Reparations to African Americans

July 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

I feel that one of the first steps we take in the New Lamb’s War should be to champion black reparations.

In its Fall Sessions in November 2013, New York Yearly Meeting approved an Apology to Afro-Descendants, which I have discussed in an earlier post. Now, in its June issue, The Atlantic has published “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. On page 61, the article mentions that Friends historically have supported the idea of reparations to African Americans:

“A heavy account lies against us as a civil society for oppressions committed against people who did not injure us,” wrote the Quaker John Woolman in 1769, “and that if the particular case of many individuals were fairly stated, it would appear that there was considerable due to them.”

As the historian Roy E. Finkenbine has documented, at the dawn of this country, black reparations were actively considered and often effected. Quakers in New York, New England, and Baltimore went so far as to make “membership contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves.” In 1782, the Quaker Robert Pleasants emancipated his 78 slaves, granted them 350 acres, and later built a school on their property and provided for their education. “The doing of this justice to the injured Africans,” wrote Pleasants, “would be an acceptable offering to him who ‘Rules in the kingdom of men.’”

As I describe in my earlier post, way opened to approval of the Apology in New York Yearly Meeting with some force applied to the hinges, what with some slamming and wrenching, though the frame seems undamaged. Some Friends exited out the door when it seemed it would not go forward. Not all Friends walked through that door in the end.

I approved the Apology in principle, though I wasn’t happy with its wording. Unlike the words of Robert Pleasants, and like many of our witness testimonies, it could have been written by almost any socially conscious secular community; it never mentions God and never presents a religious argument, only a generally moral one. It never mentions sin, repentance, or forgiveness; that’s not my natural language, either, but I do believe in sin, and these particular sins are grievous and have real victims, so now I feel we should ask for forgiveness, and also ask forgiveness for not asking for forgiveness.

Still, the Yearly Meeting has held to its commitment to continue laboring over the issue, and there is still opportunity to recover the “Religious” in the Religious Society of Friends in the matter. The Yearly Meeting has been collectively considering a series of queries drafted by its Ministry Coordinating Committee and some Friends are still actively working on further next steps.

There was talk at the time about reparations. I would not be surprised if the Yearly Meeting moved on to considering collective support of black reparations, at least in principle. I haven’t finished the Atlantic article yet, but its arguments so far are truly compelling to me. Just the lead-in on the front cover of the magazine is compelling (see below). And now we have no less a Quaker prophet than John Woolman urging us on.

And then there’s Jesus. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Debt, sin as debt, redemption as release from debt, these lie at the very center of the gospel of the Christ. In his inaugural statement of his ministry in Luke chapter four, Jesus defined his role as the Christ, the Messiah, as the one who would set free the slaves and bring relief to the poor. 

Jesus walked farther than any previous Hebrew prophet in this path, but it was already well-worn. Coates starts his article by quoting Deuteronomy 15, which is the covenantal foundation for dealing with debt and debt slavery in Torah, along with Leviticus 25; for Israel had been a debt slave nation itself and had been redeemed by its God at the Passover and in the Exodus. This is why so many African American spirituals, like “Samson and Delilah” and “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” tell stories of liberation from Hebrew Scripture; under the surface, they are anthems of release from slavery.

Insofar as Quakers follow Jesus, we must bend especially lithely toward economic justice and be extra mindful of our tradition’s stand against slavery—and never mind Paul.

Here’s the cover text of The Atlantic:

250 years of slavery.

90 years of Jim Crow.

60 years of separate but equal.

35 years of state-sanctioned redlining.

Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts of our ancestors,

America will never be whole.

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.)

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?

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