Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A/k/a "Bowling Alone"

We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Or simply from being a money-oriented society:

From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these "techno geeks" can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a "snob" despite the millions she has spent on our city's homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent "progressive" radicalism unthinkable now?The insecurity of wealth in America has become an inherent part of being wealthy in America:  the question is, why?
Well, because of the Occupy movement, glass was broken (at a luxury car dealership in San Francisco), and this is clear evidence that:  "In the Nazi area it was racial demonization, now it is class demonization."

NTodd has actually dealt with this so well that I shouldn't even bother.  But I will take some of what he says, and some of what Josh Marshall says, and see what I can do with it.  And for my text (all sermons should have a text), I want to start here, but by quoting Tocqueville (via NTodd):

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

We have to start with the plain observation that the statements by Mr. Perkins are plainly despotic.  The curious question, as Josh Marshall asks, is:  why?

Well, examine Mr. Perkins' statements:  not one of them expresses any sympathy for the plight of the powerless against the powerful (in a system where money certainly = power).  Rising real-estate prices force the poor out of housing they can't afford, because the rich can.  These are the people Mr. Perkins is talking about:

The core grievance is one keenly felt by almost everyone in San Francisco: the way the tech sector has pushed up housing prices in the city and made it all but unaffordable for anyone without a six-figure salary. Almost no San Francisco police officers live in the city any more, and neither do most restaurant workers or healthcare workers. The funky, family-owned shops that once defined the city are closing because owners cannot afford the business rent, never mind the rent on their housing.

 So what's wrong with the buses?  Symbolism:

The activists claim that the so-called “Google buses” are exacerbating the problem, because they are making it easier for tech workers who might otherwise live closer to their offices to live in San Francisco instead.
“You are not innocent victims,” one flyer directed at tech workers said. “You live your comfortable lives surrounded by poverty, homelessness and death, seemingly oblivious to everything around you, lost in the big bucks and success.”
I suppose the poor should be grateful to the rich for making their poverty worse?  I dunno; the 'big bucks' problem I can understand; the idea of success, not so much.

At least not if I'm going to be consistent with my argument; and I do have one.

Bear with me.

You can't really call the situation in San Francisco "trickle-down."  It's more like "vacuum up."  And I will grant you many of Mr. Perkins' associates are appalled by what he is saying; but he also said:  "We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a 'snob' despite the millions she has spent on our city's homeless and mentally ill over the past decades."  I'm sure if any of Mr. Perkins' associates have done the same, they would feel themselves equally vindicated in their great wealth; and even if they haven't, they still don't apologize for their prosperity, or admire the critics of Occupy or the Google buses.  So the difference between Mr. Perkins and those who disavow his statements is, well, let's say it isn't all that great, in the final analysis.

At worst, then, he's been indiscreet.  But not as indiscreet as this:

Congratulations, you poor!
God's domain belongs to you!
Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.
Damn you rich!
You already have your consolation!
Damn you who are well-fed now!
You will know hunger.
Damn you who laugh now!
You will learn to weep and grieve.  (Luke 6:20b-21, 24-25, SV)

And if Mr. Perkins understood those statements to be active in their speaking, he would be right.  Josh Marshall (again), says Mr. Perkins and persons similarly situated hold his underlying opinion (that they are persecuted) quite seriously.  Fine, sez I; and why do I care?, asks I.  It would be a more interesting world if more people took these Beatitudes seriously.  I'm sure it would upset Mr. Perkins & Co. no end; but wait 'til they get around to the Magnificat.  If he counters, again, with the example of the generosity of Danielle Steele, I'll counter with the example of John the Baptist, or the widow who fed Elijah, or just ask a pointed question about how much is enough:

The Walton family heirs, whose fortune relies entirely on predation — of labor, of the environment, of government, of small business — controls more wealth than the poorest 40 million Americans. Imagine what we could do with that fortune if they left. For all the credit Bill Gates gets, it may be worth wondering, as Peter Singer did, if he has given enough:

Gates may have given away nearly $30 billion, but that still leaves him sitting at the top of the Forbes list of the richest Americans, with $53 billion. His 66,000-square-foot high-tech lakeside estate near Seattle is reportedly worth more than $100 million. Property taxes are about $1 million. Among his possessions is the Leicester Codex, the only handwritten book by Leonardo da Vinci still in private hands, for which he paid $30.8 million in 1994. Has Bill Gates done enough? More pointedly, you might ask: if he really believes that all lives have equal value, what is he doing living in such an expensive house and owning a Leonardo Codex? Are there no more lives that could be saved by living more modestly and adding the money thus saved to the amount he has already given?

If Gates donated all $53 billion to foreign humanitarian aid, it would be double what the U.S. government gives yearly ($23 billion in 2013). Imagine the good we could do with the fortunes of the rich, who have only amassed the wealth because of the infrastructure developed by society. Innovators regularly rely on government and academic funding for projects that corporations don’t think will be profitable (according to Singer, “less than 10 percent of the world’s health research budget is spent on combating conditions that account for 90 percent of the global burden of disease”). The arts are largely supported by public funding, not private donations. And many businesses are less self-sufficient than they imagine, requiring bailouts and competition between states to support them. Many corporations, like Walmart, dump poor employees on to government largess rather than pay them enough to feed themselves. And who builds the roads and takes out the garbage?
John said if you have two coats, give one to the man who hasn't any.  John said share your food with the hungry.  Neither John nor Jesus espoused a charitable system of maximized efficiency that would yield the greatest good for the greatest number, nor especially the highest praise for the most public generosity of purse or spirit.  They simply pointed to the nearest person in need and said:  there.  You have two coats; give up one.  Danielle Steele and Bill Gates can do the math on that and see where they end up.

Mr. Perkins, I presume, is not even interested.

I read recently that Dr. King didn't leave his family with great wealth, because he was determined to use whatever he got, even the money for his Nobel Prize, to aid the movement, to help others, to practice what he preached.  Even though his family had to scramble after his untimely death, I admire him for that; if possible, I admire him even more than I did.  Where your treasure is, there will your heart be, also.  It is perfectly clear where Mr. Perkins' treasure is, and who is surprised by that?  Wealthy people aren't wealth because of something inherent in their nature, something that makes God be sure the wealth comes their way, accumulates in their bank accounts, becomes so great it can't be spent by one person in one lifetime.  They seek money; it becomes their raison d'etre.  Why should we be surprised that they fear the loss of it, that they think the world wants what they wanted, that too much is never enough?

People living near me, divided from my neighborhood only by a freeway, seem to imagine all we do on this side of the freeway is imagine ways to take what they have away from them.  We don't, of course; we may be interested in greater social equity, but we aren't interested in switching places wholesale, taking what they have and leaving them poorer than we are now.  We don't envy their success.  We don't even give their success much thought.  Most of that success is built on oil revenues; on being oil company executives or lawyers for big corporations like oil companies, or doctors who get paid by insurance companies, which are merely big corporations, again.  We may envy the ease with which they access so much money, but we don't envy them their success.  Not as a community; not as a mass; not as an entire state or nation or even bloc of voters.  But if we are honest we recognize they make their money from every person who pulls up to a gas pump, or gets the oil changed in their car, or switches on a light or turns on a furnace or...you get the idea.  It might not be inappropriate to get the Tom Perkins of the world to recognize we are where their wealth comes from, ultimately.  It would be a starting point toward the widow who recognized that, even in the worst of times, she could not refuse the stranger.  And certainly Tom Perkins is no stranger than I am.

De Tocqueville observed that we had, or were going to, lose our country.  I would broaden it, and say we are losing our humanity.  The insecurity of wealth in America is founded on the democratic nature of America:  wealth is no inherent in a class of people, and rightly denied to another class of people, and wealth is not water which seeks it own level.  It is never a rising tide because it is never a level body; it always accrues to certain people and not to others, and it moves like geological features, not hydraulic ones.

I said I would begin here; I return to quote it and end there.  I would not recommend a liturgy in a context with no sense of the history the liturgy represents.  I would not even recommend words of healing.  But I do think we should think in terms of blessings and curses:

It has been noted before that Matthew generalizes, or "spiritualizes" the Beatitudes, while Luke makes them concrete. The "poor" in Luke are "poor in spirit" in Matthew. The ones who are hungry now in Luke are the ones who "hunger and thrist after righteousness" in Matthew. And Matthew leaves out any mention of curses, which Luke, like the original, links directly to to the blessings. But both versions serve their disparate purposes: to announce the presence of the kingdom of God, and to declare by declaring blessings on precisely those on the margins: not the stranger, fatherless, and widow this time, but the poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the hungry, the peacemakers. These words originally re-announced the covenant of Israel: "Deuteronomy" is the title from the Septuagint for this fifth book of Moses, and it means roughly "restatement of the law." It was drafted after the Exile, as a restatement of the continuing covenant between the generation which never knew Jerusalem, and the God of their ancestors. It is a liturgy pronounced in the aftermath of Exile, hearkening back to a time when that Exile was unimaginable and unimagined. It is, in short, an act of healing. Which gives us an even better context for the pronouncement of the blessings and curses of the Beatitudes.

The words of Moses are for the people of Israel; the words of Jesus imply no such limitation. The meek, the poor, the peacemaker and pure in heart, the hungry and those who hunger for justice, can be found in any nation, among any people. As we have seen in America today, the assumption of power is that justice and righteousness and blessings flow from power and authority, that blessings only come to those who first claim privilege by dint of arms. 30 years ago we took to ca;ling it the "thin blue line," the people who stood with authority and power between civilization and the "out=law," the one literally pushed to the margin of society because they threatened society so. That is the view of Caesar, to use a metaphor from Jesus' time. That is the perspective of a government which uses crucifixion to suppress opposition, and war to distract the people from the fact that there is no bread, and the circuses are just empty circles. The beatitudes and their originals in Deuteronomy teach a different lesson: the blessings of life flow from God, who offers them to those who practice justice and righteousness, who do not cheat the stranger and the fatherless and the widow, who live their daily lives in consideration of others, who know that the true power is powerlessness.
We need some concrete and performative language.  I began thinking, in seminary, that we need a new vocabulary for new times.  Salvation once meant the rescue of the Caesars from chaos and disorder; it meant the Pax Romana.  Today it means something equally alien to most of us; maybe we need a new concept of salvation for Christianity.  Maybe we need new words; maybe we need new meaning for old words.  But in the end is our beginning; and in the end, I agree with Gutierrez:

Every theology is a discourse about God; in the final analysis, God is really the only theme of a theology. But the God of Jesus Christ comes to us as a mystery! A sound theology is therefore conscious that it is attempting something extremely difficult, if not impossible: to think and speak about this mystery. This
accounts for the well-known warning of Thomas Aquinas: "We know more of what God is not than of what God is." It is important to be clear on this point at the very beginning of any discourse on the faith, for God is truly more an object of hope (which respects mystery) than of knowledge.

How, then, are we to find a way of speaking about God? From the viewpoint of liberation theology it must be said that we must first contemplate God and put God's plan for history into practice and only then think about God. What this statement means is simply that adoration of God and the doing of God's will are necessary conditions for thinking about God. Only within the framework provided by mysticism and practice is it possible to develop a discourse about God that is both authentic and respectful of its object. It is in practice and, concretely, in our actions toward our neighbor, especially the poor, that we enounter the Lord, although at the same time this enounter deepens our solidarity with the poor and makes it more authentic. Contemplation and historical commitment are indispensable and interrelated dimensions of Christian existence. The mystery that God is reveals itself in contemplation and solidarity with the poor. Contemplation and commitment make up what liberation theology calls practice, the "first act," which is Christian life itself; only then can this life inspire "second acts," a process of reasoning.

Gustavo Gutierrez, The Truth Shall Make You Free: Confrontations, tr. Matthew J. O'Connell, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1991), pp. 54-55.

I told you it was going to be a sermon.  And let the people (as they are willing) say:  "Amen."

No comments:

Post a Comment