(This is a sermon I wrote for a class on Economic Justice in 2017. I never got to preach it, but since it was the lectionary text for this week, I thought I’d post it)
The Big Short tells the story of four groups of stock market traders who predict the credit and housing bubble of the mid-2000s, and decide to bet on it. The banks are happy to bet against them since nobody expects the housing market to collapse. The story documents the collective blindness of the banking community to see the housing bubble right before their eyes. As the inevitable crash comes, Wall Street banks manipulate the market just long enough to convince the political elite in Washington that they are too big to fail The banks are bailed out and the losses are paid for by the tax-payers. The renegade stock market traders finally win their bets; they get rich, but realize that what seemed like a game has deadly consequences.
As his colleagues celebrate their victory, their veteran banker partner scolds them: “If we’re right, people lose homes, people lose jobs, people lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number: every one percent unemployment goes up 40,000 people die. Did you know that? Just don’t fucking dance.”
The economy is a life-and-death matter. It’s strange that we talk about it so little in churches. As people of the resurrection, life-and-death matters are what we are all about.
The Big Short is a contemporary retelling of Luke 16:1-13, probably the least preached on of Jesus’ parables: A steward is accused of wasting his bosses money. Instead of owning up to his mistakes, he manipulates the records to ingratiate himself with the debtors. And he gets away with it! His boss even commends the steward for acting smart, and Jesus presents him as an example for the “children of the light” to at least partially imitate.
We don’t hear this story often, because it goes against so many of our assumptions of what it means to be a good Christian. We often mistake being a good Christian with being a law-abiding citizen, a good consumer, and a “productive member of society.” It is this lens that leads us to uncritically embrace stewardship. Aren’t we supposed to be stewards? Stewards of creation, stewards of our gifts and talents? But like with so many other things, it matters who you’re stewarding for. Joseph was a great steward for Pharao, and ended up enslaving all of Egypt.
What we need is not stewardship or professional ethics derived from some internal logic of business separate from the good news that the economy of heaven is near. What we need is a professing ethic. An ethic that professes, that proclaims and embodies the claim that Jesus is Lord. A professing ethic throws a monkey-wrench into business as usual and prefigures the inbreaking economy of heaven. It lives as if it were already fully here, in all aspects of life – the mall, the neighborhood and the workplace.
Such a professing ethic is foolishness to Wall Street. And not just there. Many religious folk today are “lovers of money,” just like in Jesus’ day. Prosperity gospel might be heresy, but it’s growing globally. It makes sense; investing in the economy of heaven might get us fired. The steward in the parable is acutely aware of this and asks: “What shall I do?”
Can something be done? Isn’t this the way things are and always will be? Margaret Thatcher famously said: “there is no alternative to capitalism.” Her statement has since been parroted endlessly by politicians, economists and news-pundits of all political stripes. According to the neoliberal consensus, scarcity and competition are just the way things are; all we can hope for is for the wealth to trickle down.
While Thatcher thought it was a good thing, looking at where it has gotten us, we are left with the stewards question. Job insecurity is a reality even for those who are never accused of squandering their master’s money. The economy might have recovered, meaning the GDP is up again, but looking around Elkhart it is clear that the people have not. Even so called white-collar jobs, especially in the academia are increasingly short-term and with less and less security. “Precarity,” is the word invented to describe this permanent state of insecurity even if at the moment one might be relatively well off. I at least resonate strongly with the steward’s honest reflection: “I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg.”
Recognizing that business as usual cannot but produce further crises, we feel compelled to give an account of ourselves. Realizing that the way we measure wealth is unable to take environmental costs into account and is predicated on exploiting the earth, robbing us of topsoil, and poisoning the water which is our life, we feel compelled to give an account of ourselves.
All wealth is unjust mammon. I mean this not in some abstract sense, but historically. It is not possible to separate our own wealth from the sins of our ancestors, the theft of land from the First Nations of this place and the exploitation of human bodies in slavery to name just two examples. We can also barely separate it from the continued sins of this country, whose military might ensures the ongoing payment of imperial tribute in the form of debts, while the US never needs to repay its debts. All these inconvenient truths compel us to give an account of ourselves and lead us to ask: What shall I do?
To understand this parable, we need to listen to it from the perspective of the debtors. From the perspectives of small subsistence farmers who have struggled and failed to meet the crushing demand of imperial taxation and have slowly descended into a debt trap. From the perspective of sub-prime mortgage owners who have been tricked into getting a house way beyond their means and are now unable to make their payments and face homelessness. From the perspective of the people of Greece and other countries crippled by debts that were pushed on them by the International Monetary Fund and other global powers.
From their perspective, the steward’s actions is an enactment of jubilee. No matter his intentions, no matter whether it was legal, the effect of the steward’s action is a life-saving debt-release for those whose lives are crippled by debt.
This is what Jesus is recommending him for. He might have acted selfishly, to secure his future. He might have robbed his master of significant revenue in the process. It might not be a tactic that can be repeated. In telling this story, Jesus does not seem interested in these questions. Jesus praises the steward for using his smarts to bet against the bubble, to exploit the loopholes to initiate a rogue debt release.
And really, this should not surprise us. After all, in his first sermon in Luke 4, Jesus himself proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, to release the captives. He practices economic redistribution between tax collectors and their debtors in parties and those who follow him “leave everything behind”, which in Greek is the same word as forgiving sins or canceling debts. Throughout his ministry, Jesus re-initiates and adapts the ancient Hebrew tradition of what Ched Myers calls “Sabbath economics”, an economic system based on the abundance of God’s creation, human self-limitation, sharing and recurring redistribution of wealth to ensure neither extreme poverty nor extreme wealth become hereditary.
Sabbath economics is another way of talking about the “economy of heaven”, the term I have been using to provoke our imagination to relate our ideas of God’s reign into the economy. Such provoking and new metaphors are crucial to help us break free from the lie that there is no alternative.
Many people of faith and no faith around the world are struggling for another kind of globalization, claiming that “another world is possible”. As Christians, we can participate in these struggles, not only out of defiant hope that another world is possible, but the Easter faith that it is not only possible but real and has already begun.
Easter faith frees us to make choices that seem foolish to Wall Street, but might actually resonate with the demands of those on main street. With Easter eyes we realize that the only thing to do with unjust mammon is to use it to build relationships of mutuality.
Before going into practical ideas, I wonder about Jesus‘ comment that the children of this age are more shrewd the children of the light. What does it mean to be shrewd?
One thing it might mean is economic literacy – understanding how the economy actually works, beyond the obfuscating words used by economists trying to make their field sound arcane and incomprehensible to the average citizen. We need to understand how the political economy works and how our actions impact them. Too many well-intentioned projects by white middle-class churches end up supporting the gentrification of neighborhoods leading to long-term low-income residents being displaced. To practice economic discipleship we need to be able understand how the economy works without having our imagination held captive by the dominant models.
One simple step would be to divest from projects that clearly fund and profit of the suicide economics of continued reliance on fossil fuels. If the liberated money is invested into mutual aid funds or banks doing micro-financing in this country and internationally, it’s another step closer to the “economy of heaven”.
Another way would be to love our neighbors by investing into our neighborhoods. Supporting local businesses and making sure that local housing does not become gentrified are ways to make friends with unjust mammon. Sharing a church building with an economically weaker congregation is another way. Money is pooled to pay members‘ outstanding debt and replace it with zero-interest loans or helping them to default on their debt, the . This could be coupled effectively with teaching financial literacy on a household and political economy level.
None of the examples above include renouncing any wealth, only making it accessible to others. Recognizing the profound inequalities and historic depth of economic injustice should lead us to ask deeper questions, though.
What could making friends with unjust mammon look like?
One thing I wrestle with is inheritance in the context of structural injustice. It seems like sabbath economics did envision the passing of land or the basic means of production to be passed along within a family. But what if your families wealth was built on colonialism and slavery? Jubilee would ensure any surplus would be regularly redistributed in the community, with a preferential option for the poor. How can we encourage elders to make reparations a part of what we are passing on to the next generation? How can we as young people expand our imagination to renounce unjust wealth, while honoring our elders life work?
Finally, I think the cursing banker got one thing wrong: In light of the resurrection dancing can be an appropriate reaction to crisis. Over and over, the New Testament exhorts us to be joyful. This does not mean to ignore the suffering that comes with the coming crises. It means understanding that these are the birth pains of the new creation. As we bandage those wounded by the exploitation and build a new world within the shell of the old, we also celebrate the end of the suicide economy. And in celebrating with debtors and tax collectors, bankers and the foreclosed we might begin to imagine what the economy of heaven is like. And we can dance if we want to.