Saturday, October 22, 2011

What would Jesus say about our economic crisis?

As I have been reflecting on the current economic crisis, caused by the greed of Wall Street financiers and bankers, and abetted by America's addiction to debt, I can't help thinking about the story of the unforgiving servant from Matthew 18. When Jesus is asked how often we should forgive others, he tells a story grounded in the harsh economic realities of his day. Jesus' society, like ours, was divided into the very rich and the very poor. And the main cause of impoverishment was debt.

The Torah makes clear that it is wrong to extract interest from the poor, including those who are aliens and guest workers in our country:
"If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you.” Lev. 25: 35-36

The Hebrew prophets rail against leaders who defraud the poor, driving them from their homes:

“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Enough, you princes of Israel! Stop your violence and oppression and do what is just and right. Quit robbing and cheating my people out of their land. Stop expelling them from their homes, says the Sovereign Lord.” Ezekiel 45:9-10
The Bible calls for "Jubilee economics," the forgiveness of debts every 7 years and the redistribution of land every 50 years.

Following this prophetic tradition, Jesus made debt forgiveness the center of his teaching. The Lord's prayer says: "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." In the Beatitudes, Jesus says: "If anyone asks for money, give him what he asks for, expecting nothing in return."

The parable of the unforgiving servant has to be understood in an economic as well as spiritual context. In this story a servant to a super rich master has run up a stupendous debt: ten thousand talents.

To appreciate this extent of this debt, you need to know that a talent in the time of Jesus weighed 130 pounds and was worth around $3,106,413 at today's exchange rate for gold or $59,520 for silver. See

Looked at another way, a single silver talent would take a day laborer at least five years to earn, and a gold talent would exceed the lifetime wages of several day laborers. See notes at

The unforgiving servant lost not one but 10,000 talents, which would be worth over several billion of today's dollars.

To go into such debt, the servant must have been working for someone equivalent to Bill Gates or Warren Buffet; and he must have been engaged in financial speculation on a scale similar to that of Wall Street financiers!

According to Jesus, his boss was understandably outraged and threatened to throw this incompetent and probably shady financial advisor in jail, along with his entire family. But when the servant begs for mercy, the master feels pity and forgives his debt.

Here's what happens next:

“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii."
(A day laborer was usually paid around one denarius a day, so the debt would be around $5,000 in today's dollars.)

The servant grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.


This dramatic story has often been interpreted in a purely spiritual sense, but I don't think the economic implications can or should be ignored. Jesus announced the beginning of his ministry by alluding to "the acceptable year of the Lord," i.e. the year of Jubilee. He also repeatedly made clear his ministry was to preach "good news to the poor" and freedom to captives.

For over a thousand years, Christians believed it was a sin to lend money and demand interest. This was considered usury, a sin which some Christians, including Dante, considered worse than murder.

Reading Jesus' story about the unforgiving financial speculator, one can't help thinking of the Wall Street bailout. Trillions of dollars were given to Wall Street speculators and bankers to prevent them from going bankrupt, and causing incalculable damage to the world economy and wrecking countless lives.
Now that these bankers and speculators are back on their feet, they are stepping on the backs of the poor and foreclosing homes on the flimsiest of pretexts.
Here in Pasadena a woman named Rose Gudiel has been fighting for three years to prevent her home from being foreclosed. Her fight has become a cause celebre and is encouraging others to do likewise. She has been compared to Rosa Parks. See

People are finally waking up the reality that bankers are not acting responsibly or morally. They are acting like the unforgiving servant in Jesus' parable and they need to be challenged for their immoral behavior.

That's why many of us are withdrawing our money from predatory commercial banks like Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, and placing our funds in credit unions that engage in responsible banking practices.


This is a small, but necessary first step in restructuring our financial system so it serves the needs of people, not the greed of the fabulously wealthy 1%.

In conclusion, I must say that not only Christians, but Jews and Muslims also have a prophetic tradition condemning usury, predatory lending, and the exploitation of the poor.

For those who would like to read more about prophetic economic justice, I recommend Walter Wink's "Engaging the Powers," Lowell Noble's "From Oppression to Jubilee Justice," and Ched Myers' "Sabbath Economics."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Actions you can take to help end the endless wars

Steve Rohde, president of ICUJP, gives this advice, with which I concur: Devote at least one dollar, and/or one hour, per day to promoting peace. If you really want to abolish war, then you need to give generous support to your favorite peace organization, such as ICUJP or AFSC or FCNL.

Take part in peace events. Chris Hedges argues that the only way to bring about meaningful change is for vast numbers of people to take to the streets. This is a lesson of history that we need to take to heart.

Send a letter to an elected official, or better yet, pay a visit. If you are part of a religious community, encourage your its leaders to take a stand against torture and war, and in favor of economic justice and social betterment.

Pray. The power of prayer cannot be underestimated, as Gandhi made clear. Your prayers/meditations for peace are crucial if you want to overcome the inner conflicts that our Domination System have created in most of us. We need to cultivate inner peace and then radiate that peace in all our relationships.

ICUJP is recommending we contact Rep Xavier Becessa, who in the the so-called Super Committee on budget deficits, and urge him to cut at least a trillion dollars from the Pentagon budget over the next decade.

You can find contact info for him and other elected officials at

During this time of fiscal belt tightening, FCNL recommends that you urge Congress to cut $1 trillion from the Pentagon budget over the next ten years.

In August, Congress took a big step when it called for cuts in Pentagon spending. The Secretary of Defense is even acknowledging that core military spending may have to go down by at least $350 billion over the next ten years. But, given the significant build-up of the Pentagon's budget in the last decade, billions more can be cut. The military contractors and high-paid corporate lobbyists are pushing back with an expensive and aggressive lobbying campaign against any military cuts. You have something these lobbyists don't—you are a constituent.

Please ask your senators to support cutting $1 trillion from the Pentagon budget over the next decade. Specifically, ask them to speak with their colleagues on the 12-member congressional "supercommittee" in favor of this $1 trillion cut. By late November, the supercommittee will propose a way to get the nation's budget back on track.

Right now, we have an opportunity to refocus government priorities—to make sure our country is not sacrificing programs our communities depend on in order to support the ballooning Pentagon budget and to prepare to fight more wars.

Let your senators know that in these tough times, slashing programs that our communities depend on is not the way to repair the economy and bring down deficit spending. Urge your senators to cut the deficit by cutting $1 trillion from the Pentagon budget in the next ten years.

A final suggestion: find like-minded people to work with and enjoy yourself. Peace-making can be fun if you are led by the Spirit and are motivated by Love, and not simply by anger. Even getting arrested can be a joyful experience!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Getting arrested cheerfully: protesting war the Quaker way

I used to marvel reading about how early Quakers went to prison cheerfully, often singing hymns of praise to God. I now have a sense of how they felt, after being arrested in front of the Federal Building in downtown LA on Oct 7, the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan.To protest what is now the longest war in US history, 14 religious leaders in LA (including myself) committed civil disobedience and were arrested. I had the honor of being among them.

As the police placed handcuffs on me in front of a crowd of witnesses that included some of the most dedicated peace activists in the city, I felt a surge of joy, as if the gates of heaven were opening up.

Unlike the Quakers of old, I didn't have to go to a dismal dungeon where there was a chance I would end up dead or seriously ill. The police were very kind--they even called us the "clergy council"--and the company of 7 women and 7 men was delightful.

I spent the afternoon in the tank with some of the best people I know--Rev George Regas, intrepid rector emeritus of All Saints, Pasadena; Shakeel Syed, the executive director of the Islam Shura Council of So Cal (and a best man at my wedding); Ralph Fertig, former freedom rider and colleague of MLK (and currently professor at the USC School of Social Work); Friar Tom, a flamboyant Catholic priest; Father Chris Ponnett of Pax Christi; and a gentleman named John who has just published a book on the "History of Peanut Butter."

The holding tank was cold and sterile, the processing long and tedious, but the company heart-warming and delightful.

We ended up spending 6 hours together in a holding tank until we were released on our own recognizance. During that time, we shared stories about our lives, discussed politics, and enjoyed each other company. Thoreau was right. When the system is corrupt, the best place for a free person is in the slammer.

On November 4, we must appear in court to be sentenced. We will probably receive a year's probation.

This small act of disobdience set an example for the young people who now see that we old guard peace activists support them. We hope our action will awaken people in the religious community to their power and encourage them to resist the domination system that has taken over our country (and is taking over the world). 

The response from friends has been very encouraging, and includes people of all theological persuasions, from liberal to conservative evangelical. One thing we can agree about: we are tired of theoligarchs and plutocrats running all over us. We want the wars to end, and our tax dollars to be used for education, health care, and other vital social needs.

To achieve these goals, we stand up for ourselves and demand justice. We have to be just as bodacious, creative and determined at the Tea partyers. And if we exert enough pressure, we can make a difference.

As more and more people follow the example of the "Arab spring" and reclaim their power, the powers that be will no doubt become increasingly fearful and respond inappropriatedly, as they did when they ordered police to arrest 700 demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge. Such overreactions can cause a backlash that will help to strengthen the resolve of those who want to take back the country from the banksters and the Wall Street elite. So far, there are signs this is happening.The Occupy Wallstreet movement has grown exponenientally, from 70 to 700 actions in one week. The City Council of LA is considering endorsing this movement.

Early Quakers had a great name for a similar struggle that went on in the 16th century. They called it the "Lamb's War." By this term they were referring to the Book of Revelation--a work that has been coopted by fundamentalists, but is really an anti-imperialist tract calling for nonviolent resistance to the demonic domination system. For the past 350 years, real Quakes have been fighting this Lamb's War, using nonviolent, spiritual weapons. This is a subject for another post at another time.

For now, let me conclude by saying the media gave us excellent coverage for which I am grateful:

My friend Gene Rothman, a member of the local chapter of the Parliament of the World's Religions, wrote this piece which beautifully captures the spirit of this rally. My only disagreement with Gene is over the the size of the rally--a subject of endless dispute among activists. At 9 AM we filled La Placita Church with what I estimate to be have been been 200-300 people. I would guess that around fifty to a  hundred young people from Occupy LA joined us. Others came just for the noon arrest. By noon the crowd had thinned out to perhaps a 100-120, but over the course of the morning I would estimate that at least 300-400 people took part.

It was not a huge rally, but it brought together a very diverse group, as Gene rightly notes: young people, veteran activists, and labor activists. This is how democratic movements are created, one step at a time.


 “Stop Funding Wars!  Fund Jobs and Schools!!”  was the theme of a peaceful demonstration , drawing a crowd of some one hundred or so demonstrators under the auspices of the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP).  A wide range of faith groups, secular organizations, and labor unions were also represented by their clergy or other leaders.  The march passed by the encampment of Occupy L.A. demonstrating our solidarity with them.  (Occupy L.A. voted last evening to endorse our march and some of their members also joined our march).

Some fourteen religious activists volunteered to commit an act of non-violent civil disobedience for which they were arrested.  [Full disclosure: I personally know four of those who did so.] 

Apart from speeches from religious leaders, other notable speakers included Maria Elena Durazo from the AFL-CIO and Black activist Cornel West, each of whom drew sustained cheers from those present.  Durazo said that what she learned from her activism is that some government officials may have their hearts in the right place, but they will not do the right thing until and unless there is massive pressure from the streets to do so. 

Cornel West—who is on a tour with Tavis Smiley visiting cities with “Occupy” movements—at one point addressed the police who encircled all of us and said that they, like nurses, teachers, and others were part of the 99% of America who are hard-working and who are not getting nearly what they deserve.  Addressing the religious participants, he cited the importance of welcoming and including secular leaders, explicitly including humanists, agnostics and atheists as well.

 One popular theme in speeches, comments and elsewhere was summarized in a picket sign that read:  “Prosecute the Greedy, Feed the Needy.” 

Folk singer/activist Ross Altman did his best to encourage the reactivation of the labor movement by citing anecdotes and singing songs by Woody Guthrie.   Guthrie was once taken to a hospital where he was asked to indicate his religion.  He checked an open-ended item and wrote: “All.”  The clerk said she was a workingwoman and asked him to give her a break to be more specific—to select SOME religion. Woody wrote next the word “All”—“or NONE. “ 

Guthrie was also once accused of being a Communist.  He replied: “Well, I don’t know about that but I’ve been in the red my whole life.”  Finally, Altman urged a revival of the song “The Banks Are Made of Marble” for today’s times to help workers and ordinary folks.  The crowd sang it with gusto.   [See lyrics at the end].

Impressions from Your Intrepid Reporter:  [Opinion].

Protests are building around the “occupy “ movement city by city and around the world.  In L.A., however, there are different streams with little coordination as yet.   Although “Occupy L.A.” endorsed the interfaith march, they are a younger crowd and the interfaith group was largely older folks with civil rights and peace activist backgrounds. Veterans who also oppose the war elected to do their own separate demonstration at 4:30 p.m.  Today.  Similarly, ANSWER chose to do its own separate march. 

Some organizers said they had hoped for a better turnout but added that the diversity of participants and the better than expected representation of labor groups were very positive developments.

- GR

 Banks of Marble-lyrics- (Woody Guthrie)

I've traveled 'round this country
from shore to shining shore
It really made me wonder
the things I heard and saw

I saw the weary farmer
plowing sod and loam
l heard the auction hammer
just a-knocking down his home

But the banks are made of marble
with a guard at every door
and the vaults are stuffed with silver
that the farmer sweated for

I've seen the weary miner
scrubbing coal dust from his back
I heard his children cryin'
"Got no coal to heat the shack"

But the banks are made of marble
with a guard at every door
and the vaults are stuffed with silver
that the miner sweated for

I've seen my brothers working
throughout this mighty land
l prayed we'd get together
and together make a stand

Then we might own those banks of marble
with a guard at every door
and we might share those vaults of silver
hat we have sweated for