Neither of the two predominant ideologies of current politics attract me. I acknowledge that I have fears that the present Federal government in Canada has made it clear that economics is the fundamental value by which everything is decided – including more priority than the environment or basic human rights. (eg. the recent CBC news item: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2012/11/19/pol-foreign-policy-.html).
é businesses will close their doors and ordinary people will lose their jobs
é businesses will go elsewhere if Canada is not a hospitable environment in which to invest capital.
é businesses will stay here but outsource their labour to other countries.
Any of these options raises the fearful spectre of a severe recession or even economic collapse. The stakes seem huge! Who can argue with the spectre of a gutted economy?
The only alternative, being presented, to an economic monoculture in which the need for profit trumps everything seems to be a big government bureaucracy. Big government, given the power to spend as much as it needs to keep everything going and ensure that everyone can be taken care of, is not a happy alternative. It may be temporary relief from the fear of jagged economic times but ends up in another massive and inherently oppressive institution. And, in so doing, the possibility of real human beings making real, courageous choices to stand up for life-giving values and reach out to care for one another in the hard times that may come is lost.
* * * *
While holding this dilemma on the back burner of my prayer life, I encountered the lectionary reading of the widow offering her two coins at the temple. Sometimes prayer is scary. And this was one!
Mark’s gospel describes Jesus as he watched people put money into the temple treasury. Normally I would focus on Jesus’ praise for the widow who put in her last two coins. But this time I was drawn to imagine being in the skin of a prominent and respected leader giving considerable money to the treasury.
I could easily imagine my normal life as a prominent leader in that community. I work hard. I go home to my family every night feeling good about life, happy with the business success I experience. I find reassurance in the knowledge that I follow all the legal and religious requirements. I imagine being grateful to God for the gifts of financial abundance that have brought a comfortable lifestyle to my family, and I imagine a swelling of generosity that makes me want to support God’s work in a significant way.
Yet right there, in that moment of grateful praise, Jesus ruins everything. I hear Jesus say, “See this guy? He cheats widows out of their very homes and then makes a show of his religious activity to hide his exploitive practice.” He proclaims in front of everyone that, despite my legal scrupulousness and my religious generosity, I am actually an exploitive cheat with a religious façade!
My whole body trembles in shock and protest at such an outrageous statement. “What do you mean I am cheating widows out of their property?” I exclaim.” “That is completely false and a grossly unfair accusation.”
I can feel the burning humiliation of being accused in public of something so dastardly, when in my mind I had acted completely above board. I can feel the torrent of protest proclaiming my innocence.
Enough imagination prayer for now!
But my prayer continues in another way. Prayerful consideration seems to invite me to consider the surprising relevance this passage has to our present day economic climate and policy-making. What are we, in our own current situation, to make of Jesus pronouncing a heavy moral judgment on people who obey the law and follow the religious practices?
Certainly, two of the most important rationalizations for economic action are wiped away in a moment. We can’t argue with Jesus (even though I did in the imagination prayer) that as long as the rules are followed any economic decision is acceptable. These people were legally above board and religiously scrupulous – at least on the surface!. But that kind of justification doesn’t cut it with Jesus. Jesus calls them cheats and liars, guilty of one of the very lowest forms of behaviour – cheating a helpless widow out of what was needed for her very survival.
Here are some possible implications.
- First, we can say that society’s accepted structure of economic laws and policies does not trump the deep moral issues of exploitation, oppression and dehumanization. So we need another basis for determining the legitimacy of decisions and policies, or at least a moderating influence. Does this sound like something the followers of Jesus could offer?
- Second, as important as it sounds, keeping the wheels of the economy going as essential to our continued prosperity doesn’t cut it either. The leaders knew that their prosperity was dependent on their economic exploits. They were thankful for it! but Jesus doesn’t excuse it.
- Finally, the notion that profitability creates jobs is not only not true, it does not provide legitimacy for oppressive economic choices. The trickle provided by the trickle down theory does not justify what happens to people like the widows who lost their houses.
I believe this means that we have to consciously refuse to accept the importance of profitability as the bottom line of decision-making –
EVEN IF THAT REFUSAL THREATENS
THE SPECTRE OF ECONOMIC COLLAPSE.
Now there’s a mouthful I can hardly even bring myself to say!
But I can’t bring myself to believe that capitulating in front of these massive issues by making economic profitability the main value is our calling as Jesus followers. Nor can I bring myself to believe that defaulting to the government to take care of our responsibility to each other does anything more than mask the problem and in the meantime create another bureaucracy that becomes a vampire on our communal life.
It is scary. And perhaps that is exactly the point. To make huge decisions based on the demand for profitability is to make decisions based on fear rather than based on real virtue.
I know I sound pie-in-the-sky here – choosing to say NO to economic tyranny without the support of a governmental safety net. But maybe it is not so much unrealistic nonsense as it is coming at the big issues of life from the perspective of a higher order than the flat plane of human consciousness we are so addicted to.
Perhaps, mostly, I believe that much of the threat is scare tactics built into the system to make it self-perpetuating. But even if not, even if the economy collapses, I believe we are better off following Jesus through the mess than we are by bowing to the gods of economics and government.
* * * *
So it comes down to this: Are we as followers of Jesus willing to begin to take on the present system of economic and political power and choose options and encourage decisions that come from the bottom up and that have care for community building and for those most vulnerable among us?
I am. I long for it enough to taste it at times. Recently I heard that the Occupy movement had come up with a spontaneous action – raising money to buy bad debts and cancel them http://rollingjubilee.org/. I haven’t been so happy in a long time! What a simple, creative, strategic, subversive, healing action that is.
For me it raises a simple question: how many more actions like this are possible and would be healing for our present ills?
Jim Wallis, in Rediscovering Values (2010), comments on Jesus’ action to overturn the tables. He makes it clear that the issue is deeper than Jesus being angry at consumerism in religious contexts. It was specifically the system that took advantage of vulnerable people who needed to buy sacrifices for the temple ritual. Then speaking to our current situation, he says, “The challenge for our country today is not only to overturn the tables of the money changers, but also to rebuild on the values we have lost. If all we do is flip over a few tables and fail to replace them with what should be there, we can be sure that tables will be uprighted and business as usual will begin again in no time,” (18).
So, neither anger, nor even action to overthrow the present system is enough. Wallis says our present economic issues are worth confronting. “They are tables worth flipping,” he says. And then continues, “The ministry and work of Jesus makes it clear that anger alone is never sufficient. We need to begin to answer the question of what they should be replaced with,” (20).
I would love to be part of a group of Jesus followers who commit to thinking and acting creatively to bypass (overturn!) the dilemma between economic tyranny or big government presented as the only options before us. I would love to hear from others what their ideas and dreams might be. I would love for us to be stimulated to risk and choose and live life to the full in the face of whatever so-called cliffs might be in front of us.
Jim Wallis concludes with the words, “The goal is not to destroy the market but to understand its proper place. It is not to get rid of commerce but to build it on a foundation of values.…We need to have a conversation about the difference between wants and needs, between could and should, and to do that, we need to reset some priorities” (22, 23).
I long for that conversation. I invite your comments and companionship, your prayer and dialogue. I anticipate a growing body of simple, creative actions that we can take together on the adventure of making new choices that are outside the boxes we are currently trapped in.
Why, when God’s world is so big,
did you fall asleep in a prison
of all places?