Friday, May 07, 2010

Dies irae (Sunday Reflections for May 9, 2010)

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, "When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat."
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
(Amos 8)

“Thus says the LORD!” The image of the thundering prophet is a part of our common culture, even if does not bring to everyone’s mind a specific character such as Jeremiah, Amos or John the Baptist. The Bible’s prophetic tradition may not be its most familiar but it likely has been its most influential. It certainly underlay Jesus’ mission as it has the work of countless reformers over the centuries, both religious and secular. In modern times it has been embodied in Gandhi, Martin Luther King and even Karl Marx.

The words of the prophets are inherently subversive. They are intended to shake up people and shake up institutions. They bring out into the light what is hiding in the shadows. They challenge established authority and conventional thinking. They make people squirm and often get them angry. They give people hope and courage. They are the Bible’s dynamite.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, "Bring something to drink!"
The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness:
The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks.
Through breaches in the wall you shall leave,
each one straight ahead;
and you shall be flung out into Harmon,
says the LORD.
(Amos 4)

Recently Wall Street’s largest investment firm, Goldman Sachs, was charged with fraud in a civil suit by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. It’s reported that federal and state criminal investigations are also underway. Other similar companies may also be getting attention from regulators and prosecutors.

These investigations and legal actions are, of course, all a consequence of the 2008 financial meltdown which led, in turn, to the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. While some have explained this economic downturn as being an inevitable occurrence like the seasons, there is a growing consensus that its severity, at least, is the result of fraud and illegal market manipulation. In the case of the Goldman Sachs’ suit, it is charged with marketing and selling as an investment vehicle a mortgage backed security which had, in fact, been constructed to fail. And fail it did, costing investors about $1 billion.

Many see this case as the tip of the iceberg, a representative sample of the corruption that riddles Wall Street’s investment and banking operations. And many also see Wall Street itself as simply the largest and the most visible component of a global financial system that is riddled with fraud and fantasy (suspicions only strengthened by this week’s market gyrations).

When economists or financial commentators speak or write to explain it all, most of us just shake our heads or our eyes glaze over. “It’s just too much. Who can understand any of this?” Yet millions of ordinary people have lost jobs, lost their homes, and lost their retirement dreams in this latest financial debacle. We may not understand this game and yet we play it in some form almost every day.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance…. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"…"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." (Luke 3)

The biblical prophets see corruption and injustice and they call it out. They don’t necessarily have a systemic solution for the problem. They see what’s wrong, however, and name it in no uncertain terms. No doubt they would be counseled to be practical, realistic, constructive, and not always so negative. What’s sobering about their stories is that in nearly every case their messages are ignored—and disaster follows.

There are voices today naming the evils of our financial and economic system. Few are political or economic authorities. Those that can’t be ignored are often dismissed as kooks. Yet with new communication outlets like the internet, their message is being heard even if not heeded.

None of these voices that I know of are religious authorities, but then neither were the biblical prophets. Interestingly, though, many are familiar with the Bible and the prophetic tradition. The root of much of the world’s economic misery is its enormous debt. Recently I have been hearing promotion of an ancient biblical concept: jubilee. This was the practice of debt forgiveness every quarter-century. It was intended as a great social leveling and an undoing of the injustice assumed inherent in all great debt burdens. Needless to say it would be the worst nightmare for bankers and politicians the world over.

The prophets were demanding, unreasonable, and sometimes hysterical. What they asked for was impossible, people said. Yet, according to the Bible, God spoke through them—and events proved them right. Their stories are a warning that in dangerous times the “unreasonable” voices are the ones we may need to listen to most of all. They may, in fact, be the voice of God who, if the past is any indication, also seems to have a penchant for being unreasonable.

No comments: