A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, September 10, 2012

What's wrong with our country?

With the Republican convention the other week and the Democratic convention last week, somehow when I read the lectionary texts for yesterday, I decided it was time for a good old fashioned rant about what’s wrong with our country. My dad had earlier encouraged me to read a book about the current state of our economy and political system and I thought that would pair nicely with the direction my thoughts were already going. So last week I read, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. If I was feeling the need to do some venting before I read this, that internal pressure increased two or three fold by the time I finished reading this book.

The authors are a couple of political science professors, who point to our government as responsible for the ever increasing gaps between, what they refer to, as “the have nots and the haves”, which comprise 99% of the population and the “have it all’s”, which make up 1% of our population. They do a broad historical sweep through the last century, but really narrow their focus at the point of Carter’s presidency on into the present, or at least to 2010, when the book was published.

I'll toss out just a couple of statistics to chew on.  Between 2001 and 2006, the top 1% in our country received a 53% share of all our national income gains (3).  "We have gone from a world in which most of the nation's income gains accrue to the bottom 90 percent of households (the pattern of economic expansion of the 1960s) to one in which more than half go to the richest 1 percent (the pattern of the last economic expansion from 2002 to 2007) (17)."  According to statistics compiled from the Congressional Budget Office, from 1979 to 2006 the average household after tax income increased by 11 percent for the poorest fiftth of the population.  The second fifth saw an 18 percent rise.  The middle fifth, a 21 percent increase.  The fourth segment increased by 32 percent.  The top fifth of the population, not including the very top 1 percent, increased by 55 percent.  But here's the kicker.  The top 1 percent of the population, from 1979 to 2006 saw their average household after-tax income increase by 256 percent (23)!  In 2006, the average actual income for the bottom fifth of the population was $16,500.  The average actual income for the top 1% was $1,200,300 (25).  Since 2006, the gap has only grown.

Included in yesterday's lectionary were some excerpts from Proverbs 22.  Here are a few verses I found in this chapter.
 22:2 - The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.
22:8 - Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.
22:9 - Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.
22:16 - Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss.
22:22-23 - Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.
On many issues it is a little challenging to use the Bible for guidance. People on either side of different social issues can lift out scripture that seems to support their position. But on the issue of injustice, class warfare, economic discrimination there is simply no wiggle room in the pages of scripture. The Bible clearly and repeatedly comes down on the side of the poor and oppressed. Not only is the Bible consistent on this score, this also seems to be the ethical cornerstone of both the Old and New Testament.  Unlike, say, abortion or homosexuality, which in comparison, the Bible treats only in passing.

Here's another lectionary excerpt from yesterday:  James 2:14-17.  "(14) What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? (15)If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, (16)and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (17)So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (NRSV)."

Politics and business have always worked as partners, that’s nothing new. But in the 1970’s, business began to invade Washington more aggressively and the Republican Party, struggling to make its way to the top again after many decades of Democratic majorities, proved very receptive to its advances. Heading into the 1980‘s, the Republican Party found itself flush with Wall Street cash and the Democratic Party was all but broke. It seems to me this period in time might have been approached as a fork in the road for the Democratic Party. They had a choice to make here. They could either jump on the business bandwagon as well, or they could begin the long work of rebuilding, relying more on the power of grassroots organizations which were also under attack. The Democratic Party jumped. It began courting business as fervently as its Republican rival.

Two quotes represent well the current political state of affairs. At an $800 a plate charity event, just months before the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush addressed the crowd saying, “This is an impressive crowd--the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elites; I call you my base (222).”

The second is a quote by Rahm Emanuel, one of the most gifted fundraisers in the Democratic Party. When instructing his staffers, Emanuel said, “The first third of your campaign is money, money, money. The second third is money, money, and press. And the last third is votes, press, and money.” Authors Hacker and Pierson wryly point out, “For those of you keeping score at home, that’s money 6, votes 1 (252).”

What we have been witnessing the last few decades is not the success of trickle down economics. Quite the opposite really. What we are seeing is the unprecedented success of trickle up as the poor get poorer and the rich take all (20).

But before I get too carried away up on my soapbox, yesterday's gospel story offers an important caution. I’m so glad the authors of both Mark and Matthew, our earliest gospels, chose to include this less than savory account of Jesus.

Jesus is trying to hide out in a house, looking, I would suppose, for some peace and quiet. To his chagrin, he is outed by a woman.  And not just any woman, a Gentile woman.  And not just any Gentile woman, but a Syrophoenician Gentile woman. Yuck! This is a lady from the wrong side of the tracks on a couple of accounts. But, knowing Jesus’ reputation as a great healer, she has the audacity to trample on a few social mores in order to ask if Jesus might cure her daughter. His response is really abhorrent. Dog would have been the most derogatory of terms for Gentiles. You think of some of our really terrible names for different minority groups today, and you get the idea. He is rude, offensive and condescending. “I’m here to feed my children. I don‘t have anything to offer the dogs.” The woman responds, “Yes sir, but dogs will eat the crumbs dropped by children.” Her words transform Jesus’ understanding. He sees her as if for the first time. Sees her, not her gender, her religion, her ethnicity. He sees her. And he says, “You are right. Your daughter is cured. Go to her.” Or in other words, “I’m sorry (Mark 7:24-30).”

If Jesus can have a gaping blind spot, can discriminate on the basis of class, religion, ethnicity what does that say about our limitations?

Now it seems clear that both political parties are deep into the pockets of business. However, it is the Republican Party that continues to lead the charge. Their most urgent order of business is to permanently extend the Bush era tax cuts on the most wealthy and to continue the work of deregulation. Given these priorities and the way they hurt the lower and middle classes, I don’t understand why so many middle class citizens unreservedly and uncritically support this party. Is it because we are hard-wired to defer to those most powerful, even at our own expense? Is this biological evolution in action? Is this why the poor, and therefore the rich, will always be with us? 
As I look towards solutions for our national conundrum, I see two beginning points and hope that others see a whole lot more than I do. The first is more philosophical. Taking our cues from Jesus, it is wise to keep in mind that what we dislike and disdain in others is probably more present in our own makeup than we care to admit most of the time. We all carry with us prejudicial impulses. The most effective way to work against our worst inclinations is to be aware of their presence and thus disarm them as much as we are able.

I pair this with Hacker and Pierson‘s advice, their summary solution. At this point in time, both our majority political parties seem irretrievably lost to the financial interests of the wealthiest 1% of our population. In addition, the last 60 years have seen some of our more populist organized groups in radical decline - labor unions, civic organizations, churches. It seems the time has come for us to organize once more.

This is why the Occupy Movement felt like a breath of fresh air last year. Here was a literal example of the 99% working to organize themselves against the 1%. Though the Republican Party smeared their efforts and the Democratic Party flirted with the idea of absorbing the movement, occupy protestors stood strong and said their movement was in opposition to our entire political system and the way in which it has been co-opted by Wall Street. I hope, in time, a third party might emerge. One that would represent a populist majority and wield its power with votes. But if that is ever to move from a naïve wish to a workable reality, we will all need to start talking with our neighbors a lot more. We’ll need to come out from behind our Democratic and Republican shields and discover that there is more that unites us than divides us. And I would like to think churches might begin to lead the way. It’s time for church to be relevant again.

We celebrate the gospel’s good news as the cornerstone of our faith. It is good to keep in mind that this good news was meant to be especially good news to the poor and disadvantaged. And, to quote a familiar hymn, “not in some heaven light years away, but here and now.” Maybe this isn’t a solution. Maybe it’s simply a prayer. So be it.

God, show us how to be agents for your Kingdom in the here and now. Let it be so. Amen.


Charlene said...

Well, there are third parties out there, and some are even pretty influential (Green and Libertarian mostly). But the trouble is that the Big Two have so much power that even if these third parties have a great deal of grass-roots support--enough to get on to most ballots--they still have tremendous problems getting into televised debates. Or buying ad time without corporate money. I'm not sure how to most effectively address this, but you're right, it is a huge problem.

Lynn Schlosser said...

Thanks Charlene. Yeah, it seems like the only possible way a third party could make inroads is if its platform was made relatively simple and appealed to the masses. Would there be enough money from grassroots sources to compete in any meaningful way with corporate influence. I don't know. But the alternative seems to be either a slow bleed (Democratic) or hemorrahage (Republican) towards a national crash/implosion. It all feels pretty bleak, so I keep trying to cling to at least a remnant of idealism.