This is the manuscript of a sermon I delivered at United Presbyterian Church of Fort Morgan, Colorado following my participation in the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA).
When we confess our sin we usually think of it in individual terms. What have I done wrong? What am I personally guilty of toward other people? It is more difficult to conceive of sin in social-systemic terms: what are we guilty of as a people? But we have got to start thinking this way. Too many lives hang in the balance. Lives that are being destroyed while we all wash our hands and comfort ourselves that we personally didn’t do anything wrong to that victim.
Most of you are aware that I spent this past week in Detroit at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. I was there to testify about my experiences in Israel-Palestine and to advocate for our denomination to take concrete steps to align our financial entanglements with our morality.
Money and Morals. Two things which don’t seem to go together very often in our world. Our money and our morals often live in separate ghettos of our mind, never meeting, certainly never aligning with one another. In the city of Motown I heard commissioners asking, when it comes to our investments “What’s love got to do with it?” It’s nothing personal, goes the cliché as shrugging shoulders dismiss the suffering of another neighbor, it’s just business.
The main action which I was in Detroit to support was to accept the recommendation of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee to divest all holdings in three American companies which do business in a way that benefits from the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestine by the state of Israel. It has been our longstanding policy as a denomination not to invest in companies that profit from non-peaceful pursuits and selling weaponized bulldozers to knock down thousands of Palestinian homes as Caterpillar does is a non-peaceful pursuit. Creating biometric scanners and identity badges so that people can be segregated on the basis of ethnicity and subject to constant human rights violations as Hewlett Packard does is a non-peaceful pursuit. Selling communications and surveillance technology used by military forces to illegally occupy another nation as Motorola Solutions does is a non-peaceful pursuit.
Some opponents of divestment argue that we shouldn’t hold these companies responsible for supporting the violence of the occupation because they are just selling their goods. If not Caterpillar somebody else would come along who would sell bulldozers to the Israeli Defense Force. It’s not Caterpillar’s responsibility how their bulldozers are used.
This argument reeks too much of Pilate washing his hands of the crucifixion before handing Jesus over to the soldiers to do the real bloody work. The fatalism expressed by people who say it is inevitable that the market will supply even immoral demands no matter what we do ironically exposes the underlying conflict between money and morality.
We cannot serve both God and Mammon, Jesus once said, Mammon being the Canaanite name for the God of wealth and greed. Money and morality are in a wrestling match. One will be made to serve the other. If our money is not subject to our morality then our morality will become subject to the whims of money.
At the present time it is clear to me that money is completely dominant over morality in our society – did you realize that while there are 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness in America there are over 8 million vacant homes? Many of those homes were foreclosed upon and are unlikely to sell anytime in the near future. We as a society prefer to defend the rights of ownership for banks to hold effectively worthless properties empty rather than see people experiencing homelessness housed. Without a social-systemic view of sin we would be left trying to describe this grave injustice as the fault of individuals.
While I was in Detroit I walked through districts where nearly every building on the street was abandoned. Whole skyscrapers with 50 stories shuttered. Thousands and thousands of square feet of shelter completely unused and sleeping under the eaves of these unused buildings, the former factory workers and service industry professionals who lost their jobs as Detroit’s economy imploded.
Deprivation in the presence of abundance is proof that we’re dealing with sin, not natural consequences. The poor are not poor because there isn’t enough to go around. They are sleeping on the street while houses are empty. They are starving while others grow fat. They are unemployed while corporate profits achieve record highs. What we’re seeing here is not famine. It is not a natural disaster. It is oppression. We are putting our money over our morality.
1/5 of all the world’s surface fresh water is in the Great Lakes which Michigan sits in the middle of, but they’re turning off the tap water in Detroit because poverty there has reached 40% and over half of the accounts are in arrears. Money over morality.
If you can’t afford it you apparently don’t have a right to housing, food, water, healthcare, police protection… you begin to wonder whether our society thinks poor people have a right to live – and then you hear that Congressmen Stephen Fincher just two weeks ago actually said on the floor of the House of Representatives that we should let the elderly, disabled, and those unable to work in our society die – and he had the gall to try to justify his view with a quote from the Bible.
The Bible also says that whatever we do to the least of these we also do to Jesus. Jesus will judge us collectively on how we treat the poor and oppressed and if we collectively “let them die” I don’t think the judgment will be kind. The challenge with a social-systemic view of sin is that it can be paralyzing. We need narratives which help us to see our place in the system so that we can begin to find the path of repentance.
A woman approached me in the conference center in Detroit one morning and asked me for money to buy breakfast with. She was clearly in some distress and seemed a little confused. I spoke to her for a while and gave her a $20 bill for which I was immediately called a sucker by another observer. So be it. I’d rather be a sucker than be unresponsive to someone’s request for help.
Later that afternoon I saw that same woman again in a busier part of the conference center. She was being pursued by security giving her increasingly stern orders to leave the building though she had never done anything more offensive than quietly and very politely ask strangers for money. As she got closer to the exhibit hall where the majority of the Presbyterian commissioners were located I watched security get suddenly very agitated. They made physical contact with the woman over her protests and demanded that she depart. She didn’t respond, but tried to move around the guards. Now the guards were extremely upset and they grabbed the woman and began dragging her forcibly out of the building as she hollered for them to let her go, insisting she wasn’t doing anything wrong, and to please stop touching her.
Suddenly it was very clear to me what my place in this system was. I was the middle-class benefactor who had to be protected from the evidence of poverty around me. The very existence of this woman’s need was deemed obscene by the conference center management; something to be hidden from the eyes of their patrons – the PC(USA). It made me furious to realize that the mistreatment of this woman who I had earlier tried to help was being done on my behalf.
To make matters worse, those security guards who were just following instructions almost certainly make less than myself or the rest of the Presbyterians who were sitting in the exhibit hall. I was watching the poor being employed to protect the rich from the poor. When our morality is subject to the demands of money the poor fighting the poor for the benefit of the wealthy is just Monday morning.
President Obama announced that we are sending 300 soldiers to Iraq that country we wrecked 12 years ago as we pursued our oil interests in the region and which, ever since, has spiraled further and further into civil war. Our financial interests once again compel us to put some of our young people in harm’s way. Joining the military in our country is overwhelmingly a financial decision. Most of the young men and women who make that choice do so out of need. For many of them it is the only shot they have at affording a college education. It is like a real-life version of the Hunger Games – go dodge bullets in Iraq or Afghanistan for a few years and if you manage to come back whole, without having been physically destroyed by an IED, or mentally destroyed by PTSD, then you win an education which may or may not result in you getting a job good enough to feed your family.
You and I sitting here watching our government send young lower-class Americans to wage a perpetual resource war in the 2/3 world are in the same position as I was watching those security guards drag the woman from the conference center. This is being done on our behalf to protect us from the obscenity of noticing other people’s suffering and to maintain our comfort as we benefit from the exploitation of others. Money over morality.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose to worship God instead of Mammon. We can learn to make our money subject to our morality instead of the other way around. We can cleanse this den of robbers and make it a house of prayer for all nations.
The state of Utah has quietly managed to decrease homelessness by 78% in the past 8 years and they are on track to end homelessness in their state by 2015. How have they accomplished this amazing feat? By the simplest and most expedient of methods: by giving people experiencing homelessness an apartment. They did a little math and discovered that the cost to the state of Utah for each person experiencing homelessness in visits to the Emergency Room and stays in Prison (because that is what we do with homeless people in this country: imprison them) was around $17,000 per annum. By comparison the cost to give each homeless person an apartment and a dedicated Social Worker is only $11,000 per annum.
The fact that it actually costs less to come up with a moral solution to homelessness as opposed to the anti-feeding laws, anti-camping laws, anti-sitting laws, and even the homeless spikes that have been cropping up in urban areas to make otherwise sheltered areas inhospitable demonstrates the fundamental incompatibility of wealth and morality. At some point it becomes worth it to us to protect ourselves from the obvious injustice of the system which benefits us that we are willing to pay extra money to keep some people impoverished.
And that apartment you get in Utah? No strings attached. It belongs to the person whether they cooperate with the Social Worker program or not.
On the final day of the Assembly in Detroit those of us who had been working to persuade the commissioners to vote in favor of divestment from Hewlett Packard, Motorola Solutions, and Caterpillar gathered for prayer just before the deliberation would begin. A group of 15 or so young Jews and Christians held hands and began singing together “Peace, Salaam, Shalom.” We repeated the mantra continuously as I chanted “in Israel, in Palestine, for the Bedouin, for all people.”
As commissioners and observers walked by us we invited them to join. Liberal, conservative, East-coast, West-coast, North, South, Midwest, Rocky Mountains, Old, Young, pro-divestment, anti-divestment… we brought them into the circle and they took hands and they sang with us. “in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan… peace, salaam, shalom.” Our 15 grew to 30, then 50. Soon we brought the singing to a wordless hum as one of our Jewish allies stepped into the center of the circle and began to pray.
She prayed that the Assembly would listen to the cry for justice from the Palestinians, that we would align our finances with our values, our money with our morality. That we would see our place in the system and we would not sit idle, but would take the necessary action to begin to change the system. She prayed for continued interfaith engagement. She prayed for us Christians to follow the example of Jesus. To worship God and not Mammon. To cleanse our own house of prayer and to cease to allow it to be used as a den of robbers. She prayed for Jews to follow their values, loving their neighbors as themselves and practicing Tikkun Olam – the mending of the world.
The song burst forth in full voice again as she concluded her prayer and when it finished almost everyone in the circle was in tears, embracing. We walked into the meeting hall to watch the deliberation of the assembly with fragile hearts.
Despite much controversy and disagreement and following a very close vote the assembly determined to accept the recommendation of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee and divest. For once morality ruled over money.
It is a small step, one of many necessary to reform our habits and to free ourselves of the idol of Mammon and finally subject our money to the requirements of morality. What we have done by divesting is to recognize our place in these sinful systems of profit and war. We have seen the violence being done on our behalf and have protested.
The day after Jesus whipped the money changers out of the temple they were no doubt back to business as usual. It may be a symbolic victory, but it is a victory nonetheless, one which demonstrates our allegiance to the prince of peace, the King of Kings, and our desire that his Kingdom should come. Soon.