From the Book of Judges:
Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them to bring misfortune, as the Lord had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Judges 2:11-15 (NRSV) – July 29, 2014)
My usual Sunday afternoon occupation, after presiding and preaching at church and making any needed pastoral calls, is reading the online edition of the New York Times, which is what I did Sunday. Among the many items that got my attention was a very short report on some economic statistics, specifically on the fact that the net worth of the typical American family has decreased by more than a third over the last decade: “The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation.” (The Typical Household)
What happened during that decade, of course, was the so-called “housing bubble,” the debt default crisis, the packaging of sub-prime mortgages into derivative investments, the Great Recession, the bank bail-out, and a significant increase in student debt (made non-dischargeable in bankruptcy by a Congress which also refused to find ways to lower the interest rate on such loans). Typical Americans saw their biggest asset (the family home) substantially reduced in value while their indebtedness increased. Of course their net worth went down! I don’t want to believe that Americans have been given “over to plunderers who plundered them,” but Americans certainly are “in great distress.”
In fact, as I am writing this, I just received an email from Bill Moyers (a subscription service, of course; Bill Moyers doesn’t write to me personally) with this tidbit: “50% of jobs in the US pay less than $34,000 a year. And 25% of jobs in the US pay below the poverty line for a family of four: less than $23,000 annually.”
Now, in truth, I’m not the sort who believes that God hands people over to plunderers or sells “them into the power of their enemies all around.” That’s an ancient way to understand the law of cause and effect (and, perhaps, the law of unintended consequences), but as a metaphor for how the world works . . . it works for me. Especially if the metaphor makes us give thought to what “Baals and Astartes” we may be worshiping and with what consequent effect.
With the Times’ report still in my memory, I turned on NPR in my car as I went to make a call early yesterday afternoon and one of their many news and commentary programs were on — I think it may have been “The World.” The subject under discussion was the announced acquisition of the Family Dollar grocery chain by its “extreme value” competitor, Dollar Tree. The reporter was interviewing a stock market analyst, a specialist in retail commerce stocks, about the merger, asking if the analyst thought it was a wise move by Dollar Tree.
The analyst was just gushing about what a great deal this was and why stocks of “extreme value” retailers (it was from him I learned this term) are such a good buy for an investor. His basic reason: the number of people below the poverty line has doubled in the last decade! The number of poverty level households in the United States has gone from one-in-twelve to one-in-six. People living in such families are the natural market for “extreme value” retailers, so their market share has increased. They are poised, he said, “to make a killing!”
I was flabbergasted! I’d never heard anyone so overjoyed that more Americans are living in destitution, that so many of his fellow citizens are in need. He was, in essence, say, “A lot of people can’t afford good products, so the wealthy should invest in the stores that sell them substandard crap. Lots of money to be made there.” Isn’t that like saying, “The cattle are dying; invest in vultures”? Or (to use our bible metaphor today), “God is handing them over to be plundered; invest in the plunderers! God is selling them to their enemy; invest in the enemy!”
Who or what are the “Baals and Atartes” this society worships? Who are the “plunderers” to whom we are given over to be plundered? On what altars are we sacrificing and what is it we are offering?
On one level, this is just economics. The part of me that went to business school and has an MBA wants to say, “That’s just the way markets work.” But another part of me must respond, “But that’s just unacceptable.” And I remember Someone who said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Mt 6:24, NRSV)
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.