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