Homecoming or Going-Away Party? Questioning the Rapture through the lens of homelessness

This is the sermon I gave at Patchwork Central’s Sunday evening worship on July 26, 2009. Of course, these texts are not the only ones pertinent to discussion of the so-called “end times,” but 1 Thessalonians in particular is of major importance since it is the text most-often used to discuss “what the Rapture will be like.” Judging by the number of bumper stickers and t-shirts with stupid slogans like “in case of Rapture, this car will be UNMANNED,” it is a matter that is sorely in need of an injection of good, contextually-informed Biblical theology in the popular arena.

As this is the full text of a sermon (approximately 30 minutes in length), it’s considerably longer than my usual entries.

First reading: Isaiah 40:9-11
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

[I started the sermon by recalling a story from my time at Harlaxton, when I spent the better part of an afternoon in Cambridge having dinner with a homeless man named Ian. Rather than try and recall exactly how I told the story on Sunday, here is my description of the event upon returning to Harlaxton that evening.]

Of course, as we all know, homelessness is not just something that happens in England. I remember growing up in Petersburg, a town of considerably smaller size than Evansville, and every few months I would hear advertisements on the radio for programs to benefit Street Relief and other efforts to serve the homeless in Evansville in some way. Now, being from a small town and having never seen a real, live homeless person before it was all a bit of an abstraction for me. It was hard enough for me to just get my head around the notion that there were people out there who didn’t have a stable place to go every night to sleep. Homelessness was something that, for me, only existed on the radio or television, or maybe I would have a teacher mention something about it in class. By the time high school rolled around I had a little better grip on things, having taken a few trips to cities such as Washington D.C. and seen first-hand people whom I knew would be sleeping under the stars that night – and not because they were on a camping trip with friends.

When I moved to Evansville for college I began to get a fuller picture of things, though being a dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite conservative I assumed homeless people, or at least most of them anyway, were there because they wanted to be, or because they were just too lazy to get a real job. Needless to say, since then my thoughts on the matter have changed a bit. I have had a few rather significant interactions with homeless people, like Brian whom I mentioned earlier, a guy named John who used to hang out with us around what is now the art colony, back when it was still Synchronicity, who fancied himself a bit of a traveling preacher for one. He and I used to sit on a bench either on Haynie’s Corner or on Main Street and talk about all kinds of stuff, and boy did he have some good stories to tell. I’ve been a part of the crowd at the Rescue Mission, both during times when I volunteered or coordinated groups that wanted to volunteer, and during times when in fact that was the only place I could afford to eat. I’ve never actually been homeless myself, but there have been at least 3 occasions when I’ve been anywhere from a few weeks to a few days away from not having a place to call home. Perhaps some of you have been in the same boat, eh?

There’s been a lot in the news lately about foreclosures and people not being afford to stay in their homes and all that kind of stuff. Not just people on the lower end of the economic ladder, but increasing numbers from the middle and upper-middle classes as well. No doubt the number of certifiable homeless has increased in the past year, though I have found reliable statistics predictably hard to come by. But even before there was talk of a mortgage crisis, a housing sector crash, Wall Street shenanigans, and the “R-” word (not to mention the “D-” word, which you’ll never hear out of any politician’s mouth unless he’s talking about how we’re not going to have one), the fact of the matter is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1% of the US population, depending on what studies you cite and which methodologies you accept, went from day to day not knowing if they were going to be able to have a shelter to sleep in that night. That’s around 3 million people, if you’re counting. Continue reading

The Bush II and Obama administrations and the transition from American hegemony to the “Post-American world”

This past weekend the Common Root conference was held in Minneapolis. Tom and Christine Sine of Mustard Seed Associates led the first plenary session, and my friend Jordan Peacock wrote the following as a summary statement of one of their points:

The Pax Americana is not necessarily the strongest ’empire’. It stands together with global capitalism, which, while largely birthed from the Pax Americana, shares no allegiance to it, and will likely outlast it.

I think this is an excellent point, and one that bears fleshing out a bit by contrasting the approaches of the Bush II Administration and what we’ve seen from Obama so far. The neoconservative plan seemed to me to clearly be an “American empire” kind of strategy, with American military power as the trump card in the world political game. “Regime change” and militaristic power politics, whether through direct military intervention or the funding of “satellite” armies in places like Israel and Colombia, seem to me to be parts of a larger strategy for attempting to maintain a specifically American hegemony over world affairs. The purpose of the use of military and other overtly violent forces in this fashion seems to have been to make the world safe for “democracy”, by which is meant the interests of “American” corporate entities (often really more multi- and trans-national) who have exploited the twin Bush II tools of unilateral military intervention (or the threat thereof) and implementation of neo-colonial “free trade” policies, combined with other corporate-friendly measures, such as the widespread loosening of labor, safety, and environmental regulations at home and undercutting the social safety net (which was already quite sparse in the aftermath of Reaganomics).

The adventure in Iraq is a signal example and convergence of the combination of military and corporate objectives with the toppling of the Hussein government and the swift looting of the country through a forced rewriting of Iraq’s economic laws in an attempt to create a “free trade paradise”, causing a descent into chaos and insurgency that, contrary to what you hear from the corporate media propaganda machine, really only picked up steam as the effects of the combination of economic deregulation and the insistence on American corporations rebuilding the country (translation: looting Iraq and fleecing American taxpayers) destroyed the ability of the average Iraqi to obtain basic needs and services.

Indeed, Iraq-as-originally-conceived could be considered a case study for the Bush II approach to Pax Americana. Key to neoconservatism is the concept that the welfare of corporations is intrinsically linked to the welfare of the nation-state and its security interests and policies. This convergence of military, corporate, and political machinations is the engine that drives the neoconservative American empire project. The very name of the neoconservative thinktank, Project for a New American Century (PNAC), illustrates the imperial designs of the people who made up the backbone of the Bush II administration, as does their stated belief that “American leadership is both good for America and good for the world”.

I want to say, at the outset of my brief foray into what we’ve seen so far from Obama, along with his campaign rhetoric, that in some ways Obama substantially continues some of the Bush II tactics and underwriting assumptions unchanged. Glen Ford, editor of Black Agenda Report, cites no less a media authority than the New York Times calling Obama “center-right” and then goes on to say:

The ideological pillars of America’s first Black presidency have been planted wholly within the parameters of governance allowed by big capital and the imperial military. Obama’s “transition” is more accurately seen as a “continuity” of rule by the lords of finance capital and their protective screen of warriors and spies. The Obama regime, still incomplete, already wreaks [sic] of filthy rich thieves and gore-covered war criminals.

The two biggest differences I see between Bush II and Obama-so-far are:

  1. a re-assertion of government playing a role in establishing some kind of common welfare through a kind of social democracy (NOT the same thing as “socialism”), albeit in a much-weakened state compared to LBJ’s “Great Society” and “war on poverty” programs, over and against the explicit undercutting of the social safety net that has occurred systematically since Reagan; and,
  2. while the desire to maintain America as the foremost world power, the notion of American hegemony seems to have given way somewhat to something perhaps more analogous to America as a “senior partner”. Obama was seen carrying a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which argues for “not.. the decline of America, but the rise of everyone else”. Zakaria sees this story, that of “the rise of the rest”, as the defining narrative for the rest of the 21st century. Obama’s talk, at least, regarding initiatives such as strong diplomacy and sitting down to talk with people with whom Bush II would not, may reflect a similar understanding of America’s role in the coming years.

The basic thrust of these same-nesses and differences between Obama and Bush II seems to me to be that Obama seeks to implement policies that will create greater stability in the world, at least as it relates to America, both at home and abroad, by strengthening regulation of the economy at home that will prevent unrest and by allowing the “junior partner” nations of the world a greater role in determination of world political action. That contrasts strongly with Bush II’s neoconservative agenda focused around American hegemony which in practice led to more destabilized conditions both at home and abroad.

However, this “change we can believe in” is a “change” designed to fundamentally underwrite the corporate consumer capitalist status quo and the continued advancement of an “economic growth” agenda. In other words, it’s a “change” that is geared towards producing “more of the same”. With a decreased link between the welfare of corporate entities and the welfare of the United States, I believe we will indeed see the Sines’ prediction play itself out in world affairs over the coming years. William Cavanaugh (in Theopolitical Imagination and Being Consumed) argues that the universality claimed by the modern nation-state is giving way to the universalizing tendencies of the global market, and the global market almost entirely consists of action by corporations. Also, Brian Walsh argues (in Subversive Christianity) that capitalism is a necessarily expansionist, even imperial, economic system. If the empire of global corporate capitalism is unconstrained by national borders, as is largely (and increasingly) the case due to “trade liberalization”, then its expansion, by definition, must increase beyond the hegemony of the USAmerican political nation-state entity.

Not only that, but it is also the case that the one-and-only responsibility of a corporation is to increase its value for shareholders. Indeed, neoliberal architect Milton Friedman called ascribing any other purpose to the corporation “fundamentally subversive” (he was specifically referring to the idea of corporate social responsibility). A corporation-based economy must grow or it will collapse, and the same is true of the current global debt-based monetary system – new debt must constantly be created to generate money to pay the interest on old debt, according to an ever-increasing practically exponential growth curve.

The empire of global capitalism is highly complex. Whereas the nation-state depends on territory for its very existence, the corporation theoretically is a territory-less entity. While I would argue that this is not true, strictly-speaking, because no economic activity can truly take place without there being land and material products involved somewhere, somehow, according to the currently-accepted rules of the game a trans-national corporation does not depend on the territory of any one nation-state, nor is it accountable to any entity outside its shareholders except insofar as maintaining relations of accountability and corporate social responsibility allow it to maximize profits and therefore value to shareholders. In addition to the “territory-less” nature, though, there is not any one entity that can serve as an object of wrath for those who oppose this evolving empire. Corporations are legion, they are interconnected, they are buttressed by international organizations and agreements, and We the Consumers play a major role in keeping them in business.

This seems to be the world into which we are headed, a world where “change” occurs to ensure “more of the same”, with the locus of imperial activity increasingly translocating from nation-state entities (particularly the United States) to transnational corporations and the entities that ensure their preeminence (such as the WTO). This does not mean that the emerging empire will not favor certain nation-states (or at least certain people in them), as mentioned above, certain nation-states will enjoy “senior partner” status (hence the continuing neo-colonial nature of global capitalism), but the world is shifting from under the dominating shadow of the United States to global corporate consumer capitalism, as illustrated by a comparison of the Bush II administration and what we’ve seen so far from Obama.

This was first posted on the Common Root discussion forum, but I wanted to also open it up for a possibly wider discussion here. Shalom!

The “stimulus” and economic assumptions

What seems to get lost in all this shuffle about whether or not the Senate will pass Obama’s economic stimulus package, in what form, and what compromises will have to be made with the House, is that there is absolutely no debate about what form the economy should take. It is simply taken for granted that what is needed is to enact provisions that will spur spending and kickstart once again the cycle of consumer-driven “growth”.

That we call it “growth” masks the real costs of such an economic system: the fact that millions, even billions of people are left by the wayside, their prospects not growing but quite the opposite – growing only in hopelessness, despair, hunger, and the inability to procure for themselves and their loved ones the even basic necessities of life; the increasing strain on an already-sick planet as we poison her air, water, and land in the drive to extract resources to fuel the production of “goods”, the increasing purchase of which will fuel continued “growth”, all driven by the (ought to be clinically) insane belief that a world with finite resources can support infinite, exponential economic growth.

Even the language of recession bears witness to our idolatrous worship of progress, for is not recessing the very opposite of advance, of progressing? It would do us good to see the current economic crisis as just that – an eco-nomic crisis. The most common definition of “crisis” in the common parlance, is something like this (from Mirriam Webster’s online dictionary): “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending… a situation that has reached a critical phase”. As instructive as this definition may be in so many ways, there is another definition of “crisis” to which I wish to point your attention: “the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever”.

If the economic system currently accepted by the Western powers is causing the entire planet to become sick, then perhaps the best language to use regarding it is not the language of progress and prosperity, but of disease and illness. Consumer-driven corporate capitalism might better be understood as a pathogen, a disease-causing agent that is draining the life of our home, the earth itself. The current economic crisis provides an opportunity for reflection and action to possibly break (at least some of) the power presently-existing economic structures hold over our lives, the life of the earth, and the lives of humankind.

Furthermore, even the word eco-nomic is significant. Eco is derived from the Greek oikos, meaning “household” or “home”, and nomic from nomos, or law. Eco-nomics, then, is the ordering of the home, running the household. While we moderns have so often limited economic discussion to the performance of markets and its effects to factors that can be reduced to matters of cents (and dollars, euros, yen, etc.), it doesn’t make any sense to limit discourse on the economy to these things. Perhaps we like them because they’re more easily quantifiable, or perhaps it’s because it hides from us those things we do not wish to face head-on: the plight of those who are systematically disempowered and impoverished by the “advancing” global economy, and the pain we ought to feel if only we were in touch with the voices of the earth and its other, nonhuman inhabitants. Let us instead seek to formulate an eco-nomics that will enable us to more rightly order our life together in our home, as inhabitants of earth and of the particular communities in which we dwell.

The eco-nomic crisis has the potential to be a turning point in our understanding of how we relate to our home and how we order our existence within it. Christians in particular, who believe the earth to be the creation of God and a gift into which we have been placed by our loving Creator bear a particularly acute responsibility to enable oppressed voices to be heard. This is no less true for the voices of the nonhuman creation than it is for the voices of people of color, women, GLBT/Q, and others who have suffered exclusion and oppression at the hands of the discourse of power and its embodiment in socio-politico-economic structures. For the church, the current crisis provides a golden opportunity for prophetic engagement, for sensing the heart of God and communicating truth in the now, and not only that but also for putting flesh on prophecy – creating economic relationships within the church to serve as a witness and a model to the world that we can live in ways that are more faithful to our nature as created beings in relation to God, to each other, and to the land, water, and air – a holistic eco-nomics with a trajectory towards health, not disease.

May your basilea come, your will be done – just as in heaven, so also let it be upon the earth. Amen.

The irony of progress

However else it may be defined, it is generally agreed that a (if not the) major feature of modernity is the pervasiveness of the myth of progress. According to the progress myth, progress will be attained in a definite, concrete form as the continuing dialectic (and, in some forms, utopian end) of history if “we allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world. Progress enables us to acquire the technological power necessary to control that world and bring about the ultimate human goal: economic affluence and security” (from Brian Walsh, Subversive Christianity, Seattle, WA: Alta Vista College Press, 1994, pp. 39-40).

While the progress myth has come under fire in the 20th century, it clearly lives on in discourse regarding things like “making the world safe for democracy” and “bringing prosperity to underdeveloped nations”. Economic affluence through free-trade (neoliberal) economics and democratization have become intrinsically linked, and the juxtaposition of the two with neoconservative imperialism is just one example of the horrific possibilities of such a marriage. For exhibit one, see the aftermath of the attempt to turn post-American-conquest-Iraq into a “free trade paradise”, which might have had more to do with the explosion of unrest in the country than any other single factor (see this excellent article by Naomi Klein).

The discourse of progress is alive and well in the speeches of newly-inaugurated President Obama, albeit in some different ways than now former President Bush. The one thing that has certainly not changed, though, is the statement of faith that the United States is in some way a blessed nation charged with a divine mission to be a beacon of freedom, justice, and prosperity to the whole world. Obama drinks deeply from the well of America-the-Promised-Land.

My purpose in this post is not to criticize Obama per se, but I think it’s important to realize that despite the promise of change some things fundamentally have not changed – notably the public presentation of faith in the myth of progress, and faith in America as the driving engine of global progress (though the question is never asked – at what cost?). There is, however, a certain irony in this idolatrous faith.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted that his grandchildren would be able to experience a life beyond economic necessity. John Dewey believed that the visionary application of science and technology would cause the desert to bloom like a rose. Neither of these conditions has come to pass; indeed, quite the opposite has happened in both cases. Economic anxiety is at its highest point in decades, with the current generation projected to be the first in quite some time (possibly hundreds of years) to not fare, on the whole, better economically than its parent generation. And the former hotbeds of science and technological development, the cities and industrial centers, have become or are fast becoming post-industrial wastelands.

Those city centers that have seemingly reversed these trends have done so by engaging the post-industrial economy by expanding the service-sector, increasing the emphasis on consumption, rather than production, and by creating “arts districts” that are little more than microcosms of the consumer economy providing barely-subsistence labor for advertising and other corporate-controlled “creative” enterprises. In the long run, these transitory economic schemes hailed as “new urban developments” are likely to cause more damage than good as the “consumer goods” that must be shipped into these places for consumption by shoppers (who are increasingly less likely to be able to afford them or be inclined to purchase them, given the current economic climate), create their own ripple effect of environmental, as well as labor and other human rights disasters on a global scale.

This is the grand irony of the progress myth: that it promises a glorious future through worshiping the idols of scientism, technicism, and economism, and yet the very fruits of that worship undercut the possibilities of the very future it promises us. Moreover, the problem is far from “just economic”. The dominant economic systems in place have a huge cost in human terms and in terms of damage done to the creation. I do not believe it is a stretch to call the results of the current economic empire ecocide, and possibly also genocide. The fruits of progress have not been increased prosperity; rather they have been turmoil resulting in conflict and “terrorism” (conditions the “war on terror” ironically reinforces), the Damoclean sword of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, and the increasing murder of God’s creation, the destruction of earth and depletion of resources, and despoliation of nature. This is a murder in which Christians have often all-too-willingly participated.

The myth of progress in its economic manifestation requires constant growth (and indeed the concrete systems in place supported by the myth will collapse without it – that is the real danger of recession). This requires a planet with finite resources to provide resources for infinite growth, while the profit motive supports increasingly wasteful use of those very resources (think “planned obsolescence”). While the nations of the world have been aware of the environmental crisis for some time, it has increased, not decreased over that time, particularly over the past couple of decades when awareness has drastically increased. This should not surprise us, as “an expansionary economic ethic necessarily destroys the earth.” An economics that “knows nothing of contentment, of ‘enough’, necessarily sacrifices the environment (and especially the environment of others) iin order to satiate its greed. It is powerless to do anything else” (Walsh, p. 43).

Deficit financing and environmental destruction go hand-in-hand – both destroy the prospects of the future. “A progress-oriented, future-facing society is robbing its own grandchildren of a healthy future” (Walsh, p. 44).

In light of this, what can be our response? With the false hope of progress revealed to be empty and destructive, the only solution can be to turn to the God of creation, the God who lovingly formed the earth, to whom all the earth belongs and everything that is in it – to turn from our faith in idols that destroy and do not save, and to prophetically engage the culture with grief and contrition, but also with hope that God will be who God has said he will be, and that God will make good on the promise that all things are being made new (Rev. 21:5). I refer you at this point to the essay linked at the top of this blog entitled “Prophetic” in hopes that it will stimulate your thinking. I’m also still asking the same questions as I was in this piece I wrote over 2 years ago. In light of the need to diagnose our current problem as not just a political, economic, or ecological problem, but primarily as a spiritual problem, one that persists in large part because of the enculturation of the church and its failure to live prophetically, I think it’s appropriate to close this post with the words of the Ash Wednesday collect.

Almighty and merciful God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent;
create in us new and contrite hearts,
so that when we turn to you and confess our sins
we may receive your full and perfect forgiveness;

through Jesus Christ our Redeemer
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

May God give us imaginations to live prophetically in this time, and in the time that is to come.

Ellsworth replies

I stopped by for a quick check of my inbox today to see that Congressman Ellsworth did in fact send a reply to my email. Ok, so it was probably a staffer sending a canned response, but it’s something. Unfortunately, he did very little to address my actual concerns or engage my proposed action – which makes sense if it was a canned response. There is a lot of talk about how outraged he is about the situation and about the initial bailout plan, and how much better the one they want to pass now is. I’m not buying it. He might be outraged, but I’m not convinced the current plan is any better. I don’t believe it’s any substantially different in the base principles than the original plan over which he was so outraged.

I’m going to attach his response to this post in Word format. I usually prefer to use .PDF or OpenDocument, but my computer is wonky right now and this is the only option I have. Fight the power, view this file in OpenOffice.org.

Congressman Ellsworth’s reply to my email

Letter to my Congressman on the bailout

I’m not usually a big believer in the governmental process as an agent of change, truth, justice, or whatever, and the current issue with the proposed Wall Street and bank bailout plans is no exception. I have very little expectation that my letter will actually in any way influence the decision of the representative for my district. I wrote this more as a way to get some of my thoughts down in one place. That being said, after I wrote it I figured hey, why not go ahead and send it? And now I’m posting it here. Feel free to pass it along or to debate the points presented therein, but realize that it is not a nuanced, technical policy position piece but rather a simplified, rhetorical one.

Dear Mr. Ellsworth,

I see that yesterday you voted in favor of the economic bailout plan that came to the House floor. I urge you to reconsider your position on the bailout. It seems quite disingenuous to provide billions of dollars in taxpayer money to bail out the institutions that have largely created this crisis through their own actions. It smacks of elite classism to allow corporate banking and finance executives to get off with their golden parachutes and allocate vast sums of what is supposed the people’s money to clean up their mess – moreso when it’s a clean up that is highly debatable with regards to its potential efficacy to actually do that which it purports to do.

I believe this so-called bailout plan is little more than an economic version of terrorism. For one, the Treasury and Fed say “give us the keys to the kingdom” of the economy. The proposed bailout as I understand it gives officials the power to essentially take over enormous swaths of the economic sector in an essentially arbitrary fashion, which would result in the economic directors having little-to-no accountability to the people the government and public officials are supposed to serve. The Bush Administration has excelled at taking advantage of crisis situations in order to consolidate power (particularly “emergency” power) under the umbrella of the Executive Branch, and this is just one more example of that tendency.

Furthermore, the bailout is in response to what could be essentially construed as a kind of terrorist threat on the part of the big banks. “Give us billions to fix our mess or we won’t give you house loans, car loans,” and so on. Without credit the economy fails, and those who hold the keys to credit have the ability to hold the people hostage.

The plan would involved the government basically buying assets from the bailed-out-companies above market value, thus providing the banks with a kick start in capital, which is a nonsensical proposition. If the bank owners are unwilling to utilize the market functions to raise the capital, which would ostensibly be both in their self-interest and in the public interest, then the government should only buy the assets at market value – or buy the banks at their market value, nationalize them, and nurse them back into healthy operation until such time as further action can be taken – either selling them to private interests or some other action that would not only return the banking activity to the private sector but also make up for some of the drain of public funds the whole financial crisis has engendered (and the public subsidies that have been involved in the operations of these banks throughout their history). Banks that will not submit to this process can be left to their own, and if they fail then they fail. As Adam Smith said, any business that does not operate within the public interest loses its legitimation.

In other words, if the government is going to intervene in the workings of these banks, as it appears it must, then do it in a way that makes sense and will actually work to making things better in the long run, and let those who are actually responsible for the mess be the ones who are punished, not the American taxpayers.

No capitalist system has ever existed for long without having to be regulated, modified, or bailed out by the government. No national economy that is strong today got to be so by utilizing “free market” principles; all of them, every single one, became prosperous through some form of government intervention/central planning. This case is no different – in voting for the bailout you vote to subsidize the foolishness of the robber barons who got us into this mess in the first place. I implore you to reconsider your position on the bailout and vote “nay” if it comes to the floor again.

Thank you,
Jason Barr
Evansville, Indiana

John Médaille has written quite a good piece at The Distributist Review on the bailout as a response to economic terrorism. TDR is consistently excellent and I highly recommend you read it regularly.

Derrick Jensen quote

If monetary value is attached to something it will be exploited until it’s gone. That’s what happens when you convert living beings to cash. That conversion from living trees to lumber, schools of cod to fish sticks, and onward to numbers on a ledger, is the central process of our economic system. — Derrick Jensen