The unconscionable result of the manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling shows that the political Right knows how to play hardball, and that President Obama and his hapless party know how to get rolled. There are other options; and we, the people, need to press them home.
The Obama-brokered deal on debt and spending was certainly what the Germans call eine schwere Geburt (a difficult birth); this one should have been aborted.
The Obama surrender reminds me of a sermon that Dr. Martin Luther King gave during the turbulent 1950s, in which he peered into the future and issued a prescient warning:
“A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”
In promoting and then signing yesterday the so-called “deficit reduction” legislation, President Barack Obama has placed himself squarely in the ranks of those spiritual-death-dealing, “soft-minded” men about whom Dr. King warned so ominously.
Many dyed-in-the-wool Obama supporters may now summon the courage to let the scales fall from their eyes. Obama’s one-sided “compromise” so clearly promotes the interests of the wealthy over those of the poor that, in Biblical terms, it can readily be seen — literally — as a God-damned deal.
I want to share some thoughts primarily with those among us — believers and non-believers alike — who shudder at the prospect of our children and our children’s children inheriting a country far different from the one promised by the American Dream, a nation approaching “’spiritual death.”
But wait; hold it one more second, those of you just about to press the “delete” key. If you are not yet concerned over the growing disparity between the rich and poor in this country, take just one more minute to ponder another warning from Dr. King in the same sermon:
“Passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”
Those of you still with me, please swallow hard. For it is a bitter pill, a great disappointment, that the President has turned his back on those for whom the Hebrew and Christian scriptures express God’s deepest concern — those the Bible calls the “anawim.” Similar concern runs like a thread though the Koran.
Anawim is not just a generic reference to those on the margins of society. Rather, the word denotes the despised, hated poor so often resented by the well off — the poor who, lacking boots, cannot relate to admonitions to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” The category of anawim includes the widows, orphans, and strangers who, the authors of the Bible make abundantly clear, enjoy priority as recipients of God’s concern and compassion.
My atheist friends regularly remind me of the need to widen my perspective, and they are, of course, correct. The scriptural mandate to care for the widows, the orphans, the strangers neither requires nor presupposes a faith perspective, but spring from basic human instincts at their best.
Moreover, in modern American history, it also been shown that having a vibrant middle class is good for business, while a society of a few rich and many poor is prone to destructive boom-and-bust cycles. A huge majority of economists concede that the “deal” Obama signed into law yesterday will do little, if anything, to improve the lives of those of our fellow citizens deprived of work, shelter, medical care, and other necessities.
In sum, Obama — again put in a corner by the Right, which showed itself ready to force the United States into default if it did not get its way — reneged on a promise not to let the burden for coping with the economic/fiscal mess fall primarily on the backs of the poor.
The immediate deficit-cutting plan excludes any additional tax revenues from the rich, a line in the sand drawn by Republicans who were determined to protect even an extravagant tax loophole for corporate jet owners and special tax breaks for oil companies recording record profits.
And Republican leaders have made clear that they will be equally adamant against any new tax revenue from the recommendations of a special congressional committee, meaning that the United States will soon face another budget crisis in which the Republicans will demand even deeper spending cuts.
The Demonic and Scripture
Scripture contains many stories in which demons play a central role. Those texts were always a stretch for me — that is, until I found myself looking closely into, and writing about, our country’s use of kidnapping, torture, and black-site prisons — not to mention targeted assassinations. No longer could I make light of the demonic.
Lessons from the various indignities visited on many of my friends in inner-city Washington have served as confirmation. Ex-offenders and others in the “justice” system are particularly prominent members of the anawim of our nation’s capital.
If we are to follow Dr. King’s mandate to avoid participation in unjust systems, policies, and practices inevitably exacerbated by the legislation the President signed yesterday, we need to decide how to react. Hopefully, we will choose to move forward in a wide, justice-and-peace oriented community.
Listening to Jeremiah Wright
From what is known of Obama’s pastor in Chicago, and the United Church of Christ’s reputation for faithfulness to Hebrew as well as Christian scripture, it is a safe bet that the social gospel was preached again and again to Obama and his co-parishioners in the pews.
There is no way he could have escaped the insight that the ancient Hebrew concept of social justice was something that many in the U.S. power elite today would decry as an un-American activity. That concept, fully embraced by Jesus of Nazareth challenges modern America and our economic inequality at almost every turn. It is a particular challenge to those of us with heaps of unearned privilege to do what we can to create a more level playing field.
Take, for example, the Biblical concept of the Jubilee Year, which mandated redistribution of wealth every 50 years. (See what I mean about “un-American?”)
I believe we can assume that, if Obama were paying attention, he would have assimilated the starkly countercultural Hebrew insight of the Jubilee year — an inspired concept that rejects the idea of accumulated wealth and the outsized power that goes with it.
Bible writers were dead serious in calling for the redistribution of wealth. The Jewish genius was that, over time, any human community would inevitably see immoderate wealth and immoderate poverty co-existing (sound familiar?). In other words, it was a given — for a bunch of very human reasons — that there would be mal-distribution of wealth.
The concept of Jubilee was to squash it all back down, essentially requiring everyone to return to the same starting point every 50 years as a matter of law. Debts would be canceled, foreclosed farms returned to previous owners. Granted, it was a primitive idea for a simple economy, but the Jubilee spirit was the spirit of the God of the Hebrews, who insisted time and time again through the Biblical writers and prophets “there shall be no poor among you.” And for that to be achieved, there had to be periodic sharing of wealth.
It would, I suppose, be too much to expect that President Obama would have broached something along these lines to House Speaker John Boehner. But would it be too much too much a stretch to expect some mutual concern — from Republicans and Democrats alike — over the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country?
Boehner is fond of advertising that he is a Catholic. Me too. I would be surprised if he had not learned in his 12 years of Catholic schooling that the first thing Jesus of Nazareth said in his inaugural speech was that he had come to “bring good news to the poor.” Yesterday, there was only bad news for the poor — very bad news in the debt-limit “compromise.”
From Jeremiah Wright to Lord Acton
Words about power come to mind — specifically those of 19th Century Catholic historian and Member of Parliament Lord Acton, who warned “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As familiar as it is, I suspect the adage is a tight fit for our young, still inexperienced President. If this is the case, we have no choice but to unmask him. That is our job as citizens in a democracy and people who care about justice.
In Obama’s public appearances there have been a few times when he showed some sensitivity to the problem of extreme accumulation of wealth and power at the top, and the need to rein it in. He quickly learned that one speaks out on this at one’s own peril.
Remember campaigner Obama’s brief chat with Joe (the Plumber) Wurzlebacher in Toledo on October 12, 2008, when Obama unwittingly hit a live wire — figuratively speaking?
The Democratic nominee had been campaigning hard and must have been tired, for he seemed to forget, momentarily, the difference between Biblical and American justice. He said:
“My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody … I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
The Republicans and right-wing news media pounced on the comment, accusing Obama of running for “redistributionist in chief.” Fox news played up the following snide statement from a spokesman for John McCain:
“If Barack Obama’s goal as President is to ‘spread the wealth around,’ perhaps his unconditional meetings with Hugo Chavez, Raul Castro, and Kim Jong-Il aren’t so crazy — if nothing else, they can advise an Obama administration on economic policy.
A chastened Obama quickly learned his lesson. Since the Joe-the-Plumber incident, Obama has avoided any clear suggestion that he might see some benefit in a more equitable sharing of wealth. Indeed, he has become knee-jerkedly cautious.
On February 7, 2011, the President volunteered to undergo a TV grilling by Fox’s Bill O’Reilly on TV just prior to the Super Bowl and was prepared for O’Reilly’s “when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife”-type question on sharing wealth:
“Do you deny that you’re a man who wants to redistribute wealth?” asked O’Reilly.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Obama responded.
O’Reilly, who stared at the President with demonstrative incredulity, is himself an interesting case study. A graduate of Catholic grammar and high schools on Long Island, he earned in 1971 a B.A. in history from Marist College founded by the Catholic order of Marist Brothers in Poughkeepsie, New York, and then taught briefly in a Catholic high school.
There is no indication that anywhere along the line anyone told him of the Jubilee Year concept, or that Jesus of Nazareth said he came to bring “good news for the poor” — or that it was, in fact, a fundamental requirement for those who be Jesus’s followers also to be good news to the poor. Instead, O’Reilly has been good news for Fox, and Fox for O’Reilly. Wikipedia records his annual salary at $20,000,000.
Pardon the digression, but O’Reilly reminds me of an anecdote we tell in the Bronx about the “lace-curtain Irish,” many of whom fled the U.S. mainland for more posh surroundings on Long Island. You do not have to “know the territory” to get my drift, for the syndrome is not peculiar to the Irish. Surely, you don’t have to be Irish to forget your roots. Bronxites Colin Powell and Eric Holder, sadly, are proof enough of that.
The anecdote? “Give an Irishman a clean pair of underwear and he’ll vote Republican every time.”
Given how Obama has now capitulated in “resolving” the manufactured crisis over raising the debt ceiling and other fiscal measures, he seems determined to make good on his declaration to O’Reilly.
Backs of the Poor
The President’s most recent comment on power and wealth appears, in the light of his capitulation in recent days, another damning piece of unintended irony. On April 20, at a Town Hall meeting at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, CA, the President inadvertently gave a hint regarding how easy it would be to do what he actually ended up doing — even while criticizing Republicans for neglecting the poor.
Here’s what Obama said, to loud applause from the well-heeled folks at Facebook:
"Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, people who are powerless and don't have lobbyists or don't have clout.
Then, ostensibly to avoid an unprecedented default on the payment of U.S. debts, Obama ultimately opted for this “easier” course of action, exempting the wealthy and corporations from pitching in to solve the debt problem and bowing to Republican demands that everything come out of cuts on spending.
The outcome of the debt-ceiling battle has left many disillusioned Democrats and progressives convinced that it is foolhardy to expect Obama to behave any differently, even though he continues to promise a vigorous debate the issues he has neglected under pressure from the Right. The rhetoric, of course, is great; but he seldom delivers.
What to Do? It’s the (War) Economy, Stupid!
1- Face up to the fact that Obama is one of those “soft-minded” men Dr. King warned about, and that if we citizens do not rise to the occasion, we can expect “death on the installment plan” for our democracy and firmer implantation of plutocracy.
2 – Knock on the doors of rectories, synagogues and mosques, just to see if there’s anyone home and if anyone cares about what is happening to those on the margins of our society. Ask religious leaders if they are aware of what happened in Germany during the Thirties, when Catholic and Lutheran church leaders could not find their voice, and ended up functioning, as Hitler intended, as a force of stability for his regime. See if we can wake anyone up in the religious institutions who might have ties to the Establishment.
3 – Do all we can to let our citizen sisters and brothers know that 58 cents of each dollar of federal “discretionary spending” now go to the Pentagon. And make sure that they have heard that the U.S.S.R. — America’s “main enemy,” imploded 20 years ago and that, despite the absence of a threat from a major power, U.S. military spending equals that of all the other countries of the world put together.
4 – Make sure Americans know, not only what President Dwight Eisenhower said in his Farewell Address about the military-industrial complex, but also what Gen. Douglas MacArthur said ten years earlier. Neither of these generals was exactly a “dove.” Here’s MacArthur:
“It is part of the general pattern of misguided policy that our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear.” (May 15, 1951)
5 – Since the Obama administration and Congress cannot be counted to pursue traditional American justice (not to mention Biblical/Jubilee-type justice), and since American religious institutions (with few exceptions) are riding shotgun for the system, we might do well to heed the admonitions and challenges that come to us from popular theologian Annie Dillard; Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers; and Mario Savio of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 60s:
Dillard: “There is only us; there never has been any other.”
Chavez: “There are already enough of us. But without action, nothing is going to happen.”
Savio: “ There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part; and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”
6 – Join Washington, D.C.’s “Tahrir Square” gathering beginning on October 6, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. Join with other people of conscience in public repudiation of the dysfunctional system bringing us “spiritual death on an installment plan.” Join in the kind of enduring, nonviolent resistance of the kind we have admired not long ago in Cairo, Egypt, and in Madison, Wisconsin. (See: http://october2011.org/statement.)
It is true. We are the one we’ve been waiting for. See you in October.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in Consortiumnews.com.