Heeding the Prophet Margin

Heeding the Prophet Margin
Rev. Douglas Taylor

According to an Associated Press article about the government regulations, Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve and proponent of deregulation, “calls the current downturn a ‘once in a century’ financial crisis. He says the problem wasn’t with the [unregulated] derivative contracts but with the greed of the people who dealt in them.” (from article, Pendulum swings back to financial restraints by Tom Raum; Press & Sun-Bulletin 3/27/09, 13A)

This argument has some merit. Like one of the slogans of the National Rifle Association: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The problem is not that people had access to something that could hurt another person – the problem is that they chose to do so. Or, in the financial example, the problem is not that they can, just that they do. The problem is greed. And there is something to that.

After signing a $121-million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O’ Neal was “besieged by the media asking about the preposterousness of that sum.” O’Neal retorted, “I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi and wear Reebok.” (quoted from Dick Gilbert’s How Much Do We Deserve?, p xii-xvi)
Greed is at the root of our problem. But, I don’t think it follows that we therefore should not regulate the market now that we know individuals are not self-regulating. The anxiety spurred acquisition of wealth leads us away the qualities that strengthen community.

Confucius says: To centralize wealth is to disperse the people; to distribute wealth is to collect the people. (The Great Learning chapter x, verse 9) The Gospel of Luke has Jesus saying: Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15). Gandhi, railed against the caste system embedded in his Hindu tradition. He said:

I suggest we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own immediate use, and keep it, I thieve it from somebody else. … You and I have no right to anything that we really have until these three million are clothed and fed better. You and I, who ought to know better, must adjust our wants …in order that they may be nursed, fed, and clothed. … There is enough wealth to meet everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed. (quoted from Dick Gilbert’s How Much Do We Deserve?, p 2-3)

And the Jewish prophet Isaiah issued this warning:

Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: “surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.” (5:8-9)

So, all over the world, religion offers a warning against hoarding and greed, while occasionally presenting a preferential option for the poor. God, we may well conclude, hates rich people. But that can’t be right. Two weeks back I offered the perspective that money is, at its root, a tool of the sacred. Money is a metaphor of divine valuation and Unitarian Universalism is far from the only religion that affirms the claim that we are all valued in the eyes of God. Does that mean that rich people, how possess more of this metaphor of divine valuation we call money, are more valued – more loved – by God? God, we may well conclude, hates poor people. This isn’t getting us anywhere. Money is just a tool – its power is all in the way that we use it.

Problems arise when this tool is stuck in the hands of a few. Money is like our blood – it is best when circulation runs smoothly and regularly. When blood sits in one spot too long we risk getting a blood clot – which can be lethal. The problem is often identified as an issue of poverty – a lack of money. Religion does not really frame it that way. Religion tends to identify it as an issue of wealth stagnation – a lack of circulation or a lack of recognition of the common good. Wealth is not the problem any more that one person’s wealth causes another person’s poverty, as if there is a zero-sum gain. The problem is a disregard for the common good.

This is what the Hebrew prophets were continually reminding the people: that they had forgotten that they were one people, bound together as the twelve tribes of Israel. The prophets are not easy role models, yet we are called from time to time to act as prophets for our communities. I received many valuable insights from my mentor into ministry, not the least of which was in gaining an understanding of the location of any prophet. My mentor, Ruppert Lovely told me that a prophet must be a member of the community against which he or she prophesies. The warnings, the calls to return to faithful and just living, the critique – cannot be offered from outside the community. To offer such critique from outside will be heard as judgmental, “you people over there need to stop being unjust. You are bad and wrong.” Instead, a prophet must say, “We must stop being unjust.” But there is more to it than just this. The location of a prophet is in a particular part of the community. The prophet stands on the edge, on the margins of the community, witnessing to the situation of the oppressed and dispossessed.

And so Elijah and Amos and Nathan and Jeremiah are each, in their turn, considered to be trouble-makers and enemies of Israel as they spoke out for the poor and the oppressed against the government of Solomon. King Solomon “the wise,” we remember him as. King Solomon who recreated the Pharaoh’s administration, is who scripture truly shows.

The whole Exodus story is about the overthrow of the oppressive regime of the Pharaoh and the flight into the wilderness. The message of Passover comes out as the historical root of the Jewish people. They fled from oppression; they were slaves. In Egypt they had been oppressed social, economic, and religious. When they left that behind, wandering through the desert, they were given the ten commandments and many further laws to help them create a just government system when they arrived in Canaan. In Deuteronomy we find remarkable regulations for the economic health of the whole people.

Deuteronomy 24:19-22 says:

When you reap your harvest in our field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive tree, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.

This passage in Deuteronomy is accompanied by several others that call the people to specifically not withhold wages due to the poor (vs 14-15) and to not require collateral on loans to the poor (vs 10-13). The biblical economy was concerned with private possession and earnings, wages and profit: very decent capitalist elements of an economy. But there was an ultimate goal that was NOT the bottom line, NOT the profit margin (P-R-O-F-I-T profit). The ultimate goal was the common good, the Beloved Community. It was caring for all members of the community – caring even for those who are not part of God’s Chosen People, the ‘aliens’ alongside the widows and orphans. But it was forgotten.

Amos and Jeremiah lamented the way the government of Solomon ignored the people, creating instead a gilded temple for the elite members of society, creating instead a gilded class system relegating the poor and the marginalized to remain outside of the temple. In short, the leaders forgot the work of Exodus.

Noted Jewish political philosopher Michael Walzer noticed a universal trend in all revolutions in the modern world. He noted that the Exodus narrative is the taproot for all of them. He put it like this:

So pharaonic oppression, deliverance, Sinai, and Canaan are still with us, powerful memories shaping our perceptions of the political world. The ‘door of hope’ is still open; things are not what they might be – even when what they might be isn’t totally different from what they are. This is a central theme is Western thought, always present though elaborated in many different ways. We still believe, or many of us do, what Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about meaning and possibility of politics and about its proper form:

• First, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
• Second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;
• And third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.”
There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching. (Michael Welzer, Exodus and Revolution; p149)

The memory of Egypt faded, the leaders imagined they could create a system similar to the one they’d had in Egypt. As the Hebrew people built up their kingdom throughout the centuries after conquering Canaan, they lost sight of what they had left behind in Egypt and began to become a near replica of their former oppressors. Solomon’s empire is a vast acquisition of wealth and power. And so the prophets rise to cry out for the poor and the oppressed: “remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” Remember that we are connected to each other and the common good is our goal.

During the class I just finished, Spirit of Life, there is a session devoted to justice-making as a spiritual disciple. The starting point for the session is a story by Robert Thurman, Professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. It goes something like this:

Imagine you are on the subway. In your subway car are all sorts of people, the kinds of people who would normally ride on the subway in a big city. A mix of working class, wealthy, and middle class people. People speaking many different languages, people of many skin colors and cultures, people of many ages. Some people who are clean and polished looking, others who are smelly and unkempt. Some who are quiet, some who talk too loud, some who talk to themselves. Some who annoy you terribly and some who you find attractive. All sorts of people are on this subway car, heading to their destination.

All of a sudden, Martians come and zap the subway car. And soon you figure out that as a result of this zap, everyone on the subway car is going to be together—forever.

How does that change the way you act? Think about it. If they’re freaking out, you’re going to try to calm them. If they’re hungry, you’re going to try to feed them. If they’re arguing, you’re going to try to figure out what’s going on and seek resolution. If there’s injustice, you’re going to try to make it just.

You do it because suddenly, these assorted people on the subway are your people. The ones you will dwell with forever. You care about them in a whole different way. What we do and what we care about matters. When we allow ourselves to see the bigger picture, we can see that we are all already on that subway car—Earth.

We are absolutely interconnected and interdependent. How we are, what we do, they ripple out. What ever happens “over there,” happens “over here,” too. Because these people are your people. My people. Our people.

Like the kingdom period in Hebrew Scriptures, we have lost sight of the best way to build our wealth as a people, namely to take care of all the people first, to see that everyone needs to be accounted for. There are no disposable people.

Where does this lead us? Yes, a safety net is needed, but more than that we need to create meaningful jobs, we need to give the transitional support needed to allow people to work, to make work a viable option. Most people do not want a hand out, they want a hand up. I keep thinking I am going to out myself one of these days when I preach about money or about the economy. Not all Unitarian Universalists are middle class. This question of poverty is not simply academic, not simply a question of ‘us’ helping ‘them.’ There are people in this congregation living near or below the poverty line. Certainly this congregation, like most Unitarian Universalist congregations, is predominantly middle-class. But we do have economic diversity.

I know of what I speak. In the past I have earned below the poverty line. As a young family we received WIC and food stamps. At one point I worked four part-time jobs to try and make ends meet. I know what it is like to ask for help from the government, from family members, from a minister’s discretionary fund. One analysis found that roughly 40% of Americans will temporarily fall below the poverty line at some point (Zweig, Michael (2004); What’s Class Got to do With It, American Society in the Twenty-first Century.) I imagine there are several people in our community who have at some time in their life been near or below the poverty line.

Poverty is not something to shrug off as the unavoidable consequence of a robust capitalism. We are all in this together, these are your people. Heed the warnings you hear from the margins of the community, for it is by our care for the stranger that we will be known – by our care for the alien, the orphan and the widow among us, for those is need, for the oppressed and dispossessed in our society – our attention to the voices from the margin will help us stay true to our goal of a Beloved Community. It’s long past time to heed the prophets and leave Egypt, the plagues have begun. The only way is into the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to the Promised Land except by joining together and marching.

In a world without end
May it be so.