Arrogance at the Needle’s Eye

Arrogance at the Needle’s Eye
5-2-04
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Let me begin with the Needle’s Eye.  The passage in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” has been such a captivating image and a rallying point for the concept of God’s Preferential Option for the Poor.  There is an absolutely wonderful interpretation of this line about the camel and the needle’s eye.  The “eye of the needle” is really the name of the back gate in Jerusalem. This gate was quite small, as the name implies; and it was the one gate open after dark.  A merchant, arriving late to town, would need to go around to the back gate, the needle’s eye.  But he would need to unload all the camels.  The gate was too small for camels to get through loaded up with goods.  The message is palpable: you cannot get into the kingdom of God unless you unload your possessions.

This interpretation, this suggestion that the Eye of the Needle is actually a gate in Jerusalem, is apocryphal and unsupportable.  Someone made it up.  I own several annotated bibles and not one of them mentions this back gate.  I did bump into a website that debunks this story at length, (and of course you should always be suspicious of any fact you read on the internet, but seeing no support for the needles eye/back gate connection in the any of my books, I decided to believe the website.)

From the 15th century, … this story has been put forth, however, there is no evidence for such a gate, nor record of reprimand of architect who may have forgotten to make a gate big enough for the camel and rider to pass through unhindered. … Great sermon material, … lovely story… but unfortunately unfounded.  

The website goes on to consider several other possible interpretations such as, maybe the word for “camel” is a Greek misprint.  Instead of kamilos, ‘camel,’ they meant to write kamelos meaning ‘cable or rope.’  “It is easier for a cable or rope to go through the eye of a needle”?  This and other clever twists of the English, Greek and Aramaic words are decidedly set aside.  Instead the website lands on a tame interpretation which claims that Jesus was basically saying it is all but impossible for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God.  But, of course, the website ends with the comforting scriptural quote, “With God, all things are possible.”

But what I am interested in from all of this is that image of a merchant standing outside this apocryphal gate, arrogantly demanding entry despite the barriers.  This image comes to mind when I think about economic inequity here in the United States and how some people call welfare a drain on our society.  This image comes to mind when I read about big corporations crying out for free trade and an open market.  This image of arrogance at the needle’s eye comes to mind when I hear in the news that Wal-Mart was denied access to some communities in California and a Wal-Mart spokesperson said, “It’s really too bad that this little local bureaucracy is denying people options of where to shop.”  I find that statement so ironic because I always thought that denying people options of where to shop was what Wal-mart did when it undersold it’s products and drove small local merchants out of business.

Yesterday, a couple of dozen people from our congregation and the broader community attended a workshop on Free Trade and Fair Trade hosted by our Social Responsibility Committee.  We had two speakers from Rochester talk us through some of the history and consequences of economic globalization.  They began with a statement that Globalization is not a bad thing.  Globalization is the process by which the people of the world are becoming more interconnected and interdependent.  Certainly we as Unitarian Universalists are in favor of recognizing our interconnectedness!  Globalization is about the increase in communication, the exchange of cultures, it is about being able to go to the supermarket in the middle of February and buy a mango.  What the presenters at yesterday’s workshop were critiquing was the way trade agreements enrich those who are already rich and pit the poor against each other in a battle over who can provide the cheapest labor.  What they critiqued was who really makes money on the mangos in our supermarkets in February, (and I’ll give you a hint, it is not the people on the other side of the world who grow and harvest mangos.)  What the presenters of this workshop critiqued was the Free Trade agreements such as NAFTA that are eroding not only the economies of various nations but also the democratic process and national sovereignty as well.

That last idea is one that really startled me.  I don’t want to turn this into a Free Trade lecture, you could have gone to the workshop if you wanted that.  But let me briefly spell out that last idea because it is really frightening.  If a country that is a part of one of these trade agreements like NAFTA makes a law protecting the environment and NAFTA determines that this new law impedes their right to make a profit, then NAFTA has the right to sue.  They have their own courts to do it, too.  They enforce their judgments through fines and other economic sanctions.  This rampant, unchecked capitalism is running roughshod over democracy in the name of the almighty dollar.  And the merchant stands arrogantly at the needle’s eye.

In a capitalist society, religion must serve as a balance against individualistic greed that so easily creeps into the system.  The role of religion is to speak out when the culture is out of balance and call for a reprioritizing of our interests.  We must remember our basic values as a people.  The individualism and the interconnectedness that are displayed in these global trade systems are not our kind of individualism and interconnectedness.  They are using interconnectedness to enrich themselves as individuals.

There was a time when the CEO of a major company, like General Motors, could say, “What is good for GM is good for America.”  It worked back then because if GM did well, that meant the people who worked for GM did well.  Now if GM does well that means the Stockholders and the management will do well.  Companies like that no longer have the worker, or even the customer, in mind when they measure their success.  And the merchant stands arrogantly at the needle’s eye.

And more frequently, thanks to trade agreements, these companies don’t even benefit our nation because they are becoming transnational.  They employ people from other countries and build factories in other countries and they don’t even pay much in taxes here because they are not really here anymore.  A quick example of this in the history of telephone company, AT&T:

Until the late 1970’s, AT&T had depended on routine producers in Shreveport, Louisiana, to assemble standard telephones.  It then discovered that routine producers in Singapore would perform the same tasks at a far lower cost.  Facing intense competition from other global webs, AT&T’s strategic brokers felt compelled to switch.  So in the early 1980’s they stopped hiring routine producers in Shreveport and began hiring routine producers in Singapore.  But under this kind of pressure for ever lower high-volume production costs, today’s Singaporean can easily end up as yesterday’s Louisianans.  By the late 1980’s, AT&T’s strategic brokers found that routine producers in Thailand were eager to assemble telephones for a small fraction of the wages of routine producers in Singapore.  Thus, in 1989, AT&T stopped hiring Singaporeans to make telephones and began hiring cheaper routine producers in Thailand.

(The Work of Nations by Robert Reich, p210)

The other countries are beginning to catch on that the boom of jobs and profits that appear with unrestricted trade agreements can evaporate in the blink of an eye as corporations look for “ever lower high-volume production costs.”  And the merchant stands arrogantly at the needle’s eye.

The result of these and other economic transgressions is the amazing disparity in wealth distribution.  And the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  That is really happening in startling ways.  And we get wonderful little phrases like “jobless recovery” to explain why there is a lot of money floating around the system, but none of it seems to be coming around here.  It’s great that apple juice can be imported real cheap from China, but if you’ve lost your job as an American apple farmer, how are you supposed to pay for this new cheaper apple juice?

But it’s not like I can spend all my energy being angry at our current Republican administration and their attempts to make our present economic situation look good; because the first major free trade agreement, NAFTA, came into existence under the early days of the previous Democratic administration.  The main reason I am angry at the government is because of their lack of regulation over these corporations.

How do you and I fit into all this?  Where do you fit on the wealth distribution?  Moderation is a nice goal.  Great wealth is not very conducive to a positive spiritual life, but then neither is poverty.  I am not sure where you are in the class system, but I’ve finally made it into the middle class!  Unfortunately, the middle class is not necessarily a place of economic moderation.  Now a day the middle class is made up of a lot of people who are pretending to be well off by living in massive debt.  I have a thirty-year loan to pay off before I own the house we live in and a five-year loan out on the car we drive, I have most of my credit card debt in one account and I’m working hard to pay that off, and I am still making payments on the loan I took out to get my seminary education.  I sometimes feel like I’m standing at the needle’s eye with a handful of IOUs, and I’m saying, “You gotta let me in, because I owe those folks ahead of me a thousand camels!”

What are we going to do about all this economic inequity?  Well, if you are feeling the negative side of the inequity, (and I know we have people here in this category) reach out for help.  If you’re at the other end and are the steward of some wealth, (again, I know we have people here in this category) use it.  Don’t let greed corrupt an otherwise fine capitalist result!

Stay informed, educate yourself about what is happening.  Of course, you should always vote and sign any petitions that you agree with.  There are more trade agreements like NAFTA coming down the pike right now: CAFTA and the FTAA.  Stay informed about what is going on there and get involved!  Write a letter to the editor.  One of our teens, Caitlin Smigelski, had a letter to the editor last month about this sort of thing.

Send a letter to you elected representative telling them your opinions about free trade and fair trade.  Even if your opinions are not the same as my opinions, I urge you to get your opinions out in the public dialogue!  And here is a suggestion that will really do some good:  Support your local farmers and local industry.  Buck the economic system by paying extra for something that you know is locally produced.

This problem is big and it is growing, but it is not inescapable.  If something is not done to reign in the corporations who no longer care about their workers, their customers, or even their nations of origin, then we may easily end up with global corporations making all the rules.  The role of religion in a capitalist democracy is to serve as a balance to greed and injustice.  It is our role to stand at the needle’s eye and cry out for the needs of the disenfranchised and forgotten.  It is our role to demand that the common good be cherished, to watch that back gate and make sure the arrogant merchants don’t destroy us in their rush to exploit just a few million more.  Religion must hold the needle’s eye.

In a world without end,

May it be so.