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October, 2005

Spirit of the Revolution: The cries of our people


If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the Katrina disaster is a wake-up call from God to America. The media pictures of people stranded on rooftops in New Orleans, or the tens of thousands left without food and water at the Convention Center and the Superdome, are horrific in themselves. But they are also an image of our own future if we fail to learn from them and change our lives.

What happened in New Orleans is the graphic revelation of the results of three decades of official government policy of abandoning the poor. At the same time -- equally ominously -- the inundation of New Orleans exposed the fact that government is abandoning the basic infrastructure necessary to secure the health and safety of entire American cities.

The disaster has intensified the ongoing debate about Biblical morality and economic and social policy.

Since 1776, most American Christians and others have accepted the famous basic principles of classical economist Adam Smith. Smith stated that the peace and prosperity of a nation is best served when we step back and allow the so-called "invisible hand" of the free market to operate without interference. As a result, many of us have consciously set aside our moral values and compassion and concern for fellow human beings, because we believed it was in the best interests of all of us to do so. We believed that, as conservative theologian Michael Novak claims, "Capitalism works."

The real question (if we are not ideologues) is how well it works, for whom, for how many, and for how long. Capitalism is not an eternal economic system, but has only existed extensively for about three centuries. Katrina has now suddenly revealed that it failed completely in the entire city of New Orleans.

In many of our lifetimes, capitalism functioned more or less effectively for American workers from the 1940s to 1970s. However, although it never served the poor well, beginning in the 1970s it began to step by step abandon them completely. Housing, health care, and welfare programs were gradually reduced or eliminated. All of this was done in the name of adhering to "supply-side" economic principles based on the market theory of Adam Smith.

These were not simply bad policy decisions by Republican (and Democratic) elected officials. They reflected the needs of the globalization of the capitalist system. The poor were abandoned because they were no longer needed as laborers in the era of the "end of work." Electronic technology eliminated jobs in one sector after another. In addition, when global corporations took over national governments, they were no longer concerned with the need for a national market or the welfare of the national workforce.

Poverty in America today is caused by these structural problems. No amount of blaming the poor, or moral exhortation to work harder at non-existent jobs, can possibly change the situation. As Katrina has shown, the problem is systemic, not individual. As a result, it is no longer sufficient to tinker with the economy or lobby policy-makers for incremental reforms. It is not sufficient to call for common ground between Republicans and Democrats. We can no longer rely on conventional wisdom.

What is called for today is a new movement based on new values. Economic systems come and go, but Biblical principles are eternal. It is time to return to the Bible and study God's plan.

According to Deuteronomy 15, if we obey God's commandments, there should be no poor in our society. Here and elsewhere, the Scripture spells out that God expects us to distribute and redistribute wealth equitably so that those who gather much do not have too much, and those who gather little do not have too little. As the song says, it is God's will that all our needs be supplied.

Unrestricted private property rights do not exist in the Bible. Mosaic law and Gospel parable teach us that whenever worldly wealth is entrusted to anyone, it is as a stewardship in order to serve God's purposes. God's purposes do not include fostering homelessness and poverty, or the death of whole cities due to negligence and greed. If we fail to use our country's wealth to end this shocking and wretched state of affairs, then our entire society is on the eve of destruction.

The recent government pronouncement that it intends to rebuild New Orleans without increasing taxes on the wealthy, but by cutting other social spending, indicates that it is stiff-necked and has learned nothing from the disaster. It is therefore up to us to act.

When worldly economic theories no longer serve a divine vision, the time has come to revise or discard them. But vision alone is not enough. As Paul wrote, the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. It is time to build a movement, time to resume the revolution of values advocated and begun by Martin Luther King, Jr. Our hard work and self-sacrifice will be effective and victorious if we tie them to these values, and liberate them from the ideas of a system that no longer conforms to God's will.