Wednesday, July 3, 2019

It's (more than) the economy, stupid!

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer, "For the Nation," pg. 258.)

Trying to keep the 1992 presidential campaign against the incumbent president, George W. Bush  "on message," James Carville hung a sign in then candidate Bill Clinton's campaign headquarters in Little Rock that read:
(1) Change versus more of the same; (2) the economy, stupid; and (3) Don't forget healthcare. (See here).
Number two has become a truism in politics. Incumbents are generally re-elected if the economy is chugging along. This post is about why I believe we are living in times, however, where we need to have a more substantive conversation about our core values as a nation. It's about why we need to consider not just how well we may personally be doing financially - but about what it means to be a person of faith in these dangerous times.

Before I continue (and especially for those who worry about preachers like me meddling in politics) please consider reading a post of mine from this past spring, found here. See also, if you are so inclined, the following small sample of Biblical texts: Exodus 20:21 and 23:9; Leviticus 19:10 and 33:34;  Deuteronomy 10:18,19; 23:7 and 24:19; I Kings 21; Job 29:16; Psalm 94:6;  Ecclesiastes 5:10; Jeremiah 32:9; Micah 3:11, Matthew 19:21 (and Mark 10:21 and Luke 18:32), Acts 16:19; I Timothy 6:10; and Hebrews 13:5. These are just a few verses about aliens and about money that are relevant to the comments that will follow here and an argument that Biblical faith has never been about a disembodied "spirituality."

I have become convinced that the Bible is a collection of political documents that are in large measure about what fidelity looks like in the midst of Empire. It's not about ignoring imperial power (which is in the water we drink) but about imagining an alternative way to be neighbors. This is why Jesus taught his friends to pray, "thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven..."

In the Old Testament, the whole drama of the move from slavery to freedom makes no sense if we don't understand slavery in Egypt. In the time of the Babylonian (Iraqi) Exile it's about what it means to be faithful after the temple has been destroyed by a foreign army.  And then it is about living in the shadow of  the Persian (Iranian) Empire. In the New Testament, the drama is set on the edges of the Roman Empire. This is the vantage point from which we, as readers, are invited to see the shadow side of the Pax Romana. The holy family moves when a decree is made that all the world must be registered. Jesus responds to questions about what should be rendered to Caesar and what should be rendered to God. He is executed on a cross - the Empire's preferred method for enforcing the death penalty. To say that "Jesus is Lord" is to insist that Caesar is not! 

In his powerful book, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, William Cavanaugh has argued by way of St. Augustine that the modern distinction between religion and politics is "fake news" (my language here, not his) and that this premise has "sapped the church's ability to resist the violence of states." (his language, here.) The book focuses on the experience of Chile before, during, and after the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, from 1973-1990. I would argue that the current fascination with (and cozying up to) dictators in Russia and North Korea and Saudi Arabia requires that people of all faiths and no faiths resist the violence of these newfound "friends" in favor of a league of nations that will work with us for human rights globally. Otherwise we are complicit in the torture of children and the murder of journalists. It's about more than the economy right now because human rights is a core value not only for Christians, but for Americans. We are in danger of losing that, however.

The Biblical vision for economic prosperity is always tied to a vision of fairness and justice. The Bible (and Christian social ethics) have a lot to say when only the rich are getting richer, at the expense of the poor. One place where we see this is Amos 6:4:
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches,and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall...
I feel for preachers who try to preach on this text in our current political context. Even without naming the president, the preacher is in dangerous territory if she takes the prophet(s) seriously.

God does care about the economy. But it's about an economy that gives working people a fair chance. See also every reference in both testaments about "widows and orphans" which is code-language for those whom the economy has left behind. Faithful people can disagree about political choices and even economic systems. But faithful people need to be clear that the measure of economic strength can never be simply about how the stock market is performing.

As we celebrate our nation's independence, I long for a serious conversation about the economy and how it is doing, not just from the perspective of the wealthiest Americans, but from the perspective of those working two jobs, neither of which provides health insurance. It is part of the work of the Church to speak for those whose voices are not being heard. Healing was central to Jesus' earthly ministry; healthcare for all must be be the goal for people who claim to follow him. How we do that will be a matter of great political debate. But that we care about getting there should not be.

As important as the economy is, however, it is not the only thing. I am convinced that the larger conversation we need to have - across the aisle - is about this nation's core values: about what this country stands for, and what it stands against. To engage in this conversation includes, but is not limited to, questions about who is welcome here. Finding a fair immigration policy should be bipartisan work; and the truth is that both sides bear responsibility for the lack of clarity that allowed the current president to exploit our fears and stoke the flames of xenophobia. It's a shrewd and malevolent diversionary tactic to suggest we are either for "open borders" or we need a "big beautiful wall." Yet that diversionary tactic has worked, and we now find ourselves running concentration camps at our southern border and this is not just an indictment of the president's policies but of our character as a nation that claims to be "under God." We can, and must, do better.

The deep divisions over race relations will not get better on their own. These divisions are not the fault of the 45th president; they are rooted in America's original sin of slavery. But the evil that feeds racist divisions (rather than the good that seeks to bind up the nation's wounds) has been unleashed in insidious ways over the past few years and here, too, the 45th president bears much of the responsibility. Leadership is still about the call to respond to "the better angels of our nature" - not about pouring gasoline on the fire. We can, and must, do better.

The "code language" of making America great, again is really about taking America back to the time before women, people of color, and LGBTQ Americans had the hard-earned civil rights that they and their allies fought for, and that are now under attack. Where we now find ourselves requires that people of faith subvert that nostalgic memory in order to finish the work that has been started toward liberty and justice for all people.

As we celebrate our independence this week and this American experiment, it is worth pondering what America means as we look ahead. The next election needs to be about more than the economy. It must be about what kind of nation we aspire to become. The journey ahead will be an arduous one, but we can, and we must, do better.
America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!