Archive for August, 2012

Bill Moyers Address: This Is The Fight of Our Lives

August 6, 2012 - 3:28 pm 36 Comments

“This is the Fight of Our Lives”

By Bill Moyers
Keynote Speech
Inequality Matters Forum

New York University
Thursday, 3 June, 2004

“The middle class and working poor are told that what’s happening to them is the consequence of Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand.’ This is a lie. What’s happening to them is the direct consequence of corporate activism, intellectual propaganda, the rise of a religious orthodoxy that in its hunger for government subsidies has made an idol of power, and a string of political decisions favoring the powerful and the privileged who bought the political system right out from under us.”

 

It is important from time to time to remember that some things are worth getting mad about.

Here’s one: On March 10 of this year, on page B8, with a headline that stretched across all six columns, The New York Times reported that tuition in the city’s elite private schools would hit $26,000 for the coming school year – for kindergarten as well as high school.  On the same page, under a two-column headline, Michael Wineraub wrote about a school in nearby Mount Vernon, the first stop out of the Bronx, with a student body that is 97 percent black. It is the poorest school in the town: nine out of ten children qualify for free lunches; one out of 10 lives in a homeless shelter. During black history month this past February, a sixth grader wanted to write a report on Langston Hughes. There were no books on Langston Hughes in the library – no books about the great poet, nor any of his poems. There is only one book in the library on Frederick Douglass. None on Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker, Leontyne Price, or other giants like them in the modern era. In fact, except for a few Newberry Award books the librarian bought with her own money, the library is mostly old books – largely from the 1950s and 60s when the school was all white.

A 1960 child’s primer on work begins with a youngster learning how to be a telegraph delivery boy. All the workers in the book – the dry cleaner, the deliveryman, the cleaning lady – are white. There’s a 1967 book about telephones which says: “when you phone you usually dial the number. But on some new phones you can push buttons.” The newest encyclopedia dates from l991, with two volumes – “b” and “r” – missing. There is no card catalog in the library – no index cards or computer.

Something to get mad about.

Here’s something else: Caroline Payne’s face and gums are distorted because her Medicaid-financed dentures don’t fit. Because they don’t fit, she is continuously turned down for jobs on account of her appearance. Caroline Payne is one of the people in David Shipler’s new book, ‘The Working Poor: Invisible in America’. She was born poor, and in spite of having once owned her own home and having earned a two-year college degree, Caroline Payne has bounced from one poverty-wage job to another all her life, equipped with the will to move up, but not the resources to deal with unexpected and overlapping problems like a mentally handicapped daughter, a broken marriage, a sudden layoff crisis that forced her to sell her few assets, pull up roots and move on. “In the house of the poor,” Shipler writes “…the walls are thin and fragile and troubles seep into one another.”

Here’s something else to get mad about. Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives, the body of Congress owned and operated by the corporate, political, and religious right, approved new tax credits for children.

Not for poor children, mind you. But for families earning as much as $309,000 a year – families that already enjoy significant benefits from earlier tax cuts.

The editorial page of The Washington Post called this “bad social policy, bad tax policy, and bad fiscal policy. You’d think they’d be embarrassed,” said the Post, “but they’re not.”

And this, too, is something to get mad about. Nothing seems to embarrass the political class in Washington today. Not the fact that more children are growing up in poverty in America than in any other industrial nation; not the fact that millions of workers are actually making less money today in real dollars than they did twenty years ago; not the fact that working people are putting in longer and longer hours and still falling behind; not the fact that while we have the most advanced medical care in the world, nearly 44 million Americans – eight out of ten of them in working families – are uninsured and cannot get the basic care they need.

Astonishing as it seems, no one in official Washington seems embarrassed by the fact that the gap between rich and poor is greater than it’s been in 50 years – the worst inequality among all western nations. Or that we are experiencing a shift in poverty. For years it was said those people down there at the bottom were single, jobless mothers. For years they were told work, education, and marriage is how they move up the economic ladder. But poverty is showing up where we didn’t expect it – among families that include two parents, a worker, and a head of the household with more than a high school education.

These are the newly poor. Our political, financial and business class expects them to climb out of poverty on an escalator moving downward.

Let me tell you about the Stanleys and the Neumanns. During the last decade, I produced a series of documentaries for PBS called “Surviving the Good Times.” The title refers to the boom time of the ’90s when the country achieved the longest period of economic growth in its entire history. Some good things happened then, but not everyone shared equally in the benefits. To the contrary. The decade began with a sustained period of downsizing by corporations moving jobs out of America and many of those people never recovered what was taken from them. We decided early on to tell the stories of two families in Milwaukee – one black, one white – whose breadwinners were laid off in the first wave of layoffs in 1991. We reported on how they were coping with the wrenching changes in their lives, and we stayed with them over the next ten years as they tried to find a place in the new global economy. They’re the kind of Americans my mother would have called “the salt of the earth.” They love their kids, care about their communities, go to church every Sunday, and work hard all week – both mothers have had to take full-time jobs.

During our time with them, the fathers in both families became seriously ill. One had to stay in the hospital two months, putting his family $30,000 in debt because they didn’t have adequate health insurance. We were there with our camera when the bank started to foreclose on the modest home of the other family because they couldn’t meet the mortgage payments after dad lost his good-paying manufacturing job. Like millions of Americans, the Stanleys and the Neumanns were playing by the rules and still getting stiffed.

By the end of the decade they were running harder but slipping behind, and the gap between them and prosperous America was widening.

What turns their personal tragedy into a political travesty is that they are patriotic. They love this country. But they no longer believe they matter to the people who run the country. When our film opens, both families are watching the inauguration of Bill Clinton on television in 1992. By the end of the decade they were no longer paying attention to politics. They don’t see it connecting to their lives. They don’t think their concerns will ever be addressed by the political, corporate, and media elites who make up our dominant class. They are not cynical, because they are deeply religious people with no capacity for cynicism, but they know the system is rigged against them. They know this, and we know this. For years now a small fraction of American households have been garnering an extreme concentration of wealth and income while large corporations and financial institutions have obtained unprecedented levels of economic and political power over daily life. In 1960, the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20% and the bottom 20% was 30 fold. Four decades later it is more than 75 fold.

Such concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if the rest of society were benefiting proportionately. But that’s not the case. As the economist Jeff Madrick reminds us, the pressures of inequality on middle and working class Americans are now quite severe. “The strain on working people and on family life, as spouses have gone to work in dramatic numbers, has become significant. VCRs and television sets are cheap, but higher education, health care, public transportation, drugs, housing and cars have risen faster in price than typical family incomes. And life has grown neither calm nor secure for most Americans, by any means.” You can find many sources to support this conclusion. I like the language of a small outfit here in New York called the Commonwealth Foundation/Center for the Renewal of American Democracy. They conclude that working families and the poor “are losing ground under economic pressures that deeply affect household stability, family dynamics, social mobility, political participation, and civic life.”

Household economics is not the only area where inequality is growing in America. Equality doesn’t mean equal incomes, but a fair and decent society where money is not the sole arbiter of status or comfort. In a fair and just society, the commonwealth will be valued even as individual wealth is encouraged.

Let me make something clear here. I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m old enough to know that the tension between haves and have-nots are built into human psychology, it is a constant in human history, and it has been a factor in every society. But I also know America was going to be different. I know that because I read Mr. Jefferson’s writings, Mr. Lincoln’s speeches and other documents in the growing American creed. I presumptuously disagreed with Thomas Jefferson about human equality being self-evident. Where I lived, neither talent, nor opportunity, nor outcomes were equal. Life is rarely fair and never equal. So what could he possibly have meant by that ringing but ambiguous declaration: “All men are created equal”? Two things, possibly. One, although none of us are good, all of us are sacred (Glenn Tinder), that’s the basis for thinking we are by nature kin.

Second, he may have come to see the meaning of those words through the experience of the slave who was his mistress. As is now widely acknowledged, the hands that wrote “all men are created equal” also stroked the breasts and caressed the thighs of a black woman named Sally Hennings. She bore him six children whom he never acknowledged as his own, but who were the only slaves freed by his will when he died – the one request we think Sally Hennings made of her master. Thomas Jefferson could not have been insensitive to the flesh-and-blood woman in his arms. He had to know she was his equal in her desire for life, her longing for liberty, her passion for happiness.

In his book on the Declaration, my late friend Mortimer Adler said Jefferson realized that whatever things are really good for any human being are really good for all other human beings. The happy or good life is essentially the same for all: a satisfaction of the same needs inherent in human nature. A just society is grounded in that recognition. So Jefferson kept as a slave a woman whose nature he knew was equal to his. All Sally Hennings got from her long sufferance – perhaps it was all she sought from what may have grown into a secret and unacknowledged love – was that he let her children go. “Let my children go” – one of the oldest of all petitions. It has long been the promise of America – a broken promise, to be sure. But the idea took hold that we could fix what was broken so that our children would live a bountiful life. We could prevent the polarization between the very rich and the very poor that poisoned other societies. We could provide that each and every citizen would enjoy the basic necessities of life, a voice in the system of self-government, and a better chance for their children. We could preclude the vast divides that produced the turmoil and tyranny of the very countries from which so many of our families had fled.

We were going to do these things because we understood our dark side – none of us is good – but we also understood the other side – all of us are sacred. From Jefferson forward we have grappled with these two notions in our collective head – that we are worthy of the creator but that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Believing the one and knowing the other, we created a country where the winners didn’t take all. Through a system of checks and balances we were going to maintain a safe, if shifting, equilibrium between wealth and commonwealth. We believed equitable access to public resources is the lifeblood of any democracy. So early on [in Jeff Madrick’s description,] primary schooling was made free to all. States changed laws to protect debtors, often the relatively poor, against their rich creditors. Charters to establish corporations were open to most, if not all, white comers, rather than held for the elite. The government encouraged Americans to own their own piece of land, and even supported squatters’ rights. The court challenged monopoly – all in the name of we the people.

In my time we went to public schools. My brother made it to college on the GI bill. When I bought my first car for $450 I drove to a subsidized university on free public highways and stopped to rest in state-maintained public parks. This is what I mean by the commonwealth. Rudely recognized in its formative years, always subject to struggle, constantly vulnerable to reactionary counterattacks, the notion of America as a shared project has been the central engine of our national experience.

Until now. I don’t have to tell you that a profound transformation is occurring in America: the balance between wealth and the commonwealth is being upended. By design. Deliberately. We have been subjected to what the Commonwealth Foundation calls “a fanatical drive to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that have shaped public responsibility for social harms arising from the excesses of private power.” From land, water and other natural resources, to media and the broadcast and digital spectrums, to scientific discovery and medical breakthroughs, and to politics itself, a broad range of the American commons is undergoing a powerful shift toward private and corporate control. And with little public debate. Indeed, what passes for ‘political debate’ in this country has become a cynical charade behind which the real business goes on – the not-so-scrupulous business of getting and keeping power in order to divide up the spoils.

We could have seen this coming if we had followed the money. The veteran Washington reporter, Elizabeth Drew, says “the greatest change in Washington over the past 25 years – in its culture, in the way it does business and the ever-burgeoning amount of business transactions that go on here – has been in the preoccupation with money.” Jeffrey Birnbaum, who covered Washington for nearly twenty years for the Wall Street Journal, put it more strongly: “[campaign cash] has flooded over the gunwales of the ship of state and threatens to sink the entire vessel. Political donations determine the course and speed of many government actions that deeply affect our daily lives.” Politics is suffocating from the stranglehold of money. During his brief campaign in 2000, before he was ambushed by the dirty tricks of the religious right in South Carolina and big money from George W. Bush’s wealthy elites, John McCain said elections today are nothing less than an “influence peddling scheme in which both parties compete to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.”

Small wonder that with the exception of people like John McCain and Russ Feingold, official Washington no longer finds anything wrong with a democracy dominated by the people with money. Hit the pause button here, and recall Roger Tamraz. He’s the wealthy oilman who paid $300,000 to get a private meeting in the White House with President Clinton; he wanted help in securing a big pipeline in central Asia. This got him called before congressional hearings on the financial excesses of the 1996 campaign. If you watched the hearings on C-Span you heard him say he didn’t think he had done anything out of the ordinary. When they pressed him he told the senators: “Look, when it comes to money and politics, you make the rules. I’m just playing by your rules.” One senator then asked if Tamraz had registered and voted. And he was blunt in his reply: “No, senator, I think money’s a bit more (important) than the vote.”

So what does this come down to, practically?

Here is one accounting:

“When powerful interests shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they often get what they want. But it’s ordinary citizens and firms that pay the price and most of them never see it coming. This is what happens if you don’t contribute to their campaigns or spend generously on lobbying.

You pick up a disproportionate share of America’s tax bill. You pay higher prices for a broad range of products from peanuts to prescriptions. You pay taxes that others in a similar situation have been excused from paying. You’re compelled to abide by laws while others are granted immunity from them. You must pay debts that you incur while others do not. You’re barred from writing off on your tax returns some of the money spent on necessities while others deduct the cost of their entertainment. You must run your business by one set of rules, while the government creates another set for your competitors. In contrast, the fortunate few who contribute to the right politicians and hire the right lobbyists enjoy all the benefits of their special status. Make a bad business deal; the government bails them out. If they want to hire workers at below market wages, the government provides the means to do so. If they want more time to pay their debts, the government gives them an extension. If they want immunity from certain laws, the government gives it. If they want to ignore rules their competition must comply with, the government gives its approval. If they want to kill legislation that is intended for the public, it gets killed.”

I’m not quoting from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Mao’s Little Red Book. I’m quoting Time magazine. Time’s premier investigative journalists – Donald Bartlett and James Steele – concluded in a series last year that America now has “government for the few at the expense of the many.” Economic inequality begets political inequality, and vice versa.

1That’s why the Stanleys and the Neumanns were turned off by politics. It’s why we’re losing the balance between wealth and the commonwealth. It’s why we can’t put things right. And it is the single most destructive force tearing at the soul of democracy. Hear the great justice Learned Hand on this: “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: ‘Thou shalt not ration justice.’ ” Learned Hand was a prophet of democracy. The rich have the right to buy more homes than anyone else. They have the right to buy more cars than anyone else, more gizmos than anyone else, more clothes and vacations than anyone else. But they do not have the right to buy more democracy than anyone else.

I know, I know: this sounds very much like a call for class war. But the class war was declared a generation ago, in a powerful paperback polemic by William Simon, who was soon to be Secretary of the Treasury. He called on the financial and business class, in effect, to take back the power and privileges they had lost in the depression and new deal. They got the message, and soon they began a stealthy class war against the rest of society and the principles of our democracy. They set out to trash the social contract, to cut their workforces and wages, to scour the globe in search of cheap labor, and to shred the social safety net that was supposed to protect people from hardships beyond their control. Business Week put it bluntly at the time: “Some people will obviously have to do with less….it will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more.”

The middle class and working poor are told that what’s happening to them is the consequence of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” This is a lie. What’s happening to them is the direct consequence of corporate activism, intellectual propaganda, the rise of a religious orthodoxy that in its hunger for government subsidies has made an idol of power, and a string of political decisions favoring the powerful and the privileged who bought the political system right out from under us.

To create the intellectual framework for this takeover of public policy they funded conservative think tanks – The Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, and the American Enterprise Institute – that churned out study after study advocating their agenda.

To put political muscle behind these ideas they created a formidable political machine. One of the few journalists to cover the issues of class – Thomas Edsall of The Washington Post – wrote: “During the 1970s, business refined its ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in favor of joint, cooperate action in the legislative area.” Big business political action committees flooded the political arena with a deluge of dollars. And they built alliances with the religious right – Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition – who mounted a cultural war providing a smokescreen for the class war, hiding the economic plunder of the very people who were enlisted as foot soldiers in the cause of privilege.

In a book to be published this summer, Daniel Altman describes what he calls the “neo-economy – a place without taxes, without a social safety net, where rich and poor live in different financial worlds – and [said Altman] it’s coming to America.” He’s a little late. It’s here. Says Warren Buffett, the savviest investor of them all: “My class won.”

Christ and Culture reconsidered

August 6, 2012 - 3:05 pm 17 Comments

Christ and Culture by Richard Niebuhr: Book Summary

Published January 17, 2008 Book Reading , Book Summary , Culture , Politics , Religion , Theology 8 Comments

The following is a simplified book summary (without self-comment) of H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture”

1. The enduring problem – This chapter introduces us to the“enduring problem,” which to Niebuhr is the relationship between “Christianity and civilization” (1). This is a problem because we know Christ is perfect/sinless, and if culture is man-made (as Niebuhr shows it is), and since humans are imperfect/sinful, how can Christ mingle with imperfection? This is compounded by the fact that there are verses in the Bible that suggest we should be out of the world and also verses that suggest we should be in the world. This is even harder to see when the biblical literatures does not represent a single example of a belief that is represented in non-cultural forms. To show how Christians have attempted to deal with this “problem”, Niebuhr introduces and interacts with five views; Christ against culture, Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture paradox and finally, his recommended, Christ transforms culture. – In this first chapter, Niebuhr attempts to ‘define’ who we mean by ‘Jesus Christ” and what we mean by “Culture”. About Jesus, Niebuhr states that our definitions of Jesus are inadequate (in the sense that they do not fully capture His totality), since they are culturally conditioned. But still he believes that they are adequate, for the purpose of meeting Him (14). Culture is defined as “the total process of human activity” and its result; it refers to the “‘secondary environment’, which man superimposes on the natural.” (32)

2. Christ Against Culture – Description: Here is the most uncompromising view towards culture which “affirms the sole authority of Christ over culture and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty” (45) “The counterpart of loyalty to Christ and the brothers is the rejection of cultural society; a clear line of separation is drawn between the brotherhood of the children of God and the world” (47-48). – Some positives: The people who believe/adopt this way of are the single-most reason why we can have some sympathy for this view, says Niebuhr (66). The people who reject the world “have not taken easy ways in professing their allegiance to Christ. They have endured physical and mental sufferings in their willingness to abandon homes, property, and the protection of government for the sake of his cause” (66). – Some negatives: Niebuhr believes that this position is inadequate; primarily because this separation from world and Christianity has never actually been achieved at any time, nor can we think that it can be. Also, there seems to be the false notion that sin lies in culture and when the Christian escapes culture, he/she can escape sin. This is certainly not the case (78). Most importantly for Niebuhr, this view does not adequately recognise Jesus’ and the Spirit’s role in creation. “Their rejection of culture is easily combined with a suspicion of nature and nature’s God:… ultimately they are tempted to divide the world in the material realm governed by a principle opposed to Christ and a spiritual realm governed by the spiritual God” (81).

3. The Christ of Culture – Description: In this view, men/women ‘hail Jesus as the Messiah of their society, the fulfiller of its hopes and aspirations, the perfecter of its true faith, the source of its holiest spirit” (83). These people seek to maintain fellowship not only with believers with also with unbelievers. “They feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the Gospel,… the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress. On the one hand they interpret culture through Christ, where those aspects that are most like Jesus are given most honour. On the other hand, they interpret Christ through culture, selecting from his teaching that which best harmonizes with the best in civilization (83). – Some positives: People tend to feel that only those who refuse to adapt to culture can make an impact on culture (blood of martyrs). However, history testifies that people were attracted to Christ also because of the “harmony of the Christian message with the moral and religious philosophy of their best teachers” (103) Also this group of people tend to attach themselves to many positions in society where they have the potential to make a deep impact in the lives of people. – Some negatives: Niebuhr’s biggest problem with this view lies in distortion of Christ when seen with the intention to make Jesus conform to the best of society. We are left with a non-authentic view of Jesus.

4. Christ above Culture – Description: This view does not make the ‘battle’ between Christ and culture (ie. Do not say either Christ or Culture), but rather it sees the ‘battle’ between God and man (Holy God vs sinful man) (117). The adherents stress that God orders culture, and thus culture is neither good nor bad. When man sins, his rebellion against God is expressed in cultural (actual) terms, yet that doesn’t mean that culture is bad. Culture, they say, is sustained by God, and they see the harmony (synthesis) between Christ and culture as the best way to address the ‘problem.’ Niebuhr notes, “They cannot separate the works of human culture from the grace of God, for all those works are possible only by grace. But neither can they separate the experience of grace from cultural activity; for how can men love the unseen God in response to His love without serving the visible brother in human society?” (119). – Some positives: It attempts a fine balance between seeing Christ as part of culture (as the incarnation), and yet being outside culture (as God who sustains culture). Through this position, we can arrive at moral law for society, and even Christian involvement in society. Niebuhr explains saying that God created man as a social being and it is impossible for society to function without direction from God. The Church, therefore, while functioning for a spiritual purpose, has also an earthly purpose of being guardian/custodian of that divine law (136), and in that sense serves the world. – Some negatives: One of the problems that bothers Niebuhr is that this position when pushed to its limit leads to the institutionalization of Christ and the gospel. This is evident especially when this position can draw attention away from the “eternal hope and goal of the Christian” towards instead the “temporal embodiment” in a “man-devised form” (147). Also, “they do not… face up to the radical evil present in all human work” (148).

5. Christ and Culture in Paradox – Description: Similar to the ‘Christ above Culture’ is the Christ and Culture in Paradox view. While the members of this group want to hold together “loyalty to Christ and responsibility for culture” (149), they believe that this cooperation is not a happy balance/union that the above-Culture group would like people to believe. Alongside the cooperation of Christ and culture, they stress on a severe‘paradox’ where a‘conflict’ exists between Christ and culture due to sin in culture; in the dealing of Christ with culture, we see both sin and grace. – Some positives: This view rightly capture the biblical tension depicted for Christians in this world. For man is “under law, and yet not under law but grace; he is sinner, and yet righteous…” recipient of “divine wrath and mercy”(157). This is in fact a dynamic process, not a static rejection or acceptance of culture of the previous ‘models’ but rather we sense, almost from experience, that our dealing with culture is fraught with pain and peace. – Some negatives: In one thing, Niebuhr says, that this position becomes static; it is in that the Christian loses the voice to say anything meaningful in/to culture. It is a position that leads us to accept culture (conservatism) because we see in each instance both wrath and mercy; and because we see both, there is a danger that we act in favour of neither.

6. Christ the Transformer of Culture – Description: This group can be described as ‘conversionists’ who have a more “hopeful view toward culture” (191). There theological conviction comes from seeing God as creator, knowing that man’s fall was from something good, and the view that we see God’s dramatic interaction with men in historical human events (194). Thus about human culture they believe it can be “a transformed human life in and to the glory of God” through the grace of God (196). In practice, this view means that we work in culture for its betterment, because God ultimately had some hand in human creativity, and it was good (and can be good). We also work for its transformation because while there is sin in culture, it is not all lost, there is hope through Christ, for redemption of cultures. Furthermore, we would defeat sin not by escaping it or fighting it directly (like focussing on the devil), but rather with our eyes on Jesus, our desire to be positive and God-oriented, will help to defeat sin (like focussing on Christ, thinking whatever is excellent).

7. A “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” Niebuhr ends his book calling for decision. This is not because he believes that the last option is the best presented and most logical; on the contrary he believes that the answers for the enduring problem remain “unconcluded and inconclusive” which could be extended indefinitely (230). Saying that theory can go on and on, he proposes that we move from “consideration to action, from insight to decision” (233). The problem of Christ and culture cannot be answered through study but in the realm of “free decisions of individual believers and responsible communities” (233). This chapter is not therefore a traditional conclusion where an another would summarizes his point of view. Niebuhr is not appealing for simple/un-critical social action. He proposes an awareness of three things to guide our action. (For the sake of simplicity, I am rearranging his order to better express what I think he is saying, in relation to what we are studying). Niebuhr argues that we need to be aware of the relativism/culturally conditioned nature of our actions. He says that since we have “partial, incomplete, fragmentary knowledge” we need to have a measured opinion (not be too optimistic) about our ability to be involved in culture for the Lord. We are limited by our “technical knowledge” and “philosophical understanding,” and consequently our decisions for/in this complex world are coloured by our limitations (235). Also Niebuhr stresses that we do not act alone, or for ourselves alone. Rather, we act as believers, for a higher purpose, to act in the present moment (history) with real consequences and results alongside eternal reward. The way out of this relativity, and our action, Niebuhr rights states, is faith. In light of Jesus Christ, we make our “confessions and decisions both with confidence and humility which accepts completion and correction and even conflict from and with others who stand in the same relation to the Absolute” (238). This is because “faith in the Absolute, as known in and through Christ, makes evident that nothing I do or can do in my relative ignorance and knowledge,… right without the completion, correction, and forgiveness of an activity of grace working in all creation and in the redemption” (238-239). This is not a position of laziness, but recognizing that in our faithfulness (to attempt to transform culture), we rely on the grace that will change our minds and work in and through our limitations (241). In his final paragraph Niebuhr says, “To make our decisions in faith is to make them in view of the fact that no single man or group or historical time is the church; but that there is a church of faith in which we do our partial, relative work and on which we count. It is to make them [our decisions] in view of the fact that Christ is risen from the dead, and is not only the head of the church but the redeemer of the world. It is to make them in view of the fact that the world of culture—man’s achievement—exists within the world of grace—God’s Kingdom” (246).

Michael Moore, Capitalism, and Jesus

August 6, 2012 - 2:38 pm 11 Comments

Michael Moore Asks the Question: What Would Jesus Do…About Capitalism?

By: Paul Raushenbush

Sunday October 4, 2009

Categories: Catholics, Christians, Economy, Poverty

Roman Catholic Priests are the surprising voices of clarity and conviction in Michael Moore’s new film Capitalism: A Love Story.   The Priests in this documentary, one of whom married Mr. Moore and his wife, aren’t ambivalent – they characterize capitalism as evil.   This must be jarring for most moviegoers who have not had the pleasure of interacting with radical priests who, unfortunately, seem to be something of a dying breed these days.   Most of us are used to the recent steady stream of religious voices praising our free market system as part of God’s plan for prosperity.  In Moore’s opinion, we have been hypnotized to believe that capitalism and Christianity must go hand in hand.

In one of the funnier segments of the film, Moore adapts one of the early Jesus movies by dubbing over foundational teachings of Jesus such as “You cannot worship God and wealth” (Luke 16:13); “Blessed are the poor and woe to the rich”(Luke 6); Let the oppressed go free (Luke 4), and changing them to pithy endorsements of such stock capitalist principles such as the profit motive.  One immediate classic is the scene of Jesus refusing to heal the sick man because of what this new improved capitalist Jesus describes as his “pre-existing condition.”

 

While the views of the priests in this film may seem strange to some, Christians have been questioning Capitalism’s ethical compatibility with Jesus since the effects on the poor of capitalism and industrialization became tragically clear in the 1850’s.  Many of us who are above thirty-five will remember the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) movement among Evangelical churches in the 1980’s and 90’s.  Seen from the outside, WWJD seemed a laughable effort to improve individualistic Christian morality.  However the history of WWJD dates back a century before when Charles Sheldon wrote the Christian novel “In His Steps,” which asked the question What Would Jesus Do to an American society rife with social inequalities and ills  due in part to the rise of industrialization and the capitalist exploitation of the poor by the wealthy.  While the book has undeniably patronizing tones, it compellingly tells the story of a prosperous church whose members respond to the challenge of living their life by the question: What Would Jesus Do?  The characters in the book include a business man who decides to make his factory a cooperative, a tenement owner who repents of his policy of neglect towards his tenants, and a heiress who gives up her fortune to give housing and religious instruction to the poor women of the slums.

 

The priests in Michael Moore’s film are part of an even more radical tradition that includes Father Edward McGlynn from the 1890’s, as well as more recent Catholics such as Gustavo Gutierrez and others shaped by liberation theology and its socialist economic principles.  My great grandfather was a Baptist pastor who, while never a socialist, was sympathetic to the Christian Socialist tradition.  He wrote this remarkably piece in 1908 which seems as though it could be written today:

In the same way we shall have to see through the fictions of capitalism.  We are assured that the poor are poor through their own fault; that rent and profits are the just dues of foresight and ability; that the immigrants are the cause of corruption in our daily politics; that we cannot compete with foreign countries unless our working class will descend to the wages abroad.  These are all very plausible assertions but they are lies dressed up in truth.  There is a great deal of conscious lying.  Industrialism as a whole sends out deceptive prospectuses just like the single corporations within it.  But in the main these misleading theories are the complacent self-deception of those who profit by present conditions and are loath to believe that their life is working harm.

Walter Rauschenbusch,  1908

The real value of the film Capitalism: A Love Story is that Mr. Moore turns the spotlight on places in America of suffering and degradation that we would rather ignore.  Some of the scenes of eviction are too painful to watch and your heart aches for the people in their struggles.  This is where the true Christian message finds its most potent voice as it is in those very struggles where we find Christ,  and it is in those places that Christians must serve. Jesus is not in the houses of the wealthy and the comfortable, he is in the suffering cries and crisis of the poor.   If the church should be anywhere, it is there proclaiming release to the captives and redemption of the oppressed.

In one of the most poignant moments of the film the Bishop of Chicago joins the workers who refuse to leave their factory until they are paid what they are due and treated with dignity.   As he serves them communion, the Bishop says to the gathered people – ‘we will not leave you, you are not alone.’