A Reader Occupies #OccupytheBible

I received the following email from a reader of #OccupytheBible. He has given me permission to quote his email in part.  He makes several great points that expand on my argument. It “takes a village” to do theology, in my opinion. Grateful for this wise reader. Susan

Dear Dr. Thistlethwaite,

I just finished your book, “#OccupyTheBible,” and I wanted to write to say how inspiring and empowering it was, and to offer two observations about what seemed omissions, but with which the spirit of your book seems to agree.

Before purchasing and starting your book, I had just finished Marcus Borg’s “Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.”  I was pleased to find that both of you draw upon some of the work of John Dominic Crossan (and inspire me to read more of his recent work).  In Borg’s book, he delves into the oppressions of the Roman empire and its corrupting influence upon the Jewish temple elite in Jerusalem, so it prepared me in many good ways for your book’s focus upon that, and upon many analogous issues in our own times.

It was wonderful to see you confront many distortions of biblical interpretations from the religious right, and also to see you draw together more historically-enlightened, gospel-based commentary on contemporary issues.  I was raised Catholic and Theology was one of my majors in college, and the vision you present is sorely needed in many Catholic parishes.

While my reaction to your book is overwhelmingly positive, I was struck by two small but important omissions.  The first was that, as you discussed the causes of the 2006-2007 economic crisis, you handled many of these well, but you left out Credit Default Swaps.  The total value of all Credit Default Swaps was larger than the entire US stock exchange, and far overshadowed the entire sub-prime mortgage market.  Like betting at a race-track or on a cock fight, the total value of the betting by far outweighs the value of the horses or roosters.

The real reason for the bail-out is that, in this “casino” economy of credit default swaps, they paid out 100 cents on the dollar for every “bet” made via credit default swap.  The sub-primes were more like the blasting cap, and the Credit Default Swaps (which were deceptively described as “like insurance policies”) were like the more substantial dynamite that blew up the economy.  The bail-out (of companies like AIG, a huge seller of CDSs) ensured that all bets would be paid in full.

A fitting gospel analogy is the casting of lots for the seamless robe of Jesus.  If Jesus is to be found in daily bread and in “the least of these,” then economies work best when they act like seamless garments to serve the common good of all.  When Credit Default Swaps are used by economic predators to gamble on the economy and threaten to crash it so that a tiny minority can profit, then what should be a seamless and interwoven garment of world economy, of human communities collaborating for the common good, is violated for the profit of a very few.

Credit Default Swaps, in fact, are not really like insurance policies (as they are too often billed), because, for example, you can get only one insurance policy on your car, and you can insure only your own car. Credit Default Swaps differed because people could place more than one “bet” on the same underlying investment, and they could also “bet” on investments they did not own.  This would be like having the option of buying as many insurance policies as you could, from many companies, to insure the vehicle of your alcoholic neighbor right before New Year’s Eve, when he has a tradition of going out and getting drunk.  Or even if you own the vehicle, you’d be more inclined to get into an accident if you have more than one policy on the same vehicle and can profit more from an accident than from driving safely.

Conservatives would like us to believe that defaults on sub-primes were the real cause of the economic crash; some right-wingers would like to blame illegal immigrants who crossed the border, obtained sub-prime loans, defaulted, and then went back to Mexico.  But in fact, the greatest devastation came more from the CDS gambling, where the bets were worth far more than the value of all the sub-prime “horses.”  If you do another edition of this book, you might seek to include some consideration of this, which would fit in nicely, but which was absent from the current edition.

The other small omission in your otherwise excellent book was in relation to your discussion of the social gospel, as compared to the selective literalism of the right-wing rapture crowd.  It seems that you had a great opportunity to talk about some roots of the right-wing Christian readings of the bible, which can be traced in America back to Lyman Stewart, President of Union Oil, and his financing of the publication of the series of books or pamphlets called “The Fundamentals.”  This led to what we call “fundamentalism,” and it was really a version of Christianity friendly to the 1% (like Union Oil President Lyman Stewart), and it was specifically a rejection of the social gospel.  These pamphlets did not emphasize the beatitudes, or the gospel sayings of Jesus regarding “whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”  Rather, they allowed the sort of “cheap grace” you describe in your discussion of Dietrich Bonhoffer.

If you publish a revised, expanded edition of “#OccupyTheBible,” I would encourage you to consider inserting some discusion of Lyman Stewart, and of his version of a 1%-friendly Christianity in his financing of “The Fundamentals.”  This is one of the beasts that should be tracked to its lair.  This same Oil-$-friendly ideology would later pressure the British and US governments (Ike) to arrange the 1953 coup in Iran to oust Iranian President Mohammed Mossadegh and install the Shah so as to avoid the nationalization of the oil fields there, and this would inspire Muslim suspicion of the west, and feed a parallel or analogous literalism and “fundamentalism” in Islam.  But the two fundamentalisms often differ, with Islamic fundamentalism often reacting against American Empire, and US fundamentalism often pro-empire.

About Susan Thistlethwaite

I am a Professor of Theology and former President of Chicago Theological Seminary; I blog here, at the Huffington Post, and at other venues. I am a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. I am interested in what I call "public theology," or how deeper meaning is made and contested in the public square.
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