AMOS PREDICTS A GREAT ECONOMIC LEVELING

By Jim Jordal

 Forasmuch therefore as you trample on the poor, And take taxes from him of wheat: You have built houses of hewn stone, But you will not dwell in them. You have planted pleasant vineyards, But you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many your offenses, And how great are your sins-- You who afflict the just, Who take a bribe, And who turn aside the needy in the courts.                                     Amos 5:11-12 WEB

If you read economic reports, you’ll know that the U.S. is not an egalitarian nation with all people supposedly sharing equitably in the nation’s wealth and social benefits. The already vast gulf between the poor underclass and the wealthy powerful elite grows wider daily as the rigged political system and its economic component continue to deliver wealth earned by the people to those holding the reins of power.

Amos perceived the same problem in his country. He said the wealthy, powerful leaders trampled on the poor and took bribes for merely doing their duty. They instituted unfair taxes and turned aside the needy in the courts. With the ill-gotten proceeds they built ornate houses of hewn stone surrounded by gardens and pleasant vineyards. And only God knew the depth of their perfidy, lust, chicanery, falsehoods and arrogance.

As I’ve said before, I think the major message of the Bible is deliverance from all forms of human depravity and oppression. It’s what Jesus said about his mission in his first sermon in Luke 4. It’s what the prophets taught, and it’s the major subject of Jubilee. Yes, Jesus delivers from sin, but that’s not all. He delivers the poor and those deprived of the necessities of life. He gives sight to the blind, not only physically, but spiritually. He delivers captives enslaved by evil systems and unjust laws. He heals the brokenhearted, and delivers all those afflicted by abuse and oppression of any kind.

 Human history is replete with numerous examples of serious and continued physical and psychological torment---from Roman slaves to feudal serfs, galley slaves of the European navies, and indigenous victims of conquest and empire-building by nations driven to profit from the labor of the unfortunates they dominate. And today it’s most of humanity that cannot prosper because of unfair trade agreements and other national and corporate policies of exploitation and domination.

Both recent political conventions have been forced by public opinion into recognizing the depth of public anger against the unfair and horribly skewed distribution of wealth in the U.S. Candidate Bernie Sanders attacked it powerfully and often. So did Sen. Elizabeth Warren whenever she spoke. So did several major news articles and commentaries. The truth is out now: this country remains a democracy in name only. Power is held---not by the people---but by major corporations who have free rein to spend billions (called the exercise of free speech by Supreme Court decision) in their capturing the hearts and minds of too many national leaders.

Isaiah 65 is entitled by the translators “The Righteousness of God’s Judgment.” Among other things it says that in the New Creation promised by God the people shall not build and another inhabit because those who build houses shall dwell in them, untroubled by violence and fears of foreclosure. It also says that those who plant vineyards and tend gardens shall eat of their own produce. And it promises that workers shall enjoy the fruits of their labor, nor shall they bring forth children for trouble.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being wealthy if the wealth arises from hard work, good planning, and fair dealing, and is not used to oppress and enslave others less fortunate. But today that’s not the way it usually works. Now we find massive wealth arising from abuse of the environment, exotic financial instruments, corporate governance gone crazy, and unfair and manipulative laws.

Yes, Amos would have plenty to say had he lived today. In actuality, however, he does speak today through writings that are as relevant and vital as ever. It’s too bad that governmental leaders and many church leaders who should know better don’t heed his advice, but they will as adverse circumstances open the gates to God’s truth.

 

WHY GOD CARES ABOUT WEALTH DISTRIBUTION

By Jim Jordal

 There is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun: wealth kept by its owner to his harm. Those riches perish by misfortune, and if he has fathered a son, there is nothing in his hand.                                                               Ecclesiastes 5:13-17 WEB

 Then I returned and saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold, the tears of those who were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.                   Ecc. 4:1 WEB

God cares mightily about the distribution of wealth among his people. Of course you might ask, if he cares so much why has he allowed such a vast gulf of wealth to develop between the top one percent and the rest of us?  

Historian Edward T. O’Donnell in one of his Great Courses lectures on Turning Points in American History proposes that these so-called “turning points” arise from several factors: surprise, conflict, agency, crisis, causes, and choices. Of these six possibilities, I think the desperately unequal distribution of income and wealth now so evident in the U.S. arose directly from O’Donnell’s final factor: choices made by  individuals rather than by mysterious groups.

Great wealth produces more wealth, and with it the power to suppress justice and corrupt government. A recent example arises from the Amtrac wreck in Philadelphia on May12, 2015. Commentators now say that a system does exist that would have prevented the accident by slowing the train automatically. But unfortunately, that area did not have this system because Amtrac could not afford it, in spite of government mandates that it be installed. And it turns out in a May 14 CNN interview of Rep. Steve Israel, D. N.Y .that conservative congress people are cutting the Amtrac budget by over a billion dollars in order to be able to end hated estate taxes for a few billionaires. As Rep. Israel so clearly said several times, “That’s wrong.”

God also says it’s wrong! In the reading above he calls it a “grievous evil” for owners of great wealth to grasp for even more wealth to the exclusion of their peace of mind and the welfare of the majority. Gaining wealth becomes an obsession for many who already have far more than they could possibly use. And it’s even worse as it begins to erode their humanity, moral values, and sense of justice. How else can you explain the current rush for the ultra-rich to build even bigger yachts and houses? After all, you can only live in one room at a time, so who needs scores of rooms and special abodes for even their pets and antique cars?

Yes, it’s a sickness of the soul that doesn’t improve with the acquisition of ever more possessions, psychological treatments, or mind-altering drugs.

The second reading deals with oppression arising from accumulating wealth. Oppression cannot exist without victims, whose plight becomes increasingly hopeless as the few people controlling great wealth use their power to skew legislation and regulatory decisions in their favor. Having little formal power, victims are left with no recourse other than picketing public affairs, writing letters to political powers, and e-mailing office-holders in usually pathetic attempts to influence entrenched power. 

So their actions are usually futile as the money-creating express rumbles onward. Economic power creates political power. Baron Rothschild of English banking fame put it roughly like this:  “ I don’t care who makes the law; give me the power to create the money and I’ll rule the country.”

When the power structure of a nation is codified into law, supported by Supreme Court decisions, and backed by public power groups seemingly bereft of common sense or political wisdom, then you have a situation like King Solomon said: “On the side of their oppressors there is power, but they have no comforter.”

That’s where God comes in with his “preferential option for the poor.” God loves the poor who suffer silently under great oppression simply because they have nothing to trust except his loving presence and awesome power. That’s what wins in the long run!

 

 

A MASSIVE DIVIDE

By Jim Jordal

 “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming on you.  Your riches are corrupted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be for a testimony against you, and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up your treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you have kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of those who reaped have entered into the ears of the Lord of Armies. You have lived delicately on the earth, and taken your pleasure. You have nourished your hearts….”

James 5:1-5 WEB, emphasis mine

A massive divide is opening in the U.S. between the top 1 percent of the economic pyramid and the remaining 99 percent of us. Recent figures show that the richest 400 Americans control more wealth than all 41 million African-Americans, and as of 2010 one percent of U.S. households own 35.4 of all our wealth. (Julie Polter, The Rich Get Richer, Sojourners, Aug. 2014).

The Bible passage above describes the coming angst of the rich who gained their wealth at the expense of others as their wealth becomes a testimony against them. Think of the Wall Street bankers who gained wealth at the expense of millions of foreclosed homes and shattered retirement plans, but have yet to darken any jailhouse door. They thought they were laying up treasure for the future as their crooked policies created a few plutocratic families at the top of the heap while billions of hopeless, abject sufferers wallowed  in poverty as  powerless laborers for industry and cannon fodder for militarists. They are charged with living “delicately upon the earth” as they take their pleasure at the expense of others. And no one but a few watchmen crying in the night takes up their cause---not politicians, nor economists, not educators, and especially not most religious institutions and clergy. It’s tragic if you really think about it!

But the cries of the laborers robbed of a living wage and good working conditions in the endless search for profits have been heard by God. As I’ve said before, it’s not a sin to be wealthy, but it is egregious sin to gain wealth by manipulating finance, denying living wages to workers, or spending existing wealth to further rob and oppress the people.

The natural tendency of business is toward monopoly and the natural trend of wealth is to beget more wealth. God said all along this would happen!  The trouble is we aren’t listening. We blindly pray for peace on earth when God says there will be no peace until justice triumphs. We pray for the poor, but keep supporting the political and economic policies that made them poor and keep them there. We pray for personal financial benefits as we refuse to honor God with what we do have. The sum and substance of the matter is that we pray for things that God can’t and won’t give us until we surrender our minds and wills to him.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if American clergy across the land spoke out on the issues surrounding the existence of a supposedly people-controlled Congress elected by and operating to benefit, not the people, but a cabal of their wealthy corporate masters?  They could begin by identifying exactly who is gaining and who is suffering as a result of recent legislation, and could go on from there using the literally thousands of Bible verses dealing with these situations.

How much longer will it be until we make the connection between the worldwide chaos, destruction, and misery we now experience and the fact that God says this era of disaster is a direct result of our prideful and arrogant refusal to hear and heed God’s word and will? It will not end until we as individuals and as a nation turn to God with all our hearts and wills. Until then, hang on!

 CONCENTRATION OF WEALTH: AN ELECTION ISSUE

By Jim Jordal

Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of My people of their rights, in order that widows may be their spoil, and that they may plunder the orphans.

Isaiah 10:1-2 (NASB)

Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression …being done under the sun. And behold, I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but [the oppressed] had no one to comfort them.

Ecc. 4:1 (NASB)

In the first passage above Isaiah pronounces woe upon powerful people who misuse their exalted positions to legislate evil laws depriving the poor of justice. In the second passage King Solomon decries the suffering of those oppressed by the holders of power, from who there seems no escape.

 Action by rich, powerful manipulators of law and finance to deprive citizens of their basic right to a decent existence is still sin, deserving of Divine judgment.

If this issue is not foremost in 2016 electioneering, it ought to be. God does not require absolute economic equality for all people, nor is He against wealth. What He does demand is that wealth not be acquired by fraud or oppression, that it not be used to further oppress the needy, and that it not become an idolatrous substitute for faith in Him.

Great fortunes often hint more of fraud, manipulation, oppression, and shady legality than of diligence, innovation, wisdom and foresight. You may be familiar with the so-called "Robber Barons" of American history exemplified by John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie. These captains of industry, better known as greedy pirates to their victims, amassed great fortunes through diligence, foresight, and willingness to take great risk. But they also practiced cutthroat competition, union busting, manipulation of the law, favor-currying with governmental officials, and whatever other questionable actions it took to build their empires.

Maybe they deserve the accolades of history as true pioneers acting in an era of almost uncontrolled free enterprise. Perhaps their certainly unethical, if not illegal, activities in pursuit of success can be forgiven because there existed no better examples or standards. But can we ignore the cries of the laborers whom they robbed or killed, the families who cried for justice, of even the competitors who were swindled or overpowered by reckless, brute economic power?

And what of great fortunes today? Even though they may be free from taint, they still threaten our basic institutions and values. Obviously, if an increasing percentage of total wealth is concentrated at the top of the income pyramid, there must be less available for bottom groups.

Perhaps the greatest curse upon the earth arising from extreme wealth is the arrogance and pride that too often accompany great wealth. Some favored people believe their good fortune is well deserved since they are smarter, more diligent, more willing to take risks, and even luckier than normal people. What they fail to realize is that their wealth is a product of the work of others, and of favorable societal conditions for the creation of wealth that are not of their own making. Unfortunately, their inaccurate perceptions of economic reality often transfer to the poor, whom they consider to be lazy, immoral, unable to effectively manage their own lives, and therefore undeserving of legitimate shares in the economic pie.

From a purely economic viewpoint, excessive concentration of wealth is dangerous because it allows too few persons to make market decisions affecting everyone else. Thus we have union-busting activity, price manipulation, virtual slave labor, monopoly power, environmental degradation, and a host of other practices damaging to economic democracy and justice.

There will always be income differentials defined by some as unfair and even oppressive. What we need is to make sure they do not arise from unethical, unfair, and unscriptural practices, but from legitimate differences in human abilities and diligence.

This should certainly be worthy of serious discussion by the hopefuls seeking to become leader of the nation.

WHAT’S HAPPENED TO THE AMERICAN DREAM?

By Jim Jordal

Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees, who write misfortune which they have prescribed to rob the needy of justice, and to take what is right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless.”                                                                                            Isaiah 10:1-2, NKJV

On Monday, June 2, Mary and I attended a conference on the St. Catherine’s College campus in St. Paul entitled Economic Mobility: Moving Toward Enough For All. Sponsored by A Minnesota Without Poverty and the Pew Charitable Trust, the conference addressed the burgeoning crisis over wealth distribution and its effects on poverty and economic mobility in America.

Today the American Dream is an increasingly unachievable delusion for about half our population. “Stickiness” on the ladder of upward mobility prevents more and more people from climbing out of poverty to the working or middle class. The “dream” in the past has usually meant the firm belief that hard work and diligent management of resources would almost automatically assure families of reaching a higher income and class level than that of their parents. And until a generation ago that was usually possible.

What has changed? Why are the rungs on the ladder of achievement so sticky? Why don’t hard work and diligence still work to gain our dreams? The classic answers focus on racism, sexism, elitism, globalization, automation, educational failures, and political unrest as basic causes. We spent most of the morning identifying and decrying these very true but overly simplistic issues. It wasn’t until the last set of questions was presented to the panel of experts that the deeper and much more damaging issue of increasing control of public policy by the top one percent of our wealth holders and opinion makers was brought up.

This presents one problem that continually inhibits progress toward ending this unnecessary human suffering: Our educational, religious, political, and economic leaders themselves fail to grasp the urgency of the situation and its root causes. They keep bringing up the same old issues which we have already mentioned. True as they are, their elimination would still not create the egalitarian society we all seem to desire---where a day of work offers a living wage, where everyone achieves what their ability will allow, and where a safety net of compassion and justice exists for those too wounded to succeed on their own.

We need radical change in the basic values of society. One participant put it this way: “Without economic justice we will never solve poverty.” Economic justice means a fair (not equal) distribution of the earth’s wealth, a level playing field not skewed by persons of great wealth, progressive taxes based on ability to pay, and government that sides with the people rather than the possessors of money. For us to gain these favorable conditions of justice would indeed necessitate a radical change in values.

During the afternoon session we identified and evaluated many possibilities for reestablishing the ladder of upward mobility.  Scores of possibilities were mentioned, most of them dealing with creating more jobs, higher wages, tax restructuring, micro-credit opportunities, and reducing racism and sexism in the marketplace. Very few dealt with changes to the overall plutocratic domination system that creates the problems in the first place, since few of even our best educated people seem to realize that gaining these desirable conditions will be virtually impossible as long as the Supreme Court keeps declaring that money is free speech and can be liberally applied to control the election process. There remains in our institutions of education and commerce a great gap between the charity which is so vociferously supported and the need for advocacy, or speaking truth to power. Charity alone will not suffice; we need strong and continuous advocacy for justice, especially from the supposed repositories of truth and justice---the American religious establishment.

The Bible reading from Isaiah promises woe to those who manipulate the law to secure wealth for themselves at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. We are deeply into this syndrome at present, with only a few voices speaking against it. Why don’t you join those attempting to reestablish the American Dream by going beyond charity toward powerful advocacy?