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Prophetic Voices

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2013-04-07-ladderpropheticvoices.jpg"Therefore, because you impose heavy rent on the poor and exact a tribute of grain from them, though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, yet you will not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine." --Amos 5:11

Last fall my colleague and friend, David Hester, former dean of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, preached a moving and eloquent "pre-election" sermon about an issue he felt was getting very little attention from either of our two major political parties: the poor. David reminded us that in previous years and in many past elections, such was not the case. There were vigorous debates among major candidates of the two parties in those elections about how best to address the needs of the poor. But in the election that was bringing Americans to the polls last November, neither party seemed willing to address the needs of the neediest. The reasons were many. And I am relatively sure that political strategists would have had strong arguments about why both parties were best served by avoiding the topic. But as David reminded us, Christians have certain obligations as adherents to a faith that still listens to the voices of prophets like Amos, Hosea and Micah, Mary the Mother of Jesus, St. Luke, and St. James.

A few weeks ago my thoughts returned again to David Hester's sermon as I read the most recent issue of the journal, Foreign Affairs, in which Jerry Z. Muller wrote the lead article on "Capitalism and Inequality" (Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2013; pp. 30-51). Dr. Muller teaches history at the Catholic University of America. In his essay, he explains that while capitalism has done great things throughout the world, nevertheless "inequality is an inevitable product of capitalist activity, and expanding equality of opportunity only increases it." Furthermore, the increase of inequality, he maintains, "is a problem for everybody, not just those who are doing poorly or those who are ideologically committed to egalitarianism -- because if left unaddressed, rising inequality and economic insecurity can erode social order and generate a populist backlash against the capitalist system at large."

David Hester provided a persuasive moral argument for persons of faith to address poverty. Muller provides a convincing pragmatic argument to do the same. And both are asking us to think systemically. That is, both argue for us to think and act at the deepest levels of the structures of society, rather than only to respond to poverty at a personal, individualistic and ad hoc level.

Muller's essay is subtitled: "What the Right and the Left Get Wrong." Like David Hester's sermon, Muller's reflections confront both parties. He writes:

As the 2012 U.S. presidential election and the battles over the 'fiscal cliff' have demonstrated, the central focus of the left today is on increasing government taxing and spending, primarily to reverse the growing stratification of society, whereas the central focus of the right is on decreasing taxing and spending, primarily to ensure economic dynamism. Each side minimizes the concerns of the other, and each seems to believe that its desired policies are sufficient to ensure prosperity and social stability. Both are wrong.

Muller's appreciation for the goods accomplished by capitalism and his profound understanding of its inherent problems are likely to irritate ideological purists of the left and the right alike. His analysis of the shift in the cause of insecurity from nature to economy (a shift that emerged with modern industrialization) is fascinating, though too nuanced to do justice to it here. His observations on the subject of the increase of inequality, and the dangers this poses to human society, should cause everyone to pause and reflect seriously. But perhaps his most eloquent and important point relates to the present need for the political and social will to eschew ideology in favor of the common good. To bring this point home, Muller cites Alexander Hamilton, our first Secretary of the Treasury, who said:

Tis the portion of man assigned to him by the eternal allotment of Providence that every good he enjoys, shall be alloyed with ills, that every source of his bliss shall be a source of his affliction. ... The true politician ... will favor all those institutions and plans which tend to make men happy according to their natural bent which multiply the sources of individual enjoyment and increase those of national resource and strength -- taking care to infuse in each case all the ingredients which can be devised as preventives or correctives of the evil which is the eternal concomitant of temporal blessing.

When we recognize that the insecurity and inequality inherent in capitalism can undermine not only its dynamism but the very foundations of a democratic society, while also recognizing the goods performed for so many people around the globe by capitalism as an economic system, it is simply obvious that political leaders have a duty reinforced by common sense to lay aside their factionalism and ideology in order to act for the good of the whole body. That underlies the pragmatic argument for addressing the profound needs of those who suffer most in the midst of the economic uncertainties and inequalities of our age. But David Hester's argument still rings true from the perspective of our faith. And the prophetic voices at the heart of our faith speak not only of promises of God's blessings, but warnings of God's judgment. We would do well to heed them, too.

P.S. I particularly want to thank three of the Trustees of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary for helping me reflect on economics and faith. Brent Slay, a business leader from Grand Rapids, recommended a fascinating book this summer while we were together in Scotland, "23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism" by Ha-Joon Chang (Penguin, 2010). Chapters 1, 2, 5, 7 and 8 provide a great place to start, especially in light of Muller's essay. (Click here for video of a lecture Chang gave on the book in 2010.) Jim Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville, read this blog for me before its publication, and suggested a classic text he has used in university classes (Jim is an economist): Arthur M. Okun, "Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff" (Washington: Brookings, 1975). And, finally, Scott Black Johnston, senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City also read the blog for me and offered some valuable insights related to the interplay of political and economic interests. Thank you to all of these trustees!