Jesus goes to Walmart, Romans turn up too

Police turn out as Ferguson protestors non-violently disrupt Black Friday sales

Here we are, where Jesus and the Romans are squaring off today.

The contrast is vivid. Militarized police protect Walmart from Ferguson, MO protestors who “protested peacefully, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!”and who “dispersed peacefully” when ordered to do so by police.

Jesus is going to Walmart today because of the many violations of fundamental human dignity and worth we are experiencing in the U.S.

This is why protests against the lack of justice for Mike Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot in Ferguson, MO, and the protests against the poverty-level wages paid by Walmart and other big retailers are moving together in solidarity and support.  #BlackOutBlackFriday shows how the economic roots of structural injustice need to be brought to consciousness and made the focus of concerted action.

It is crucial today to read the gospels through movement eyes, through the lives of people, particularly African Americans, who are increasingly struggling with a militarized police presence that, coupled with rampant abuse of power through racism, is creating war zones in our communities.  And like the war it is, innocents are killed with impunity.

Read the Gospels then as wartime literature; after all, they were composed after the end of the Roman destruction of the Temple. These texts have to be examined through the lens of an occupied people.

This oppression is very often felt directly as unjust economic practices. This is why Jesus “organized” workers in the fishing industry around the Sea of Galilee. Roman occupation had driven a lot of the Jewish fishers into poverty. As we know, Jesus came out strongly for workers being paid a fair wage, “for the worker deserves his wages.” (Luke 10:7)

Militarized police guarding Walmart from peaceful protestors is not the way of Jesus of Nazareth.  Justice and peace is.



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It’s not ‘class warfare,’ it’s Christianity

Occupy protestor dressed as Jesus

It’s not ‘class warfare,’ it’s Christianity, by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (Washington Post On Faith, 19 September 2011)

President Obama just drew the economic battlelines more clearly in his call to raise $1.5 trillion in new revenue primarily through increased taxes on the wealthy, letting the Bush tax cuts expire, and closing tax loopholes.

Class warfare!” countered the Republicans.

Americans sharing more equally in the burden of pulling our country out of massive debt, and using tax revenue to stimulate the economy and create jobs isn’t “class warfare,” it’s actually Christianity.

Many Christians are starting to find the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few very rich people to be an enormous moral and ethical problem. Catholic theologians and ethicists took pains recently to challenge Speaker Boehner on Catholic values in regard to his views, particularly on the economy.

But not all Christians agree with those perspectives. Today, not only is economics a political battleground, it is a faith battleground particularly in Christianity. According to some Christian conservatives, unregulated capitalism, with all its inherent inequalities of wealth, is God’s plan.

“Christian Captialism,” in their view, isn’t an oxymoron, it’s God’s will as revealed in the Bible. God wants you to own property and make money, and if some make a lot more money than others, that’s okay. In fact, it’s God’s will too.

These competing views are very influential in our current public debates. The Christian conservative viewpoint, however, has been more instrumental in shaping our political shift to the right in recent years, not only on social issues, but also on economic issues. You can see this display in the “God Hates Taxes” signs carried at Tea Party rallies.

Let me be clear as I can be. We need to understand the so-called “Christian” underpinnings of the anti-tax, anti-government, anti-the-poor, “let him die” approach to economics and public policy today as completely unchristian, as well as un-American. What we need to do is re-establish our national values of fairness, equality and opportunity for all, values that I believe are actually the core of the Christian faith, (as well as of other religious traditions and of humanist values).

First, in order to do that, we need to understand how we got to the place where the “ownership of private property” and amassing wealth is accepted by many as the “biblical perspective,” and taking care of each other through shared sacrifice, is dismissed as secular humanism. Nothing against humanists here, but the Bible is all about taking care of each other, including taking care of each other by sharing what we have, not through amassing wealth.

Part of the way we got here is by Christian conservatives ignoring a lot of what the Bible says on wealth and poverty, and being highly selective in what they call “biblical.” In all these reference to the “Bible,” the self-styled Christian capitalists don’t ever seem to recall that in the Book of Acts, the early disciples “shared all things in common.” As I have written, the early church is Glenn Beck’s worst nightmare because it was socialist.

This is what the bible actually says about the economic practices of Jesus’ followers: “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common… There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.” Acts 4:32-35.

Glenn Beck’s attacks on the Reverend Jim Wallis, an Evangelical Christian who works on poverty issues from a biblical perspective, is illustrative of the need of the far right to discredit biblically based anti-poverty political work.

But as I, and Jim Wallis and others, have shown over and over and over, the biblical practices on justice for the poor are far more radically egalitarian than anything being proposed in terms of economics today by Democrats.

Not only do we need to understand that “Christian Capitalism” isn’t Christian, we need to understand how it is distorting capitalism. The “ultracapitalism” of people like Speaker Boehner and Paul Ryan (among others) is often called “market fundamentalism” and it is the nearly unshakeable faith held by its true believers that the best economic results are obtained when the market is allowed to function without the restraints of regulation. Just reduce taxes and let the “job creators” do their thing. Remember “trickle down economics” from the Reagan years? This is the belief system that launched the Reagan Revolution in the U.S. and started the decades long reduction in real wages of the American middle class and the rise in American poverty levels.

“Market fundamentalism” isn’t good, it’s the economic theory that is rotten to its core, and, as Kevin Phillips argues, “bad” for our economy. Phillips, in his book Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism shows exactly how it is that the Christian conservative view that unregulated capitalism is God’s will props up, or enables, the bad economic theory of unfettered, “reckeless” capitalism. In his book, Phillips connects the dots on how conservative religion and market fundamentalism mutually reinforce one another, to the great detriment of the country and the world. He calls Christian fundamentalism the “enabler” of market fundamentalism and shows how conservative Christianity provided the cultural shift necessary so that ordinary Americans would become anesthetized to their previous suspicion of unregulated capitalism born in the 1930’s.

Phillips observes that the complete breakdown in the United States these days of realistic thinking about how markets and financial systems actually do work has three sources: “homage to financial assets,…market efficiency” and “evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Christianity, infused with a millennial preoccupation with terrorism, evil, and Islam…” These are the three legs of the stool that caused the “de facto anesthetizing, over the last twenty years, of onetime populist southern and western” regions. It should be noted that these are the same sections of the country that are demographically the regions with the highest Tea Party concentration, especially the south.

“Anesthetizing” is a great metaphor for what’s happening in our public square about the economy because you have to be nearly unconscious not to realize that “Christian capitalism” is neither good Christianity or good capitalism. It’s not “Christian” because it ignores the central teachings of Jesus on the moral imperative of taking care of the poor in the Sermon on the Mount, and it dismisses the actual economic practice of the disciples as described in the Book of Acts.

It is also lousy capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system where the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit in a competive market. The capitalist system relies on self-interest, not “stewardship” to actually run. Theories of markets actually assume that people will act according to their self-interest and not from a disinterested love of others.

This has been known for a very long time. In 1776, Adam Smith, sometimes considered the “father” of modern economics, related how human nature and markets work. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the bakers that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantage.”

Capitalism isn’t “God’s Plan,” it’s an economic system that runs on the human desire for more, our own self-interest. This is necessarily evil. It can actually be a very productive system, but it is not beneficent. In order for there to be good values in our economic life, capitalism needs to be regulated so it does not wreck the whole ship with unfettered greed (as happened in the banking industry starting in 2008), and it needs to be supplemented with social safety nets and tax policy to achieve an approximate (not absolute) “freedom from want” as in Franklin Roosevelt’s wonderful phrase. It was Roosevelt who translated “Freedom from want” into a series of government programs to make it a reality such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children, the minimum wage, housing, stock market regulation, and federal deposit insurance for banks.

The Christian approach to economics is to be the conscience of the nation and to insist that we regulate capitalism so it does not become reckless and destructive. Christians must call on the nation’s politicians to have us share the burdens and the sacrifices, as President Obama is doing, in order get to the “freedom from want” that is in our democratic values and our faith values.

We do this because the Christian conscience is driven by duty to “love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s in the Bible. Luke 10:27. Look it up.

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#JustPeace is the real counter-terrorism

Estimated 6-10 million world-wide protested against Iraq war.

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“We are legion”: The demonic nature of police militarization

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points a weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson MO.  Note the person with his hands in the air.

Looking for a biblical perspective on the militarization of the police in Ferguson, Missouri and the gross civil rights violations there?

Try Jesus on the Roman military presence in ancient Israel for a trenchant theological critique of how demonic this kind of occupation of a people with overwhelming military-style force can be.

As I say in #OccupytheBible, all the gospels record that one day, after Jesus had established his ministry in Galilee, he crossed the Sea of Galilee and encountered a wild man who was possessed by demons, by the devil. When Jesus speaks to the demons he asks, “What is your name?” They said, “Legion” for as the text says, “we are many.” (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30).

But what is a legion? A legion can certainly mean “a lot of demons” but Legion is more commonly the proper name of the heavy infantry that was the basic military unit of the ancient Roman army during the empire. It was a division of a couple thousand Roman soldiers, though the number could vary. It also almost always had attached one or more units of conscripted troops, i.e. non-roman citizens. In Jesus’ time, these would have been Jews.

The demons, or more likely the oppressive legions of both the Romans and their Jewish auxiliary, are “called out” by Jesus and 2,000 of them rush into a herd of swine and are drowned. In ancient Israel, the eating of pork was forbidden, so being a swine was not a compliment, even as in most cultures today it is not a term of praise. These demons, as we used to say in the 60’s, are the pigs, and it is interesting that their number approximates a Roman Legion.

The gospels need to be read through movement eyes, through the lives of people, particularly African Americans, who are increasingly struggling with a militarized police presence that, coupled with rampant abuse of power through racism, is creating war zones in our communities.

Read the Gospels then as wartime literature; after all, they were composed after the end of the Roman destruction of the Temple. These texts have to be examined through the lens of an occupied people.

And people are occupied.  Tom Nolan, who worked in the Boston Police Department for 27 years, writes in a June, 2014 issue of Defense One, “Stop Arming the Police Like a Military.” He contends, “Have no doubt, police in the United States are militarizing, and in many communities, particular those of color, the message is being received, ‘You are the enemy.'”

There is an alternative. Nolan writes, “Good policing is all about trust.” That’s something we as people of faith can demand in our towns and cities. Police need to be “disarmed” from these assault-type weapons and equipment, given anti-racism training, and helped to regain the best of policing work which is all about building trust in community.  This is what ‘casting out the demons’ means in this context, getting rid of these assault weapons, aggressive militarized responses, and racism.

This is crucial and we cannot wait.  Too many lives are at stake, too many young African American men with their hands in their air, or carrying ice tea and skittles are being shot down.

So right now, we need to call out the legions for the demonic force they are.



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“It’s not your fault”: Jesus, forgiveness, and Robin Williams

“Good Will Hunting”

One of the hardest things for people to do is forgive themselves. Compassionate connection, one person to another, can be a way people can touch the pain of wrongs done to them, or by them, and begin to let that go.

Robin Williams, the comic genius and actor of great insight who died today, was able to show that deep, deep capacity for connection that can heal.

Williams played a grieving therapist in the film Good Will Hunting  and in this scene he tells Will Hunting, the gifted young man whom he is counseling who has been so grievously abused, “It’s not your fault.”

Watch Robin Williams’s eyes in this clip:

There is a ring of truth to this portrayal, perhaps from the depths of what Williams himself struggled with in his own life. Williams apparently committed suicide after struggling over many years with addiction and depression. As the therapist, Williams is offering the kind of compassionate connection is also at the heart of the healing ministry of Jesus, as in Matthew 9:

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every illness among the people. 36 But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered.

So many people I know are “weary and scattered” and cannot find a healing connection to another person. Sometimes, this is because people internalize a sense that they are worthless and at fault, when it is in fact the harms done to them that have created this sense that ‘I am not worthy of love.’

I am sorry for the struggles of Robin Williams life, but I am grateful for this film and for the piercing portrayal of the healing capacity of compassionate connection. I believe this kind of art itself heals, and it is a gift, among so many others, that Robin Williams gave the world.

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#YesAllWomen, and #YesAllWomenDifferently

#YesAllWomen rally, source

I wrote about #YesAllWomen for the Huffington Post and the fact that there is a war on women.  Their bodies are the battlefields, and there are injuries and casualties.

The point I make in that article, and one I want to re-emphasize here on #OccupytheBible, is that not only does violence affect all women, but also understanding the differences among women is an indispensable part of stopping it.  Different women’s contexts matter immensely when we make social policy to try to stop violence against them.

It is important to base policy on the fact that while we must say #YesAllWomen are, by virtue of being female, at risk in the war on women, we must also say “YesAllWomenDifferently.

One of the achievements of the modern women’s movement of the 1960’s was the assertion of gender as a political category. The parameters of this assertion were ultimately shown to have been flawed, however, as they followed the fault lines of social and economic hierarchies of race, class, sexual orientation, and national origin. Subsequent work in womanist, queer and post-colonial theologies and philosophies has reinvented these categories in indispensible ways, and this work provides crucial correctives for Christian theology that would be a partner in ending the war on women.

All Americans need to see, and act on the fact, that violent, misogynistic culture functions to threaten all women, but different women are subject to different social, cultural, political and legal mechanisms in relationship to misogyny, before, during and after violent assault.

So, #YesAllWomen and #YesAllWomenDifferently.


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“Happy” Easter: A fundamental truth

“Happy” in Kiev

I heard from so many people that they had added thoughts from my Huffington Post “Is Easter ‘Happy’?” column to their Easter sermons.  Getting this feedback from people is my favorite thing about writing in the public square.

“Happiness is the truth” is one line from Pharrell’s “Happy,” that stands out for people who are making these connections. The idea is that you can vividly see the truth of happiness when it is being claimed by people living under repressive regimes, or under threat, as in the version from Kiev.

Context matters so much in theology.  Being “happy” about getting the latest consumer item, or claiming your right to be “happy” in the face of the threat of domination and oppression, are polar opposites.

This spring semester, I have been teaching a course called “The New Social Gospel,” and I think for both the students and for me, the contextual nature of theology in the United States has never been clearer.  Either you are willing to see the real context of the deliberate infliction of economic suffering on the majority of people, or you are willing yourself not to see.

You can’t fight a war when you don’t know even know it’s going on.

Easter is a word about the macro-struggle of human history, the conflicts between life and death, happiness and repression.

And that word is the “yes” of God against the “no” of Empire.

And that’s not even the best news of Easter.  What’s really great is we know the end of the story.


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