon me => anointed; poor => brokenhearted; captives => prisoners.)

For Jesus as for Isaiah, “the captives” and “the prisoners” probably refers to Israel as a conquered and occupied nation, but it could also mean debt slaves.

The “year of Yahweh’s favor” is the Jubilee year set forth in Leviticus 25. A Jubilee could be declared by a king or by a prophet. Four things happened in the year that Yahweh favors:

  1. All debts were cancelled.
  2. All debt slaves were released from their service, their debt having been redeemed. (“Redeemer” is an economic term that specifically means either releasing someone from the debt they owe you or covering someone else’s debt for them.)
  3. All families that have been alienated from their inheritance by bankruptcy are returned to their family farms.
  4. The fields lie fallow for a year, requiring a radical reliance on God’s providence (take no thought for the morrow).

Jesus is saying: I am the messiah—I claim God’s authority to cancel your debts.

This of course is good news to the poor, but bad news to the rich, who are going to have to return land they’ve acquired because someone defaulted on their loan. “The last shall become first and the first shall become last.” No wonder a riot broke out.

Jesus declares the prophecy’s fulfillment, but this of course begs the question: how? How does Jesus plan to cancel the debts of the poor? He is a prophet but he is no king. Jesus anticipates this question as he argues with his neighbors: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, heal yourself!’” He is himself an unemployed carpenter. Luke poses this question in this fourth chapter of his gospel, but he doesn’t answer it until the second and fourth chapters of Acts: you will cancel each other’s debts and redeem each other from debt slavery by liquidating your surplus assets and distributing the money to the poor.

The ideal solution to our current economic crisis, according to Jesus’ teaching, would have the banks cancel the mortgage debt that started the crisis and return these families safely to their homes, or at least the state should act decisively to protect them from its worst effects. The state (the king) could also cancel or cover not just the debts of homeowners but the debts of the banks, as well. The state could declare a universal Jubilee. Instead, the state just covered the bankers’ debts. Pharaoh’s heart is ever hardened.

Alternatively, like the first followers of Jesus, we could cover each other’s debts. But it’s worth noting that the Jerusalem church went bankrupt itself. I suspect that one of the reasons the council of Jerusalem said yes to Paul’s plea for his Gentile mission was that he showed up with a lot of money. Throughout several of his epistles, he is fundraising for “the saints in Jerusalem.” Systemic poverty—especially urban poverty—is a very difficult problem to solve. Perhaps Jesus understood this: he told his followers to return to Galilee to wait for him. They stayed in Jerusalem instead.

Still, the message for our economic testimony is clear: do what you can to protect innocent debtors from the ravages, the brokenheartedness, of bankruptcy, poverty, and the loss of their homes.

Evidence-based Politics and the Rich as “Job Creators”

October 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

If it’s true, as the Republicans claim, that the rich are the “job creators,” then where are the jobs? For years, we’ve been giving them all the tax breaks and bonuses they could have wanted (well, I guess that’s probably not true). What are they waiting for?

American Spring

October 11, 2011 § 12 Comments

One of the goals of my research and writing on Quakers and capitalism is to bring historical perspective to a call for a living testimony on economic justice. The movement that began as Occupy Wall Street has spread to other cities around the country and may, I hope, become a truly national movement, the beginning of an American Spring that, like the Arab Spring that has brought regime change to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, will bring regime change to America. The regime that needs changing here in the U.S. is the dominion of corporate interests and the interests of the very wealthy over the interests of the rest of us.

The press has made much of the apparent incoherence of the Occupy movement and its lack of clearly defined goals. However, as Walter Bruegemann has said (I think it was him; it might have been Dorothy Soelle), prophecy begins as lamentation. The first step in prophetic movement toward justice is recognizing and naming your suffering. That’s the stage the Occupy movement is in right now, it seems to me.

However, in what I see so far, a clear thread does run through their rather chaotic and scattershot message: the hijacking of our economics, our democracy and political culture, our social culture and social welfare, our food and water supplies, our media—and our minds, really—by the 1% of Americans that own 50% of our wealth. We are the 99%. Jesus would have named this condition Mammon—greed, ill-gotten wealth, the oppressive interests of the rich.

The American Spring represents a historic opportunity for the Religious Society of Friends to join the conversation, to develop for ourselves for the first time, really, a clearly articulated set of goals toward economic justice and to bring our witness to the movement. Where do we Quakers stand? What do we have to offer? How are we led by the Holy Spirit to testify to truth?

This is one of those areas where having your Quaker roots firmly planted in Christian scripture really pays off (though not, sadly, traditional Christian theology). Economic justice was the very heart of Jesus’ mission. The synoptic gospels offer enough planks in the platform of the kingdom of God to build a movement on, or to base your testimony upon. Jesus’ foundation for what I like to call the commonwealth of God is incredibly rich. It is both radical and practical. It is concrete, coherent and comprehensive. It speaks truth to power and it speaks to a very large percentage of American society from a position of authority that they already acknowledge as important if not supreme—Christian faith. It speaks directly to the plight of the poor and to the dissolving middle class and to the segments of right wing politics and policy that favor big money over little people. It speaks to those who distort the gospel and would bring evangelical economics into government. (See Chris Lehman’s cover story in the October issue of Harper’s titled “Pennies from Heaven: How Mormon Economics Shape the GOP.”) And it speaks directly to the central issue of our current crisis: debt, debt relief and, especially, home foreclosure.

Meanwhile, without this scriptural foundation, liberal Friends are left (so far) with preaching that there is that of God in everyone and adapting generalities from the testimony of equality into the economic sphere—not bad as far as it goes. We could also recover the writings of George Fox that speak directly to economic justice, or Woolman’s A Plea for the Poor, or the Eight Principles of a Just Social Order published by London Yearly Meeting in 1918, though these earlier Quaker manifestos would bring us back to the Christian gospel again.

So we are not totally bereft, even if we do not employ Christian scripture and the planks in the platform of the commonwealth of God that Jesus lived and taught, though I believe it would be a shame to leave these aside. Virtually all of our other testimonies, not just the testimony of equality, translate in some way to the economic sphere. And the incipient divine-spark theology implicitly understood by Friends in the belief that there is that of God in everyone holds promise. We just need to develop it further and demonstrate how it reflects the guidance we are receiving from the Spirit.

For that is the true meaning of ‘testimony’ for Friends: not that we have an outward set of principles that we try to uphold in our individual and corporate lives, but that these are the ways in which the Light has transformed our inner lives, not just as a historical legacy, but today, right now, in each of us. These are the outward ways in which God is leading us inwardly to testify to God’s truth.

In subsequent posts I want to develop these two strands of tradition further—Jesus’ teachings on economic life and the potential implicit in our liberal ‘theology’ and our current testimonies. And I want to begin exploring their implications for action in this potentially historic time. And I hope my readers will join in this conversation. And I plan to visit some of the Occupy groups in my area to see what they really are up to, rather than rely on reports in the media, and to explore how Friends might contribute.

What if Friends all over the country did the same?

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