Monthly Archives: October 2020

Love, Hate and Indifference

TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST/REFORMATION SUNAY

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you are the holy lawgiver, you are the salvation of your people. By your Spirit renew us in your covenant of love, and train us to care tenderly for all our neighbors, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40.

It could not be simpler. All scripture as we have it in the law, the prophets and the apostles of the New Testament are to be interpreted through the prism of these two great commandments. If any interpretation of the scripture drives one to actions that do not reflect love, it is wrong, however carefully and painstakingly exegeted it may be.

Of course, “love is a many splendored thing.” I can use it to express my feelings for my wife just as easily as I can use it to express my appetite for rum raison ice cream. So, to be clear, love in this biblical sense derives its meaning from the narrative of Jesus’ Incarnation, faithful life, sacrificial death and glorious Resurrection. The Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus reduces the law to a life lived in faithful reliance upon God’s grace and unconditional love for one’s neighbor is not an ideal to which believers are required to live up. Nor is it just a mirror into which we need to look from time to time in order to remind ourselves that we are sinners in need of grace. There is nothing ideal, theoretical or aspirational here. The Sermon lays out the path Jesus actually walked and into which he calls his disciples to follow.

It needs to be said that the love to which Jesus calls us has little to do with affection. It is something practiced rather than felt. That means love is extended even, or rather especially, to enemies. That is more problematic than many of us like to admit. I have heard good church people say repeatedly, “I don’t hate anyone.” I wonder, though, whether we are being entirely truthful with ourselves when we make remarks like that. I also wonder whether it is fair to expect people not to experience hatred. Can you insist that genocide survivors not to hate the ones who orchestrated the murder of their families and the destruction of their homelands? Can you ask survivors of sexual abuse to feel less than hatred toward their abusers? To be sure, some people in these circumstances have reached the point where they have extinguished their hatred and are able to forgive from the heart.  Some have even become reconciled with their tormentors. But that usually comes at the end of a long road of struggle. I am not sure it is fair to impose it as a rule. If hate is so alien to God’s people, why do we have so many psalms in the Bible that teach us how to express it? Do these psalms conflict with what Jesus teaches us about love for enemies? Is it possible to love people you hate?

Hate is often portrayed as the antithesis of love, but I don’t necessarily believe that to be the case. Love and hate often live in close proximity. None are capable of hurting me more than the ones I love most dearly. Nobody is able to arouse my anger like the people closest too me.  Most violent crimes are committed by one family member against another. Hatred might be defined as love that has gone off the rails, love that has been betrayed, love broken down through the prism of an abusive upbringing. In its own perverse way, hatred testifies to the existence of love and our yearning for it. Without love, I doubt we would be capable of hate.

As Holocaust survivor,  author and philosopher Elie Wiesel has observed, the antithesis of love is not hatred, but indifference. I may not share with our president and his supporters their xenophobic fear and hatred of refugees seeking only the opportunity to live. But if I believe that the Trump administration is responsible for a strong economy and my retirement account is doing well, I won’t make a fuss over these people that I don’t even know. So, too, I might think it’s a shame what happened to George Floyd and Briana Taylor. I might find it offensive that the president of the United States refers to African nations in terms I will not dignify in print. Still, I don’t care sufficiently to put my nest egg at risk on that account. It is not that I hate my neighbors. I just don’t care enough to love them. Boiled down to its essentials, love means giving a damn, and not just about your own family, tribe, nation or church. We know from numerous examples throughout history that racial discrimination, genocide and other crimes against humanity are carried out by the relatively few under the noses of the many who are simply indifferent.

That brings me back to the extension of love to the enemy. Let us be clear that loving one’s enemy does not mean liking, admiring or even feeling compassion for the enemy. It does not exclude harboring hatred against one’s enemy. Loving one’s enemy does not mean ignoring the enemy’s aggression, allowing the enemy to abuse oneself and others or refraining from taking the enemy to task with a sound rebuke. In my Kierkegaard’s Ghost, I have mercilessly parodied quite a number of public figures leading some to question the depth of my Christian character. Believe it or not, I take that criticism seriously. I ask myself often whether I have crossed a line in seeking to expose what I see to be the injustice and cruelty of civil leaders and the hypocrisy if religious ones. But I do not believe that love is inconsistent with speaking truth to power and, when it comes to employing satire and parody to that end, there is plenty of biblical precedent.

As tough as it must sometimes be, though, love does not lose sight of the enemy’s humanity or forget that the enemy is created in God’s image. As angry and violent as the psalmists’ cries for vengence sometimes are, they always leave the business of dealing out retributive justice in God’s hands where it belongs. Love recognizes the enemy as that one sheep out of ninety-nine the rest of us could do without, but that Jesus is determined to bring back into the flock. Love is not a matter of feeling but doing. You don’t have to feel affection for your neibhbors to feed, cloth, house, visit and heal them. As with many other difficult tasks, the hands must sometimes take the lead and wait for the heart to follow. Love recognizes that what one most hates in the other is often a reflection of what one strenuously denies about oneself. Thus, an encounter with the enemy is an invitation to self reflection and repentance. It has been said that an enemy is one whose story have not yet heard. There may be no justification for the wounds an enemy inflicts on us or upon others. But understanding the enemy’s motives, learning the life paths that brought the enemy to where they stand today and recognizing what within us evokes the enemy’s hostility gives us the handles we need for dismantling that hostility rather then falling deeper into the vortex of endless retaliation.

Here is a poem by Daniel Henderson about encounter with the enemy, illustrating both the potential for healing and the tragic consequences of passing that opportunity by.

Enemies

When I before your gate
Cast sword and shield,
Quitting my ramparts of hate,
Eager to yield,

God, how your hush revealed
The fortress will,
The purpose changeless and steeled-
Hostile still!

Now, in our wrath’s cold blaze
We strut, we guard.
There are castles and moats in your gaze-
My glance is a shard.

Aloof as the very pole,
Disdainful and proud,
I arm myself-my soul
Wears pride as its shroud!

Forever a foe to your mind,
So I shall be,
But oh, if you had been kind,
My enemy!

Source: Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (Vol. 33, November 1928) p. 78. Having researched my anthologies and online resources, I have not been able to find any information on poet, Daniel Henderson. I would welcome information from any source on this poet whose work caught my attention just a few months ago.

Donald Trump as God’s “Cyrus”?

TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-13
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, raise your throne in our hearts. Created by you, let us live in your image; created for you, let us act for your glory; redeemed by you, let us give you what is yours, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you…” Isaiah 45:1-2.

Though it is tempting to reflect on the gospel text for this week,[1] I feel compelled to focus instead on our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. The reason is that this wonderful text from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of many hijacked by the religion of evangelical Trumpism for its own profane purposes. Leaders of the religious right have cited this text repeatedly, likening Donald Trump to the Persian Emperor, Cyrus, identified by Isaiah as the “anointed one” or “messiah” whose conquest of Babylon enabled the return of exiled Jews to their homeland. Just as the pagan emperor, for his own military and political purposes, sponsored and financed the Jew’s return from exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, so too, it is claimed that the rude, crude and prophane president is fulfilling God’s purpose by stacking the Supreme Court with pro-life and anti LGBTQ judges. Moreover, Trump has facilitated movement of the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, another cherished goal of evangelicals.

Examples of this biblical hijacking abound. Mike Evans, an evangelical leader who was invited to speak in front of Trump at a White House faith event had this to say:

“[Cyrus] was used as an instrument of God for deliverance in the Bible, and God has used this imperfect vessel, this flawed human being like you or I, this imperfect vessel, and he’s using him in an incredible, amazing way to fulfill his plans and purposes…” Times of Israel, March 8, 2018.

Another evangelical leader, Lance Wallnau, is now selling Trump-Cyrus “prayer coins.” There is on the face of these coins an image of emperor Cyrus in the background. (It’s hard to be sure about this as we have no idea what Cyrus actually looked like). In the foreground is an unmistakably clear image of Donald Trump. These coins can be purchased for a cool $45 apiece. I am not quite sure how they are supposed to help you pray. But then, I never understood prayer clothes either. Evangelicals are not the only ones lauding Trump as a modern day Cyrus. Benjamin Netanyahu has also made the identification of Trump with Cyrus, no doubt in response to Mr. Trump’s strong pro-Israeli policies in the middle east.

Some evangelicals, among them Rev. Franklin Graham and Rev. Paula White, maintain that Mr. Trump, despite his obvious moral shortcomings, is a “born again” Christian. Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and one of America’s leading evangelicals, claims that the president accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior at a meeting in New York City with hundreds of Christian conservatives. This conversion experience has never been confirmed by anyone else, including  Donald Trump. Others concede that Mr. Trump’s conduct, past and present, falls far short of the conduct expected from a born again Christian. Nonetheless, they feel that Donald Trump has given them an audience and, more than any other candidate Democrat or Republican, has taken seriously their concerns. In both cases, evangelicals are convinced that Trump is God’s answer to their prayers for a champion against what they feel is an attack on their faith and their nation by liberalism, moral relativism, atheism, feminism, political correctness and a host of other destructive forces.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because the church is called upon to proclaim Jesus Christ and the kingdom for which he lived and died. It matters because evangelical Trumpism is employing the church’s scriptures in support of a fascist political movement that has consistently lauded, enabled and incited the most violent racist elements of our population. It matters because the Bible is the church’s book and evangelical Trumpism’s misuse of that book misleads the ignorant and gullible while undermining the credibility of our witness to the gospel. As I have said elsewhere, the Bible is a thick, nuanced and complex collection of prayers, poetry and narrative. It has inspired saints to lives of holiness and courageous witness. But it has also given rise to depraved religious cults and has been used to sanction the most vile systems of human oppression, not the least of which is systemic racism. Those of us who regard the Bible as God’s Word need to make clear what we mean by that-and what we don’t mean.

That brings us to Cyrus. Clearly, the prophet Isaiah saw in the geopolitical events of his day God’s creation of a new beginning for Israel. Persia’s conquest of the Babylonian empire and Cyrus’ self interested policy of allowing a right of return to peoples exiled by the Babylonians, of which the Jews were one, made it possible for the people of Israel to regain the land of promise, rebuild their temple and renew the covenant with their God. This does not make of Cyrus a hero or a champion of Israel. His return proclamation, made ahead of his attack on Babylon, was doubtlessly calculated to destabilize that empire by creating within its borders pockets of support for Persia. Isaiah acknowledged as much, but insisted that, whatever Cyrus’ intentions or the Persian political agenda might be, God’s redemptive purposes for Israel were being worked out “in, with and under” the clash of empires.

Note well, that Isaiah does not encourage his audience to join forces with Cyrus, sign up to serve in his army, support his military and political objectives or champion his policies. Israel is not to emulate Cyrus or admire his character. We are told next to nothing about Cyrus’ character because that, too, is irrelevant. Isaiah is not really interested in Cyrus or what he is up to. Cyrus is only God’s unwitting instrument. Isaiah is chiefly concerned with God and God’s agenda. For the prophet, God is the only real actor in this drama:

I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things. Isaiah 45:2-7.

The point is that God is turning Cyrus’ military and political ambitions toward God’s own gracious purposes. Nowhere do we find Isaiah encouraging the kind of slavish devotion to Cyrus as preachers like Rev. Franklin Graham claim for Donald Trump. The church has no need of a human leader to “champion” its causes. If Jesus needed Donald Trump to defend him or his people, he would be a poor excuse for a savior. Evangelical Trumpism therefore amounts to rank idolatry and it is time for us all to speak up and say so. The church of Jesus Christ must be distinguished definitively from the church of Donald Christ. Sadly, that distinction is getting lost on a growing segment of the population for which Trump style evangelicalism equates with Christianity generally.

That said, evangelical Trumpists might be correct in asserting that Donald Trump is God’s tool for accomplishing some good purpose. As I have said many times before, the one positive contribution made by the present administration may well be its exposure of our country’s deep, abiding and systemic racism. In the face of Charlottesville, the killing of George Floyd and the brutality exercised by law enforcement against peaceful protests in its wake we can no longer hide from this reality. Maybe, just maybe, we have reached the point where we can accept responsibility for our nation’s past and take the bold and difficult steps required to dismantle systemic racism.

It is also possible that God has determined the continued reign of the United States of America is inconsistent with God’s good will for all the earth. What better way to bring the empire down than to place it in the hands of an incompetent man baby and allow it to implode. Maybe all our frenzied, well meaning efforts to “fix” America are actually at odds with the direction God is taking us. Because our faith has been so thoroughly blended with patriotism, we cannot imagine the world better off without the American Empire. But again and again, God’s imagination transcends our own imaginative limits. Of course, I don’t know any of this to be the case, lacking as I do Isaiah’s prophetic instincts. What I do know is that however chaotic and violent the times, God is working redemptively at the center of it all. What I do know is that, for disciples of Jesus, there is one “champion,” one “anointed” and one “chosen.” It is neither Cyrus nor Donald Trump.

Here is a poem by Robert Lowell reflecting on the dark places to which our moral imagination can sink when fear of the future and longing for safety lead weak minds to seek solance in strong leaders.

Inauguration Day: January, 1953

The snow had buried Stuyvesant.
The subways drummed the vaults. I heard
the El’s green girders charge on Third,
Manhattan’s truss of adamant,
that groaned in ermine, slummed on want….
Cyclonic zero of the word,
God of our armies, who interred
Cold Harbor’s blue immortals, Grant!
Horseman, your sword is in the groove!

Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.

Source: Life Studies, (c. 1953 by Robert Lowell, pub. by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.) Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977) was an American poet. He was born into a Boston family that could trace its origins back to the Mayflower. Growing up in Boston informed Lowell’s poems, which were frequently set in Boston and the New England region. He was appointed the sixth Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a post he held from 1947 until 1948. Lowell won the National Book Award in 1947 and the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1947. He won the the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1974 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977. Lowel is widely considered one of the most important American poets of the post-World War II era. You can read more about Robert Lowell and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

[1] For anyone interested, I discussed this text six years ago in my post for Sunday, October 19, 2014. Though dated, I believe my observations then are still relevant now.

White House Releases Outline of Republican Health Care Plan

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Pressed relentlessly for details of a national health care plan that he has been promising since 2016, President Trump finally announced that he will soon be releasing an outline of the central features for the Republican alternative to the Afordable Care Act commnly known as Obamacare. The Ghost has obtained a draft of the outline from a source who spoke to us on condition of anonymity. A copy of the draft appears below:

 

ROAD MAP TO A HEALTHIER AMERICA

(A Proposal Providing Affordable Health Care for the American People)

From the effective date of this law, all policies of health insurance, whether purchased by employers for their employees or purchased privitely by individuals, shall comply with the following provisions:

Coverage limits: Treatment for all medical conditions, illnesses or injuries will be covered at the discretion of your insurer, subject to a $75,000 annual deductible, a 60% copay and a life time cap of $50,000.   

Authorization for Veterinarians to Treat Medicaid Recipients: We recognize that the poor frequently have difficulty locating physicians and affordable care where they live. Extending the licensure of veterinarians enabling them to treat poor families will significantly increase the availability and lower the costs of care. This is particularly so for rural communities in which there are frequently more animals than people. It makes no sense in these areas to provide costly duplicative coverage. Furthermore, opening veterinary care facilities in urban areas for the treatment of poor families will substantially reduce crowding and staff shortages in our emergency rooms and acute care centers.

Prescription Drug Coverage: There is no need for this. On the whole, most medications are not only ineffective, but some are even harmful. An extensive study produced by Dr. Snae Koil Quack, M.D., distinguished professor at the Trump University Correspondence School of Medicine, demonstrates that elimination of all medications from the body actually increases health and life expectancy. The most obvious example is Insulin. We deplore the shocking increase in dependency upon this highly addictive drug that some people claim they cannot live without. Henceforth, persons claiming to be “diabetic” will be dealt with the same as any other person suffering from addiction. What these people need is to be weaned off this expensive habit.

Addiction Treatment: It is obvious that addiction is a serious problem. It is equally clear that an inordinate amount of time, personnel and money have been thrown into “detoxification,” “counseling” and “rehab” to address this problem to no avail. We believe that re-introduction of the old fashioned “Drunk Tank” in every county jail throughout the country is the best and most cost effective cure for this affliction.

Protection for Persons with Pre-existing Conditions: As promised, we will require insurers to provide coverage for persons with pre-existing conditions. A condition is deemed “pre-existing” if it existed prior to conception. Coverage for such conditions is afforded subject to the above coverage limits and contingent upon proper medical documentation.

Emergency Care: We will require that health insurers cover emergency care and treatment. An “emergency” is defined as a bodily injury, the result of which is likely to be terminal if not treated immediately. Coverage is afforded for “emergencies” after review of an application for emergency treatment submitted to your insurer and approved by a committee of five emergency physicians your insurer has appointed for such review. A decision of the committee shall be provided within fourteen days from receipt of the application. Denials of coverage by the committee may be appealed to the insurer’s review board whose decision shall be final. Transportation to the hospital by ambulance is not covered under this plan, however, your insurer will reimburse your bus fare to and from the emergency room as long as proper documentation is received within twenty-four hours from the date of your alleged emergency.

Surgical Procedures: Your insurer must provide coverage for surgical procedures in accord with the above coverage limits, except the following:

  • Cosmetic Surgery, including treatment of third degree burns; correction of bone irregularities such as scoliosis and bunions; and reconstructive surgery of all kinds.
  • Removal of a bodily organ, limb or other bodily tissue. It is patently unfair to expect employers to subsidize procedures that leave them with employees who are less than what they were when originally hired.
  • Appendectomy: You should have had this taken care of when you had your tonsils out. 

Covid-19: Are you serious??? That is a total hoax! You’re not sick. You just have a case of the sniffles. Man up!

Pregnancy and Child Birth: We do not cover medical expenses related to pregnancy or child birth. You decided to have sex. You deal with the consequences. If you don’t want a baby, get an abortion-but not here. You will need to visit Canada for that-as soon as the border opens up again.

Disability: We provide no relief for disability. You are never going to recover staying at home, lying on the couch and watching TV. If you just kick your butt out of bed, roll up your sleeves and do a good day’s work, you won’t be disabled anymore. Problem solved.  

Several Republicans have praised the plan as both efficient and economical. Said Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell, “This should silence forever the Democrat party complaint that Republicans have no plan.” Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff told reporters, “In one short piece of legislation we have solved easily and cheaply problems Democrats have been fumbling with for decades!”  Not every member of the GOP was as laudatory, however. Senator Rand Paul registered his opposition. “It is morally reprehensible that we are throwing even this relatively modest funding into health care, which is not even a right, while we have corporate citizens who are starving for more tax breaks.”

No word yet on whether the proposed legislation will be introduced before the election on November 3rd.

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FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Pence Threatens To Withdraw from V.P. Debate

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Citing the “Billy Graham rule,” Vice President Mike Pence today threatened to withdraw from his scheduled debate with Democratic vice presidential candidate, Kamala Harris. “I can’t in good conscience meet with a woman not my wife on a platform separating me by several feet from everyone else,” he told reporters. The rule, followed faithfully by the late Rev. Billy Graham, prohibits men from meeting, dining or travelling with women other than their wives. Mr. Pence declared that he has followed that rule for all of his life. “It’s kept me out of trouble to this day,” he said.

At a hastily called meeting by the Trump administration with leaders from the evangelical community, several prominent evangelicals urged Mr. Pence to reconsider. The Rev. Franklin Graham presented the vice president with a written waiver of the rule on behalf of the Billy Graham association. Representatives of the president urged him to act on the waiver. The president himself sent a personal message urging Mr. Pence to “go in their and grab her by [expletive deleted],” in response to which former Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. remarked, “Now that sounds like the kind of debate I’d like to watch.”

Meanwhile, the Debate Commission has been negotiating with the Pence team over measures that might be taken to address the vice president’s concern. One member of the commission, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Ghost plans are being made to extend the plexiglass barriers designed to guard against transmission of Covid-19 in all directions around the vice president to contain potential outbursts of lust. “We fully understand Mr. Pence’s concerns,” she said. “We know that he isn’t called the ‘vice’ president for nothing.” Mr. Pence has requested that his wife accompany him at the debate podium, thereby satisfying the Billy Graham rule. That, however, is unlikely to happen. “We told Mr. Pence in no uncertain terms,” said our source, “that bringing ‘mother’ out on the debate floor was out of the question.”  

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FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Capitalism as Heresy

feast

NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Prayer of the Day: Lord of the feast, you have prepared a table before all peoples and poured out your life with abundance. Call us again to your banquet. Strengthen us by what is honorable, just, and pure, and transform us into a people of righteousness and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.” Isaiah 25:6.

Right off the bat, let me tell you what I do not mean. I do not mean to say that commerce is evil; that markets are inherently bad; that business people are all oppressors; or that all people, regardless of training, initiative or talent should be compensated the same. Nor do I mean to endorse command economies, socialism, communism or any other imaginable “ism” as superior to market economies or divinely ordained. What I do maintain is that capitalism in the United States is functionally a religion. As such, it makes ultimate claims to which disciples of Jesus cannot remain indifferent.

The basic tenant underlying the capitalist faith was first articulated by Adam Smith (1723-1790), a Scottish philosopher and economist. Smith is best known as the author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth Of Nations (1776). He put forward the notion that free individuals acting in a free economy making decisions that are primarily intended for their own self-interest will invariably take actions benefiting society as a whole. This is the case even though such beneficial results were not the specific focus or purpose of those actions. A free and unregulated market operates as “an invisible hand” guiding all participants at every level to greater prosperity. I leave to economists the evaluation of capitalist theory. As a pastor and theologian, I am chiefly concerned with its religious/philosophical assumptions.

First, I cannot comprehend how one can believe on the one hand everything Saint Paul, Saint Augustine and Dr. Martin Luther tell us about original sin, yet maintain on the other hand that, as a rule, pursuit of one’s own self interest benefits all the rest of society. Though characterizing human nature as “totally depraved,” as did John Calvin, might be overstating the case, the scriptures are clear that we human beings are flawed creatures. Our self interested decisions are frequently irrational and self destructive. We crave junk food at the expense of nutritional meals. We buy more than we can consume and discard the leftovers. We purchase more expensive cars, bigger houses, pricier clothing all for no better reason than that we can. Our view of the common good scarcely reaches beyond our own back yards and seldom beyond the immediate future.

Second, capitalism’s faith in the “market,” or as Adam Smith would say, “the invisible hand,” amounts to near worship. The market, it seems, is to be trusted with eliminating poverty, providing health care, creating affordable housing and curing all the rest of society’s ills. If only we break the yoke of regulatory shackles from the back of commerce and industry allowing the engines of production free reign, society will invariably flower. In fairness to Smith, he seems to have assumed the underlying moral values of honesty and fairness would govern the workings of the market and so restrain the extremes of human avarice-which means, of course, that a market economy is only as just and efficient as its participants are honest.

I am not convinced Smith’s optimistic belief in the salutary effects of personal morality is capable of moderating the destructive tendencies of modern capitalism. My doubts in that regard have been greatly increased through my reading of The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Egan, a reporter for the New York Times, provides a historical narrative of the 1930s “Dust Bowl” disaster on the high plains through painstaking research and numerous interviews with its remaining survivors. This is the story of real estate tycoons and speculators luring people desperate to make a living in the shadow of the great depression out to the great plains with the promise of land that was as fertile as it was cheap. In a matter of a few years, an army of farmers turned over hundreds of square miles of prairie topsoil that had formed over thousands of years. What followed was the greatest environmental disaster this country has yet experienced. The relentless storms of displaced soil that created America’s great Dust Bowl drove thousands of families into homelessness in the midst of an economic depression. Some fled and tried to make a new start in a jobless nation. Others remained to face chronic hunger and often fatal disease from inhaling the ever silty air.

The story Egan tells is a familiar one, much the same as unfolded throughout the 19th century as colonialism savaged the African continent with the slave trade, dispossessed hundreds of indigenous societies and divided up the land along borders chiefly designed to aid in exploiting its resources. It has played out more recently in the northeastern rust belt and in the ruinous fires consuming thousands of homes and acres of forest in the west. Capitalism, defined as unrestricted commerce, devours vital resources to produce enormous amounts of wealth at the expense of the land and at the expense of its inhabitants who become disposable once the prospect of profit has been exhausted. It is a destructive religion grounded in a tragically misplaced faith in human nature and the salutary effects of unregulated commerce.

The reign of God proclaimed in Jesus and envisioned by the prophet Isaiah consists in meeting the needs of “all peoples.” In spite of the havoc we have wreaked upon the earth, it is still capable of satisfying everyone’s need, though not everyone’s greed. The story of Jesus’ feeding the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes is a graphic announcement that God’s reign has dawned. The myth of scarcity has been debunked. All that remains is for us to overcome our unbelief, release our grip on what we deem our own and place it in the service of our neighbor. Contrary to the creed of capitalism that would have us pursue our own interests, Saint Paul counsels us to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” Philippians 2:3.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:5-11.

Once again, I am not suggesting that market economies must be dismantled. What is clear, however, is that “the Market” must not be divinized. We can no more rely upon the market to deliver a just and prosperous society for all than we can expect the weather to deliver sun, rain and wind in just the right measure. In both cases, powers beyond our control bring us benefits as well as occasional injury. The best we can do is manage the former responsibly and make provision for victims of the latter. Just as we cannot expect the weather to rebuild hurricane ravaged cities, we cannot expect the market to alleviate climate change, restore depressed neighborhoods and bring medical care to the sickest among us. The market might well be one tool we employ in the service of addressing these issues, but it must never become our master.

I am not suggesting either that individual rights, individual liberties and individual identity are not deserving of protection. Nevertheless, knowing what the scriptures teach us about our inherently self oriented nature, our tendency to dominate and exploit those more vulnerable than ourselves and our inability to evaluate our own motivations honestly, we cannot subscribe to the view that individuals left free to pursue their own self interest without restraint will serve the good of all creation. In the view of Saint Paul, the American deification of the individual self over all else would be deemed madness. What we need and what God means to accomplish is “the mind of Christ” formed within us,  the One who sought not his own self interest but that of all people. Jesus is the antithesis to the religion of capitalism.

Here is a poem by Mary Oliver that serves as a warning against what we might become when formed by the “market” rather than by the “mind of Christ.”

Of The Empire

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Source: Red Bird (c. 2008 by Mary Oliver, pub. Beacon Press) p. 46. Mary Oliver (1935-2019) was born in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.