Despite the dire warnings from public health officials and what is known from historians of earlier pandemics like the so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic of one hundred years ago, there is a chorus of voices calling for states to reopen to economic activity. The current occupant of the White House has once again resorted to incendiary language towards the democratic governors of states who have imposed the necessary lock-down orders that will help to contain the pandemic. It seems lost on Mr. Trump that these governors have every right to act as they have done, and in large measure are actually following the Trump administration’s guidelines. It is clear to me that Trump is simply defaulting to his authoritarian leanings to incite his base to protest in large, definitely not-social distancing numbers. Many protesters showed up armed to the teeth at various state capitals, thereby showing that the protests have little to do with COVID-19 and a lot to do with the intimidation of others. This is how authoritarians like Trump operate. Anything to distract from his administration’s completely inept response that has cost over 40,000 American lives. Contrast that with the response of the South Korean government whose strict lock-down and mass testing has been so successful that they have had only 236 total deaths in the same time period as the U.S. has had over 40,000. (see chart below from Our World in Data).
From a theological standpoint, it is completely antithetical to the teachings of Christ to put profits over people as so many conservatives have called for us to do. Sacrificing people’s lives to stimulate the economy is evil. Period. Yes, there are far too many people suffering economic hardship as a result of this pandemic, and their needs, fears, and concerns are most certainly valid. That said, it’s imperative that the underlying conditions that have led to so much economic distress be addressed rather than going back to “business as usual” in knee jerk fashion and putting lives at risk. Trump and his supporters like to brag about how good the economy was prior to the pandemic. To be sure, the stock market was up, but that merely belies the fact that far too many people in the U.S. have been living pay check to pay check as wages have stagnated, while CEO pay and stock dividends have skyrocketed at the expense of everyday Americans widening the wealth gap to obscene levels. When people, like myself, cannot afford necessary medical or dental work because we lack national universal health care, or are a mere $400 from financial ruin, (1) or are working multiple jobs to barely make ends meet, it’s spurious to say that the economy is booming.
Likewise, it is simply ludicrous to expect that sending a one-time payment of $1200 (which if divided by 160, a typical number of hours worked in a 4 week period, it ends up as $7.50/hr) will help people weather a storm with an unknowable end date. No one can live on $7.50 an hour. Contrast that with what Canada and European nations are doing to help their populations get through the crisis and you will see how lackluster and paltry the U.S. response has been. The $1200 one time payment for workers in the U.S. stands in stark contrast to the $1.7 million that 43,000 millionaire hedge fund managers are receiving as part of the stimulus package.(2) The same people who are calling for a surely disastrous early reopening of the “economy” are the same ones who decided that millionaires deserve more tax-payer money from the stimulus than grocery store employees, caseworkers in social work fields, nurses, hospital support staff, retail employees and take-out restaurant workers, et al do. It shows that their alleged concern to get Americans back to work is a sham driven by their love of money. As someone opined on social media recently, the fact that so many billionaires are calling for the economy to reopen shows that they don’t make their money, we do.
What wisdom can people of faith glean from the sacred texts that make up the Bible during this contentious time? What could we be demanding of our public servants as a result of that wisdom? Our starting point will be Jesus, who of course had a great deal to say about wealth and how the wealthy will struggle to enter the Kingdom of God. A famous example of this is the story of the rich young man in Mark 10:17-27, in which the wealthy man is distraught because Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Wealth, according to Jesus, was often a stumbling block for those who had it. Though he interacted with all levels of society, Jesus was a peasant of the laboring class and likely knew what it was like to go hungry if he could not get work. He certainly saw and was affected deeply by the poverty around him, as seen in perhaps the most famous prayer in history when he prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread.”More will be said of this prayer later.
Many evangelicals of a misogynistic or patriarchal bent often quote from the pastoral letter known as 1 Timothy, in order to claim that women shouldn’t be in church leadership positions (which totally contradicts the genuine writings of Paul) while completely overlooking what the anonymous epistle writer had to say about accumulating wealth in 1 Timothy 6:6-10. There the writer says that people should be content with food and clothing and that those who want to be rich, “fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the 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.” (NRSV) The economic system we currently have in place is quite literally toxic to humanity because late-stage capitalism is rife with “the love of money” and that capitalistic avarice plunges people “into ruin and destruction,” as evidenced by the global millions living in abject poverty and societal blights like bankruptcies caused by astronomical medical expenses in a nation with a heartless for-profit health care system.
The above passages make it clear that accumulating and hoarding wealth by some people puts both them and other people in peril, be it the spiritual peril of the wealthy or the physical peril of the poor. Biblical scholar John Dominick Crossan, in his book The Greatest Prayer argues convincingly that the Lord’s prayer was in large measure about improving the daily lives of the poor in ancient Palestine. He insists that the original version of the prayer prayed by Jesus said, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” as it still does in Matthew, and was explicitly about the forgiveness of financial debt in a world where people could be sold into slavery for being in debt. To peasants in the world of Jesus, the concerns were to get bread for today and to have no debt tomorrow in Crossan’s view. (3)
The idea of a debt Jubilee is found in the Hebrew scriptures in the Torah. Whether or not it was ever implemented is immaterial. Much that scripture calls us to is ignored, but that does nothing to lessen the need to actually follow it. During Jubilee years, debts were to be forgiven, the enslaved freed, and people were to return to their ancestral lands that had been taken from them to pay off debts, to live off that land (see Leviticus 25). Jesus likely had this in mind when calling for debt forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer in the Matthean version (Matthew 6:9-13). Debt forgiveness is absolutely required in this time of economic hardship which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Also required is a universal basic income so that no one goes hungry, loses their home, or goes bankrupt as a result of something far beyond their control.
Therefore, as a theologian attempting to understand and follow Jesus’ teachings, I am calling upon people of faith (or no faith) to demand the following from our political leadership in order to help people survive this crisis. These measures would also allow people to stay at home without financial hardship in order to contain the pandemic.
1) An immediate cessation of all evictions and the freezing of rent and mortgage payments.
2) Complete debt forgiveness for all student loans.
3) An immediate freeze on all debt related interest charges so that when people pay their credit card bills or make payments on loans, payments all go to the principal.
4) Closing tax loop-holes that allow wealthy people and corporations to not pay taxes and taxing them at rates similar to those found in social democracies around the world.
5) End corporate bailouts for profitable corporations and ending all fossil fuel industry subsidies that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
6) An immediate increase in the national minimum wage to $15/hour. In places with higher costs of living, the minimum wage should exceed $15/hour.
7) Universal health care that includes dental, vision, and mental health for all residents of the U.S. regardless of citizenship status.
8) Complete debt-forgiveness for all people who have been targeted by predatory lending practices such as payday lenders and toxic mortgages.
9) Universal basic income sufficient to help people maintain themselves and their families.
10) Closing all for-profit prisons, and forgiving all debt related to court/legal fees imposed on those adjudicated in America’s courts.
11) Reallocation of military/defense spending towards programs of social uplift.
(12) Moving away from laissez-faire capitalism towards an economic model that creates an equitable world.
Join me in this call to action. God in your mercy, hear our prayers for daily bread and for forgiveness of debts.
Writing is my vocational calling. If you enjoyed this blog post please consider supporting my work with a small donation. Thank you, Dillon Naber Cruz