I delivered an early version of these reflections at the Community Christian Church on December 26, 2020.
One of the fascinating aspects of cultural traditions, including religious traditions, is how they have been used in both healing and harmful ways. If we return to an insight made by the feminist and liberation theologian Dorothee Solle in 1984, we can group our religious expressions into two main categories, what she called the “double function” of religion:
“as apology and legitimation of the status quo and its culture of injustice on the one hand, and as a means of protest, change, and liberation on the other hand.” (“The Christian-Marxist Debate of the 1960s,” Monthly Review, 36 (July-August): 20-26).
This is certainly the case of Christianity, both historically and currently. I try to be aware of both tendencies, though the liberation aspects are obviously the ones that move my heart. Take, for instance, the song attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Luke 1:46-55, commonly called “The Magnificat.” Here, society is turned upside down, as the hungry are filled while the rich are sent away empty, and the powerful are torn from their thrones while the lowly are lifted up.
It’s been one of my favorite texts from the Christian tradition for as long as I can remember. The exhilaration of hope, the certainty that “the arc of the moral universe” really does “bend toward justice", continues to inspire my faith and my activism, especially in the face of all the terrible, and terribly unnecessary, suffering that fills our world. In Luke’s text, Mary does not just give birth to Jesus; she gives birth to a vision of the world where relationships are made right, where mercy and justice meet and become the closest of friends.
Who Gets to Frame Moral Questions?
This vision is in stark contrast to the discourses common to our public arena. Last Tuesday, the outgoing Vice President, Mike Pence addressed a large crowd and proclaimed:
“When we cut taxes, roll back regulations, and advance freedom, their agenda is higher taxes, open borders, soicalised medicine, a Green New Deal, and abortion on demand … . They want to make rich people poorer, and poor people more comfortable. We have fought to make every American richer, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.” (https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/mike-pence-mocked-for-saying-liberals-want-to-make-poor-people-more-comfortable/ar-BB1c9zyQ )
There’s enough material in this short quote for a month full of articles. Trump’s tax cuts, like 40 years of tax cuts before him, have devastated the economy for everyone but corporations and the rich (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/06/trumps-tax-cuts-were-a-disaster-naturally-republicans-want-even-more/ ). Trump’s dangerous deregulatory actions will likely threaten our public health for decades (https://www.yalejreg.com/nc/the-trump-deregulation-scorecard-will-impact-public-health-the-environment-for-generations-by-elizabeth-glass-geltman/ ). And, rather than advancing freedom, Trump’s administration has been complicit in and often accelerated the decline of freedom (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/03/05/democracy-is-decline-around-world-trump-is-part-problem/ ).
On the other hand, Pence’s list of policies he’d like us to avoid – which I’d reframe as healing economic and social disparities, creating humane and just immigration policies, guaranteeing healthcare access, addressing climate change and environmental injustice issues, and protecting reproductive rights - are actually vital policies for the survival of millions of people and the earth itself. They should not be partisan or controversial at all. In fact, what my conservative friends and family often name as merely political questions are more fundamentally ethical questions. We may debate the nuts and bolts of how, for instance, to make sure we have clean air and drinking water, but nobody should be disagreeing over this basic human right: everybody deserves clean air and safe drinking water. Everyone, without exception.
As another example, we need to have ongoing conversations about our borders and the immigration policies that go with them. Those policies and practices need to be continuously adapted to the unfolding sociopolitical realities in the world. It is important for us to listen and change them as needed, so that immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees can be treated with dignity and respect while accessing the safety and opportunities that every human being deserves. But what should never be included in the conversation is the possibility of choosing the policies that have created the nightmare that continues along the United States’ southern border (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/22/us/biden-border-asylum.html ).
It’s very striking to me that Pence is very open in promoting failed and unjust polices. Moreover, he has given a basic description of several key commitments of those he would call his enemy. But the policies he supports cannot be called good according to an ethical, humane, and compassionate standard. For supporters of this agenda to claim the moral high ground is a tale of convenience, though I suspect such claims relieve the cognitive dissonance of being complicit in injustice. Moreover, it excuses, and even justifies, injustice, while propping up a system that benefits those who are hoarding wealth and power.
This is why we cannot allow people like Mike Pence to frame questions of morality in this way, and why religious traditions have often been relied upon to reframe moral and social problems from the perspective of liberation. And, in this way, religious traditions continue to be a vital part of our cultural memory and political ethos. In the Lukan text, Mary sang about political and economic justice, that mercy meant bringing “down the powerful from their thrones, and lift[ing] up the lowly; [filling] the hungry with good things, and sen[ding] the rich away empty.” And Jesus’ ministry was understood as “good news to the poor” – freeing prisoners, giving “sight for the blind,” and setting “the oppressed free.” (Luke 4:17-21) This is a glimpse of a religious tradition that did not separate out material concerns from spiritual ones. Not content to let people suffer injustice, it insists on justice now and refuses to offer a spiritual promise of future salvation as a way to better tolerate present oppression.
Inherently Unjust & Unsustainable
We might ask, then, if it is appropriate to evoke an ancient text in considering current circumstances: how bad were things in Mary’s and Jesus’ day to inspire such a vision? In the case of Mary and Jesus, what could make them put these concerns so front and center in their songs and movements?
Marcus Borg simplified the economic situation at the time of Jesus by pointing out that 66% of the wealth was controlled by 10% of the population, the ruling elites. These were the only people in society who had an easygoing confidence that they would go to bed at night with a full belly. 90% of the population, the peasants, were left to share just 33% of the resources. (http://www.aportraitofjesus.org/social.shtml ) “Share” is a nice euphemism; in reality, the poor were set in competition with one another, left to eke out an existence on the crumbs from the elites’ tables. There was plenty of resistance to this competition through hospitality, unexpected generosity, and other kindnesses, but the reality was that, because the rich hoarded wealth and power, the peasants were doomed to live in uncertainty.
If you’re like me, your mind immediately asks – so what would this look like today? As it turns out, in 2016, the bottom 90% of the population in the USA owned only 21.2% of the nation’s wealth. (https://inequality.org/facts/wealth-inequality/ ) As you might have imagined, it has gotten worse over the last four years, and has been further intensified this year, as the very rich have capitalized on the economic and social vulnerabilities accompanying the pandemic to get even wealthier. The results have been devastating, but this cruelty is just good business sense in the United States of America. Based on research from Forbes magazine:
“The total net worth of the nation’s 651 billionaires rose from $2.95 trillion on March 18—the rough start of the pandemic shutdowns—to $4.01 trillion on Dec. 7, a leap of 36% …. .” (https://inequality.org/great-divide/updates-billionaire-pandemic/ )
There is no compassionate, ethical, or humane way to be rich like this. These kinds of disparities can only exist at the expense of human lives and well-being, and at the expense of the earth itself. Writing last September in Time, Nick Hanauer and David Rolf pointed out that:
“in addressing the causes and consequences of this pandemic—and its cruelly uneven impact—the elephant in the room is extreme income inequality. / How big is this elephant? A staggering $50 trillion. That is how much the upward redistribution of income has cost American workers over the past several decades.” (https://time.com/5888024/50-trillion-income-inequality-america/ )
We can argue about where the line is when it comes to hoarding wealth and power, but I hope we can agree that there is a line. And, by the time you have hoarded a billion dollars, you are well beyond that line. The greed and delusion of the super rich has and will continue to kill millions of people. And it is killing the earth.
Last Tuesday, Pence claimed that the Trump administration has made “every American richer,” but this is just a lie. In fact, the consolidation of wealth and power has simply continued during the last four years, and the Time article went on to explain the real life impacts of this pilfering of the common citizens of the USA in “granular demographic detail”:
“For example, are you a typical Black man earning $35,000 a year? You are being paid at least $26,000 a year less than you would have had income distributions held constant. Are you a college-educated, prime-aged, full-time worker earning $72,000? Depending on the inflation index used (PCE or CPI, respectively), rising inequality is costing you between $48,000 and $63,000 a year. But whatever your race, gender, educational attainment, urbanicity, or income, the data show, if you earn below the 90th percentile, the relentlessly upward redistribution of income since 1975 is coming out of your pocket.” (https://time.com/5888024/50-trillion-income-inequality-america/ )
Same Song, New Singers
Thankfully, there are those who are still speaking up and speaking out against injustice. Let me give just three examples. First, Representative Omar of Minnesota refused to back down from calling out the failure of our government to meaningfully respond to the pandemic in just, compassionate, and humane ways. In response to the most recent $900 billion relief measure, she pointed out that “We are not embarrassed enough as leaders” -
"It's really quite shameful that we find ourselves negotiating a deal with such a small amount of money when we know just how devastated the American people are across our country … .” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/12/17/we-are-not-embarrassed-enough-ilhan-omar-slams-congress-failing-public-covid-relief )
And if we were listening this week, we could also have heard the song of justice in the face of oppression in Detroit. Last August, plaintiffs from the local movement for Black lives sued the city government for police violence, including “bruised and broken ribs, concussions, a collapsed lung, a fractured pelvis.” The activists sought to prohibit police use of “tools of excessive force,” including chemical weapons, sonic cannons, and rubber bullets. Last month, a temporary order restricted the use of force, and last week, the city filed a countersuit that accused these civil rights advocates of a “civil conspiracy” - “to disturb the peace, engage in disorderly conduct, incite riots, destroy public property,” and commit other “illegal acts”.
But the movement leaders have refused to be intimidated, adding another verse to the cloud of witnesses who sing out for justice. Tristan Taylor, one of the original plaintiffs, replied:
“These attacks against us are a way of attempting to minimize our ability to go on the offensive and call for transparency and accountability. … This is just a way of saying to people, ‘This is not a place where you can raise your voice.’”
And Nakia Wallace, a Detroit Will Breathe leader, also spoke out:
“They’re trying to send a message to the Black Lives Matter movement, to anybody standing up against state power and trying to hold them accountable … . [This moment is an opportunity] to bring forth meaningful change, and the responsibility to not allow ourselves to be co-opted or silenced or bullied off the streets.” (https://theintercept.com/2020/12/21/detroit-black-lives-matter-lawsuit/ )
In solidarity with these movements, we can also bring our attention to Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist dedicated to “exposing members of the far right and cataloguing white supremacist violence across the US through her site, First Vigil.” She’s been doing so since the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. And though she’s had to relocate to Berlin for her own safety, she continues the work from there. In an interview from last October, she said:
“White supremacy is not purely a racial concept. It’s fundamentally racist, but it’s also fundamentally antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-trans, anti-disability. It’s about purification through whiteness and through maleness and through the consolidation of power.”
“There’s a diversity of strategies we can have on how to build a world that is resilient to fascism. Protest is part of that. So is community involvement. … one of the most effective things that people can do is learn ways they can help their neighbors in the community – in direct ways that do not rely on governments and the state and other systems. … the fundamental principle of anti-fascism is mutual aid. … People ask, ‘How do you fight Nazis?’ I say, learn Spanish so you can translate for immigrants. Learn how to fix a tail light so you can keep somebody from getting pulled over on a bullshit charge. Find ways to lift each other up, to better help others.” (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/01/white-supremacist-protest-activism-emily-gorcenski )
These are the kinds of leaders and activists that we need to be listening to and listening for. It is easy to hear what people like Mike Pence have to say, and we obviously need to pay attention so we can mitigate the harm. But it is even more important to listen to these other voices, the voices insisting on lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry, both because they are less likely to be heard amid the noise of injustice, and because they provide practical, relevant, and radical ways to move forward.
Learning to Sing
I began with a reflection on how one ancient text, The Magnificat, is an example of the preservation of such values and aspirations. Mary’s song has survived millennia of injustices, right up to this present day. This reminds us that, religious or not, cultural traditions can connect us to the longer history of humans resisting injustice and insisting on healthy, just communities. These resources and connections are valuable, so that, even during a week when we had to bear witness to a lame duck president who has cruelly and vigorously pursued the federal death penalty (https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/17/politics/federal-death-penalty-2020-trnd/index.html ) while shamelessly pardoning a laundry list of crooked and violent offenders (https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/22/politics/trump-pardons/index.html ), we could keep our bearings.
It is obvious that we have a long road ahead of us, and it is hard to keep up with the injustices that fill the news, let alone act on them. Right now, it is true, that the powerful still sit on their thrones, secured by violence and oppression against the lowly; the rich are filled with good things, ignoring the hungry; and it is hard to imagine a world where mercy and justice are the norm.
Sometimes, the most we can do is keep singing, insisting that justice and mercy have a place in this world. Our task includes creating cultures, systems, institutions, and communities that keep alive the conviction that our humanity is seen most clearly in the way we treat each other, in the way we give up violence and greed, and learn to live in ways so that no one is exploited, no one is hungry, and everyone is blessed.