Economic Justice: Light in the Darkness
Published in Response Magazine, January 2009.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them has light shined.” Isaiah 9:2
During Epiphany, Christians celebrate and seek to follow the light of Christ that has dawned upon our world. “I Am the Light of the World,” a hymn by Jim Strathdee, says it well:
When the song of the Angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and the shepherds
Have found their way home,
The work of Christmas is begun!
In the midst of today’s darkness of economic collapse, ecological crisis, and social injustice, our world desperately needs light and hope. How can we contribute to the transformation that Christ can bring, both personal and social? How can we carry on “the work of Christmas” in our time?
The ancient prophets challenged the Hebrew people to repent from idolatry and injustice, to be faithful, and to establish justice in the land. In the eighth century BCE, the prophet Isaiah likened Judah to a choice vineyard that had been planted and tended by God (Isaiah 5). But, he said, this promising situation had been all but destroyed by the greedy and self-indulgent actions of the wealthy and powerful—landowners, judges, religious and political leaders—those most responsible for preserving God’s good inheritance.
Amazingly, even as Isaiah condemned these injustices, he spoke of a great light shining upon the people who walk in darkness. The early chapters of Isaiah include some of the most hope-filled passages in all of scripture. It is here that we read of the coming of a messiah-figure, a “shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11), a ruler who will judge with righteousness and equity. It is in these passages that New Testament writers saw the foreshadowing of the birth of Jesus the Christ. (Matthew 4:16; Luke 1:79). And in each new generation we await the advent of the light of Christ in our hearts and in our world.
The Darkness of Economic Injustice
In the first of a litany of judgments upon Judah, Isaiah said, “Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land. The Lord of Hosts has sworn in my hearing, surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses without inhabitant. For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield a mere epaph.” (Isaiah 5:8-10)
This passage condemns the accumulation of property (in this case, houses and land) by the wealthy few. In that ancient farming economy, when families were driven off the land they became sojourners, without the means to sustain themselves. According to Isaiah, in this situation the land itself loses its fruitfulness, and yields even less than what is planted. Such economic disparity is sinful, he said, and would lead to Israel’s ruin.
This text takes on new significance in the midst of the growing economic inequality of our day. In 2008, over two million U.S. jobs were lost, five hundred thousand in November alone. Overwhelmed food banks are being forced to turn people away.
Meanwhile, as in the time of Isaiah, wealth continues to accumulate at the top. The U.S. government has intervened to bail out financial institutions that are “too big to fail,” hoping to prevent the total collapse of the global economic system. But when society’s limited economic resources are redistributed to the top they may not be invested for the good of society as a whole. As we have seen in recent years, economic resources may not trickle down. In fact, they often trickle up, preventing access by those who have need and enriching those who have more than enough.
Patterns of growing inequality were well established before the current economic crisis became apparent. The crisis had hit many on Main Street before the crash on Wall Street triggered calls for massive government intervention. In the United States, the poorest 20 percent own no wealth, the top 20 percent own over 80 percent, and the top 5 percent own more than half of all the wealth.[i]
Real wages have fallen in recent decades. Many employers have cut pensions and health benefits. The poverty rate continues to rise. As more families are thrown into poverty, as public services are cut, and as welfare is eliminated for the poorest of the poor, society as a whole becomes less stable. Economic injustice and increasing rates of violence are linked. At the same time, economic injustice is itself a form of violence. As in the time of Isaiah, when resources accumulate at the top of the economic pyramid, people at the bottom cannot access them to meet their basic needs.
Experts say that the current economic crisis was triggered by the housing bubble, the rapid inflation of housing prices based on predatory lending, sub-prime mortgages, breaking up mortgages into “securities,” and speculation. In some areas of the United States, over 50% of homes have mortgages costing more than the value of the home. Foreclosure rates have skyrocketed. Many houses are “left desolate, without inhabitants.” One and two-parent families who have lost their homes or jobs are joining the growing ranks of homeless.
Although the extent of the current economic downturn has taken many by surprise, it did not arise in a vacuum, as if by chance. Long-term and underlying problems of the global economic system have contributed to this crisis. In recent decades, the primary goal of economic policies has been to generate wealth, even at the expense of environmental sustainability and equitable distribution of resources. Deregulation of financial and other institutions, now decried by so many, has been a deliberate strategy, adopted in the United States and promoted abroad through multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and regional trade agreements. Stock market speculation has become a complex game of chicken, leaving the “Casino Economy” at the mercy of what Thomas Friedman calls “The Electronic Herd.” Corporations have grown in wealth and political power relative to labor, communities, and national governments. The largest two hundred corporations surpass the combined economies of 182 countries, and have almost twice the economic clout of the poorest four-fifths of humanity.[ii]
Policies favoring the wealthy result in growing global inequity—economic inequality– among nations and within nations, including the United States. In the words of Walter Russell Mead, “The First and Third worlds will not so much disappear as mingle. There will be more people in Mexico and India who live like Americans of the upper-middle class; on the other hand, there will be more—many more—people in the United States who live like the slum dwellers of Mexico City and Calcutta.”[iii]
Following the Light
Those of us who seek to follow Jesus are called to repent from our participation in unjust economic structures and to work for a world of economic, environmental, and social justice. We who are United Methodists are challenged to advocate for a just global economy in the midst of financial crisis, environmental destruction, and growing inequity. Our Social Principles remind us that “in order to provide basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and other necessities, ways must be found to share more equitably the resources of the world.” (Paragraph 163: E)
We are called to follow the light of Christ in the midst of the economic upheaval that is affecting our families, congregations, communities, nation, and world. This involves assisting those who are in need, studying and addressing today’s issues, and carrying the message of hope for our world.
Hope is very much alive today. Change is taking place–in U.S. leadership, in peoples’ awareness of social, economic, and environmental realities, in peoples’ willingness to listen to alternative voices outside of the mainstream. It may be that we will find new and creative ways of structuring our economy and our global society.
In The Audacity of Hope, President [or President-elect] Obama wrote of “the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict…”[iv] This is a time of challenge, a time to redouble our efforts, to engage in participatory democracy, to take some responsibility for restoring a sense of community to a nation and world torn by conflict. It is a time to foster hope that “another world is possible,” a world of peace, compassion, equity, participatory democracy, and environmental and economic justice. In this situation, as always, Christ is our light. In the words of the Strathdee hymn, our call is:
To free the prisoner from all chains,
To make the powerful care,
To rebuild the nations,
With strength of goodwill,
To see God’s children everywhere!
Words and Music by Jim Strathdee are in response to a poem by Howard Thurman.
© 1969 by Jim Strathdee. For reprint information go to: http://www.strathdeemusic.com
[i]. Multinational Monitor, interview with Edward Wolff, “The Wealth Divide: The Growing Gap in the United States Between the Rich and the Rest,” Multinational Monitor 24, no. 5 (May 2003).
[ii]. Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh, “Top 200: The Rise of Global Corporate Power,” from Corporate Watch: Holding Corporations Accountable, 2000, on the Global Policy Forum Web site, http://www.globalpolicy.org/socecon/tncs/top200.htm (accessed 3/5/07).
[iii]. Tom Athanasiou, Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996), 220–21.
[iv] Obama, Barack, The Audacity of Hope (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006), 356.