Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Finding Truth in an Economic Haystack

Then they came to Jerusalem. And Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
But you have made it a den of robbers.’
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him

Mark 11:15-18a

The economy is a complex system of interacting individuals — and these individuals themselves are complex systems.
Paul Krugman

We've got 3 months until the national election and the complex economic system of debt--taxes--jobs--investments will be the decisive factor for American voters. Gay marriage, Arizona immigration policies, 9-11 first responder health care and abortion are all important issues, but often serve as political weapons to rally the political base and divert us away from real solutions to everyday problems. Economic insecurity is at all-time highs: unemployment, underemployment, low savings, high debt, job outsourcing, the erratic stock market and the stagnant housing market all make for a rather ominous forecast. And all those of us with a pulse on the current political news can all too clearly see Democratic and Republican political leaders awkwardly posturing for the most appealing narrative to take them to the promised land.

Since the rise of Protestant Pietism in the 19th century (on onwards) it has become chic for (most) American Christians to cling to an individualized salvation narrative that emphasizes heaven after death and personal morality in this life. After all, Jesus died for our sins so that we can have that blessed assurance. Right? When we read the Gospels through the socio-historically appropriate lens, however, we can understand more clearly what Jesus' vocation and death was all about. Why were the chief priests and scribes so intent on killing Jesus after he disrupted the Temple marketplace? Hint: it wasn't because he was offering eternal salvation outside of the Jewish establishment. It was because Jesus attacked the structures (the system) of political and economic power. When powerful and privileged folks see the writing on the wall they don't just lie down, they rely on propaganda to change public opinion. Those in power always have access to the media which tells the "official" story. Why else would the crowds who followed Jesus throughout Mark's Gospel scream and yell "Crucify him" at his "trial?"

Noted Christian biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in The Last Week (2008), pinpoint three real reasons for Jesus' Temple action (with my paraphrase summary):

1. Economic Exploitation by the religious leaders--these powerful aristocrats were using the very dwelling place of God to oppress the peasant class of mostly tenant farmers who would come to the Temple to pay dues, make sacrifices to God and worship. These economic practices kept the bottom 95% in their place.

2. The Violent Political Vocation of Jewish Rebels--Mark wrote his gospel about 40 years after the events of Jesus' life. In about 70AD, Palestine was in a crisis of warfare and chaos as rebels stormed the temple to take it over from the Roman-Empire-collaborating religious leaders. These rebels were turning the vocation of Israel, "the light of the world," into a violent people on the edge of the Empire. In 70AD, the Temple was destroyed by hordes of Roman soldiers who finally put down the rebellion. Jesus cites Jeremiah 7 during his Temple protest.

3. The Substitution of Worship for Justice--throughout the Hebrew Bible, the prophets consistently call on Israel to pledge themselves to social justice for the most vulnerable members of their community. God's people would naturally forsake the real notion of worship [reflecting God's care for the oppressed and marginalized] for the sacrificial system and other worship traditions of the Temple.

Please don't misunderstand the EasyYolk biblical strategy. We are not simply using this one Gospel episode to prove our economic ideology. That's called "proof texting" and we detest its widespread use within American churches, from conservative to liberal, all over the theological-political-economic spectrum. The Temple Action episode, in all four Gospels, is simply one episode of many where Jesus confronts the present political-economic Powers. For instance, Jesus' structural critique highlights why he told the rich young man to give back the "properties" (Mark 10:22: Greek ktemata) that he had seized from debt-ridden subsistence farmers to make his fortune. And, of course, Jesus was following the way of the Jewish Torah which laid out provisions for wealthy Jews to do just that every seven years at Jubilee. And the economic message of Jesus does not stop at the last page of John's Gospel. After all, the Apostle Paul was eagerly on the same page with the Jerusalem apostles who "asked only one thing" from the apostle to the Gentiles: that we remember the poor (Galatians 2:10). And Jesus' baby brother James prophetically condemned the low, stagnant wages of that society's toughest jobs: Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts (James 5:4). These episodes were written to a minority sect in an Empire, but now Christians are a majority in a democracy. Shouldn't we demand that the economic system works justly?

But how can this possibly be just?

And, no doubt, there's a strong correlation between income inequality and this:

And, at the same moment in time, this is exploding as I write (I can't keep up):

This is distressing for citizens of the reign of God committed to working structurally for the poor. And to make matters worse, we get a barrage of sound-bites coming from both sides of the aisle, maveuvering themselves to either seize or hold onto power. Truth is nowhere in sight. I'm reminded of the words of Jesus, "You have heard it said, but I say to you..."

Here are some things we should consider in the months ahead as we assess the truth about economics and advocate for the poor and middle class (aka, those in dire straits) while we prophetically stand against greed, apathy and indifference run amok:

1. Renewing the Bush Tax Cuts for ALL Americans will inevitably lead to higher deficits. Tax cuts DO NOT raise government revenue--actually quite the opposite. Even a Republican Senator recently admitted it.

2. Alan Greenspan, the most important and powerful economist for more than two decades, confessed to key component in his economic ideology:

I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.

3. The possibility of an increase in the estate tax (for the wealthy) will be shunned GOP and conservative Democratic leaders seeking re-election. Remember, Republican Teddy Roosevelt advocated for a strong estate tax 100 years ago and here's why (in his words):

The absence of effective state, and, especially, national restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise.... Therefore, I believe in a ... graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.

4. Most political leaders in Congress and the White House make decisions for the interests that keep them in office or take care of them when they leave. These decisions lead to income inequality and a reduction of democracy. As political journalist Matt Taibbi cynically writes, “organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.”

5. The almost $1,000,000,000,000 combined stimulus packages of Bush-Obama over the past three years actually worked. A key study shows that prevented absolute economic devastation. However, we should demand real solutions from political leaders who either denounce the success of the stimulus (GOP) or bask in the glow of creating 2 million jobs (Dems). Much more needs to be done.

6. Reagan didn't get the US out of the recession of the early 80s with his tax cut alone. It was a gigantic reduction in interest rates from the Fed that did the trick (in our current situation, the Fed has lowered interest rates to their lowest point in history so this key weapon is no longer available for us right now). And remember, Reagan decreased taxes for the highest earners when those earners were paying 70% in the highest bracket (they are paying 35% now) and then increased their taxes later! (Here's another great source on Reagan's real fiscal policy)

7. Because she is so popular and I just recently discovered how many of my Facebook friends "like" her, we should address Sarah Palin's voice. She recently claimed on Fox News:

Let me just go through a couple of things that I want people to be aware of, because, you know, the spin coming from Gibbs and the White House -- you're never going to get the truth out of their messaging...Democrats are poised now to cause this largest tax increase in U.S. history. It's a tax increase of $3.8 trillion over the next 10 years, and it will have an effect on every single American who pays an income tax.

The only problem is that none of this is true by any stretch of the economic imagination. I suspect that even sincere, hard-working Americans want to believe Palin (and other story-telling pundits from Limbaugh to Olbermann to Beck to Maddow) because it is a lot easier finding a scapegoat (Obama or Bush) than doing the hard work of finding the truth in the media haystack.

Let's approach this economic plague with fear and trembling while we filter out fact from fiction. Truth can only come from research, prayer, dialogue and sincere humility. Truth through pundit or demagogue or "official" transcript of the White House will simply not do.

--Theological Autopilot


  1. Because there is simply too much in this post to address, I will just ask a few very specific questions/comments in regard to your "But how can this possibly be just?" question (and following graphs)

    1) Is it our place to pose that question?

    2) Is it 'just' that the top 1% of earners in the US paid approximately 40% of all income taxes and yet only earned 22% of wages?
    Is is 'just' that the top 50% of earners pay 97% of all taxes in the US while only earning 87% of the wages? Stated differently, the bottom 50% of earners paid 3% of the income taxes and yet earned 13% of the wages - is this 'just'?

    I personally do not think that we need major tax reform in order to make people pay equally, but I state these facts in order to illuminate the HUGE difficulty in answering the question "is this just?"

    3) Where in Scripture are we told that equality (particularly fiscal equality) is necessary/commanded/desirable? (Parable of the talents comes to mind)

    I have removed myself from political discourse because I found myself angered/frustrated/discouraged far too often. I am not up to speed, nor do I care to be, on the daily workings of our political system. I am merely trying daily to take solace in my just and sovereign GOD. My ears always perk up when I hear someone talking about justice or equality because I find it increasingly bizarre.

    GOD is just. That's just what I need.

  2. Oops, forgot the most important part of my comment...

    You need to show that fiscal equality is identical to justice in order for your points to make any logical sense.

    In other words, is there a way that justness can exist in a scenario where there is fiscal disparity?

  3. EasyYolk seeks to be aligned with God's Justice, which in biblical terms is tsedequah (Hebrew) and dikaiosune (Greek). God's justice is always concerned with the plight of the poor and marginalized, first and foremost. Throughout the biblical witness, we hear Yahweh's prophets (including John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth) calling for God's People to align themselves with the destiny of the widow, orphan, resident alien, etc. The Bible's focus is not on economic equality, but a system that cares about the economically disadvantaged and meets their basic needs--I would argue that the Bible's focus is on advocating a mentality or consciousness that flips the script of the normal "rules of the game" (the bottom line is profit, she should pull herself up by her own bootstraps, etc). But the kind of economic inequality that we are experiencing in the US signals that our system (the structures of economics) is out of whack in terms of God's Justice. As God's people, we should not only care about this but we should seek to eradicate this injustice. A society is deemed "unjust" when fewer and fewer of its citizens can afford basic health, college education, transportation and housing. Meanwhile, our children from poor and working classes are given an "opportunity" for health-education-housing by fighting its "war on terror" which, again, not to beat a dead horse from past post debates, are themselves unjust.

    EasyYolk is rooted in a biblical tradition that believes that the gospel IS social action: love, service, compassion and solidarity with the least of these. With that said, Christians should be familiar with recent economic history and current economic studies so that we can wisely discern how certain economic policies will serve the "common good" (ie, those Jesus aligned himself with in his kingdom of God movement). Christians are called to be a voice for those who do not have a voice. In a democracy, that means families and individuals who cannot afford lobbyists and lawyers to sway the actions of political leaders. The Body of Christ needs to stand in this ever-widening gap. After all, the original body of Christ was crucified between the wealthy powerful elites and the ordinary, mostly powerless people. That scene was vindicated 3 days later and calls us all to follow him into truly "abundant life."

  4. This is precisely the type of response that gets my attention...

    Just recently, you quoted “if you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

    Then: “but if we are really going to ‘transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of bortherhood’ then we’ll have to start… with ourselves.”
    For the sake of consistency, shouldn’t you be calling for people to take care of their neighbors (widows, orphans, the poor and needy) and not for massive governmental change and calls for equality in the tax code and health care?

    "As God's people, we should not only care about this but we should seek to eradicate this injustice."

    Only 'this' injustice? All injustice? Who decides which injustices we try to eradicate? What are the criterion for deciding which injustices we try to eradicate? Are we to interfere with other nations’ sovereignty in order to eradicate injustice? How are we deciding what is unjust? Surely we ought to seek to be aligned with God’s justice, but how do we do this?

    "A society is deemed "unjust" when fewer and fewer of its citizens can afford basic health, college education, transportation and housing."

    Where does this come from? Who made this definition? Are these inalienable rights? Are these necessary to being a properly functioning human or are they simply things we think are good? Can a person live a life without these things and not consider themselves unjustly treated? How many millions of people have lived and died without these things, and were they treated unjustly? Can anyone stand before GOD and claim to be treated unjustly? Why must the government be held to Biblical morality standards in THIS particular area above other areas? If taking care of widows and orphans is governmentally mandated, doesn't that defeat the whole point of 'true religion' (that it's a condition of the heart/spirit)?

    Goodness and Justice are in many ways linked, but they are certainly not synonymous. This is why it is important to make the distinction.

    I think I agree with a many of the foundations EYolk is trying to argue from, but there are a great deal of logical questions that must be addressed.

  5. Alisdair MacIntyre is helpful with this conversation. He posits that concepts like "justice" are ALWAYS defined within a community rooted in a specific tradition, which is an ongoing, historic dialogue. EasyYolk participates in an Anabaptist Christian community rooted in the biblical prophetic tradition. Taylor, you are rooted in a different Christian tradition with a different emphasis/interpretation of the biblical story. That explains much of our diverse interpretive outcomes, and as a result, different ways of going about being "Christian." Both of these traditions have long legacies throughout Christian history. And both are deeply commmitted to the Bible.

    A true biblical ethic according to the late James McClendon (3-volume Systematic Theology) has three intertwining strands: the embodied, the social and the Resurrection. We ourselves are healed from all the brokenness, pain, shame, guilt, dehumanization, strife, abuse and waywardness (embodied), while we live lives of service and love to our neighbors and enemies in our marriages, families, businesses, faith communities, neighborhoods, marketplaces, political parties, etc (social). He starts with the Resurrection strand though: followers of Jesus work for "a whole new world" (II Cor 5:17) that will be a full Reality someday soon--we participate with God in this redemption of the world...the New Testament does not call us to sit on the sidelines and wait. That doesn't mean that we bring the kingdom about...God does that powerfully and mysteriously. We simply anticipate it by being faithful to the vision of the kingdom of God that we find in the New Testament. So, I am compelled that Thomas Merton (a Cistercian monk) and Martin Luther King (an African-American political prophet) are not mutually exclusive but go together. McClendon would describe them as two strands that, when intertwined, are stronger together.

    I'd love to know where you agree with EasyYolk and where specifically you are coming from with a biblical ethic. In other words, what do you think it means to be "Christian?"

  6. If you're referring to his arguments in After Virtue, then I would completely disagree with your espousal of MacIntyre's thoughts on virtues.
    Historical context is irrelevant with virtues. We don’t need to consider a telos (unless, of course, we are considering GOD as our telos) in order to formulate a coherent moral structure. Is love different today than it was 5000 years ago? NO! The reason is simple. GOD is love. (1 John 4:8). God is never changing, therefore love is never changing. Context is irrelevant.
    That being said, expressions of GOD as love are infinitely unique, just as God is infinite and we are unique. The same goes with every virtue. GOD doesn’t HAVE virtues, He IS virtue.
    This is a critically important recognition because if God merely displayed the virtues, then they would be independent from God. There aren't (true) notions of virtue outside of God. If there were, then we would be able to exhibit them without God and His grace.
    Now, I'm not exactly sure what you mean when you say "biblical prophetic tradition", so perhaps that would clear some things up for me.
    As for what I think it means to be a Christian - It's the continual, daily commitment to look more like Christ in and through me.
    I am aware of the other definitions of sin given by Scripture, but the one I cling to is found in Romans 14
    "But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin."
    Everything that does not come from faith is sin.
    That is the lens through which I view the world I live in. I strive to live by faith which is the only way to engage in the sanctification process of salvation that ultimately leads to the glorification of the Almighty God. If I am living by faith then I am not sinning (Abiding). If I am living by faith, then I am walking in God's will. If I am living by faith, then I am laying claim to Jesus's prayer to the Father in the garden

  7. John 17
    "Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.

    “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
    “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them."

    It is for this reason that I find it increasingly difficult to engage in this type of discussion, because ultimately it will come to a disagreement of faith. I'm not about to tell you that you're not acting in faith, so there's really not much else that can be said.
    We can make logical arguments all day long (and I love doing so :) ) but logical arguments almost never change our faith. Provided the object of our faith is the one True God and in his son Jesus Christ, then we must each operate in our faith in order to avoid sin and grow in His grace.

  8. Yeah, you and I are definitely using different "biblical logic." That's why MacIntyre (as utilized by theologians like Nancey Murphy, Jim McClendon and Jonathan Wilson) is so helpful. Reasoning/logic depends on what tradition one is rooted in--which determines telos, narrative, practices and virtues. And, of course, you and I disagree on that! :)

    The biblical prophetic tradition that I refer to is fleshed out by the Anabaptists of the 16th century, Roger Williams in the new world, John Wesley, William Wilberforce & Frederick Douglass in the 19th century, as well as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Howard Thurman/Martin Luther King, Doris Day, Daniel Berrigan, Cornel West and Ched Myers of the 20th century. These are just some examples of the kind of trailblazers that shape my life and thinking.