Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ninety-nine to one: the economics of repentance

Text: Luke 15 1-10 (the parables of the lost sheep and coin)

"We are the 99%." This was the central slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began two years ago on Sept 17, 2011 and which quickly spread throughout the United States, Canada and beyond. The movement protested policies that benefit the richest 1% of the population and ignore the rest of us.

This slogan came to my mind when thinking about today's parables of the one lost sheep out of 100 and one lost coin out of 10. Could these parables help us tackle the sinfulness of societies in which 99% of the people stay poor and powerless while tiny elites of 1% or 0.1% get obscenely rich?

Luke's Gospel contains many attacks on rich people. In his first chapter, Mary sings that "[God] has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away." (Luke 1: 52-23). 

In a passage just before today's parables, Jesus urges us to invite poor people to our feasts instead of rich neighbours. In the chapter that follows today's reading, Jesus tells a puzzling parable about a dishonest manager in which he says that one cannot serve both God and money. This is followed by parable about a rich man and beggar in which the rich one is damned. Finally, in chapter 18, Jesus says "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God."

These passages, along with the slogan "we are the 99%," inspired me to imagine that the lost sheep who most needs repentance in today's parable is a member of the super-rich elite. This analogy is far from perfect, but I use it to help put Jesus' words into the context of the last five years of economic crisis and the protest movements it has spawned.

Now that five years have passed since the financial crash that led to the Great Recession, commentators have painted a picture of what caused tens of millions people to lose their jobs and savings around the world.

For the last 30 years, banks in the United States successfully lobbied the government to de-regulate their industry. In an unregulated environment, the banks created complex financial instruments based on mortgages given to people who were at high risk of default. Lending sprees led to a housing bubble in the U.S. In the years during which the bubble grew, large numbers of bankers became incredibly rich. But when artificially high housing prices started to decline in 2007, the banks found themselves sitting on unrecoverable debt.

Lehman Brothers of New York was the first to collapse. When it did so five years ago on Sept 15, 2008, the entire world financial system was in immediate danger. Lending came to a halt. Industrial activity sharply contracted. Millions of people were thrown out of work. And all the major governments in the world came to the aid of failing banks with massive amounts of corporate welfare. Not just billions, or 10s of billions, or hundreds of billions of dollars were funneled into banks, but several trillion dollars of government money.

This unprecedented bailout stopped the Great Recession from becoming a Great Depression. But the bailouts did not prevent four million American houses from being repossessed by the same banks that had caused the mess in the first place. About 15 million Americans were thrown onto the street even as the government propped up the banks who foreclosed on their homes.

The government could have given its bailout money directly to struggling homeowners. With no one defaulting on their mortgages, the banks would have stayed afloat and people could have kept their houses. But it was easier to write a few huge cheques to the banks who had caused the problem than millions of smaller cheques to the poor families who suffered all the consequences.

No wonder people became angry and organized first the Tea Party movement and later the Occupy movement.

The financial crisis and the ensuing bailout expose how things work. Banks are rich. They support politicians who do what the banks ask of them. When the banks then cause a terrible crisis, governments bail them out with public money. The rich stay rich while millions of ordinary people lose jobs, homes and savings.

In the economic crisis of the last five years, 99.9% of us did nothing wrong while a tiny elite of bankers and politicians made many mistakes. Despite their mistakes, those involved continue to get richer. Further, many commentators believe that the conditions that allowed the housing bubble and the casino-like financing based upon it remain in place.

The church says that we all stand in need of repentance and God's forgiveness: we are all broken sinners. But our sins occur in a particular context. In a country like Canada, just as in the Roman Empire of Jesus' day, there are a tiny handful of people who have influence, control and wealth. This tiny handful have the power to sin on a bigger scale than most of us.

Take a recent Saskatchewan example. This week, news media reported that Cameco Uranium of Saskatoon has been accused by the Canada Revenue Agency of defrauding the government of $850 million of taxes from 2008 to 2012.

Perhaps some of us have stolen in our lives . . . coins out of a parent's wallet; office supplies from an employer; maybe something bigger. But to steal almost $1 billion from the state requires power and resources that few have. To be a major sinner, it helps to belong to 0.1% of people who have vast wealth and power.

All of us -- rich and poor, native-born and immigrant, male and female -- are broken in one way or another. We share the human condition of frailty and mortality. We are born into a society with more violence than anyone wants. We bear the wounds of our lives and of the world in which we live.

God in Christ comes to us in our brokenness and helps us to be whole. Despite this grace, we still often fall short of our sacred values. We do things we regret or fail to do things we should have done. In this sense, we are all lost sheep waiting for God to come and find us. Today's parable of the sheep might make us believe that 99% of us do not need to repent, but that stretches the metaphor of the parable too far, I think.

On the other hand, comparing the one lost sheep to the 1% targeted by the Occupy Movement does help me remember that Jesus directs his anger towards people at the top. He clashes with religious leaders, with the Roman Empire, and with people of great wealth.

I don't think there is anything inherently wrong in being wealthy. What is important is how one gains wealth and what one does with it. Movements like Occupy expose connections between wealth and the unjust use of political power.

Our ability to sin reflects our circumstance. People who are born in chains and die in chains need Christ's solidarity, but can do little for which they might repent. People who are born into a prosperous society with human rights, equality, and adequate social services will have some power to sin, but I think will mostly live lives of generosity and caring.

Most of us have a modest scope to sin. To the same degree we have scope to live up to our sacred values of faith, hope and love. We use our modest abilities to contribute to family and community. In this way, we spend much of our lives with the 99% of God's sheep safely in the fold of God's kingdom.

When we do stray from the fold, we are confident that the Good Shepherd finds us and brings us back. And each time we repent, there is rejoicing in heaven and here on earth.

We are the 99%. We trust that one day we will be part of the 100%. With God's grace, one day we will live in a world of equality, peace, and prosperity for all.

Thanks be to God.


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