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“Because you pushed with flank and shoulder…”

Posted by Flora Alexandra No Commented Friday, December 26th, 2014

The reading today was from Ezekiel 34.  A chapter with which I was totally unfamiliar.  God said, “I myself will search for my sheep”.  “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, BUT the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice…Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide…”

            When I was thirteen, I fell in love, twice.  Once with a boy – that story is for another day.  And once with Jesus of Nazareth.  It was 1970 and I was ready to take a stand on big ideas.  Jesus was Joan of Arc, King Arthur, Gandhi, and Kahlil Gibran.  Anti-war.  Speaking truth to power and unveiling hypocrisy.  Preaching equality, freedom and justice.  I fell head over heels.  And I gathered with others similarly smitten to read the Bible and Christian philosophy.  The stirrings of the evangelical revival were moving across America.  We were looking for an “everyday”, central and coherent purpose for our lives.  Not just the Sunday morning suit and tie, greet your friends experience.  We thought of ourselves as seeking a “lived” faith.  We looked at our parents’ lives and we didn’t see the passion, the selflessness that we saw in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  In fact, we considered businessmen to be in the same category as the Pharisees.  People who wanted to be seen on Sunday in order to gain favor with the right people but go to work on Monday and throw orphans out into the street.

For me, passion met reality when the recession of 1980 teamed up with the dismantling of the social safety net under increasingly conservative administrations leading to high unemployment, especially in the social services. I couldn’t find a job in the social service field for which I had prepared.

So I went to work for a defense contractor and pretended that my work had nothing to do with baby bombing.  We read “Dress for Success” and learned about the centrality of building “shareholder value”.  A stream of books led us “In Search of Excellence” followed by “Good to Great”, “Playing to Win”, “Getting to Yes”, and less well known:  “Winners and Whiners”, “10 Rules for Getting to the Top and Staying There”, etc. etc.  We were asked to give 110% to our jobs and then were tossed aside when we were no longer a “good fit”.  We cut benefits and made more work part-time and contingent.  Success was money and power.  If you didn’t succeed, you were a lesser human being.  Un-deserving.

Meanwhile, the Evangelical Movement took the Sunday church world by storm.  Emphasizing literal readings of everything in the Bible from poetry to allegory to myth to history.  It didn’t matter.  Infrequent texts were used to identify people and practices who were “wrong”.  The “prosperity gospel” advocates looked through the Bible highlighting every passage in which God gave increased wealth.  As though the purpose of following Jesus was to build up money and power for oneself and one’s family.  Because if we had it, we were worthy and those who didn’t were unworthy.

The Evangelical movement became a Christianity that I could no longer recognize as having any relationship to the Jesus of Nazareth whose teachings I had pledged to follow.  And today’s business world became meaner.

Today, our economic system adds wealth to wealth and poverty to poverty.  The myth that good fortune among wealthy people and corporations makes for a trickle down of prosperity to all is Sunday gospel.  The world we thought was ungodly and inhumane in the 60’s and 70’s was egalitarian compared to the discrimination of today’s economy.

The New Testament litmus test for determining whether someone is “doing right”, according to Jesus of Nazareth, is not their position on biblical inerrancy, abortion, or gay marriage, but whether they feed the poor, welcome the stranger, help the sick and imprisoned, strengthen the weak.  We have made little progress on these issues since that little girl fell in love with Jesus in 1970.  We still compartmentalize our actions into different spheres:  the personal sphere in which we donate to our church, take care of our family, and give cast-off’s to Goodwill; the public sphere in which we keep wages of front line workers too low to afford stable housing, saving for emergencies or retirement.  And businesses reap the benefits of these low wages in profits that go right into executive and investor pockets.  Competition means pay as little as you can for every cost element no matter the impact on human lives and pay as much as you can to the owners and managers because they deserve it.  And we defend the practice by saying “that’s the market rate”.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we really are worth 100 times more than those who put their hands on the product and deliver the service.

Jesus never calls the poor undeserving or unworthy.  Jesus never said how much compassion was enough.  The strong are to strengthen the weak.  Period.  When we participate in systems that institutionalize poverty and lack, we are not following the teachings of Jesus.  Christian or not.  And I find all these years later that I am strong and benefit from that strength beyond any dessert.  This is not a country built on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  And I mean at its heart – the marketplace.

What would it look like to stop pushing with flank and shoulder and butting at all the weak animals with our horns?  What would it look like to build economic systems that strengthened the weak?  It would look like a real Christian nation.