August 4, 2010
No one can enter a strongman’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first binds the strongman. Then he can rob his house. (Mark 3:27)
Jesus did not just rail against the rich with curses, prophetic oracles and forceful teachings about the dangers of going in through the wide gate of wealth. And he did not just promise the poor—with blessings, prophetic oracles and hopeful teachings about what lay beyond the narrow gate—that their fortunes would be reversed, that he had “good news” for them: he would cancel their debts, relieve their suffering and provide for their needs. He actually put cash in their hands—cash he had stolen from their rich and powerful oppressors. In at least one instance, Jesus stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The Son of Man was a thief.
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. so you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:42-44)
Jesus had already demonstrated in concrete terms what he meant by this cryptic warning about judgment. In this concrete instance, as in the more eschatological sayings about the ‘Son of Man’, the “strongman” was Satan, and also his minions—the priests, scribes and lawyers who ruled Judea as collaborators with Caesar. The “house” was the temple. The “theft” was the so-called ‘cleansing of the temple.’
After the triumphal royal procession into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passion Week, Jesus’ first royal act was to enter the temple complex, go to the foreign exchange office of the treasury, and stage a raid.
Going into the temple, he began to throw out those who were selling and buying in the temple; and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and he did not allow anyone to carry a container through the temple. And he was teaching and saying to them, “Has it not been written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of brigands.” (Mark 11:15-17)
Imagine the scene: The tables topple, the jars of coins crash to the pavement, the money spills in piles and rolls out into the court, some officials desperately seize what jars of money they can save and try to make it out of the court, but Jesus and his followers intercept them, people are scooping the money up from the floor into sacks, hauling off the jars they have captured. All the while Jesus is shouting above the cries, the bellows of the cattle, the mewing of the sheep, the flutter of wings, the laughing of his followers: you have made this a den of thieves! Ever the master of prophetic irony and sarcasm.
It is a small victory. The poor are very many and even this Robin Hood raid will not see to all their needs. But it is real money, after all. And its symbolic power is tremendous. The Son of Man delivers.
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. (Mark 11:18)
July 6, 2010
This is the third in a series of entries on Jesus’ attitude toward riches and the rich, prompted by a June 13 article in Huffington Post by Les Leopold entitled “Is there a Global War Between Financial Theocracy and Democracy?”
Although he famously included women, the poor, lepers and other marginalized people in his community and explicitly forbade hierarchical forms of governance (see Mark 10:35-45), Jesus’ kingdom of God was no democracy. It was in fact a theocracy, a covenant under God’s direct rulership whose primary mission was to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). It also brought bad news to the rich. No story illustrates this central focus of the gospel message better than that of the rich young man who asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, told in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 10:17-31; Matthew 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30).
The first thing to note right away in the man’s question is the economic language the man uses to describe how he will achieve his goal of eternal life: he hopes to inherit it. Jesus himself uses ‘inherit’ this way quite frequently (see my posts on the Beatitudes). The man is posing a question about the law (and Jesus answers him with the law) and he knows that it is inheritance law that applies to his query: he will inherit eternal life from his Father in heaven as his portion—as a son of God—if he follows the law faithfully. In essence, he is asking Jesus, how can I become a son of God under your interpretation of the law. It’s worth noting that the “sons of God” was the term used in Jesus’ time for angels and that Jesus expected the saints to rise from the dead to become “like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).
Jesus asks him if he has followed the law, citing several of the Ten Commandments, all of them economic crimes: theft, false witness, swindling (coveting, wrongly understood as wishing you had what your neighbor has), care of your aged father and mother, and adultery. (Adultery directly violated inheritance law because conceiving a child outside the marriage disrupted the inheritance of the woman’s family.) The rich young man replies that he has
“kept all these since my youth. Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell what you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. . . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 10:20-24,
Some scholars have proposed, on only a little evidence, that there was a postern gate (that is, a small gate for people only, rather than for commercial traffic) in the city wall of Jerusalem called the Needle Gate. If this were true, the image would be of a rich merchant forced to unload his camel’s saddlebags of all their cargo so that the camel could fit through the gate. This is a perfect image for what Jesus has in mind, whether there was a Needle Gate or not. In any event, the literal image of a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle is hyperbolic and dramatic, capturing the intensity of Jesus’ message: the only way rich people will inherit the kingdom of God is for them to give their surplus wealth to the poor.
Most of us will walk away grieving, just like the man in the story.
June 16, 2010
This is the second in a short series of entries on Jesus’ attitude toward riches and the rich, prompted by a June 13 article in Huffington Post by Les Leopold entitled “Is there a Global War Between Financial Theocracy and Democracy?”, in which he describes the culture surrounding the financial sector of our economy and its governmental proxies as one of quasi-religious faith in markets, a worldview generally embraced by conservatives of all stripes, including the Christian right. Jesus would call this culture idolatry.
The gospels abound with eschatological sayings, curses and judgment oracles in which Jesus consigns the rich to a harsh judgment and condemns the amassment of wealth as a morally mortal folly. He often combines these utterances with blessings of the poor and oppressed (the Hebrew word ani can be translated either way), saying in effect, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The most striking of these combinations is Luke’s presentation of the Beatitudes with a corresponding list of ‘anti-Beatitudes’:
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24-25):
There are several other passages that single out the rich in this way (many of these have parallels in other gospels):
Mark 10:17-30 The story of the rich young man: “how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Luke 12:13-21 The parable of the rich fool: “God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Luke 16:19-31 The rich man and Lazarus: “now he is comforted here and you are in agony”
We will look at some of these in more detail in the next post, and later we will see that it’s not all doom and gloom for the rich: all they need do is sell everything they own and give it to the poor. And we’ll look at two matching case studies of people who did just that—and those who didn’t.
June 13, 2010
The June 13 Huffington Post features an article by Les Leopold entitled “Is there a Global War Between Financial Theocracy and Democracy?” Leopold writes that, after gains on behalf of working people against financial interests during the New Deal, those interests went on the counter-offensive beginning in the 1970s:
The Deregulatory Counter-Offensive: By the late 1970s, bankers regained the advantage through the spread of a new faith in self-regulated markets. The economic apostles of unfettered markets lobbied against progressive taxes, unions, and social welfare programs. The new orthodoxy was: Let the elites collect the money—they’ll invest wisely (instead of consuming), and all boats will rise. This near-religious revolution rapidly spread through the economic and policy establishment. Regulations were dismantled right and left, and the revolving door between government and Wall Street started spinning. The American financial catechism ruled the world. And on Wall Street, the money tap was open. It did not trickle down.
Then, suddenly, in 2008, the market gods destroyed themselves as the unregulated financial casinos crashed and burned, just like they did in 1929. . . This was the perfect moment for democracy to reassert democratic control on financial markets, just as we did during the New Deal. We blew it.
The article made me think right away of Walter Wink’s analysis of the Powers in his brilliant series of books on the Powers, the spiritual reality behind the various structures and institutions of oppression in modern civilization, as seen through the lens of Christian scripture’s ‘angelology’—the ways that Christian scripture names and describes the Principalities, Powers and other angelic entities in its worldview and how we might understand them in our own social science worldview.
Jesus focused a great deal of attention on the specific Power at work in the current financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession. He even game him a name: Mammon.
The parable of the dishonest manager in Luke (16:1-14) speaks directly to the situation Leopold describes, of financial theocracy, of making a god of the market and trusting the priest-managers who benefit from and manage it. Here’s how it ends:
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth (mammon), who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.
This calls for a brief series on the considerable number of passages in the gospels in which Jesus warns—or curses—the rich and the lust for wealth. The various forces that fetishize deregulation, the hypocrites who pretend to be populists while punishing the poor, who claim to love Christ and actually love the ‘free market’—beware! Your Jesus envisions some gnashing of teeth.
June 8, 2010
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Matthew 6:12.
When asked once what the most powerful force in the universe was, Albert Einstein is said to have answered: compound interest. Certainly, a modern, capitalist financial system could not exist without lending at interest. No interest, no credit. No credit, no productive economic activity.
The laws of ancient Greece, Rome and Israel, however, prohibited usury, or lending at interest, and so did those of medieval Europe. Eventually, though, the potential for creating wealth through investment rather than through land-based agriculture demanded the legalization of lending at interest, and capitalism and modernity itself were born. Nevertheless, throughout most of modern history, laws have set limits on the rates that could be charged.
The inflationary recession of the 1970s, however, began squeezing lenders (especially credit card lenders) against these limits, and they challenged these laws in court. Eventually, a 1978 Supreme Court decision pegged usury rates to the laws of a lender’s home state and states began competing for these companies; Delaware and South Dakota won. (See the excellent review article by Steven Mercatante in South Dakota Law Review for a history: “The deregulation of usury ceilings, rise of easy credit, and increasing consumer debt”.) The United States has been steadily deregulating the financial services industry ever since. There now exist virtually no limits on the interest rates a lender can charge, beyond those set by the market. The result of deregulation and of easy credit has been two banking crises (remember the savings and loans in the 1980s?), the last—well, you know.
Of course, high interest rates hurt the poor the most, and perversely, the people who most need the loan are those who pay the highest rates and are least able to pay them. A constellation of businesses exists to make money off of the poor’s desperate need for short-term cash—to keep the lights on, meet a rent payment, hold onto their car, keep their cable or phone. On Monday’s show (June 7, 2010), Terry Gross, host of NPR’s fine show Fresh Air, interviewed Gary Rivlin, author of Broke, USA, about these financial industries that make their profit from lending to the poor at very high interest rates. Oy.
I said above that the Bible prohibits usury (see this website for a list of the passages concerning interest rates on loans). The lending envisioned in the Bible differs from investment lending, but is exactly the kind of lending discussed by Rivlin: it is lending to the poor. Usually, that meant a free peasant subsistence farmer who’s experienced a productivity shortfall or some disaster (his ox dies) and needs either food to tide his family over or seed to plant next year’s crops, or both. The Bible defines who bears the responsibility for making such loans (family) and sets the terms, but predatory lending by bankers in the cities was a problem in ancient Israel as it is now. (See Isaiah 5:8)
As Congress revisits financial regulation in the aftermath of the catastrophes that deregulation have brought, we can expect ‘Christian’ Republicans (and Democrats, for that matter) to fight it on behalf of the banks. They should remember that Jesus literally defined his mission as the Christ in terms of relief for the poor:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because he has anointed me (Christed me, messiah-ed me) to bring good news to the poor. Luke 4:18.
They should set very strict limits on the interest rates that these institutions can charge the poor. It would be better to eliminate the interest rates altogether, but that would probably eliminate the lending itself, the last option available to the poor to meet these pressing short-term needs. Instead, churches should get into the short-term loan business and use the very modest profits they might make from low interest rates to help fund other relief efforts, like soup kitchens, and put these predatory lenders out of business with competition.