Filibusters, Reconciliation, and the Future of American Democracy

Stan Duncan

This is a little soon after my last note and on a subject I usually don’t comment on. But with the health Care Summit and the president submitting his own watered-down Republican-sounding plan, and with the Republicans calling it a Socialist government takeover, I got reflective.  Filibuster Chart

I’ve been thinking in particular about the previously obscure procedure in the Senate known as a “filibuster.” As you know, the Senate usually passes items by a majority vote, meaning more than fifty percent. But when someone—usually from a minority party—is about to lose a vote, he or she can call for a filibuster, and suddenly it takes a “super majority” of sixty votes to call for “cloture” and overturn the filibuster. Here are the statistics: From 1990 to 2006 the average times per year the filibuster was called was about 70, usually for not very interesting reasons. In the 2007-2008 term—the first full year that the Democrats were in the majority—it nearly doubled, to 139 times, almost always by Republicans. That’s a 60 percent increase. So far this year, it’s been 75 times, which is more than what we used to call “normal” for an entire year. And that is why all policy-making has ground to a halt in Congress.

Three of the most frequently mentioned ways of returning the Senate to majority voting are (1) limiting the number of times a filibuster can be used per year, (2) limiting the number of votes it would take to overcome it (down to, say, 55), and using the standard Senate “Budget Reconciliation” rules, which require only a majority vote on important pieces of legislation. The Republicans used the Reconciliation process numerous times during the Bush administration when they only had a fifty-one person majority (for example for his controversial tax cuts in 2001 and 2003), so they are very familiar with it. It has also been the procedure used to pass healthcare legislation for over thirty years. COBRA, S-CHIP, and every major Medicare enhancement since 1982, are examples. Click here for Julie rovner’s report on this on NPR, February 24, 2010.

Muddying the waters somewhat, the Republicans have recently been calling the Reconciliation process the “Nuclear Option.” This is a term they coined during the Bush administration to describe their attempts to destroy filibusters altogether to keep Democrats from using it to block some of Mr. Bush’s judicial appointments. It doesn’t have much to do with using Reconciliation to pass important pieces of legislation, which has been standard procedure for health care legislation for decades. Evidently many journalists who cover our political system don’t have much knowledge of our political system and they haven’t recognized that.

So, having said all that, why hasn’t Harry Reid and the Democratic majority called for a “Reconciliation vote”? So far as I can tell, there are the top five reasons. My apologies to a variety of other commentators (especially Robert Reich) who have been saying much the same thing. And one note before I start: According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, if we do nothing, health care spending will take up one hundred percent of America's gross domestic product by the 2080s. Our elected officials created this mess; Satan has clean hands on this one. See the chart below and click here to go to an article in the Atlantic about their statistics.
1. Reconciliation is too important a measure to use on a piece of legislation so important.
Well, remember that President Bush used it for his important and controversial tax cut bills. In 2003 he actually only got 50 votes, forcing Vice President Cheney to cast the deciding vote. And remember the S-CHIPs bill, Medicare Advantage, and COBRA (the “R” in COBRA stands for “Reconciliation”). Shouldn’t these acts be considered “important”?

2. Use of reconciliation would make Senate Republicans mad.
Um, and the point is? When someone says this, do they mean the Republicans who wouldn’t vote for it anyway? Or the Republicans who wouldn’t vote for it anyway? I have trouble telling the two apart.

3. The Senate shouldn’t get too controversial because President Obama needs Republican votes on military policy.
I heard this on CNBC this morning and I don’t understand it. The majority of Republicans are always going to support the majority of wars, and what are the odds that the Republicans are going to call for a filibuster, forcing a sixty-vote super majority vote for something that the majority of them support? Imagine what Rush Limbaugh would call them if they blocked making war on a foreign country.

4. Reid has privately been saying that he fears he can’t even get 51 votes in the Senate now, after Scott Brown’s win.
Most estimates say he has about fifty-five or six votes for anything on healthcare. So, if he means that, he’s a coward; if he doesn’t mean it, he’s lying. If Harry Reid can’t lead a thirsty horse to water, then he can’t lead at all.

5. Some representatives argue that they are afraid to take a vote on health care until after the elections because the public is against it.
Not true. Most of the polls say that if you take away the rhetoric and just present the specific planks of the health care bills, most Americans support them. What they don’t support is what the Republicans have been saying is in the bills, not what is actually in them. And I suspect that now, when most insurance companies are jacking up their rates to unconscionable levels, even more people will be ready for reform.

Nobody has asked for my advice, but just in case somebody does, I’d argue for the president doing what the American people want and need to have done. I would push Harry Reid to bring back democracy. And I would ask people of faith to write their representatives telling them who put them in office. Remind them that the three most important parts of Jesus’ ministry were poverty, food security, and health care. We can’t afford to let one third of his ministry slide away for the third time in seventy years.


For the UCC health Care Reform page and calls to action, click here.

For a good description of Republican Health Care Plans and a great side-by-side comparison with Democratic plans from, click here.

If you are on Facebook, click here to sign a petition to get Harry Reid to become a leader again and call for a reconciliation vote on health care.

If you have Twitter (please tell me you don’t, but if you do) click here to send an automatic tweet that says, “Goodbye "filibuster-proof" majority. Tell Dems: Use reconciliation to pass public option.”

A Prayer for Health Care Reform
(from “Faithful Reform in Health Care”)
In the presence of all that is holy within and around us, and in the sacred bonds of our common humanity, we give thanks for the life that we share and for our calling to care for each other.  We remember our brothers and sisters who suffer or die for lack of needed health care. We confess that we have fallen short in caring for every member of our human family, and that in spite of our abundant resources we have failed to ensure that all may receive the health care they need for the life that is intended for every person. So we pray for forgiveness… for hearts that have been slow to feel another’s pain… for hands that have been still when a healing touch was needed… and for voices that have remained silent while millions suffer for lack of needed health care. May the valleys and the burdens of sickness and disease be conquered as we raise our voices of faith to the simple, moral, and merciful imperative of meeting one another’s health care needs.  Amen.

Shell Game Finance

One of the official "readers" of my book on globalization, noted that several sections of it could be stand-alone articles and that maybe I should pull out sections of it now and then and share them around to get comments and critiques. So, here's one. It's from a much larger section on the "rules" of globalization, but it has a lot to do with the economic meltdown of last year and was meant to help people put our own crisis in the larger context of a series of economic crises the world has been experiencing for decades.
Stan Duncan

ere is a quick picture of how the global trading in the value of money works. Not the trade in products, but the trade in the relative value of money itself.
What most of us think of when we think of international trading is what is known as “foreign direct investment,” as when, for example, a corporation in the U.S. spends money to purchase shares in a factory in a foreign country. However, in truth, the vast majority of international trade is simply speculation on the value of money, or bets on the future value of that money. It’s old fashioned, “Old West”-style gambling. Some actually refer to it as “Casino Capitalism,” and for good reason. Investors, speculators, currency traders, etc., will literally place bets on the rise (or fall) of the value of currency on the global markets, selling now when they think it is going to go down and buying when they think it will soon go up. Or even if there is a legitimate investment in the building of a new marina in Jakarta, there might be at least as much if not more money speculated on its success or failure, or insurance policies taken out on it, as there is in the project itself. Sometimes this is done by third parties that are not even involved in the project. This element in the global economy is seldom mentioned in the business pages of our local papers, but it is a phenomenon that has ballooned in recent decades as regulations on capital transfers have been reduced or eliminated all over the world. It is now larger than all of the other international financial transactions combined. It was a contributing factor in the worsening of Argentina’s 1999-2002 recession, and was the key factor in creating the horrendous collapse of many South East Asian economies in the late 1990s.
These countries had just restructured their economies in a number of ways to make themselves more attractive to western investors and then the world came to an end. Following the advice of the experts in the developed world and their banking allies, they eliminated restrictions on the flows of money in and out of their countries, they allowed high domestic interest rates (to make the return for foreign investors higher), and they pegged their currency to the U.S. dollar (to assure foreign investors against risks). In the short term, these measures resulted in an explosion of new money flowing into the countries, creating a sharp (but shallow) boom in economic growth. However, even though large amounts of foreign capital was rushing in, little of it ever made its way into the “real” economy, such as manufacturing or farming. Instead most of it went to high yield, high risk sectors like the stock market, consumer loans, and real estate. The economy looked good, but with so many of the controls and regulations on money flows eliminated, the boom was far more fragile than anybody thought. People were in effect betting on the growth of the growth, and—though Alan Greenspan frequently and characteristically denied it in our own country—they were clearly creating a “bubble.” Things appeared good, so they invested in the appearances, not the reality, making the appearances, well, appear even better.
This kind of rapid slinging of money all around the world, borrowing, investing, insuring, and in fact gambling, looks a lot like the old shell game of our grandfathers. In that trick the magician claims he has eight peas covered by eight shells. He whirls them around rapidly, lifting one now, and then another, showing the pea underneath. But then at the end of the show you discover that it was all a slight of hand and there were only two peas under two shells; all the others were empty. His hands covered it up and the speed blurred it, but in the end the abundance of peas was just an illusion. And like the shell game of global finance, if the “magician” keeps slinging peas around too long, eventually he’ll get tired and some of the shells will flip over and we will discover that they were empty. And then everyone reaches for the two remaining peas and all hell breaks loose.
The government of Iceland got into game in 2001 when it raised its bond interest rates to about fifteen percent to encourage foreigners (mainly British) to invest in their country. It worked and for a while in the mid-2000s they received tons of outside money. At the same time, the high interest rates raised the costs for local Icelanders wanting to borrow money, so a large percentage of them arranged home and car loans from sources outside of the country, which brought in even more foreign money. For about six years these factors were sucking in outside money and making Iceland look like it had a booming economy. Its financial planners were all considered wizards. But the whole shell game was based on borrowed money, shifted from shell to shell, and eventually when the global economy began to teeter, someone looked under the shells and saw there was little of substance there and the whole charade evaporated. Interest on foreign loans for local Icelanders went up, foreign investments coming into the country went down, and the nation imploded. In 2008 their net losses were higher than their entire GDP. They became the first developed country to apply for IMF help in 30 years. It was a painful, terrifying disaster.
More recently, Greece got caught in a similar spiral of taking on debts and then betting that they could raise money fast enough to pay them all back. Our own Goldman Sachs played “enabler” for their gambling addiction by arranging a deal to swap $10 billion in Greece’s debt, issued in dollars and yen, for euro debt. They used a false exchange rate which gave them a huge profit in the swap. Then Sachs arranged for them to postpone paying anything back for several years, giving the country the illusion that it actually owned all of that borrowed, traded money. That kind of swap is illegal today, but Goldman put it together for the Greeks just under the legal wire. As with Iceland, when the global economy began to sputter and Greece’s “balloon note” came due, people looked under Greece’s shells and found bupkis, not many peas but plenty of lies and cover-ups.
The East Asian currency crisis of the nineties was an even larger and darker tragedy. Dropping controls on money flows allowed rapid new investments to come into the countries, but it also allowed rapid withdrawals if investors ever got jittery. And eventually they did. The Asian “Tigers” looked amazing during most of the nineties as investors sought greater and greater returns on their money, again investing in the promise or illusion that there would eventually be productive economies there which would catch up, turn a profit, and make everyone rich. As with any Ponzi Scheme, the early investors did make miraculous amounts of money off of these promises, but it couldn’t continue forever and in 1997, the currency of Thailand, the baht, began to falter. Investors questioned whether it was really worth what the government said it was. Some got nervous and began to pull their money out, which made other investors do the same, and within weeks the economy of Thailand collapsed. In a nanosecond, there was a withdrawal frenzy across the entire region, with each investor racing to pull more of its money out with the smallest losses. But in the process they created a cataclysmic currency implosion that nearly bankrupted all of the economies of South East Asia. Within months millions of people lost their jobs; tens of millions had declines in income. Factories closed. Wages were cut. Food riots broke out. Hunger and even starvation became common. In Indonesia unemployment rose to forty-five percent, and the government itself collapsed (which, by the way, was not an altogether bad thing). The IMF rushed in with the largest financial bailout in history (and made conditions worse with its usual people-punishing—business-rewarding strings attached). The crisis ricocheted across the globe and shook the ground under countries as different and as far away as Russia and Brazil.
If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it’s because you read our own version of this whole story recently in the U.S. during the unraveling of our own fast-and-easy money era. There were lots of Wall Street investors slinging buckets of money all over the world in insanely risky investments, gambling on potential changes in the exchange rates between various currencies, all claiming that their money was backed by this huge stash of peas they held under their shells. But then when their original source of money to play with, the shaky sub-prime mortgages, began to crumble, a few investors began lifting their shells and found barely anything there. The rest of us then began to stop spending what few peas we did have and the economy ground to a stop. And like the deep pockets of the IMF, the U.S. government stepped in with lots of cash to bail out and reward the investors who gambled away your grandmother’s savings (and within months they were back at the casino tables again.)
 It’s helpful to keep the stories of Asia, Greece, Iceland, and our American counterpart in mind when you hear pundits on TV speak of “economic globalization” and mainly mean by that the rules governing trade. As we saw when our own financial problems ricocheted around the world, the movement of money alone, and not just goods and services, can be a dramatic (and sometimes deadly) force in the global economy.

Chapter Eight from The Greatest Story Oversold

This is the final chapter of my new book on globalization. I'm posting it for any comments or additions you might make to it. The rest of the book is a straight forward look at the global economy from a perspective of a person of faith. This chapter is more biblical. It's long, but I'd appreciate any help you can give to it.If you'd like a fully formatted printable copy, click here.

Stan Duncan

Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you…”
—Leviticus 25:8-12

The “Creation” of Israel
As many economists enjoy saying, economic globalization is not really a new thing. There have been periods of international integration of markets that go back for thousands of years. One of the earliest stories of cross border trade was in the ancient near east during the time of the settlement of what is now known as Israel, and it had a major impact on that nation’s history, culture and theology. Looking at what happened to the people in that region and how they responded to it can offer guidance to us today in responding to our own situation.

Even though the Bible begins with God creating the six day work week, the story of Israel as a nation began in about 1200 b.c.e., when bands of liberated slaves following a man named Moses, fled oppression in Egypt, and settled in the hill country of eastern Canaan. There, for the most part, they became farmers. They joined with other groups of wandering ex-slaves, impoverished nomads, and scavenger bands and became the hapiru, “people of the land,” later known as the “Hebrews.” Their home in the eastern part of Canaan was far from the militarized city-states of the west which were still heavily controlled by Egypt. In part because of their remoteness and in part because they were surrounded by weakened empires and kingdoms, they were able to establish a very unique society. They consciously created a loosely structured nation that was a deliberate contrast to what they had known in Egypt and what they had found in the Egyptian-ruled city states in Canaan. (cf. “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” Lev. 18:3a). Egypt, for example had a powerful army, and they had none. Egypt had a hereditary ruler, a Pharaoh, and they had prophets called “Judges” who were both popularly chosen and temporary. Egypt had a steep hierarchical wealth structure, and they were perhaps the most egalitarian nation of the Ancient Near East. Egypt had a polytheistic cabinet of gods who lived in distant realms, and they worshiped Yahweh, who was one and lived with them daily.

Also in contrast to Egypt, which had a tightly organized and centralized economy, their economy and society were loose and interdependent and built on a theology of trust and mutual support. Economically, they were organized in great families or “tribes” (mishpahah), who understood that all land was to be held in common, and shared with everyone, and nobody was ever to become boor. Ultimately all of the land was owned by Yahweh and only loaned to them for their stewardship and care. It is worth noting that in Genesis, the book written to retell their earliest history, the word for “poor” never occurs, not because everyone was rich, but because the gap between rich and poor was so small that the term was irrelevant. Israel was self-consciously more egalitarian than any of its nearby neighbors.[1]

Theologically, they believed in a God who purposefully identified with the poor and the oppressed,[2] and who owned all of the land upon which they lived and from which they obtained sustenance. “The Land is mine,” their God told them, and you who live on it are “but aliens (tôšāb, sojourners, temporary and dependent visitors) and tenants” (Lev. 25:23b). Their central ethical principle, and the one they repeated to each other frequently, was that because they were once slaves in Egypt, and because Yahweh had freed them from that slavery, therefore they should not oppress the poor, the widow, the orphan, the homeless, or the immigrant. You cannot cheat the poor, they would say, and you cannot perpetually own slaves. You cannot do these things because you were once oppressed and slaves yourselves. Your very redemption forbids it.[3]

The Invention of Poverty
Beginning in about the tenth century and moving forward, Israel began to change. The egalitarian society, the large socially-supportive communal farms, the loose, non-militaristic governance, all faded. The nation acquired a king, a standing army, a ruling royal class, an international trading system, and great wealth. At the same time it also gained oppression, militarism, poverty, and true hunger. In this period we begin to see stories of authentic deprivation in the biblical texts for the first time. Stories like that of the starving widow of Zaraphath (1 Kings 17:8-16) and the widow of a follower of Elisha (2 Kings 4:1-2), or of the Shunammite woman who had her land stolen from her while she was away (2 Kings 8:1-6). These stories would have been unheard of during Israel’s earlier history.[4]

One very interesting way to visualize this devolution into an economically polarized society is to look at the changes in the types of houses that Israel built over time. When archaeologists excavated the important northern city of Jezreel, they found that the size and placement of homes changed over the centuries. Houses that were unearthed from the tenth century are generally small and uniform in shape, indicating that each family lived pretty much like its neighbors. But houses two hundred years later, in the eighth century, at the same site, vary greatly in size showing that something dramatic had taken place. Some are very large with land around them, and located in pleasant, spacious parts of town, while others are much smaller, closer together, and in tiny, cramped areas, walled off from their larger neighbors.

Between these two centuries a major social revolution had taken place.[5] Israel’s spiritual, covenantal, and communal understanding of itself had changed. For some, evidently, poverty was no longer considered an affront to the justice of Yahweh. No longer was inconceivable wealth considered evil. When a society makes a change that is that large, it isn’t just making decisions about economics. It is making decisions about its deepest understandings of God and the meaning of human life. A decision to give vast wealth to the few and take it from the many is not merely politics; it is also theology, because it is a issue of values, not governance. It challenges and contradicts humanity’s relationship with the One who is origin and creator of all that is. Unsurprisingly, as this gap between wealth and poverty widened, the great eighth century prophets, Amos, Hosea, the Isaiahs, Jeremiah, etc. began to emerge on the scene demanding justice with a conservative “back to the Bible” message of restoration of the oneness of all creation that God had intended.

It’s also not surprising to learn that as the social fabric of Israel was being torn, so was its environment. During these two centuries, there was also tremendous environmental destruction in the Mediterranean region due to unchecked hunting, overproduction of crops, and overcutting of forests. The thirst for timber for export to Carthage and Rome and the massive building projects in Jerusalem devastated the forests of Lebanon and Ephraim (1 King 7:2). The firs on Mount Hermon disappeared (Ezek. 27:5). The lions that lived in the Jordan River valley became extinct. To a large extent, the land became “desolate,” just as the prophet Micah had warned (7:13). Jeremiah directly attributes the desolation to human actions:
Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard,
   they have trampled down my portion,
they have made my pleasant portion
   a desolate wilderness.
They have made it a desolation;
   desolate, it mourns to me.
The whole land is made desolate,
   but no one lays it to heart. (Jeremiah 12:10-11)[6]

These things may not have been sufficiently severe as to threaten the future of the planet, as they do today, but even so, over fishing, over farming, and over cutting of forests caused a depletion of food and resources for those living nearby. And they contributed to the rise in poverty in pre-exilic Israel.

What Made Israel Poor?
There were a number of factors that changed Israel and precipitated its rise in poverty and oppression. Two that have particular relevance for us today are the growth in the power of its kings and the growth in its cross border trade, an early version of what we have been calling “economic globalization.”

Israel Calls a King

Israel took on a King for the first time in response to a series of terrorist attacks by mysterious “Sea People” (later known as the Philistines) along their western borders in the early 1100s, b.c.e. The more frightened that people grew of these attacks, the more willing they were to give up their freedoms in return for national security. Within a remarkably short amount of time they moved from being a relatively egalitarian, relatively non-military society to one that was substantially authoritarian and militarized. And each new ruling government—along with its wealthy elite allies—demanded more and more resources, wealth, and conscripts from the population.

An insightful story of this transition is found in 1 Samuel 8, where the prophet, Samuel, is forced to anoint Israel’s very first king. The text as we have it was actually written many years after the events it relates, but it is telling in terms of how at least one segment of the society later viewed what they once had and what they were willing to give up. The story goes that, after suffering the deaths of over four thousand in one battle and even more in another, the people of Israel became terrified of their mysterious adversaries. Instead of the more traditional responses of repentance and recovenanting, they clamored for blood revenge led by an absolute authority, and the only way to have that, they believed, was by taking on a strong leader who could go to war with their adversaries and protect the homeland. A delegation of the “elders of Israel” came to Samuel, the last of the great prophet judges, and demanded that he anoint a king to rule over them. In a scene probably driven as much by grief as fear, they told him that they had had enough and wanted a ruler who would strengthen the military, increase national security, and protect them from foreigners. Samuel opposed the move, so he took the issue to God and God told him that their request constituted a failure of their faith and trust in God, and that by demanding a strong authority to rule over them, they were in fact demanding an idol instead of God. God begrudgingly told Samuel to give them what they wanted, but also told him to warn them in detail of all that they would lose in freedoms and wealth if they had someone rule over them, making decisions for them. But they didn’t care. “We are determined to have a king over us,” they said (1 Sam. 8:19). They wanted a strong military, a strong ruler to protect them, and revenge. They wanted someone to make them feel safe, who could inflict vengeance upon their mysterious enemies. And personal losses, to them, were worth it. So Samuel looked around Israel until he found a deeply disturbed and possibly bipolar young farmer named Saul and anointed him as their first king. After that, Israel as a nation and as a people changed forever. Each successive king took on more and more of the trappings of a typical, brutal, authoritarian near eastern monarchy, in which the rich got richer and the poor were conscripted to fight in endless wars.

Trading for Poverty
A second factor contributing to the growth in Israel’s poverty was an increase in trade. At first, trading was done just within their own tribal system. When they first settled in Palestine, they were mainly in the hills in the east of the region; but eventually as the population grew, some migrated down into the valleys of the west. With that migration came the first divisions in production (olives and wine in the west, and cereals and cattle in the east), and the first vestiges of market-based winners and losers. Those in the valleys who benefited from trade between the two groups aligned themselves with the kings and their desires to build larger standing armies, because their business deals needed protection from attacks and stability is good for business. Those who didn’t benefit tended to be the ones who lost their farms to big corporate farmers (cf. Micah 2:1-2) and were conscripted to fight in preemptive defensive wars.

The biggest impact on poverty from trade, however, was the result of a burgeoning business relationship between North Israel and the cities of Tyre and Sidon, the two main import/export centers of Phoenicia, and their immediate neighbor to the north. From roughly the eighth to the fourth century b.c.e, Phoenicia was the most globally connected economic power in the ancient world. It wasn’t advanced capitalism as we know it today, but it did have a constantly expanding market system based on trade and accumulation and surplus, and its business arrangements demanded huge amounts of goods and cheap labor. And it also made a handful of families in Tyre and Sidon fabulously wealthy. (Think of the city of Dubai today for a modern parallel.)

From as far west as Tarshish in Spain the Phoenicians imported silver, iron, tin, and lead. From Beth-Togarmah in Armenia, they traded war horses and mules; from Rhodes in the Aegean, they traded in ivory tusks and ebony; from Edom, turquoise, purple, embroidered work, linen, coral, and rubies; from Arabia, lambs, rams, and goats; from Sheba and Raamah, spices, and gold. And on and on. They were known as the “Merchant of the peoples on many coastlands” (Ezek. 27:2). They were the “bestower of crowns, whose merchants were princes, whose traders were the honored of the earth” (23:8).

North Israel’s proximity to this trading center meant that it evolved not only into a primary source location for raw materials (honey, wheat, oil, and agricultural goods) but also a near-equal business partner through trade agreements and royal marriages. As that relationship developed, it changed forever Israel’s understanding of the economy (as family-based and Yahweh-owned), and its ethic (as gratitude for their liberation from slavery). From about 800 to 600 b.c.e., a handful of people were allowed to grow fabulously wealthy by capitalizing on the wealth of Tyre and Sidon’s international trading system. Ezekiel says accurately, but somewhat sarcastically, of those involved in international trade, “By your great wisdom in trade you have increased your wealth, and your heart has become proud in your wealth” (28:4).

As these traders became evermore rich, they often aligned with (or were the same as) the emerging royal class. Their hunger for production and sales required more and more land and more and more work to be taken from the peasants. King Omri established Jezreel, the city of the archaeological digs described above, as a second capital of Israel, right at the border with Phoenicia. Then he married off his son Ahab to Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, who was the King of Sidon and an important shipping entrepreneur. They in turn married their daughter Athaliah to Joram, heir to the throne of Judah, which opened even more trade routes to the south. North Israel and Judah shared two very important north-south trade routes, so their old animosities took a back seat to the need to make money from transport fees and tolls going through their respective countries. This increase in both trade and centralized power inevitably created an increase in wealth for the few at the top and poverty for the many at the bottom. One powerful story that illustrates the growth in global trade and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the wealthy is the illegal land deal that King Ahab and his wife Jezebel arranged in Jezreel to steal a vineyard from a farmer named Naboth (1 Kings 21). It is a quintessential example of the lengths to which the wealthy and powerful would go to acquire land for their own production. The story doesn’t say, but it is likely that Ahab and Jezebel wanted Naboth’s land because it was close to the border and anything grown there could be exported north with little transportation costs. The text says only that he wanted the land to grow “vegetables,” but it is also likely that he wanted it because of its potential for exporting Israelite wines through Tyre to Carthage.[7]

The story begins with Ahab and Jezebel on vacation up in their northern palace. One day they look out their window and see a vineyard right next door that is owned by Naboth, and Ahab goes to him and offers to buy it for what is actually a reasonable price. In fact he makes two offers, the first being a trade for another piece of property and the second cash payment in that newfangled unit of exchange called “money.”[8] But Naboth refuses both offers. As a matter of fact, he says he is simply unable to sell it at all because to do so would violate Torah teachings that it is God and not individual farmers who are owners of the land (Leviticus 25:23). It is family property, what he calls an “ancestral inheritance,” owned by the entire family and by God, and God would “forbid” his selling it (1 Kings 21:1-3).[9] The Hebrew word here translated usually as “inheritance” is nahala and could also be translated “sacred patrimony” or “sacred heirloom.” It gives the clear sense that the ownership of this property has nothing to do with contracts and legal arrangements and everything to do with a family’s relationship with the originator of it who gifted it to them. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity,” Yahweh had told them (Lev. 25:23).

The offer probably seemed like a simple business transaction to King Ahab—even more so to Jezebel, who was raised in a culture where religion was a wholly-owned subsidiary of business interests—but when Naboth turned him down, he remembered the teachings about land and property he’d learned in Sunday School and he went back home dejected. In fact he went to bed, turned his face to the wall, and refused to eat (1 Kings 21:4, I’m not making this up). Jezebel, on the other hand, would have none of that. She witheringly tells him that if he was any kind of King, he would have just taken the land and been done with it. So she constructs an elaborate scheme to bribe some politicians,[10] distort the courts, and steal the land herself. And she has poor Naboth killed in the process, completing a story that has great resonance in a number of countries around the world including occasionally our own.

This story concludes with the prophet Elijah appearing on the scene and condemning the injustice of stealing and murder, however, clearly, as time went on, Ahab and Jezebel’s understanding of land and markets prevailed and Naboth and Elijah’s did not. Money continued to flow upward into fewer and fewer hands, and land continued to be acquired by some and denied to others. The result of all this was that families and individuals began to slide further into debt to keep from starving, often losing their farms, often selling themselves and their family members into slavery and then losing their freedom altogether (cf. Hag. 1:6). In the ancient world, peasants lived in a precarious balance under the best of times, barely able to support their families. But when something happened, such as an increase in taxes, drought, or military conscription, that balance would fail. They would be forced to take out loans from their wealthy landowning neighbors, the only source of credit in the ancient world, and then put themselves at even more risk than before. The wealthy were typically more than willing to make the loans, but they usually (if not always) at usurious rates with an eye towards eventually foreclosing on the debtor’s property. When a poor farmer inevitably did get behind on payments, they would first have to give up their farm implements, then their livestock, then their land, and finally their freedom. They became slaves. Slavery of fellow Israelites within Israel was, with few exceptions, the result of economic indebtedness.[11] That’s why the legal codes of the Torah eventually forbade the charging of interest on loans.[12] Payment of interest ordinarily comes out of a family’s surplus. But what does a peasant family take it out of when there is no surplus? It’s no surprise that the Hebrew word used to describe “interest” comes from the word neshek, meaning “a bite out of living flesh.” It is telling that in the Hebrew scriptures, neshek is used far more often referencing a snake or serpent than a loan shark (though at times it is difficult to tell the difference).[13]

In today’s international debt crisis, there is an odd parallel in the program known as “Debt for Equity Swaps,” whereby a highly indebted country can literally trade some of its national productive capability away in exchange for a reduction in its debt load. Countries have turned over such things as state industries, national forests, and even the equivalent of their social security program to their creditors as payments on their loans. The plan has been popular among the bankers in the creditor nations, but among the people in the debtor nations the loss of sovereignty, and the sense of being enslaved to a wealthy neighbor, has kept its implementation low.
Israel’s story illustrates something we have noted before, that the growth of poverty is partly a story of how the powerful exercise their power over the weak, and partly of how expanding trade itself creates ever widening gaps between the wealthy and the poor (and how it gives the wealthy the power to abuse the poor). As land and people began being viewed as commodities, the vast tribal structure also began to lose its ability to protect the marginalized (widows, orphans, elderly) from falling into starvation. Peasants (a concept unknown only a few generations earlier) lived precariously, hand to mouth.

Excursus: Inequality
There is a tool in economics called the “Gini coefficient,” which is used to measure the statistical dispersion of numbers, that is, how far apart they are. It is commonly used to measure the degree of inequality in income or wealth between and within nations. The measurement is usually based on a 1-100 scale, with zero being complete equality, with everyone owning exactly the same, and 100 being absolute inequality, with one person owning 100 percent of all of the wealth of a nation. There’s no way to be precise, but it’s clear from the stories in the biblical narrative that from the beginning of the era of kings and trade, on through to their demise, the inequality within both Israel and Judah grew steadily. Sometimes faster than others, but it’s unlikely that the direction was ever reversed. And there’s also no escaping the conclusion that at the end of their two-century slide the majority of their people were less free, and more poor.
However, the coefficient can be measured in countries in today’s world, and the results are not pleasant. On the one hand, researchers have found that countries with a narrow gap between rich and poor almost always do better and are more democratic than those with a wide gap. Countries with a small Gini-coefficient have fewer people in prisons, more children in school (and with higher grades), fewer teen pregnancies, fewer cases of spouse abuse, fewer homicides, longer lives, and so on. Across the board in almost every measurement, the common thread for happier, more productive, more free, more wealthy nations is that there is less distance between the wealth and incomes of a nation’s people.

On the other hand, they have also found that the U.S. has one of the highest measurements of inequality in the world. According to the CIA Fact Book for 2008, we are down at the bottom, just under Nigeria, Kenya, the Philippines, and Cameroon, and just above Uruguay, Jamaica, and Uganda. I’m sure there are lovely people in each of those countries, but is this really the company we would like to keep when we are promoting ourselves as the model of justice and equality around the world? Our descent into inequality began gradually in the late 1960s, but had rapid rises during the 1980s and the 2000s and has never reversed. Not coincidentally, the U.S. also ranks at or near the bottom of every social indicator. And when the researchers applied the same methodology to the fifty states, they found similarly that social well-being is higher in states with less income and wealth inequality.[14] Elizabeth Warren, the head of the Congressional Oversight Panel, has recently written that past eras of economic growth would raise the middle class, but today when the economy grows, the middle barely changes at all. In the boom of the sixties, for example, the median income rose 33% (adjusted for inflation) but in the “boom” of the 2000s, it rose by 1.6%. Meanwhile basic expenses went up. By the early 2000s (before the explosion of home loans that caused the crash of 2008), the average family spent twice as much (adjusted for inflation) on mortgages than it did twenty years ago. And they spent it on houses that were only about ten percent bigger and 25 years older. They also paid twice as much health insurance.[15]

The organization Sustainable Middle Class created the following chart tracking the actual and projected rise in the U.S. Gini coefficient, and the picture is disturbing. By way of explanation, the dots on the lower left-hand side of the chart represent the exact coefficient for a given year. The straight line is the trend line, representing the steady direction of the increase. Mexico’s coefficient is at the top showing that if something is not done to change our direction, by the year 2040 we will be as unequal as Mexico was in 2000. And after that, we will begin approaching ancient Israel in the age of Ahab and Jezebel.

Responses from Israel’s Activist Community
Israel’s story is painful, but what wisdom can we draw from it to address our contemporary—and also sometimes painful—global trade? Here are four of their responses, plus some added guidance from Christian scriptures. Notice that in each of them a common thread is a conservative attempt to turn back the clock, to return Israel to the egalitarian, communal, society and economy that they had known before they acquired a king, a stratified society, and a market-driven economy.

1. Campaigns to change government leaders
One attempt to counter abuses of power was to work on campaigns to change their national leadership. Many of us have done that ourselves on occasion, and sometimes the change was for the better and sometimes it was not. The prophet Jeremiah promoted and later supported the administration of King Josiah, who, though very young, turned out to be a great reformer, and historians consider his administration to be a positive, hopeful time. However, sometimes a change in leaders does not bring about what we want. Elisha, a bitter critic of the Omri dynasty (because, among other things, they had taken the land of small, free farmers), called for the anointing of Jehu as new king. But when Jehu went to the palace in Jezreel to take over the reins of government, he slaughtered the entire royal family in a bloody massacre (2 Kings 9-10); and when he became king he took on all of the same trappings of monarchical power that Elisha had decried in his predecessors. Later, Hosea condemned the bloodshed involved in that transition, showing that even within the counter-cultural voices there was not always agreement on methods (Hosea 1:4-5). Similarly, years later during the Hellenistic period, many people were outraged over the actions of King Antiochus IV, who in addition to heavy tributes and brutal suppression, also placed a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple and prohibited worship of Yahweh. Many then joined the Maccabean resistance movement and became guerrilla fighters against his despotic rule. However, when the war ended, the new leaders became just another Hellenistic totalitarian royal family and utilized some of the same techniques of suppression and control practiced by their predecessors.

Biblical scholar Ulrich Duchrow has argued that this event, which could be described as a victory in battles but defeat in values, devastated the underground resistance movement in Israel for generations. Some reformers, he says, dropped out of society altogether after that and moved to the desert to become a community that would later be called the “Essenes.” Others became members of or followers of the Pharisees, who tried to maintain alternative moral lifestyles, but within the status quo and avoiding making waves. A third group ceased believing in the possibility of the realm of God on earth in this life altogether and simply waited passively for the coming of God’s intervention in history through a messiah.[16]

2. Campaigns to Write Progressive Laws
Another response was through the work of legal scholars, mainly in the progressive High Court in Jerusalem, who drafted a number of “anti-poverty” laws to be placed in the Torah, to help the poor and to curb abuses. Even though some of the legislation was idealistic and could never be implemented, overall this was one of the most productive methods of social reform in Israel. Among the laws were:
1) Prohibitions on charging interest (Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:36-37; Deut. 23:19-20, 24:17; Neh. 6:6-13);
2) “Gleaning” of harvests for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 24:19-21; Ruth 2);
3) The go’el, or “next-of-kin,” which offers protection from foreclosure on one’s property or slavery for oneself when he or she inevitably gets behind on loan payments, by giving the nearest living relative the first option to purchase either the person or the property (Lev. 25:25-28; Ruth 2:17-20; Jer. 24:6-13);
4) Curbing the power of the king, by, for example, limiting the size of the army he could raise, the amount of money he could make, and requiring him to obey the law (“Signing statements” had not yet been invented, Deut. 17:14-20); and
5) The Sabbath (seventh-year), and Jubilee (fiftieth year) systems for the release of slaves, cancellation of debts and return of stolen property.
These last two demand a larger comment.

Sabbath and Jubilee
Sabbath and Jubilee are important but often overlooked in biblically-based visions for political activism. Sabbath itself, the older of the two, is found in no other early culture but Israel’s and had a profound impact on their theology and moral sense of who they were.

The exact origins of Sabbath are now lost, but it probably began as a worshipful response to Israel’s slavery in Egypt, a way of ethically honoring their time of bondage (Deut. 5:12-15), and only later was applied to the idea of rest for the land.[17] Its root, shabbậth, is a strong, forceful word meaning to cease and desist from all work, not just to pause mildly from it for one day, go to church and then lunch at the mall. The double “b” in the name gives it an intensive force, implying a complete cessation forever, which probably could only apply to slavery. So it is very likely that “Sabbath” was originally an activist, anti-slavery spiritual practice, which evolved over time in response to the terrible rise in the number of slaves in Israel. Walter Brueggemann says that it symbolizes “an occasion of public amnesty (when) the world is restored to its rightful posture, and society is reorganized according to covenantal relations.”[18] Every seven years (a Sabbath year) all slaves would be released (“When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person,” Exod. 21:2), and debts would be canceled (“Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts,” Deut. 15:1). They were eventually expanded into the Jubilee Year which occurred every fifty years (seven Sabbath years times seven, plus one), when all debts, slaves, or property that had not been returned, released or restored through other measures would be included. They both arose out of the same egalitarian world view, but the Jubilee was the most radical. To enact a Jubilee implied that the “reset button” on all of life’s evils and injustices would be pressed, and all would be returned back to the world as God had originally intended it.[19]

In a broad theological sense, the authors of the Jubilee “reset” probably saw it as a return to the condition of the Garden of Eden, though in practical terms they more than likely had the egalitarian lives of their early tribal system in their minds as a model.[20] That age was communal, relatively classless, and pre-monarchial. It was an age in which it was believed that everyone had what they needed, and one was not expected to abuse one’s neighbor in order to get ahead. It is the notion of dayenu, the Hebrew word in the Passover Haggadah for “enough,” or “sufficiency,” or “abundance” (cf. Deut. 15:8, Exod. 36:7, Prov. 25:16, Lev. 5:7, 12:8). Israel was challenged by God to construct a society with enough for all and to reject one that supported wealth for the few and deprivation for the many.[21] The very real connection between “enough” and Sabbath is found in their stories of the wilderness experience, where they survived abundantly on the gift of manna which Yahweh sent to them daily. Then, on the seventh day, the Sabbath, they would be liberated from work, and would share what they had gathered on the previous day. When everyone shared, everyone had enough. “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed” (Exod. 16:18). If someone tried to hoard, steal, barter, or otherwise take more than his or her share, that person’s allotment of manna would spoil and go bad (Exod. 16). If someone wanted to keep a portion and leverage it for a larger portion, or hedge it against future profit failures, or invest it in shaky mortgages for tent construction, and then use the proceeds to buy credit default swaps on potential bad manna investments, they would find that at the end of the day, all of their “spoils” had spoiled.

The structure of today’s global economy requires high levels of poverty in order to lower labor costs and increase profits for the few at the top; for ancient Israel that would have been inconceivable and intolerable. The clear, though metaphorical, message of the manna story is that God’s creation is sufficient for all of our needs, and if we try to take more than our share, the creation is spoiled. This is a dayenu message, but also a Sabbath message, and was important for Israel’s own understanding of itself as an ethical nation. A line in the communion liturgy of many faith groups reads, “Sharing for all means scarcity for none.” It is, however, a fact of our fallen existence that we have so often done the opposite. We have broken the relationship, and hoarded, stolen, and abused our gifts. If we would but have faith and trust in God’s abundant gift of life, we would be happy, but we don’t. And most of us, most of the time, live our lives not experiencing nor understanding God’s dayenu.

Admittedly, many of these and other “legislative” proposals were opposed by the wealthy and royal classes and never enacted, most notably the Jubilee Year. But that doesn’t mean that they were not helpful to the overall cause of justice for the people and the land of Israel. Writing them down, arguing about them, putting them into the Torah, altogether made them a part of the moral fiber of Israel; and they formed the basis of reform movements for millennia to come. The Jubilee, for example, while never being allowed to be put into practice,[22] went underground as a word and emerged as one of the most powerful metaphors for God’s reign of justice in the Bible (cf. Isaiah 61, Luke 4, and others). In a very real sense the Jubilee became even more powerful when the official powers denied its implementation. It became a cosmic measuring stick by activists and peasant organizations for God’s vision of shalom, against which all of the corrupt structures of the world were to be judged. Countless prophets, marginalized Israelites, and even Jesus found strength in it. The themes of returning land, liberating slaves and debt prisoners, or “good news to the poor” are maintained and woven through them all. Ezekiel refers to it as the “Year of Liberty” (46:17). The so-called “Second” Isaiah (author of roughly the middle portion of the book of Isaiah) calls it the “time of favor” and “day of salvation” (Isaiah 49:7a-9). “Third” Isaiah calls it the “year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2). Jesus’ use of Jubilee traditions is remarkable, in no small measure because so few Christians even know that he did it. In his so-called “inaugural address” in Luke 4, he not only cites Isaiah’s poetic reformulation of it (Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:16-21), but also claims that by the very event of their hearing Isaiah’s words, the Jubilee’s liberating justice has become alive for them.[23] He takes the notion of the Jubilee and reformulates it into his key teaching as the coming kingdom (or “realm”) of God!

The Jubilee contained a picture of life that was very different from the individualizing, stratifying world of Israel, Babylon, Persia, and Rome, but was very much like the world of shalom that God had created and intended for humankind. Over and against the physical brutality of human existence, it became an ideal to be strived for, a radical vision for social change. The inhumane course of history forced the theologians of the Jubilee traditions to see the Jubilee increasingly as an activist spiritual vision of what the real world should look like, a world which was hidden in the cruel chaos of their physical social situation. For them, the Jubilee became a symbol, not in the sense of fantasy or “not real,” but in the sense of something that stands for and pulls us toward that which was unseen, yet “truly real.”[24]

3. Prophetic Protest
The prophets were the most famous of those who protested against poverty and injustice. They didn’t focus solely on economic causes of poverty (and there were more causes than trade and kingship, of course), but when they did, it was often on the abuses of those who were winners, the rich, and on the theological roots of their abuse, which most often was idolatry. They argued that when one ceases to worship Yahweh, or begins to worship a neighboring god, one almost automatically begins to oppress and abuse others. Oppression, as we have said, is not just an economic or political act, it is a theological one, and for the prophets the two were inseparable. The grizzly battle of the gods on top of Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18) is partly an indictment of the people who have turned their backs on the old ways of cosmic care and mutual support, but it is also and more importantly a statement that it was their worship of Baal that had turned them away. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” Elijah asks. “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (18:21; or as Jesus would put it later on, “You cannot serve both God and mammon”).

In the eighth century, Amos and Hosea, two great prophets in the north (and others in the south) railed against the increasing abuse of the poor by the wealthy (cf. Hos. 12:7–8; Amos 2:7–8; 4:1–7, 11; 8:4–6; also Mic. 2:1–2). And they too melded the two themes. Amos condemns Israel “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6b) but says they commit that sin because “they lay themselves down beside every altar” (2:8a). And, though he is the most relentless of all of the prophets in condemning injustice, the cure remains in turning back to God. “Seek the Lord and live” he reminds them (5:6a), and “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you” (5:14). Seeking justice and seeking God are closely related. It is difficult to do one without the other being closely at hand. Similarly with Hosea, there are great sins throughout the land, “swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery…bloodshed follows bloodshed” (4:2), and yet their cause is that “there is no knowledge of God in the land” (v.1b). The root of the sin of the wealthy is that “with their silver and gold they made idols of silver and gold for their own destruction” (8:4) and that they worship their gold like an adulterer worships a lover. He, too, combines condemnations of physical sins with a theological, spiritual solution, “Return O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity” (14:1).

Side bar quote:

“In 1997 the IMF decided to change its charter to push capital market liberalization. And I said, where is the evidence this is going to be good for developing countries? Why haven't you produced some research showing it was going to be good? They said: we don't need research; we know it's true. They didn't say it in precisely those words, but clearly they took it as religion.”
—Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and its Discontents

4. Non-Violent Defiance
There are many examples of defiance throughout the Bible, but one of the most symbolically powerful is in the third chapter of the book of Daniel, written following the desecration of the temple by Antiochus IV in 167 b.c.e.[25] The story is about non-violent resistance to idolatry in the form of worship of a combined political and economic power. The King (symbol of political power) announces that the entire nation must turn from Yahweh and worship a new god made of gold (symbol of economic power).[26] Anyone refusing to worship the economic power will be destroyed by the political power. When the big day for the dedication of the statue arrives, the king brings out the national “musical ensemble” to play for the festivities and invites dignitaries from all over the country to come and bow down. “All the peoples” of Babylonia gather around, sing along, bow in worship, and make nice for the king. Everyone is happy until someone tells the king that three low-level government officials in some of the distant provinces did not show up. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have sent word that they had more important things to do than take part in a ceremony that they view as idolatry. They are immediately brought in for questioning and the king gives them an ultimatum. In this country, he says, we worship gold. No exceptions. “So, when the band starts up playing in a minute, if you aren’t down worshiping gold with the rest of us you’ll be thrown into a fiery furnace and burned alive” (Dan. 3:14-15).

They refuse the generous offer, but do it in a way that has profound implications. They say that they really don’t need to present a defense because if God is able to deliver them from the fire, God would do it. But even if God can’t, they would still resist because worshiping a global God that is in and beyond all things, and not worshiping tangible, divisive, polarizing, alienating, stratifying gods, is worth it, even if it means losing their lives. “Even if God will not (save us) …we will [still] not serve your gods and we will not worship the god of gold that you have created” (Daniel 3:18). They are making the startling statement that even if their non-violent defiance of the gods of power and markets takes their lives, they will not give in. A just and equitable society is worthy even if they lose their lives in support of it. They know that military and economic power cannot exercise its strength unless it is worshiped and therefore they take away its strength by refusing to worship it. They refuse to allow it to frighten them and control them. Their vision is of an alternative world, one based on the great Torah equality of early Canaan, and against the commodification of people and the worship of wealth. Their God is a stark alternative to the one established by the union of economic and political power.

They reject the government’s claim to absolute power over their lives by standing against the power and gold and for a simple faith in God. And they win, simply by proclaiming the unity and radicality of a God that transcends human distortions of the oneness of creation. The market is not God, the military is not God, the nation is not God, and gold is not God. Only “God” is God.

Excursus: Josephus and the IMF

Even though the Jubilee laws existed in some form from Israel’s earliest days, the national rulers never allowed them to be implemented, and only the prophets and marginalized of the religious community spoke of them (and even then, in the guarded, disguised forms we’ve discussed). One interesting exception to that is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who wrote shortly after the death of Jesus. In his book The Antiquities of the Jews (Book 3 - Chapter 12.3), he goes into great detail to describe the complex rules by which people would have their debts canceled and their land returned under a declaration of Jubilee. Interestingly, his description is so ponderous and so detailed and so complicated, that in the end one wonders whether the rules were intended not to help the process but to block it. Josephus himself came from moneyed classes, and from the perspective of his class, he possibly never noticed the irony that these rules for the implementation of the Jubilee in fact kept it from being implemented. In the mid-1990s, the public uproar against what appeared to be inhumane monetary practices of the World Bank and the IMF caused the Fund to establish a program of debt relief called the “Highly Indebted Poor Country” (HIPC) initiative. In it some forty-one countries were to receive cancellations of huge amounts of their international debt loads. However, the IMF made the rules for qualifying so stringent, so complicated, so draconian, that for years very few countries received debt relief. The IMF was pushed and prodded by activists of faith and conscience, and eventually a few more countries were added to the list. Today they are pushing for even more, but every step of the way, the IMF and its friends in the finance ministries of the supporting countries have been dragging their feet and adding more rules and regulations. It is hard not to wonder if today the class blindness that struck Josephus might not also be infecting the eyes of the policy makers in the international lending institutions which monitor and control the flow of world wealth.

5. Guidance from Christian Scriptures: Acting Like It is So
Many of the themes we have discussed are also found in the Christian scriptures: denouncing the powerful, nonviolent resistance, etc. Jesus was born in those same Hebrew traditions and freely applied them to his own teachings and ministry. For example, the central ethic of gratitude for liberation we saw above in Deuteronomy can be found in his parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23-35), where a king frees a slave and cancels his debts and expects him to treat others the same way. In this case, however, the slave ignores his own liberation and begins to throw fellow servants in jail for not paying him the paltry sums of money they owed him. When the king hears of it he is outraged and rescinds the first slave’s emancipation and throws the slave back in jail himself. The judgment seems harsh, but the message of the king is clear, “I freed you, and your job was to free others, and you didn’t do it,” a theme that resonates strongly with the liberation-from-slavery ethic of the early Hebrews. Likewise, in Luke 4, when Jesus gives his “Inaugural Address,” mentioned above, he preaches from the text in Isaiah 61 that calls for enacting the principles of the Jubilee, and Luke portrays him as self consciously claiming that his ministry is in fact that Jubilee: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled (“has become real and alive”) in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). He even intensifies its radicality by adding the phrase “to let the oppressed go free” from Isaiah 58:6d and adding it to the text. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, he returns to this theme many times. For example, when the followers of John come to him and ask him if he is in fact the Messiah who is expected, he repeats portions of this sermon, and gives Jubilee provisions for the poor as his answer (Luke 7:22). In the “Lord’s Prayer,” he explicitly calls for the sharing of bread and the “release” from debts (Matt. 18:24-33; Luke 11:2-4)[27] This Greek word, usually translated “forgive,” is aphiemi, the technical term used by the LXX (the first century Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures available to Matthew and Jesus) in Leviticus 25 for “release” of slaves and “release” from indebtedness. There are a number of other Greek terms that could have been used if the intention was simply to say forgive (for example, paúō [to stop, quit]; katapaúō [to cease]; katargéō [to render inactive]; charízomai [to forgive]; apolúō [to release, dismiss]; egkataleípō [to forsake, abandon]; apotíthēmi [to put away]; chōrízō [to separate], and others), but none were used here. The fact that this particular word, with its ancient Jubilee symbolism, was chosen for the most central prayer of Jesus, is enormously significant.

Other parts of Jesus’ concern with “the poor,” also resonate with the vision of the Jubilee. Recall that one of the primary threads in the Torah’s Jubilee legislation (and later prophetic denunciations of the rich based on it) was the call to return to the age when all was shared in common, when God was the owner of the land (Lev. 25:23), and there were no people who were truly poor. With Jesus, the call to redeem or lift the poor is a major theme of his ministry, and is probably intended to call his listeners back to the lost Jubilee ideal when the poor were cared for by the larger society. “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20, Matt. 5.1-12), “The poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22; Matt. 11.2-19); “Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13); “‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame’” (Luke14:21; Matt. 22.1-14 ); “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Luke 18:22; Matt. 19.16-30; Mark 10.17-31); the parable of a “poor man named Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus was trying to remind them of an age, long lost, when their community and political economy was structured in such a way that the poor and oppressed were taken care of and didn’t need the teachings of someone like him telling them to do it.

Some scholars believe that Jesus’ feeding the multitude (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6.30-44; Luke 9.10-17; John 6.1-14), also reflects elements of the Jubilee, this time as an enacted parable. That is, in the feeding, Jesus may be modeling the oneness of humanity implied in the Jubilee and calling upon the gathered multitude to make it a reality by doing the same. Notice that John’s version places the incident on the shore of Lake Tiberias.[28] This is significant because the nearby city of Tiberias had only recently been developed by Herod Antipas as a resort town (famous for hot baths) and it quickly became the largest city in Israel, surpassing even Sepphoris, which had been founded only a generation earlier and until then the largest. This meant that in less than a hundred years Israel grew to have three major cities, with wealthy—frequently foreign—populations, all requiring food and resources from the surrounding farms and villages. Their growth put increasing demands on the food supply in the region and contributed to a rise in hunger throughout Israel. This trend was in turn exacerbated by the pro-city economic policies of Antipas, who forced rural farmers to either give up some of their produce to feed the cities or pay a tribute to the government on what they did not give. So, in effect, the more the farmers grew, the more they had to pay in tribute to the powerful urban centers. Farmers could lower the amount of tax they paid by not growing as many crops, but that would also lower the amount of food they had for their own personal consumption. They lost either way. Incidentally, this is not unlike the policies of a number of developing countries today that push their farmers to grow crops for export in order to raise the hard currency needed to pay on international debts. The more they grow and send away, the more precarious becomes their own situation, often driving them from their farms and into the cities, where they then are then available as hungry, desperate, and inexpensive labor for the multinational sweat shops making even more products for export.

When the food production went down in ancient Israel, it did two things. First it simply lowered the amount of fruits, vegetables, and grains that were available for consumption and made the whole region grow incrementally more hungry. Second, and more interestingly, when this large percentage of grains was taken out of system, the price for what remained went up. It was simple Econ 101: when supply goes down price goes up. There was less food to go around and the food that was still grown cost more to purchase for the families who didn’t have direct access to it themselves. That also means that there is a high likelihood that the masses of people who begged from Jesus in the cities and followed him in the countryside were people who had been driven off of their land by poverty and hunger and the economic policies of their rulers.[29] To get a sense of the level of poverty in Palestine in the first century, the gross annual product of Palestine in the first century was about 50 denarii. Subtract from that about 20 percent for taxes (Roman tax, temple tax, levies, etc.), and most people then lived off of around 40 denarii a year. However, most reasonable estimates say that it actually required a minimum of 200 denarii to stay alive and support a family of five or six.[30] So what did people do? Well, mainly they died young. They starved or were taken down by poverty and malnutrition-related diseases. Josephus, an ancient historian and contemporary of Jesus, noted that starvation was so common that some Rabbis could recognize it by the smell of someone’s breath.[31] Some lived behind government buildings, or under bridges, or in boxes or caves or fields—not unlike many in poor countries like Haiti today, even before its recent earthquake that destroyed their sheltering buildings and bridges. And when they heard that an itinerant preacher from Nazareth had just arrived by boat on the sea of Tiberias, teaching, healing, and feeding, they flocked to him.

In light of their huge numbers, his disciples think first of using market forces to feed them (just run into town and pick up a few things for supper). But in many ways it was the market (and the market’s failures) that drove so many to hunger in the first place, so Jesus says no. Instead he very sacramentally takes the bread that is already present among them, blesses it, breaks it, shares it, and miraculously there is enough to go around for all. It is a miracle and once again a symbol of the Jubilee, the eschatological feast on the mountain top and Sabbath manna in the desert, embodied in physical actions and now rebranded as the arrival of the “Kingdom (or better: realm) of God.” It models the sharing of the great families in early Canaan, before their economy fell apart and before greed drove them into hoarding. More miraculously, it is also possible that Jesus’ actions actually drew the reality of the Realm of God out of the recipients of the miracle. That is, it is possible that when the participants saw him share his meager offering of bread, they produced their own foods from their private supplies. Perhaps one person said, “Well, the wife did make me this sandwich and packed me this thermos of coffee, and I probably don’t need all of it.” Another said, “You know, I do have this banana that I forgot to check at the gate when I came in, and I don’t need all of it. And the guy who picked up the box of Oreos at the Seven Eleven that morning on the way out of town to the rally. And the one who won the turkey at the meat raffle at the Grange meeting last night. And the one who remembered he still had a piece of that fruit cake left over from the office party a couple of years ago that never went bad. And so on, all down the line, until all the loaves and fishes had been passed around and the “twelve” disciples (representing the twelve tribes) gathered up twelve baskets full of leftovers and snacks. And suddenly the Jubilee had become flesh and dwelt among them. The engine of growth in the economics of Jubilee is not greed, or self interest, or even market forces, but it is sharing.[32]

It’s worth noting that the Greek word for “sharing,” koinōnía, has a double meaning of both “to share in,” as in fellowship, community, and communion (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 10:16) and “to share with,” as in sharing of one’s abundance with the poor (Rom.15:26; 2 Cor. 9:13; Heb.13:16). Clearly Jesus is portrayed as doing both by the lake in John 6. Later, when Jesus brings his disciples together in an “upper room,” and shares with them in their last supper, he re-enacts the feeding story, and pointedly tells them to make that act a present reality (“in remembrance,” ananmesis, “to make present”) every time they break bread together. They took him seriously and following his resurrection the Apostles created a sacramental feeding program for the poor of Jerusalem that even Paul recreated in his foreign churches. Acts 2: 42-47 and 4:32-37 show the disciples modeling their new church on that image. They shared all of their possessions in common and “there was not a needy person among them” (4:34). Through what became known later as “the Eucharist,” they broke bread, blessed it, and shared it with their communities, just as Jesus had done at Lake Tiberias, and hundreds of hungry people were fed. The ministry in fact grew so large that it expanded to the Greek speaking populations and they had to enlarge the number of servants (diakonos, root of “deacons”) at the tables because poor widows and others “were being neglected in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1).

Paul believed in the feeding and equality ministry he saw taking place in Jerusalem and he helped finance it through collections in Corinth, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and probably Rome (Acts 24:17; Rom. 15:25-32; Gal. 2:9-10; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9). He also patterned his house churches in at least Corinth, and probably Galatia, after the Jerusalem model and celebrated the Eucharist as an act of both sacrament and sharing with the poor. The breaking of bread was done to make present the spirit of Jesus, and the bounty of the table was to be shared with those who had little. The act was a radical alternative vision of an economy based on family and sharing, not competition and abuse. It symbolized Jesus feeding the multitude with bread on the hill side, and the feeding of the Hebrews with manna in the desert. It was a symbol of dayenu, the sufficiency of God’s creation where all is shared among the “family” and a statement against the powers that separated winners from losers in a toxically stratified economy. The Eucharist is a symbol of God’s grace (from charis “giving thanks,” Luke 22:17, 19; 1 Cor. 11:24), a free and undeserved gift from God, that when shared is sufficient for all of the community.

But true to our fallen natures, it did not always work. On at least one occasion Paul chastises the rich leisure-class members of the church who were able to arrive early at the Eucharistic meal because they didn’t have to work, and then ate up all of the food leaving none for the poor people who had to arrive late because they had jobs. “What!” he says, “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (1 Cor. 11:22a; cf. 2 Pet. 2:13). Because of the human propensity toward denying the meaning of God’s gifts, the Eucharistic meal and sharing with the poor were separated in the second century into two separate and unequal acts, and finally even the celebration of the Eucharist as a meal at all was banned in the seventh century. It occurs only on sporadic special occasions today. Today’s highly structured ceremony symbolizes community and fellowship for Protestants and salvation and sacrament for Catholics, but very, very few ever acknowledge, or even are aware of, its roots as a radical economic model for constructing God’s good society, God’s Jubilee.



There’s a story in John Steinbeck’s epic novel, East of Eden, which speaks to the sense of inadequacy that comes over us when trying to craft a world less brutal and cold than the one we have now, and I’ll close with it. There is a young man who falls in love and marries a woman who, for complicated reasons, actually hates him. Just after she gives birth to their first children, twins, she announces that she is leaving him. When he protests she takes a gun out and shoots him in the chest and then leaves, stepping over his bleeding body. He survives the ordeal with the help of a servant who also takes care of his babies, but it’s a lifeless, hopeless life. He has no energy in him, no reason to live, nothing to live for. Eventually an older neighbor hears what happened and comes over and pulls the young man out of the house, slaps him around and demands that he come back to life again. He says he can’t. He says he’s just living a death. No life left in him; no hope to create one. The death that is in him is too deep and real and there is nothing in him that could even believe in life again.

Then the older man says something, just a few words, but words that speak to people of faith and conscience and their constant, ongoing struggles to make a world more humane and more fair than the one we live in. He says simply, “go through the motions.” The younger man doesn’t get it, so he repeats, “Go through the motions! Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true.”

I don’t think that Jesus, standing by the lake of Tiberius, really imagined that by feeding the masses of homeless people before him that day, that suddenly the Kingdom, or the “Kindom,” or the Realm of God was going to burst open full grown and wonderful. I don’t think Paul thought that either when he was chastising his parishioners for not sharing their food with the poor. Or Isaiah when he said that the spirit of the Lord was upon him to bring good news to the poor, or Jeremiah or Amos, or the scribes behind Leviticus and Deuteronomy in calling on their fellow Israelites to care and sacrifice in ways that embodied an egalitarian, loving world. I do think, however, that they thought that if one person and another and then another began to act as though the Jubilee and the Year of the Lord’s favor had come upon them, then in a mysterious inexplicable way, for those people it had indeed arrived. Act like it is true and eventually it will become so.

I believe that when you step into the footsteps of the giants of faith and justice who came before us, and live out their hardnosed acts of justice and love, then in a small way for you and for the people whose lives you touch and heal, the realm of God’s reconciliation will have arrived. In your deeds it will have become so. The Kingdom of God is within you, Jesus is said to have announced. And he meant it.

So, now at the conclusion of this book, you have a job. Your task is to go and write a letter to your congresspersons. Or better yet, go pay them a visit. Take a hunger action briefing paper from Bread for the World with you when you go. Then write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Sign up with habitat to build a house, perhaps in Haiti, but at least in your own neighborhood. Buy fair trade coffee—and also sell it. Go with Witness for Peace to a town in southern Mexico to see what two thirds of the planet lives like, and then come back and tell rich America what you saw. Then attend a demonstration at the World Bank with Jubilee USA to urge them to adopt more fair, just, and transparent lending practices for poor countries. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome the immigrant, liberate the oppressed (whether far away or close at home), and more. Know that with each task you perform, each step you take, you may never see the heavens open up and a new era of peace and harmony fall down upon you and change everything. But you will see is little cloud of grace swirling around what you are doing. And for you—and the people in Haiti or Zambia, or Mexico, or Dorchester, or Heavener, or East St. Louis, whose lives you lifted or saved—the day of the Lord’s favor will have come upon you. It will have become a reality. The Jubilee will have arrived. If you act like it is true, then after a while, for those whom you touch and help, it will be true.


[1] Ulrich Duchrow, “Economy in the Ancient Near East,” Alternatives to Global Capitalism: Drawn from Biblical History, Designed for Political Action (Utrecht, the Netherlands: International books, 1994), p. 144.
[2] Cf. Exodus 3:7-8a, “Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey….’” The phrase, “God of the Hebrews” implies God’s identification with the poor of the land.
[3] Cf. Deut. 24:17-22, “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.” When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.”
[4]Duchrow, op.cit., p. 127-135.
[5] Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel Vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), p. 481.
[6] Norman C. Habel, The Land is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies (Minneapolis: Augsberg/Fortress Press, 1995), p. 84-85.
[7] See “Search for Phoenician Shipwrecks,” Biblical Archaeology Review Vol. 12, No. 5 (Sept./Oct 1999), p 16; and James D. Newsome’s Hebrew Scripture essay for Proper 6, Ordinary time 11, in Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Year C (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press: 1994) pp. 282-284.
[8] Kesep, also “silver,” or coils made from silver.
[9] See Walter Brueggemann, “The Prophet as a Destabilizing Presence,” in A Social Reading of the Old Testament: Prophetic Approaches to Israel’s Communal Life, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) pp. 221-244.
[10] Literally, “sons of Belial,” translated variously as “scoundrels” (NRSV and NIV), “worthless men” (ESV), “villains” (NET), and “base fellows” (RSV). So, “politicians” is probably an accurate modern equivalent.
[11] Cf. Genesis 47:13-22, the story of Pharaoh, through Joseph, acquiring all of the land of Egypt and enslaving all of its people, through a series of loans made during times of drought. The story takes place in Egypt, but was most likely written by the “Elohist” writer of the eighth century and reflects a storyline more representative of that era.
[12] Deut. 23:19; Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-37; see also, Ezek. 18:8, 13, 17; 22:12. More precisely, interest itself was allowed, just not at usurious rates.
[13] See “Nešek,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr. & Bruse K. Waltke, eds. (Chicago, Moody Press: 1980).
[14] Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger ( ), pp…find reference
[15] Elizabeth Warren, “America Without a Middle Class,” Huffington Post (, January 4, 2010).
[16] Ulrich Duchrow, “Biblical perspectives on empire: a view from Western Europe” The Ecumenical Review (Jan, 1994), p. 3.
[17] Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in the Biblical Faith, second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), p. 59.
[18] Ibid. p. 60.
[19] Richard Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), p. 5.
[20] Duchrow, Alternatives, pp. 153-4.
[21] Lowery, Ibid., p. 38.
[22] Possible exceptions might be Nehemiah 5, Jeremiah 34:8-22, and an example in the writings of Josephus, where, like Zedekiah, during a siege of Jerusalem—this time by Rome—a general cancellation of debts is proclaimed. The word “Jubilee” is used in the ancient world only rarely, as when the “Book of the Jubilees” uses it as a term for measuring time, and when Josephus speaks of it as an historical artifact.
[23] “To come alive.” Plēroō, usually “manifested,” “fulfilled,” Luke 4:22.
[24] Walter Harrelson, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), pp. 79-92. Harrelson says cleverly that there is no rational way to explain how and where Israel came up with the “sabbath,” except that maybe God told them to do it.
[25] It should be noted that although the stories of Daniel are set during the period of the Babylonian captivity (587-539), they were actually written much later during the reign of Antiochus IV (175-164), and target his contemporary audience and his contemporary situation. It should also be noted that while the faith community of Daniel supported active defiance, they did not support armed resistance (cf. 1 Macc. 1:29-38), which would be a fifth option, and one which we are not discussing here.
[26] There is some debate as to whether the untitled statue is to a god, a king, or to a king that is to be worshiped as though he were a king. For our needs, however, the fact that the population was required by the king to worship something gold, in the same manner that one would worship a god, is the important core to the story. See the discussion in Victor Matthews, Mark Chavalas and John Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[27] Interestingly, scholars believe that Matthew’s version of the prayer tends to hold more closely to the earliest words, while Luke’s seems to retain the earlier structure. So, regardless of how the total prayer was structured, if Jesus actually said it, the terms we’re quoting here for “release” and “debts” are most likely correct and not forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4).
[28] The Greek of verse 1 is awkward, seeming to say that the lake was called both Galilee and Tiberias. Other ancient manuscripts add eỉs tà mere Tiberiás after Galilaias, giving something like “across the sea of Galilee to the area around [the city of] Tiberias.” That is much more smooth, but is probably a gloss. More likely double names are a result of the town and sea names being in transition since Tiberias was such a new city. The old folks knew the area as “Galilee” and the new folks know of it as “Tiberias.” John, the latest of the Gospel writers was more aware of this than the Synoptics and included both names.
[29] See Amy Jill-Levine, “Visions of Kingdoms” The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Ed. Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press: 1998), p. 364.
[30] Ekkhard Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of its First Century, tr. O.C. Dean, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), p. 89-90.
[31] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), p. 116.
[32] Cf. also the many expressions of sufficiency in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 6:19–21, 24, 33).