In a recent town hall meeting, a former Google executive asked President Obama to raise his taxes. The attendee stated that he had done quite well at the company and has chosen not to work any more. Through his increased taxes, this individual wants the government to continue investing in Pell Grants, infrastructure and job training. This call for the rich to pay more taxes is similar to the one Warren Buffet heralds when declaring he should not pay the same or less taxes than his administrative assistant. Leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties are crying "foul" and vehemently accusing their respective opponents of engaging in class warfare. Both groups maintain that the other is pitting the small number of those who have against the larger number of those who have not. Thus with taxation as their primary artillery, the Right and the Left are doing battle over the Rich and the Poor.
This discussion, if one wants to call it that, over leveling the financial playing field is not new. Much in this country's political landscape, from Populist ideology to New Deal praxis, has centered on equal access and opportunity for all. Yet, almost 2,000 years earlier than these movements, first century C.E. New Testament literature points to similar struggles. Particularly, the Gospel of Matthew speaks to the minuscule percent of the population controlling magnanimous wealth.
The Gospel writer records a king giving a wedding banquet for his son. This royal figure sends his slaves to invite the who's who to the celebration. They decline. Too focused on their own wealth, the king's peers disregard his request. However, more than merely discounting the message, his colleagues kill the king's messengers. The biblical narrative maintains that the slaves die at the hands of the rich. The slaves die performing a duty for their rich, regal master. Perchance to avenge the loss of his "property," the king sends his troops to destroy the murderers and burn their cities.
While Matthew's Jesus speaks the parable as a means of addressing Roman imperialism and abuse of power, the passage is clearly a polemic highlighting social and class hierarchy. It is a verbal assault against a top-down society. There was no middle ground or middle class. The rich ruler uses those under his authority to advance his personal cause. His subjects lose their lives as a result of their subservience and submission. The slaves are fodder in a fight among the wealthy. They lose their being, perhaps all they have, because one person of means slights another one. Yes, there is the possibility that, in the king's rage, he kills because he cared for his murdered slaves. However, one cannot discard the sense of honor and shame connected to having a royal invitation ignored. The king needed some means to recover from an embarrassing situation. Thus, he uses his power to kill and force "compliance."
Determined to have his cake and eat it too, Matthew records, the king as sending more slaves into the streets to invite any and every one to the wedding feast. Now there is no forethought of class standing or status on the social ladder. If a person is available, s/he can come. Yet, when it seems that there is a happy ending to a sad story, the king tosses one of the new attendees out of the banquet over a matter of attire. Class warfare is not a new phenomenon.
Same Old, Same Old
While there are indeed distinctions in the types of "invitations" the rich send out today, so much is still the same. There is something unique about this "invitation" by Buffet and others like him to pay more taxes. What is not so different from the first century to the 21st century is that such a small number of people in society control so much. Matthew's polemic against Roman domination and imperial wealth rings true of this day and age. In the United States the richest 10 percent own more than two-thirds of the nation's wealth. The Forbes Top 400 each had a net gain of about 12 percent whereas the average American only had a gain of 8 percent.
Like the slaves in the biblical text, Americans in the middle and lower classes live subordinate lives. Like those the king sent out, many struggle daily with doing the "king's" bidding and begging just to survive and make ends meet. Many get caught in power "fisticuffs" and lose their homes, their jobs, their families and their lives. While Congress and the White House debate over the debt ceiling, their "subjects" risk losing unemployment benefits. As the oligarchs argue over the budget, federal workers "under their rule" face a possible furlough.
Political pundits and powerbrokers insist on arguing over terminology -- whether it is "class warfare" or "socialism." On the contrary, people at the bottom of the social ladder cannot afford to banter over such nomenclature. It does not matter what people call it. The bottom line is that this is a fight for survival. It is a fight for the right to own a home, to work, to eat, to educate our children and to have a secure future. This one is a battle where the executive with Google wealth must fight alongside the waitress who barely earns a living wage. This is a war for persons from all socio-economic classes. Yes, this is class warfare.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.