A Season for Balancing the Scales
‘When I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.’” —Archbishop Dom Helder Camara
THE 1/204th HUMAN
There is an alarming lamentation among economists, social and political commentators, and progressive voices for economic justice, that while household incomes have essentially remained stagnant since the mid 1980s, in the same period corporate profits and executive compensation have grown at mind-boggling rates. Fifty percent of income resources now go to the top ten percent, while the other fifty percent is shared by the bottom ninety percent. This lamentation should get our attention because of the ramifications of this kind of inequity for the stability of any society. Peace does not proliferate where justice has no foundation. This is a fact of life…everywhere.
Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, a professor at Columbia and a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and chief economist for the World Bank has observed the following:
“Our skyrocketing inequality – so contrary to our meritocratic ideal of America as a place where anyone with hard work and talent can “make it” – means that those who are born to parents of limited means are likely never to live up to their potential. Children in other rich countries like Canada, France, Germany and Sweden have a better chance of doing better than their parents did than American kids have. More than a fifth of our children live in poverty – the second worst of all the advanced economies, putting us behind countries like Bulgaria, Latvia and Greece.”
In a national culture where American exceptionalism has become the cliched boast of those whose political ambitions drive them to side with those who have a vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo, we must ask ourselves whether or not this is the “exceptionalism” we want to engender going forward. What can we expect to be the future of a society in which the social, political, and economic ambitions of the few creates the kind of disparity that drives the majority toward a veritable cliff of hopelessness? Our nation’s destiny is without doubt severely compromised when the hope of the few creates despair among the many.
Zoe Carpenter, writing in The Nation, observes the following:
“It’s no secret that this sort of economic inequality is increasing nationwide; the disparity between America’s richest and poorest is the widest it’s been since the Roaring Twenties. Less discussed are the gaps in life expectancy that have widened over the past twenty-five years between America’s counties, cities and neighborhoods. While the country as a whole has gotten richer and healthier, the poor have gotten poorer, the middle class has shrunk and American’s without high school diplomas have seen their life expectancy slide back to what it was in the 1950’s. Economic inequalities manifest not in numbers, but in sick and dying bodies.”
The stark reality of our national life is that the growing inequalities in our economy are sadly expressed in crime and violence, in diminished access to quality education, and in the diminished health and life expectancy of the many who struggle to “make ends meet”. It is convenient for pompous conservatives to point the finger at the presumed “immorality” of the disadvantaged. By objectifying the unwed parent they are able to direct attention away from more substantial issues amongst us. For example, we might be asking questions as to whether it is moral for a fast food chain to bank billions of dollars in corporate profits while denying its workers a livable wage.
We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by the well developed sleight of tongue of our socio/economic/cultural detractors, who want to talk about individual responsibility while corporate entities get to call their lack of a collective moral orientation “success”. It is time to ask ourselves some hard questions about the kind of nation we are. Is community only essential when we want to mobilize the children of the working class to shed their blood in wars that have their raison d’etre in the undisclosed economic motivations of the neoconservative class?
Jesus of Nazareth whom many conservatives worship as their “Savior” rebuked those pointing their fingers at those who are too disadvantaged to effectively answer with the instruction, and here I paraphrase… Remove the log from your own eye before you talk about the speck in the eyes of others! As for this Jesus, he was a man surrounded by the working class. He himself is believed by many to have been, among other things, a carpenter. This was a man who understood the predicament of the Mary Magdalenes of his world. He did not look down his nose at fishermen among whom he moved easily, his buddy Peter being one of them. He got Matthew, a tax collector, to leave a profession that many saw as oppressive and join him in the work of liberation. Jesus stood up for the poor, as his embrace of that well read mission statement from Isaiah 61 shows. The “good news” he proclaimed to the poor was bad news for those who gained from keeping things the way they were.
There is no doubt in my mind that today’s conservative would condemn this Nazarene’s “social gospel” as unadulterated Marxism. His relationship with the political leadership and its economic partners was by no means a comfortable one. Remember that incident with the “money changers” in the temple? These economic vampires were using their monopoly of the currency supply to make exorbitant profits, charging “whatever the market would bear” for coins that the people needed to pay their annual Temple tax. Jesus physically threw them out of the Temple after branding them “thieves”. Days later these same bankers called for his death. How dare he do anything to compromise their hard earned profit margins?
According to Bloomberg, the average CEO makes 204 times the salary of the average employee. Is this what we mean in fact when we spout off about “American exceptionalism”? How long will civility hold when the social contract engendered by our economic relationships continues to guarantee the fecundity of the few at the expense of the many? Simply put, how long can we expect that the poor will accept that their lot in this life is to be fodder for the ambitions of the rich?
THE CASE FOR AN “EXCEPTIONAL” WHOLENESS
In this season of “goodwill toward men” it behoves us to stop and reflect on the foundational ideals of our civil society. The loud voices of conservatism among us want us to believe in their version of the Judeo-Christian value system. The problem is that they are either ignorant of, or in total denial about the prophetic voices that have given life to this tradition throughout its history. Have the conservative pontificators among us read Amos, or Isaiah, or any of the prophets for that matter? Have they not heard Amos’ appeal to “let Justice roll down …”? I speak with the prophets when I declare that we must not have our voices co-opted in the efforts to further oppress and marginalize the disadvantaged among us.
In light of the fundamentalism which insists that we must give prominence to the Biblical foundations of our nation’s origins, it becomes imperative that we raise some fundamental questions about those foundations. What, we must ask, are the social ramifications of a belief system that assumes the “fatherhood” of “a common Creator”? In the words of Cain… Am I my brother’s keeper? Do I have the right to demand that I be treated as a “fellow person”? In the tradition of Martin Buber who was a prominent twentieth century philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator; shall we cultivate amongst ourselves “I-thou” rather than “I-it” relationships. Do we truly believe that “all persons are created equal”?
Religious belief is by no means separable from the anthropological assumptions of the faithful. People in fact create gods in their own images. Our religious ideals therefore bear the indelible imprint of our social, economic, and historical bearings. For this reason it is a semantically perilous exercise to posit a conversation about a just and civil society with assumptions about commonalities in religious belief. As I have stated elsewhere, our theology is, for the most part, the deification of our anthropology. The peril of religious dialogue is therefore its inherent subjectivity. Given this fact, it is not surprising to find that even the highest authority in any religious system will be verbally and otherwise assaulted by the faithful of the church of status quo ethics and economics. Such authorities include even the Successor of Peter.
The new Pope has garnered much press for the fresh new approach he has brought to leadership at the Vatican. His theological praxis is no doubt informed by the experiences he had as a pastor among the poor in Latin America. Like ArchBishop Dom Helder Camara, he is no stranger to the plight of those who struggle daily to eek out a living in desperate circumstances. Pope Francis has repeatedly called for greater efforts to lift up the world’s poor. The pontiff has this to say in his most recent encyclical:
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness… This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
The fact that this statement expresses the doctrinal position of the Church way before this Pope came to office has not saved him from the venom of the icons of our current conservatism. The standard satanization has been pronounced against him. MARXIST! The “gates of hell” may not prevail against the “Rock” on which the Church is built; but the missile “Marxist!” has a certain philosophically destructive appeal among the religious masses.
It is ironic that in a culture where the God of the prophets tells the oppressors of the poor to go to hell with their “sacrifices” and their other religious observances, these same oppressors never cease to warn the poor about “a godless ideology”. I am reminded of the Epistle of John where it is unequivocally stated, and here I paraphrase again… If a man says he loves God whom he cannot see, while he is oppressing his brother whom he can see… That man is a LIAR. So, one may ask on the basis of this declaration, whose is the godless ideology?
President Barack Obama has been making the case for increasing the minimum wage.The federal minimum wage currently is $7.25 an hour, or about $15,000 a year. The President has indicated his commitment to back a Senate measure to increase the minimum statutory pay to $10.10. In the process he too has had to endure the satanization …“MARXIST!” because of his efforts to improve the lot of the widow and the orphan. He understands that this kind of critique “comes with the territory”. Those of us who support the efforts of this President to make ours a more just society have no doubt that History will absolve him.
JUSTICE IS THE ONLY TRUE WORSHIP
As a student of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is my conclusion that every 8th century prophet would have to endure the satanization of the likes of Rush Limbaugh in their stand against the economic/cultural status quo. In the struggle toward a more just society we must stand up to the the pseudo-intellectualism of the moral halfwits among us. We must not sit idly by while the apostles of what His Holiness calls “the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system” hold court. Furthermore, we will not allow the voices of the prophets to be drowned out by their heresy.
This is a season to participate meaningfully in calling the poor into a realization of the power they have to change the bleak and seemingly hopeless circumstances that face them. It is time for the worker to understand that their worth is much more than 1/204th of that of the CEO’s, who smiles at them and declares his/her feigned charitableness by handing out hormone inflated turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The God of Righteousness is with us. Listen as He/She speaks: Amos 5 vs 21-24
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
The resetting of our priorities to which we are directed by this rebuke has its very essence in the reality that to “do justly and to love mercy” is in fact the ONLY meaningful religion. The virtuousness of this statement is however not reserved for the religious. Prosperity does not happen in a social vacuum. The law of the jungle might have a certain appeal to the greed induced coma that typifies the behavior of those who have blocked the need to be “righteous”, but it only sets them up for destruction by the hosts of the aggrieved. The “jungle” is by no means a desirable social ideal. Ultimately our hopes for progress are rooted in a fundamental understanding of the kind of community where justice is a shared value. A society in which I-Thou takes the place of I-it in our socio-economic interactions. It is the need for this kind of community that beckons us into a season for balancing the scales.