A Parable For Our Times
The Christian story begins simply: A child is born. He grows up to be a teacher, sage, healer and prophet. He gains a large following. To many he is a divine savior; to the rich and powerful he is an enemy. They put him to death in brutal fashion, befitting his humble beginnings in peasant Galilee and his birth in a stall thick with the raw odor of animals.
Toward the end of his life, Jesus preached in the Temple to large crowds, reaching the height of his power. There he told the parable that likely sealed his fate. He said there was a man who created a prosperous vineyard and then rented it to some tenants while he went away on a journey. At harvest time, the owner of vineyard sent a servant to collect a portion from the tenants, but they beat the servant and sent him away empty-handed. Another servant came, and they struck him on the head. Another they killed. Finally, the owner sent his own son to collect the back payments. “They will respect my son,” he thought. But when the tenants saw the son, and knew him to be the heir, they saw their chance to take full possession of the harvest. And so they killed the son, thinking now they would owe nothing from the vineyard to anyone.
The listeners understood the symbolism: God, of course, is the owner of the vineyard, and the vineyard is Israel or the covenant, or, more broadly, the whole creation. It is all that God entrusts to the leaders of his people. And what is in question is their stewardship of this bounty.
In the parable, the “tenants” are the leaders of Israel. They hoard the fruits of the vineyard for themselves, instead of sharing the fruits as the covenant teaches, according to God’s holy purposes. And the holiest of God’s purposes, ancient tradition taught, is helping the poor, and the fatherless, and the widow, and the stranger—all who do not have the resources to live in a manner befitting their dignity as creatures made in God’s image, as children of God.
When he finished the story, Jesus asked the people what the owner of the vineyard will do when he comes back. “He will kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others,” Jesus tells them. In the Gospel of Matthew, the people themselves answered: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Political dynasties fall from negligent stewardship. Think of the upward redistribution called “tax relief”; of the Iraq invasion sold as critical to the “War on Terror;" of rising poverty, inequality, crime, debt, and foreclosure as America spews its bounty on war and a military so muscle bound it is like Gulliver. Think of how far our business and political overlords have deviated from the covenant of equal opportunity and shared prosperity. It would be hard to imagine a more catastrophic failure of stewardship, certainly in the biblical sense of helping the poor and allocating resources for the health of society.
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The story is told of the devil and a companion walking along a city street. The companion saw a man reach down and pick up the truth from the sidewalk. "You're finished," the companion said to the devil. "What do you mean—I'm finished?" the devil asked. "I just saw that man pick up the truth from the street, and that means you are finished." The devil smiled and answered, "Don't worry. He's a human, and in l5 minutes he will have turned the truth into a concept that no one will understand." From theories stubbornly pursued in defiance of truth on the street comes ruin.
Laissez-faire was never a good concept; in practice it is ruinous. The truth on the street is, we are not made for anarchy.
This is the season to recall Walt Whitman. He wrote in Democratic Vistas, around 1870:
The true gravitation-hold of liberalism in the United States will be a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort—a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth. As the human frame, or, indeed, any object in this manifold universe, is best kept together by the simple miracle of its own cohesion, and the necessity, exercise and profit thereof, so a great and varied nationality, occupying millions of square miles, were firmest held and knit by the principle of the safety and endurance of the aggregate of its middling property owners.
It was astonishing to hear anything like that in the aftermath of the Civil War, in which Whitman had volunteered as a nurse. But in a time of great upheaval, countered by one popular mobilization after another—from farmers to striking workers to suffragettes—the great poet’s took hold in the people's imagination. Whitman’s liberalism had neither the cultural elitism of those identified with the term on the left, nor the laissez-faire extremism of the free-market “liberals” on the right. Liberalism meant “the safety and endurance of the aggregate of middling property owners.” Its consummation was the New Deal social compact we inherited from five presidents and from substantial voting majorities for a generation after the Great Depression, and the result was the prospect of a fair and just society—a cohesion—that truly made us a democratic people.
Equality is impossible to achieve but necessary to fight for. A more equal society would bring us closer to the “self-evident truth” of our common humanity. I remember the early l960s, when for a season one could imagine progress among the classes and races, a nation straining to accept immigrants for their value not only to the economy but to our collective identity, a people sniffing the prospect of progress. One could look at the person who is different in some particular way—skin color, language, religion—without feeling fear. America, so long the exploiter of the black, red, brown, and yellow, was feeling its oats; we were on our way to becoming the land of opportunity, at last. Today inequality—especially between wealth and worker—has opened like a chasm of Grand Canyon-like proportions.
Ronald Reagan once described a particular man he knew who was good steward of resources in the biblical sense. “This is a man,” Reagan said, “who in his own business, before he entered politics, instituted a profit-sharing plan, before unions had ever thought of it. He put in health and medical insurance for all his employees. He took 50 percent of the profits before taxes and set up a retirement program, a pension plan for all his employees. He sent checks for life to an employee who was ill and couldn’t work. He provided nursing care for the children of mothers who worked in the stores.”
Reagan was speaking of Barry Goldwater, a businessman before he entered politics. It’s incredible how far we have deviated from even that most conservative understanding of social responsibility. For a generation now Goldwater’s political children have done everything they could to destroy the social compact between workers and employers, and to discredit, defame, and even destroy anyone who said their course was wrong. Principled conservatism was turned into a ferocious ideology whose cardinal tenet was of taxation as a form of theft, or, as the libertarian icon Robert Nozick called it, “force labor.” What has happened to us that such anti-democratic ideas could become a governing theory?
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It is hard to grasp what really motivated the conservative movement that finally toppled from overreaching last November. Once upon a time these errant stewards boasted of restoring a culture of integrity to politics. Instead they forged an axis of corruption: corporate power joined to political ideology joined to religious self-righteousness. Many of the new conservative elites profess devotion to the needs of ordinary people, in contrast with some of their counterparts a hundred years ago who were often Social Darwinists and couldn’t have been more convinced that a vast chasm between the rich and poor is the natural state of things. But after thirty years of resurgent conservatism and a dramatic return of the discredited “voodoo economics” of the 1980s under George W. Bush, it’s reasonable to follow the old biblical proverb that says—by their fruits you shall know them. By that realistic standard, I think the Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow’s analysis sums it up well: what it’s all about, he simply said, is “the redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy and of power in favor of the powerful.”
I grew up in East Texas, in a county that once had more slaves than any other in Texas. It is impossible to forget that as the slave power grew in the South and King Cotton catapulted the new nation into the global marketplace, the whole politics of the country was infected with a rule of property that did not, indeed could not, distinguish the ownership of things from the ownership of human beings. Drawing from the Hebrew prophets and the Book of Revelation, the abolitionists simply said this: the rule of law has become moral anarchy. God’s light clarified that the rule of law had become moral anarchy.
Something was wrong in the very foundation of things, and so the foundation had to be rebuilt on sounder principles. But no mere parchment of words divulged the principles that ultimately preserved the union. They were written in blood—thousands upon thousands upon thousands of dead Americans. And so by untold sacrifice the rule of law was righted to exclude human property. Then, of course, the slave power simply rejected the rule of law and established rule by terror. The feudal south became the fascist south. It did happen here, to answer Sinclair Lewis’s famous riddle of the 1930s.
What is finally at the root of these reactionary forces that have so disturbed the social fabric and threatened to undo the republic? If a $4 billion dollar investment in chattel labor was worth the price of civil war and 600,000 dead in 1860, is it really any wonder that the richest Americans would not suffer for too long a political consensus that pushed their share of national income down by a third, and held it there—about at the level of their counterparts in “socialist” Europe—for a generation? Make no mistake about it, from the days of the American Liberty League in 1936 (the group Franklin Roosevelt had in mind with his crowd-pleasing battle cry, “I welcome their hatred!”) they never gave up on returning to their former glory. They just failed to do it. Ordinary people had powerful institutions and laws on their side that thwarted them—unions, churches, and, yes, government programs that were ratified by large majorities decade after decade.
The scale of the disorder in our national priorities right now is truly staggering; it approaches a moral anarchy the Right would defend as the natural order. Alexander Hamilton, the conservative genius of the financial class, warned this could happen. Speaking to the New York State legislature in 1788, he said:
As riches increase and accumulate in few hands; as luxury prevails in society; virtue will be in a greater degree considered as only a graceful appendage of wealth, and the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard. This is the real disposition of human nature: It is what, neither the honorable member nor myself can correct. It is common misfortune, that awaits our state constitution, as well as others.
Conservatives who revere the founding fathers tend to stress the last point—that there is nothing to be done about this "common misfortune." It is up to the rest of us, who see the founding fathers not as gods issuing edicts but as inspired although flawed human beings—the hand that scribbled "All men are created equal" also stroked the breast and thighs of a slave woman considered to be his property—to take on "the tendency of things " and to hold our country to its highest, and most humane, ideals.
As stewards of democracy, we, too, have a covenant—with one another.