Woe to you who are rich

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.

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.

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.