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07 January 2011

"That's the Son of God, boy!" ... Biblical thoughts on our current crisis.

Greg Warren, stand-up comic from St. Louis, Missouri tells this story about growing up:  

Everything in my parents' house is broken. We play chess, and there are six pieces missing. So, we replace them with pieces from my mom's nativity scene. We're playing chess with the Virgin Mary and goats and wise men, and my Uncle Earl cheats. It's like: 'Uncle Earl, that's a pawn. You're not supposed to move him backwards.' 'That's the Son of God, boy! You move him wherever the heck he wants to go.'

It's in this Sunday's gospel text, about the baptism of Jesus, when the Son of God began to move, and mightily so. The Son of God came out of obscurity. He came into the light as John the Baptist baptized him in the muddy waters of the Jordan river, and, with the Father's formal approval, he began to proclaim that the kairos had come: the point at which the Kingdom of God would become visible here and now. Much like the children who tried to tell Greg Warren's Uncle Earl to play by the rules, the Pharisees and the rest of Jerusalem's establishment were worried that their rules were kept. They were none too happy with how the Son of God moved "wherever the heck" he wanted to go.

They had been nervous about the preaching of John the Baptist -- he seemed way too much in line with the Old Testament prophets and their unconditional demands -- but Jesus was a threat to them. Isaiah's words must have been in their ears, words Jesus surely heard as words spoken to him: "I have called you ... to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness".

The powers that be were nervous because they knew that things were not right in their society -- and they knew things had to stay that way so they could continue to profit. The administration of power, worship, agriculture, banking and debt management had been corrupted, and thus the poor became poorer and the rich became richer. When, three years later, Jesus was crucified, it was because he was critical of the socio-economic power arrangements of his time and place -- and as his disciples, we need to follow him and imitate the way he challenged the powers that be.

The administration of power, worship, agriculture, banking and debt management had all been corrupted... does that sound familiar? Henry A. Giroux, not a man of the church but an American cultural critic, observes that we now live in "a brutal and ruthless form of economic Darwinism that shreds the social fabric of the state, eviscerates the importance of the social question and creates the conditions for a society resembling Thomas Hobbes' war of all against all, a survival-of-the-fittest social order", which is characterized by "a machinery of exploitation, cruelty, inequality and militarism".

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann shows that in Old Testament times a society like ours tended to progress in three steps:

  • It begins with a treasured narrative memory of emancipation and covenant (Israel's narrative is about the journey from Egypt to Canaan, while our nation's narrative is about achieving freedom and independence from the King of England), in which power, worship, agriculture, banking and debt were administered in a context of neighborliness. 
  • But sooner or later comes an erosion or interruption of that narrative in the form of accumulative acquisitiveness (when a few begin to accumulate a lot of the means and when those few begin to change society's values in ways that ensure their continued wealth) and a reckoning upon such acquisitiveness (usually a divine one, but often hidden under "normal" life events). 
  • The third step is society's conversion and a return to neighborly values. 

Brueggemann suggests that our current economic crisis represents the point of reckoning upon acquisitiveness, much like when Jesus predicted the end of Jerusalem's temple and its greedy "temple economy", an elaborate financial system that exploited the poor and ignored those parts of Old Testament law designed to protect them. In 70 A.D., a Roman military force of about 30,000 troops under the command of Titus marched into Jerusalem and began a systematic slaughter of the inhabitants as well as a complete destruction of the Temple and City of Jerusalem, as Jesus predicted 40 years earlier.

Giroux reminds us that the United States has the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world:

Over 44  million people or one in seven Americans live below the poverty line. In recent years, the steepest rise in poverty has taken place among children, with some experts predicting that six million kids will be living in poverty in next decade. ... over 50 million people cannot eat without food stamps, and a stunning 50 percent of US children will use food stamps to eat at some point in their childhood.

He adds that the social state, its state protections, public values and democratic governance, have been allowed to collapse when recent administrations "embraced the logic of the market, and farmed out government responsibilities to private contractors ... Everything is up for sale under this form of economic Darwinism, including prisons, schools, military forces and the temporary faculty hired to fill the ranks of a depleted academy."

In his Christmas oratorio, "For the Time Being", William Auden imagines King Herod's rage over "being tricked" by the wise men, and found a perfect way to express the fear of the powers that be at all times:

[If this child Jesus survives] reason will be replaced by revelation; justice will be replaced by pity as the cardinal virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

Since that child survived and became a man and went to the cross and came back to life, the Herods of this world continue to tremble. At this point of crisis and reckoning, this nation is invited to convert, away from greed and acquisitiveness and exploitation, back to neighborly values.  The word "repentance" carries in it the idea of changing one's heart.  Let's all become Greg Warren's Uncle Earl and disturb those who think we have to play by their rules.

"That's the Son of God, boy! You move him wherever the heck he wants to go."  It's our call and our mission. It's our promise.

Matthew 3:1-18; Isaiah 42

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