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.

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Where Were You When they Crucified My Lord?

December 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

A friend recently turned me on to RSN (Reader Supported News) and I find it a terrific source for progressive news and commentary. It recently featured this abbreviated version of a talk that Chris Hedges gave at the Occupy Wall Street site in Liberty Square in New York City, addressed to Trinity Church (a landmark church downtown near Ground Zero) and to all Christians. I found it extremely moving, especially since Were You There is one of my favorite African-American spirituals. Here’s the link:

Where Were You When They Crucified My Lord?

Here’s an excerpt:

The Occupy movement is the force that will revitalize traditional Christianity in the United States or signal its moral, social and political irrelevance. The mainstream church, battered by declining numbers and a failure to defiantly condemn the crimes and cruelty of the corporate state, as well as a refusal to vigorously attack the charlatans of the Christian right, whose misuse of the Gospel to champion unfettered capitalism, bigotry and imperialism is heretical, has become a marginal force in the life of most Americans, especially the young. Outside the doors of churches, many of which have trouble filling a quarter of the pews on Sundays, struggles a movement, driven largely by young men and women, which has as its unofficial credo the Beatitudes . . .

Were you there to halt the genocide of Native Americans? Were you there when Sitting Bull died on the cross? Were you there to halt the enslavement of African-Americans? Were you there to halt the mobs that terrorized black men, women and even children with lynching during Jim Crow? Were you there when they persecuted union organizers and Joe Hill died on the cross? Were you there to halt the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II? Were you there to halt Bull Connor’s dogs as they were unleashed on civil rights marchers in Birmingham? Were you there when Martin Luther King died upon the cross? Were you there when Malcolm X died on the cross? Were you there to halt the hate crimes, discrimination and violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those who are transgender? Were you there when Matthew Shepard died on the cross? Were you there to halt the abuse and at times enslavement of workers in the farmlands of this country? Were you there to halt the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent Vietnamese during the war in Vietnam or hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan? Were you there to halt Israel’s saturation bombing of Lebanon and Gaza? Were you there when Rachel Corrie died on the cross? Were you there to halt the corporate forces that have left working men and women and the poor in this country bereft of a sustainable income, hope and dignity? Were you there to share your food with your neighbor in Liberty Square? Were you there to become homeless with them?

Where were you when they crucified my Lord?

Chris Hedge’s address stands as another example of how powerful a biblically based, pointedly Christian witness could be, how it provides a platform to stand on and offers compelling rhetorical tools.

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.

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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