Earthcare and the Heart and Soul of Jesus’ Gospel

May 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

After giving up on Christian earth stewardship and rebooting my study of the gospel of Jesus looking for some opening into earthcare, I found two. Well, one and a half.

“Good news for the poor”. The heart of Jesus’ gospel, I discovered, was what I call the economics of redemption in the common-wealth of God: Jesus’ good news was a prophetic condemnation of the imperial economics that oppressed his people and a radical restructuring of his own community’s economics so as to release the poor from that oppression and from their suffering.

“And he was with the wild animals”. The soul of his gospel—or at least one dimension of it—was the role that the landscape of Palestine played in his communion with the Father: a radical spiritual ecology that informed where he went to do what and why.

The economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God

In the course of my study of the gospel, I took a course on The Prophetic Tradition with the School of the Spirit. On the reading list was The Politics of Jesus by the Mennonite John Howard Yoder. Yoder has a chapter on the Jubilee message in Luke. This put me on a trail back into Torah to study debt redemption law, beginning with the Jubilee described in Leviticus 25 and including related legislation, like that in Deuteronomy 15.

The Jubilee called for four things:

  1. The cancelation of all debts.
  2. The release of all debt slaves, people who had gone into indentured servanthood to pay off a loan.
  3. The return of families who had lost their family farms through bankruptcy to their ancestral portion, or landholding, to their inheritance, to the farm that they had lost to debt—or more accurately, to creditors.
  4. And the injunction to let your land lie fallow for a year.

As the very first action in his public ministry in the gospel of Luke (chapter four), Jesus declared “good news to the poor” through a Jubilee, “the year that Yahweh favors”. But this was just the foundation of his economic platform. Once I had learned to recognize the Jubilee and redemption terms of Torah, I found them everywhere I looked in Jesus’ teachings and actions. From this initial proclamation of the good news for the poor, the message spreads into every corner of his ministry. It is the cornerstone of the kingdom of God he preached.

Very many of our most treasured and familiar teachings and sayings of Jesus deal directly with one or more of the four elements laid out in Leviticus 25, though he reinterpreted them in really creative ways. The Beatitudes are my favorite. They are an extended midrash on inheritance law, promising to fulfill number three above.

And the economics of redemption do not just find expression in Jesus’ sayings; they also find embodiment in his actions. All the stories of feeding figure prominently, including the Last Supper. But also at least half of his healing miracles and some of his other “miracles” either serve to relieve the suffering of the poor directly or have some economic dimension.

These are big claims, I know, and obviously I can’t go into detail here. And we’re still not talking about earthcare, either, at least not directly. For while Jesus has basically nothing to say about land use, he is all about land tenure—who gets to own the land. This in a civilization that defines poverty as the inability to support yourself and your family, that is, as possessing neither land nor trade.

Spiritual ecology

But as exciting as it has been to discover the economics of redemption in the gospel of Jesus, it has been even more thrilling to discover how Jesus used the landscape of Palestine in his own spiritual practice—to look at where he went, to do what, and why.

But this path led me even deeper, into the very origins of the western religious tradition, a tradition of spiritual ecology that Jesus either knew already or rediscovered, but which began with Moses and the inhabitation of the promised land of Canaan, and was in some ways picked up again by George Fox. By spiritual ecology, I mean using the ecology of your landbase as a doorway into communion with the divine.

This is a completely different approach to earthcare than stewardship of property loaned to you in trust. It is an invitation to communion with land and with God. In fact, Christian earth stewardship practically prohibits such nature communion with the principle that we worship the creator, not the creation. I say “practically” because this principle does not literally prohibit seeking divine communion in the natural world, but it builds a fence around it, fearing the slippery slope toward paganism. This fence is maintained most ardently in the evangelical Christian hatred for “New Age Spirituality”, the intuitive seeking for this communion by some of our contemporaries.

These topics—spiritual ecology, land-based spirituality, and religious culture of place—are the subject of another book that I have not even really started writing yet, though I’ve done some workshops on aspects of it. I’m not sure whether this blog is the place to work this out. My blog entries are already way too long to work well as blog entries. But I think I will touch on a couple of things experimentally.

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OccupyOurHomes—Bankruptcy, the Beatitudes and Quaker Economic Testimony

December 1, 2011 § 7 Comments

Colder weather and newly aggressive police pressure have been driving some Occupy settlements out of the public spaces that they have claimed as public commons. (These settlements, by the way, closely resemble those of the Diggers who, beginning in 1649, occupied common land on Saint George’s Hill, Weybridge, in Surrey, under the leadership of Gerrard Winstanley. See the section “Correlate movements for radical economic change and their influence on Quakers” from Quakers and Capitalism. Quite a few Digger writings are available online; I believe I found them through Google Books.) As reported by Nation of Change, the Occupy movement has responded with a new focus on bankruptcy, calling for a National Day of Action to Stop and Reverse Foreclosures on December 6.

Bankruptcy is another of those areas in which Friends can draw from the teachings of Jesus to present a radical, coherent and moral argument for progressive change that ought to speak to the social conservative wing of the Republican Party, if not to other nominal Christians everywhere, and especially on the boards of the note-holding banks. Bankruptcy was a central theme of Jesus’ ministry and his teachings on bankruptcy are embodied in some of his most familiar and popular sayings—the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes are a midrash on inheritance law in Torah, with a special focus on bankruptcy. Every one of the Beatitudes addresses these concerns. We’ve never been taught this because the common translations either ignore or are ignorant of the technical legal language they contain. Having abandoned the law under Paul’s influence, the Christian tradition has for millennia either missed or dismissed the radical reinterpretations of the law in Jesus’ teachings and we are the poorer for it. Having embraced the spiritualization of redemption under Paul’s influence, the Christian tradition has for millennia either missed or dismissed the concrete and practical implications for community life in Jesus’ teachings.

I have treated this subject at some length in my other blog, Biblemonster.com, which has been languishing for lack of attention for quite some time while I’ve focused on this blog. I have found it virtually impossible to maintain two blogs at once; one is hard enough. Anyway, if you’re interested, you can read those entries under the Category of “The Beatitudes.”

Here, I want to raise up the Beatitude that is perhaps most familiar and that also most directly addresses the suffering that bankruptcy entails:

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (BibleMonster link)

This familiar translation totally misses the thrust of what Jesus is saying. It’s not a cosmic (“the earth”) and fantastical promise to those who passively accept their suffering; it is a radical promise to return families that have lost their family farms—their ‘portion’, their inheritance—to foreclosure.

“Meek” is a technical legal term for those who have been judicially disenfranchised by bankruptcy, who, because they no longer own property, can no longer sit in the assembly of the elders in their village or town and must seek an advocate (Paraklete) to represent their interests in court—some elder who will speak on their behalf, to recover debts owed or to defend them against suit by others.

“Earth” (eretz, in Hebrew) does indeed mean ‘the earth’ in some contexts, but it can also mean the land, either the land of Israel, or simply soil or dirt—or one’s farm, one’s land, one’s ancestral inheritance. That’s what it means in this context. So this is what Jesus’ listeners heard when he spoke this Beatitude:

Blessed are those who have lost their family farm and can therefore no longer protect themselves in court or bring their own claims for judgment, for they shall re-inherit their portion—their family farm—and recover their position among the elders of the assembly.

Jesus is promising to return the landless to their land.; that is, to end their poverty, for “the poor” means specifically those who have lost their farms and must support their families as day laborers on someone else’s land (or even, most oppressively, on their own land), or—worst case scenario—as debt slaves, working off their debt as indentured servants.

The Beatitudes (and other passages as well) offer a religious and moral argument for doing our utmost to protect homeowners who are in danger of foreclosure and for returning those who have been swindled out of their homes back to their homes, or at least to compensate them from the massive profits of the foreclosing banks. I think we should bring this message to the events on December 6.

(As a side note, it’s worth noting here that the ninth and tenth commandments do not prohibit grasping thoughts about one’s neighbor’s property—they prohibit fraud. Jewish law is consistently practical in its perspective and punishes acts rather than motives. The word translated “covet” means to swindle, not to harbor thoughts of possession. It’s basically a companion to “thou shalt not steal,” except that “steal” means outright theft, robbery. Coveting is thievery by deceit.)

Quaker Testimonies and the Predicaments of Capitalism

November 13, 2011 § 7 Comments

Competition

A few days ago, an Oakland policeman shot a young man with a rubber bullet while he was videotaping a police line at the Occupy Oakland demonstration. The man videotaped his own shooting, so you can see that, far from provoking the attack, he was actually trying to confirm that his behavior was acceptable to the police who were dealing with him. This incident illustrates one of the ‘predicaments’ of capitalism, as I call them, when viewed in the light of the traditional Quaker testimonies.

I call them ‘predicaments’ because capitalism is predicated on them: they are aspects of capitalism that inhere in the way the system defines itself and in the ways it operates; they are part of its DNA. And they are ‘predicaments’ for Friends because they violate our traditional testimonies.

I have identified five such predicaments:

  1. Private ownership of capital: Individuals (or the stockholders of corporations) own and control the money and goods or services that generate income when sold in the market; they own the means to produce these goods or provide these services—property, patents, machinery, etc.; and by virtue of this ownership, they have more or less exclusive access to the business’s profits and perquisites.
  2. Owner autocracy: Capitalism concentrates economic sovereignty—the right to make decisions about the company’s actions—in the hands of the owners of capital and, by delegation, their managers, in an overall system of vertical organization.
  3. Growth: The health of a business and of the system as a whole is determined in terms of growth; furthermore, the primary locus of value, the goal of the system, is profit, that is, surplus wealth, which is also a kind of growth. Capitalism assumes that economic growth has no limits.
  4. Mendaciousness: Capitalism lies to itself and to its participants in two ways, in regard to both its accounting methods and its conduct of competition in an open market. First, it deceives itself about the nature of capital and of overhead: It does not account for or take economic responsibility for the real value of the natural resources it treats as capital, or the real, final cost of disposing of its wastes safely, which is part of its overhead. It systematically undervalues both. And it deceives its customers in its marketing and advertising: it’s dependence on advertising in an environment of competition for market share tempts it to psychologically manipulate its consumers and to withhold information from them and from regulators. Capitalism lacks integrity.
  5. Competition: Capitalism is inherently competitive and assumes an ‘open market’ relatively free of direct government or collective social control. It makes everyone and everything both a competitor and an object of competition.

The Oakland shooting illustrates the predicament of competition: Competition inevitably leads to conflict; it is, in fact, an organized form of conflict. And conflict inevitably leads to violence. I don’t mean ‘inevitably’ in the sense that every instance of conflict will lead to violence, or even that any instance of conflict will necessarily lead to violence. People can always avoid using violence to ‘resolve’ a conflict (of course, violence never does resolve a conflict). But capitalism generates so much conflict that some of it inevitably turns violent because that’s how humans are.  Capitalism is inherently violent. Thus it violates our peace testimony.

Capitalism competes for everything and it drags everyone into its competition: Companies compete with each other for resources, labor, energy, customers, research breakthroughs, our attention, even our dreams. Workers compete with each other for jobs and for advancement; they compete with their employers for their compensation and work conditions. Industries compete with each other. Nation states compete with each other. And the economic system itself competes with all the other stakeholders in the planet’s ecosystems for the resources it needs to survive and to grow.

Does competition have to lead to violence? Enlightened business owners and national leaders can rely on cooperation and mutual understanding to resolve competing claims. This is most possible when the system is working well and no parties are near the particular edge or shortage that they fear. For capitalist competition is predicated on shortages—there is no need for competition if there is already enough of what everyone wants. But the system has these edges—these divisive thresholds—that necessarily separate the participants when they are reached—when oil supplies are threatened, for instance, or when employees demand new rights that cut into profits. And the disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom—between economic classes at home or between the overdeveloped and the developing countries of the world, for instance—these disparities create a distance of experience and worldview that undermines understanding even when intentions are good.

Of course, competition is creative, too, as its apologists so often claim. In their competition, Amazon.com and Apple drive each other to keep innovating and we get the iPad2 and the Kindle Fire, competing visions of the tablet. In the competition with the Soviet Union that Sputnik ignited, we got a generation of incredibly creative and productive scientists and engineers.

But we also get the Luddites smashing the mechanized frames of their early adopters in the British textile industry, and the violence of the state and then of the mobs in response. We get Pinkertons gunning down workers in their picket lines in the early days of labor organization. We get the first and second Iraq wars.

Because one of the defining characteristics of the state is its (theoretical) monopoly of deadly force, the dominant powers in the system—corporations—turn to the state to protect their interests. This is what gave that man in Oakland that ugly, painful, temporarily disabling bruise on his leg. The police almost always defend private property and the interests of the owners of capital, rather than workers, consumers or the integrity of the natural world. That young man was lucky, in a sense; that could have been—and often has been—live ammunition.

But we must acknowledge that that rubber bullet shooting escalates the conflict: the viral video of unprovoked police assault and all the other incidences of police violence we can see now on YouTube give the flywheel of violence another kick. They feed more energy into the feedback loop of violence: Demonstrators tussle with police lines => Police fire tear gas canisters => Black robed anarchists torch stores => Policemen shoot peaceful demonstrators with rubber bullets => . . . What’s next? I could not help but think of Kent State.

What to do?

Commitment to nonviolence and training in nonviolence prevailed in the civil rights movement. It doesn’t stop the violence, but it cuts it in half because one side won’t use it. It interrupts the feedback spiral. It helps in the competition for “hearts and minds.” And it is the right way to go. And it does address the seeds of violence in individual people. But it does not address the causes of violence, the genetics of violence embedded in our economic system.

So we are left with the queries: How can we reform capitalism in ways that will value cooperation at least as much as competition? And what can we do to break the feedback loop that escalates its competition into conflict and this conflict into violence?

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.

A Living Economic Testimony: Debt

October 13, 2011 § 9 Comments

I woke up yesterday morning thinking about debt, the linchpin of our current economic crisis, about the systematic assaults on the compassionate and indeed rational management of debt that began with the Reagan administration, and about what Jesus’ teachings and our other Quaker testimonies have to offer as places to start in articulating a living testimony on debt.

Amongst ourselves: contemporary and historical practice

Friends historically have urged each other to avoid debt when possible and, since credit is essential to business, to be very careful not to become overextended with the debt you must incur. They saw this as a breach of what we call today the testimony of integrity; then, they said it broke Jesus’ injunction to let your yea be yea and your nay be nay—that is, when you defaulted on your debts you were breaking your word. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Friends kept a close watch on each other’s finances and disciplined those who defaulted on their debts. For a while, some meetings read people out of meeting for going bankrupt, especially in the 19th century. Nevertheless, meetings sometimes also arranged bailouts, covering the outstanding debts of bankrupted members, especially when the creditors were not Friends, in order to do right by the creditors and to protect the Society’s reputation. It also was not too uncommon for meetings to refinance such a Friend, especially if their business had failed through no fault of their own.

Through the twentieth century, Friends assumed many of ‘the world’s’ practices, including attitudes toward debt, while banks extended more and more credit to the individual consuming household. Today, if the Quaker community reflects trends in the wider society, as it almost certainly does, then presumably, quite a few Friends are underwater with their mortgages and in trouble with their credit card debt. But how would we know? And what would we do about it if we did know? We no longer monitor each other’s finances and we do not step in with help when members get into financial trouble. Should we? I think so.

In fact, ideally, perhaps Quaker meetings could function like the Church of the Savior in Washington DC (and the early Christian church; see the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) when it comes to finances: ask for a financial statement as part of the membership process and for a covenantal relationship with the meeting regarding money. This would go a long way toward solving our meetings’ problems with their own insolvency, though it would drive out some members and thus reduce income, as well. For its part, meetings could also establish relief funds, the way the Mormons do, and perhaps even ‘mandatory’ periodic social service to each other, also along the lines of Mormon practice, as a way to protect and to reboot a struggling household’s fortunes.

Of course this will never happen. It will never even come up. Despite the many sociological studies that show that demanding more of your believers actually grows a congregation, Friends will almost certainly see such a practice as invasive and coercive, never mind that we did it for almost 200 years. Nevertheless, I think we should do everything we can to encourage our members to tell us when they’re in trouble and to help to the degree that we can. As niggardly as Friends are towards contributions to our meetings and institutions, we often respond quite generously to direct appeals for specific and personalized causes. Perhaps the best way to build up a fund that could help struggling members is to run something akin to a capital drive to raise funds for a new meetinghouse or for major repairs to an existing one. Without such a fund and without a clear willingness on the part of the meeting to help, deeply indebted members are not likely to come forward.

During the persecutions, Friends managed to help each other out against terrible, sustained and concerted financial assault. Likewise, the early apostolic church was organized around care for the poor, vividly dramatized in Acts 2 and 4. Do we share such a fellowship today?

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?

Jesus the Christ and Quaker Economic Testimony — The Fulfillment

February 22, 2011 § 10 Comments

How does a covenantal community focused on debt relief and ministry to the poor work?

I said in the earlier posts in this series that, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God by declaring a Jubilee, a general redemption of debt and of debt slaves. How did he plan to make good on his claim to be fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy? Jesus himself raises this question in the course of the story, but he doesn’t answer it. Luke shows us how the first disciples implemented the economics of redemption in the common-wealth of God in Acts, chapters two and four. Presumably they did so according to Jesus’ teachings. There are hints elsewhere in the gospels, notably in the story of Zacchaeus and of Mary and Martha, that Jesus had already begun to organize his household churches along the lines described in detail in Acts. In Acts four and five, Luke actually gives us two case studies of how this was supposed to work, one positive and one negative. In the positive case, Barnabas “sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostle’s feet” (Acts 4:37).

The negative case study (Acts 5:1-12) is an astounding story much overlooked by everybody, I suspect because it’s so bizarre. Ananias and his wife Sapphira, like Barnabas, sell a piece of property, but instead of bringing all the proceeds to the apostles, they agree to secretly withhold half the proceeds. They naturally, I think, fear that they’ve joined a cult whose future looks pretty shaky—their leader has already been executed, their present leaders have already spent time in jail, the secret police are hunting them down. We can speculate that Ananias and Sapphira are hedging their bets, leaving themselves an exit strategy.

Peter knows what’s going on and challenges Ananias. Ananias denies the fraud, and then Peter says he’s lied to God and the man drops dead. Young men wrap him up, carry him out and bury him. Later, Sapphira shows up and Peter challenges her to own up to the subterfuge, but she lies too, and she drops dead. She’s buried next to her husband.

What’s happening here? What’s their crime? Was the punishment really death? Did Peter utter a death-curse? Did God really strike them dead? And what is Luke trying to tell us with this incredible story?

I believe this story encodes the first excommunication in Jesus’ community, defining both the rationale for taking action and the process for expulsion. We know the Essenes excommunicated members by performing a burial ceremony, and even today, some very conservative Jews will say that relatives who have married Gentiles are “dead to me”. This rests on the passage in Deuteronomy that famously says, “choose life”—a theology of life in the covenant and death outside the covenant (Deuteronomy 30:11-20). The first few chapters of both of Luke’s books are full of Essene influence; especially relevant in this context is the mass conversion on Pentecost recounted in Acts 2, which was also the holy day used by the Essenes to admit new members and expel unwanted members.  Especially suspicious as a detail in the story is the note that the young men wrapped up Ananias’s body and then carried him out for burial—did they really prepare the body for the grave right there in the midst of the day’s ritualized distribution of money to the poor? Or was this part of the ritualized ceremony for expulsion, which would have been a public event?

So why were Ananias and Sapphira excommunicated? For filing false financial statements. More specifically, for “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (Acts 5:9) by undermining the community’s commitment to care for the poor. That is, for defying the Spirit of the Lord that had anointed Jesus as the Christ, whom the Father had sent to bring good news to the poor.

So, to answer our question about how our meetings would function if we tried to follow Jesus’ intention with the good news, we would first seek to find out who among us suffers under a crushing burden of debt and who among us possesses surplus wealth that could be used to relieve this suffering. This would probably mean that financial disclosure would be an obligation of membership, for this would be the most transparent way to know who has need and who has resources. And we would set up a system for distributing the welfare.

Several of Paul’s “gifts of the spirit” (ministry, giving, leading, and showing compassion—Romans 12:6-8) seem to represent various offices in the welfare distribution system that he had set up in his churches, each one inspired by the same Spirit that Ananias and Sapphira had defied. These offices are only hinted at in the gospels and Acts, specifically, Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” all of which took place, if I’m not mistaken, at the time of the day’s main meal. “Fellowship” here is the Greek word koine, which means sharing, the sharing of food and money as well as each other’s presence.

Can you imagine organizing your meeting around these principles?

Such a radical covenant of governance, in which discipleship meant this kind of disclosure and discipline, would need to stand on a sure and clear foundation of authority. For Jesus himself and his followers—and for the early Friends—that authority was the Holy Spirit and the teachings of the Christ. Where would today’s liberal, mostly post-Christian meetings turn to for a foundation of authority that could carry such a weight? More importantly, perhaps, why would liberal meetings organize themselves this way, having mostly abandoned the teachings of Jesus as authoritative? Without the authority of the gospel, without the example of the first disciples, a meeting would realign itself toward the poor in this way only if deeply moved by the Holy Spirit—as, indeed, the first Christians were. But this is no less true for mostly Christian meetings. Would they be willing to recover the economic heart of the Christ’s teachings? Would they be any more willing to reorganize their meetings around the good news for the poor?

I propose that the gospel message of Jesus the Christ does, in fact, offer us a powerful place to start in experiencing, articulating and proclaiming a revitalized testimony on economics. But would such a testimony languish at the doorstep of action?

Here the traditional faith and practice of the Quaker testimonies comes into play. The testimonies are not, properly speaking, social action positions to which we are encouraged to subscribe as Friends. They are in theory the natural and even inevitable expressions of movements of the Spirit within and among us. The ‘written testimonies’ are the shadow and not the substance of a testimonial life, empty forms without power, until and unless the spirit of God anoints us. Once we are in-spired with compassion for the poor, the actual words of the testimony and the concrete actions of the testimonial life will follow. Without the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the good news for the poor is just a notion, an intriguing radical ideology, a matter for study and discussion.

When it comes to the poor, I myself hold only a shadow in my hands. I am the rich young man who walked away (Luke 18). I could not live in such a meeting, for a bunch of reasons. I have not surrendered authority over my life to Jesus the Christ (though he hasn’t yet come to claim it).

We believe—I believe, having experienced it myself—that each of us is called to direct inspiration by God, and that the meeting as a community is also so called, and that God is always trying to reveal to us new truth and lead us into renewed life (and by ‘God’ here I mean the Mystery Reality behind our experience of being inspired and led, however that experience manifests). This much I can do: try to open myself to God’s inspiration and revelation and guidance. Try to be faithful to the call when I hear it.

I have answered several calls; I have tried to remain faithful to them. One of them has led me to spend decades studying Jesus’ economic teachings, to write a book about them, to become something of an authority on them. Yet I’ve never let them overwhelm my own desires. I have never truly sought the fellowship of the Spirit in the sharing of wealth and the ministry to the poor. I am Ananias. I guess I am running from the shadow of the cross.

Where Am I?

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