Reopening Economies – Matthew B. Best
I’m not exactly sure what to make of protests demanding that states be opened up again before the pandemic meets the federal guidelines for reopening. Protestors stood close together, some without masks, some with. Many with signs that seem disconnected from reality – or at least any belief that the virus is real. Other signs had nothing to do with the virus, but were rather rally signs for the holder’s pet political issues. (Source – and you can google other results to see more of the signs.)
I’m not exactly sure what to make of the flags I saw flying at protests. I saw flags flying – some US flags. Other flags were for a political candidate for office. And then there were other flags mixed in that left me scratching my head – Confederate flags. (Source – this is a YouTube video from the Lansing protest. Again, you can google other protests.) I’m not exactly sure what those flags have to do with re-opening the economy.
I’m not exactly sure what to make of the images I saw of some protesters openly carrying weapons during their protest. (Source). I’m not sure what walking around with a weapon around your shoulder has to do with re-opening the economy.
I’m not exactly sure what to make of statements like the one that Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently made saying – “There are more important things than living.” (Source)
Another sign has been showing up at many protests around the country that has me scratching my head is one that reads “Sacrifice the weak.” (Source)
I’m not exactly sure what to make of pastors like Tony Spell who defied Louisiana restrictions on large gatherings by holding worship services and “calling for people to donate their stimulus money to religious personnel.” (Source). This same pastor made the following statement in early April – “True Christians do not mind dying,” Spell told TMZ earlier this month. “They fear living in fear.” (Source same as above)
I’m not exactly sure what to make of the creative message that was painted on a truck at the Harrisburg protest – “Jesus is my vaccine.” (Source). The theology behind that message is questionable at best. That I know. As a pastor I can speak to matters of theology.
I’m not exactly sure what to make of the arguments that are prioritizing the economy over people’s lives.
What I do know though is that this isn’t new. It’s really old.
Ancient Egypt prioritized its economy over the lives of people, specifically the lives of the Israelites. When the Israelites wanted to go and worship Yahweh, we are told in the Scriptures that Pharaoh hardened his heart toward them. We are told that Pharaoh tells Moses the following – “‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves.” (Exodus 5:7, NRSV) The people could be sacrificed for the Egyptian economy that was oppressing them. Make more bricks was the rallying cry.
Babylon did this too. So did Persia. And so did the Seleucids. The Book of Daniel tells its readers of the Babylonian and Persian kings and their great wealth, the slavery and demand for absolute compliance to the king’s wishes. These empires became wealthy the way that all empires do – by exploitation and oppression. Extracting money and wealth away from some and going to the powerful. The Book of Daniel writes about the Babylonians and the Persians, but it is really about the Seleucids, and specifically Antiochus IV Epiphanes – a tyrant that persecuted Israel and who saw himself as god manifest. He was a mad man who did what emperors have commonly done – exploited, oppressed, killed, and destroyed. In all of these empires, their leaders would do whatever they had to to ensure they remained in power, that their economy would continue to function, and that the resources would continue to flow to themselves. Humans were expendable in these economies.
Rome did this too. The Book of Revelation is about the oppression and exploitation of the theology of empire – specifically the exploitation and oppression of conquered peoples. Rome’s power was intimately linked to its oppressive and exploitive economy that stripped anything of value from conquered people and lands and sent it on to Rome, the seat of power. The Book of Revelation tells the story of the consequence of this exploitation and oppression – death and destruction.
Beyond the Book of Revelation, the New Testament speaks of money in many verses. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6:10, NRSV). This is just one example of a multitude. You can google more verses if you like. But that’s not what I want to focus on here.
At the heart of this is Jesus. Jesus contrasted himself with money in many ways. He contrasted God’s love of people over money. He contrasted the theology of empire and its exploitative and oppressive economy with the Kingdom of God and its economy.
The Gospels tell us in verse after verse how God values lives over money. Here’s a couple of examples:
“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’” (Mark 12:41-44, NRSV)
Too often this passage of Scripture is interpreted as Jesus speaking positively about the widow and her sacrificial giving. What we miss when we read it through that lens is how critical Jesus was being of the system that exploited this woman so much that she gave her last cent to a corrupt economic system that viewed itself as more important than her life. Yes, this was in the temple. But the temple system at this time was corrupt and intimately tied to Rome for its existence.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 tells a similar story of an exploitive and oppressive economic system that left the poor to die so that the privileged could live comfortably. Lazarus’ life wasn’t worth more than maintaining an exploitative and oppressive economy.
And the culmination of this is when Jesus enters Jerusalem and “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” (Matthew 21:12, NRSV). This isn’t about Jesus getting mad and flipping out. Rather, this is an intentional act. He goes after the money-changers because they are a part of an exploitive and oppressive economic system designed to screw over the average Jew in Jerusalem. Or as one website put it so nicely – “The temple was to be known as a house of prayer, not as a place where merchants took economic advantage of people.” (Source)
And if you really want to get a grasp of what Jesus thought about prioritizing money over anything else, especially God, then it would be good to hear these words: “‘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.” (Matthew 6:24, NRSV). Prioritizing money or the economy over human lives, or over God and God’s ways, is idolatry. It is the worship of something other than God. It is listening to that thing first. It is aligning with the values of that false god.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Jesus talks about money many times. The Beatitudes address the economy. (Remember this line – Blessed are the poor…) Jesus addresses exploitive economic practices in the feeding of the 5000. Jesus deals with money when he confronts the rich young ruler who won’t give us his stuff and give it to the poor. He addresses the economic and power system when confronted by his enemies who try to corner him about paying the tax (“Give unto Caesar that which is Ceasar’s and give to God, that which is God’s”).
The list goes on, but it really doesn’t matter does it?
For some, there will always be a disconnect between what God says about money and economic systems and how we live into that today. It comes down to this – what is the basis of how we make decisions? Is it money and the economy and economic system that has first priority, or lives that starts as the foundation?
Jesus once said this about the Sabbath, when the Pharisees confronted him about healing on the Sabbath – “‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;” (Mark 2:27, NRSV). A similar statement could be made about humanity and the economy – The economy was made to serve humanity, and not humanity to serve the economy.
Why? Because of what God has been teaching humans since the very beginning. God desires Shalom – wholeness, completeness, tranquility. The two greatest commandments are to love God and to love neighbor. That is what Shalom is all about. In order to love our neighbor, we must be able to see the image of God in our neighbor. It is in loving our neighbor that we are fulfilling the great commandment to love God. How does sacrificing people, or devaluing people, for the sake of the economy assist us in fulfilling the great commandment? How does it align us with loving our neighbor? How does it move us in the direction of Shalom? How does valuing the economy over people’s lives assist us to follow Jesus? How does it assist us in being disciples and living into all he taught?
I don’t have an answer for that beyond the obvious – it doesn’t.
The economy was made to serve humanity, and not humanity to serve the economy. Humanity serving the economy sounds like rallying cries of Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Persia. It sounds like the slogans of the Selucid Empire. It sounds like the Roman Empire. It sounds like the doctrine of the theology of empire and its exploitative and oppressive economic systems.
The economy was made to serve humanity sounds more like the Kingdom of God. It sounds more like Shalom. It sounds more like loving our neighbor.
So the question comes down to this. If that is the case, then how do we live into that kind of economy? How do we open that kind of economy? What needs to change to be in alignment with God’s economic system? Or do just not want God’s economic system? Do we fear what we would lose in God’s economy?
I want to re-open the economy like everyone else. But I want to re-open it in a way that moves us towards Shalom, towards loving our neighbor. I want to re-open it in a way that we steward creation responsibly. I want to re-open it in a way that lives into the Beatitudes. I want to re-open it in a way that lives into Jesus’ call to care for the poor and the outcast. I want to re-open it in a way that allows us to see the Image of God in each others – regardless of our economic status. I want to re-open it in a way that serves humanity, and in turn contributes to the unfolding of the Kingdom of God. That’s the economy I want to reopen.
In addition to serving as the pastor of St. Stephen Lutheran Church, New Kingstown, Pastor Best serves on the LAMPa Policy Council and the Lower Susquehanna Synod Council.