Sunday, February 21, 2016

Greed and Inequality Run Rampant While the Church Looks the Other Way

Mainstream Churches Fail to Condemn Greed
While Inequality and Homelessness Mushroom
by Rev. Paul J. Bern

Inexcusable! Our nation is being savaged by economic hard times, but many pastors are afraid to talk about its causes, lest they offend anyone and risk losing members who pay their 'tithes'. In light of this I would like to present some comments of my own, since I am not the least bit shy about stirring up controversy. It has been my observation that too many preachers and teachers of the Gospel stop short these days when it comes to preaching about the evils of greed. Instead, they encourage their congregations to get through their financial woes by making larger financial contributions. “If you have a need”, one famous TV preacher once said, “you must plant a seed”. Unfortunately greed, like charity, begins at home. Apparently they don’t want to alienate the most well-off members of their congregations by talking about what’s really behind the nation’s economic woes. I can sum it up in one sentence: “I've got mine and I'm doing well, how about you?” An alternate sentence could read, “I've already got mine, too bad for you!"

The reality is that certain people may wind up creating anti-economic-growth and anti-capitalism concepts in their minds. Greed and our capitalist economic system fears anything that even remotely resembles first century communism or socialism (see the book of Acts chapter 2, verses 44-47; chapter 4 verses 32-36, and 2nd Corinthians chapter 8, verses 13-15). The very idea of sharing anything, or of equal economic distribution in any form, makes these “Christians” furious! Never mind that caring and sharing are two fundamental concepts of true Christianity: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew chapter 6, verses 2-4, NIV). The continuing aftermath of the Great Recession is far more than just an economic crisis. It has become a spiritual dilemma for some of the nation’s pastors and their parishioners. Nearly eight years after an implosion of the US financial system helped push the country into its worst economic nosedive since the Great Depression, many pastors are still trying to figure out how to address people’s fears from the pulpit. But first they have to deal with their own fears, and in some cases their own greed.

Though millions of Americans are justifiably angry over the new minimalist economy (meaning, nobody can afford much of anything anymore), little moral outrage seems to be coming from mainstream religious denominations, and ditto for many unaffiliated nondenominational churches. Too many pastors opt for offering platitudes from the pulpit or from TV studios because they are afraid their 'partners' will stop giving money if they hear teachings against greed. Money, and the acquisition thereof, is one of the last taboos in church (not counting preaching against the extreme immorality of waging warfare, which ranks number one in my mind). The economic anxiety from the pews has become so palpable for some pastors, though, that they now feel like they have no other choice.

The Rev. Andy Stanley, a prominent evangelical leader, said some in his congregation cheered when he launched a preaching series called “Recovery Road” to talk about politically touchy issues such as personal greed, the unsustainable federal deficit, and the sins of sub-prime home loans and predatory student loans. Rev. Stanley says he took a risk preaching about greed to his suburban Atlanta congregation, but it has paid off. The senior pastor has told his church members they should look in the mirror before they start blaming politicians for the nation’s economic woes. Any economic recovery “begins with me, not they,” Stanley said. It continues when pastors ask how such a wealthy country can stumble into such a financial mess. “Any time the entire country is talking about something, pastors should pause and talk about it,” Rev. Stanley said. “We know what Republicans and Democrats think, but what does the Bible and Jesus say?’’ Other ministers say an economic recovery also must involve pointing fingers. They say Jesus calls his followers to struggle against those people and policies that helped lead to the Great Recession and overwhelming economic inequality.

It’s good to pull a bunch of people out of the river when they’re drowning, but it’s also smart to go upriver to see who’s been throwing them in the water in the first place. Should pastors speak truth to economic power? Absolutely – they'd be cowards not to! There was a time when American pastors routinely took stands on the big economic issues of the day. During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister, inspired others to fight against the economic inequality of the time with the “Social Gospel.” Social Gospel ministers helped inspire President Theodore Roosevelt to break up business monopolies and abolish child labor. I personally wear such a mantle upon my own shoulders, and I wear it proudly.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spent the last three years of his life focusing on poverty. When he was assassinated in 1968, he was on the cusp of leading a nonviolent, interracial army of poor people into the nation’s capital to demand a fairer distribution of wealth. Rev. Dr. King and others like him took on the big economic issues of the day, and they were inspired by the example of Jesus, who angered the powerful by condemning the economic exploitation of the poor. Jesus took sides – he said he “didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.” The hard truth is that pastors who are afraid of angering congregants by talking about touchy economic issues like greed ignore the Gospel. You can’t preach the Gospel without alienating people. That’s part of the job. You’re not helping helpless people if you’re not alienating the greedy. Economic hard times and its accompanying low wage jobless recovery divides preachers as well as politicians.

Preaching what Jesus would say about the Great Recession is controversial by nature. The Bible doesn’t record any instance where someone asked Jesus about the morality of a sub-prime loan, or of waging undeclared, unofficial wars overseas, or the best way to reduce the federal deficit (all that has to be done is to nationalize the Federal Reserve!). That leaves pastors with the challenge of interpreting Jesus’ message for today’s economic woes and other related problems. On that front, the pulpit is as divided as the nation’s politics. Consider the cause of the 2008 economic meltdown. Was it primarily the result of Wall Street greed? Greed was a factor in the 2008 financial crisis, but not it’s primary cause. There were other major factors, including the tendency of Americans to live above their means and policies that encouraged banks to relax mortgage lending standards. In addition, large financial institutions were encouraged to engage in risky behavior because they knew the federal government would bail them out. The causes of the 2008 crisis was so complicated that some of the smartest people in the world either failed to anticipate it, or they looked the other way so they would not see.

Why don't more Christians condemn the growing gap between rich and poor? Denouncing a presumed (and enforced by the police) gap between rich and poor is a moral imperative, not to mention prophetic wisdom, in today's Church. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, income disparity in the United States has increased 40% in the past 30 years. In 2010 the nation’s poverty rate rose to a 17-year high, with more than 46 million people – 15.1% of the population – living in poverty and 49.9 million living without health insurance (this was before so-called 'Obamacare'). These grim statistics point to the hard truth that people born in America today can no longer “succeed” like their parents and grandparents did. Working hard and getting a good education are no longer enough. Higher education is currently only for the well-to-do and the creditworthy, and working hard, long hours only guarantee jobs for as long as it takes any given employer to find and hire someone else who is willing to work for $1.00 per hour cheaper than those they replace. In short, the American Dream is dead on arrival. It has devolved into a lie. The fact that millions of people want jobs and can't find them is a sign of that capitalism is dying of old age, and the profit motive is doomed to die with it because there is way too much money in the hands of far too few people while everyone else gets (literally) left out in the cold.

It’s very clear to me that greed was a major factor in the 2008 economic collapse, and that the widening gap between the have's and have-not's is social and political dynamite. Quite frankly, economic inequality is a recipe for revolution, and it is a revolution that is long overdue. Henry Ford once said, “If the American people knew how their banking system worked, there would be a revolution by tomorrow morning”. This statement was uttered roughly 80 years prior to the birth of social media! History shows that an increasing gap between the rich and the poor is a prime indicator of imminent spiritual, financial and cultural collapse. What is sorely needed today is a movement among the nation’s churches to re-examine the country’s economic values. Unfortunately, many of the nation’s pastors and TV evangelists operate like politicians, afraid to alienate their wealthy donors. Their sermons sound more like rehearsed sales pitches than they do Spiritual messages. Shame on them all!

Where have all the prophets gone? If pastors choose not to preach about the causes of economic calamity, they can still talk about the issue through the standpoint of personal behavior. Some church members have been hit hard by bad economic times. But instead, they hear about the cures and not the causes for the nation’s economic ills. It has been my observation that too many pastors have reduced Jesus to a financial adviser or life coach rather than the Son of God who was a prophet and teacher, and who saved us all from death by the free gift of eternal life for all those who truly believe, and who back up their beliefs with charitable acts and much faith.

Pastors should also call for equality and justice as a part of this message. In point of fact, it’s a crime that no bankers or financial leaders behind the 2008 collapse have gone to jail, and it is indicative of culpability and complicity on the part of our nations “leaders”. We’ll send an African-American teenager off to the slammer who robs a 7-Eleven, and ditto for smoking an innocuous substance like marijuana, but people won’t do one stinking thing to any banker who helped cause the collapse of the entire banking system. There are tens of thousands of once-robust working Americans who are now homeless and living on the streets because of the gross irresponsibility and criminal activity of Wall St. bankers. But most preachers won’t dare say that, because much of the church is too captive to greed to address the moral challenges of the nation’s economic problems. In my opinion, this is due in no small part to the “prosperity gospel” that is being “taught” in many churches today. In other words, it's OK to be greedy, so long as one is doing so for the sake of Christ. They are forgetting that Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”, and again when He said, “You cannot have both fresh and salt water flowing from the same spring. You either love one master and detest the other, or you will cling to the other and despise the former. You cannot worship both God and money”.

We can’t expect politicians, pastors, teachers, evangelists or other business and political leaders to stand up to apostasy within the Church because too many are beholden to the rich and powerful who keep their houses of worship operating in the black! A prophet is someone who is willing to tell us the unpleasant truth about ourselves. That's what Jesus did, and that's why he was crucified by the Roman Empire. If we can’t bring unpopular messages, who will do so in our place? It's all up to us, and anyone who willingly does not do so is ignoring at best, or willfully bastardizing at worst, the true and timeless Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Stranglehold of the Rich

The Stranglehold of the Rich
by Rev. Paul J. Bern

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workman who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men who were not opposing you.” (James chapter 5, verses 1-6, NIV)

We have now arrived at a point in our nation's history where the US is still clinging to its former status as a superpower and refusing to move on. In the process, the United States has committed one of our history’s most colossal mistakes while basking in the glory of the act, and forgetting the political and financial consequences for doing so. I'm talking about America's ill-advised and poorly thought out invasion and occupation of Iraq from 2003 until the end of 2011. This was, for all practical intents and purposes, a war manufactured for the financial benefit of the 1% right wing elitists who have been ruling over us with an increasingly violent iron fist (such as police officers shooting unarmed civilians). The 1% elites want glory today, tomorrow, and forever. They want to be worshiped like gods, which is absurd to put it mildly. They want credit for being the heroes, for saving civilization. The irony is that their narrow-mindedness, their embedded lack of perspective, and their superficial view on world events dooms them to be a curse upon their own land. Little or nothing has been getting done because of almost constant bickering between Congress and the President. And what are Congress and the President fighting to defend? One of the worst situations this country has ever been in; the triple combination of an unprecedented economic crisis, the complete collapse of manufacturing, and what can only be described as a student loan 'bubble'. The first of these three is a solvency issue, the second is due to what turned out to be the horrifically short-sighted out-sourcing of middle class American jobs, while the last is due to issues of excessive debt due to predatory lending practices. All three exist with the active participation of the US government. None of this happened by accident.

America has spent itself into oblivion, and this series of events – of which the economic crisis of 2008 was only a part – was engineered by the crooks on Wall Street and at the Federal Reserve, their lobbyists in Washington and the corrupt politicians who do their bidding, and the 'Fortune 100' multinational corporations who peddle the top 1%'s products and services. Clearly some very serious measures must be taken ASAP. There must be criminal prosecution of those responsible (which hasn't even started as I write this), and a total overhaul of America's financial and monetary systems is similarly overdue. So what should be done? That's the problem, progress in this regard has been nearly nonexistent on the part of those who are charged with the task of overseeing it. Want reform of the financial markets? Screw you, we're filibustering in the Senate. Want single payer health care? Forget it, we're going to ram 'Obamacare' down your throats instead. Want an improved health care system? Nope, America will continue to allow forty thousand people a year to die so the rest can be charged twice as much as the rest of the world for inferior care!! Want jobs? You might as well forget about that, too, they have all been shipped overseas for pennies on the dollar, and they're not coming back. Still need a job? No problem! You may choose between restaurants, fast food outlets, big box stores of various types, or door-to-door sales. Wow, isn't this variety stimulating?? Or how about this one: Ready to retire? Not! Wall St. gambled your retirement away on derivatives and other B.S. Ponzi schemes, and so far nobody on Wall Street or at the Fed has served one single day. They took the rest of the money and paid cash for every foreclosed or abandoned piece of real estate they could find. Meanwhile back at the ranch, the balances on your 401K and your IRA are hovering at, or they are near, or well below, zero!

Of course, resisting any or all this is being painted as resisting big government and the military-industrial complex. People who resist can get arrested and jailed, as we all know too well. People like myself, who dare to openly express dissenting political and religious views, can be arbitrarily labeled as “domestic terrorists” by law enforcement. When that happens people can get locked up without being charged with a crime, and they can be held indefinitely in flagrant violation of the US Constitution (see the US Constitution, amendments 5, 6 and 7, and search 'NDAA' for details). Never mind that America's leaders conduct speaks poorly to their skills as fiscal guardians. The US political establishment needs their dark enemies to highlight their glorious crusades. The problem with that is, the whole darn world is sick and tired of endless wars, wars that we never wanted to begin with. On the other hand, single payer health care – which would essentially be putting everyone on Medicare and eliminating Medicaid – has to be this great evil, 'socialist' health care reform purported to be government taking decisions out of your doctor's hands. All I can say about that is to quote Thomas Jefferson, who said, “The first and primary purpose of any good government should be the safety and the general welfare of its people”.

Never mind the facts. They did this all along during the latter Bush administration plus the entire Obama administration. Everything was about defending what the President and Congress were doing, everything was about justifying colossal mistakes. Whether turning a soldier's request for more armor into another chapter in the epic of the mainstream media, lying about the death of Pat Tillman, using Jessica Lynch as a PR stunt, or blaming hurricane Katrina's death toll and the subsequent humanitarian disaster on the victims themselves, or coming up with a million different justifications for outing former CIA asset Valerie Wilson, the 1% elite right wing nuts and their conservative/neocon lap dogs devoted themselves to the task of rationalizing failure and mass murder on an enormous scale.

If I seem angry here, it is a righteous anger, and it reflects the anger of much of the American public. This is what I've fought against and wrote about for the last five years. I don't want to live in a country where the government exists in an alternate universe, where the politicians are so oblivious to reality. I refuse to live in a country where 99% of the wealth is in the hands of 1% of the population. And I'm not freaking done, not by a long shot! Since I don't have plans to leave this country that I love, I am an unofficial part of the Occupy and 99% Movements, and I write and publish nonfiction books about these movements, US civil rights, human rights worldwide, about economic inequality and how to combat it, and about ending the wars overseas and the drug war here at home. Whether it's me by myself, or millions answering the call around my nation, our goal must be to make the government that runs this country a part of the reality-based community, which is the rest of us. I'm in favor of a government that is lean, agile and flexible, and it's also time to make government Web-based and paperless, which would result in a tremendous reduction in costs and overhead. If the current government is unwilling to consider any of this, it is 'we the people' who will have to forcibly replace that government. This means mass civil unrest at best, or civil war at its worst. I would choose the latter only as a last resort. But the thing is, it looks like we're nearly there already.

I wish our current government would finally coming to grips with the fact that America's government is broken, and it has been for many years. They can keep their bogus two party system, keep on favoring only ultra-conservative ideas that trample everybody else underfoot, even keep on using the US Constitution for a door mat. But what gives Congress, the president, the Fed and Wall Street the right to let the whole country go straight to hell just to enrich themselves, or for political jockeying for position? These jokers are more out of touch with America than they've been in years, in no small part due to their failure to put politics aside and deal with a financial emergency America is faced with. The fortunes of the nation and its people come first, not the fortunes of political parties nor the needs of their political donors and their accompanying armies of lobbyists. This is what is meant by the term 'people before profits'.

Failure is not an option for the American people. America's future, and especially that of its children and grandchildren, is at stake. A government that allows things to fail just to score political points is guilty of willful dereliction of duty, and by extension criminal negligence. A government that justifies failure by scoring political points on the evening news is guilty of gross malfeasance in the course of their duties, a potentially impeachable offense. Such behavior is not worthy of governing this country in any capacity. For the last two decades since NAFTA was passed into law, America has been the victim of unwise policies, policies that naively presupposed a willingness for restraint from the financial sector, policies that assumed that perseverance in military campaigns whose very legality is dubious would somehow lead to success. These were people who looked at our economy in the summer of 2008 and said the economy was fundamentally sound, right up until the point where the economic and real estate crashes made the obvious truth unavoidable. Our government has proven itself to be incompetent, and so it must be taken out of the way and replaced.

I don't want more government by people who are simply persisting in their policies until events overtake them and make it impossible for them to maintain the status quo. I want people who are adapting to our country's problems in advance, and allowing the government that same flexibility. On the other hand, if the government continues to do nothing but public bickering while engaging in private deal-making in smoke filled rooms, the American populace will be forced to take matters into their own hands. How this situation turns out could depend on the reaction of authorities. The folks in charge need to know that our intentions are peaceful, and that we only wish to take up where Rev. Dr. King left off in April of '68. We intend to maintain that peace even in the face of difficult odds or outside interference. The only exception would be if we were to be attacked by anyone, uniformed or otherwise. In that event we would be forced to fight back. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. We do not seek trouble, only justice and equality.

The last thing this country needs is another decade, or decades, worth of governance from political parties that cannot tell the difference between a defeat and a victory, and who resists all efforts to bring its attentions to the American people's problems. There is at least a recognition among the rank and file that the current situation is not to be tolerated, or cannot be continued. The conservative 'charge of the light brigade' against the American people must end, and this country should be allowed to get back to deciding what the wise thing is for America's 99%, not what is politically convenient and economically profitable to an undignified, money-and-power worshiping 1% minority.