Re-Reading Our Times

The 1970s were defining for me. Those were my high school years. Growing up between Lebanon and the US gave me the opportunity to experience those formative high school years cross-culturally. I was a mid-western boy living in a Middle Eastern home. Recently, I’ve decided to reread some of my old high school English literature readings to see how my viewpoint has changed over the years.

One book, in particular, which caught me by surprise, was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, written in 1899. Heart of Darkness is considered to be no. 32 on the list of the 100 all-time best English novels.[1] I love Conrad’s evocative use of English, which wasn’t his first language. In an economy of words, he takes us on a journey of the consequences of unbridled Empire.

Loosely based on Conrad’s personal experiences, Heart of Darkness follows the main character, Marlow, who works for the shadowy “Company”, and sets off from the seat of the great imperial economy, London. His course is the heart of Africa, the Congo. Once there, Marlow learns of Mr. Kurtz, described as a real company man, and heads upriver to make contact with Kurtz, who is very ill. After an exhausting journey, Marlow finds that Kurtz, a European, is being worshipped as a god. We readers are perplexed because he may or may not be mad. The book paints Kurtz as a character who has paid a high price for his mastery. Conrad leaves us on Kurtz’s deathbed with his last famous and mysterious final words: “The horror! The horror!”

The book has drawn some sharp criticism, most notably from Chinua Achebe, who argues Conrad was a racist with contempt for Africans. But, we’ll leave that debate for another discussion. Better yet, if you haven’t read the book, pick up a copy and let me know what you think. Whatever your impressions are, the book pushes its readers to think about the human cost and marring effect that empire-building has on economies, communities, cultures, and nations.

As a missiologist and theologian, I love to study cultures and the way communities organize themselves. I mainly want to know how the church interacts with its context. I especially pay attention to how the church responds to relieve the pressures and burdens placed on the poor. In today’s current economic forces, I think the church should be taking on a more visible and active social justice role. Currently, we know there is evidence of an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. Economist, Michael Hudson, describes society as 5% elites and 95% debtor population.

I think it’s the right time for the church to take seriously the impact a wealth-driven economy has in relation to the people who exist within the church. The Bible has much to say about economics, money, and the role elites play. The prophetic voices in the Old Testament seem to be concerned with the plight of the poor and the inability of the community to muster the confidence to confront the harmful practices these extraction-style economies have on the poor.

The Lebanese context is known for its business acumen, the country’s natural beauty, places of learning, and cultural diversity. Some have argued Lebanon’s culture, by and large, has hedonistic characteristics; we’re a culture who prize leisure, entertainment, prestige, wealth, and power. I admit one could argue all societies deal with the same phenomena, but add into the mix the massive influx of over 1.5 million refugees and an estimated 800,000 migrants. Also, an estimate of 750,000 Syrian children out of school, combined with unchecked labor structures, leads to a Molotov cocktail of an abuse of cheap labor as a cash cow for business structures to increase profits on the backs of the poor.

Thomas Piketty’s 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century focuses on wealth and income inequality in Europe and North America. Although his pivotal book does not speak specifically of the Middle East, his findings help us make sense of why the ever-growing rich continue in our current economic structures. The central thesis of his argument is that the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth (2014: 237-77). In other words, the net result is that wealth is concentrated in the hands of few, and their money continues to grow while the majority poor remain poor, shouldering the debt burdens for society. This inequality significantly impacts the growing poor, whether in Beirut or Baltimore. The poor find themselves unable to benefit from the economy.

The cascading effect that income inequality has on the poor, refugees, and migrants in Lebanon is evident all around us. The social implications can be overwhelming for governments, let alone for churches. And let’s face it, the world doesn’t factor in the church to speak convincingly against the injustices or even to address the problem.

We are not dealing with a new phenomenon. Sadly, wage and income inequality is standard practice. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s God, Neighbor, Empire, points out how empires in the past, such as that of Solomon, used forced labor to prop up their building programs, which in effect benefited the ruling class and elites(2016: 45-7). For example, Solomon was known for his Temple expansion programs. These large construction efforts were the economy of nation states in antiquity. Solomon’s ambitious public construction plan followed the same patterns as the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Massive construction needed a source of forced laborers to make it all happen (1 Kings 5:13; 9:15–23). According to Brueggemann, the flow of forced labor came from a permanent levy of expansionism.

It followed a pattern similar to the creation of a culture of fear today. The “other” is a threat, and it is our obligation to subdue them. In Solomon’s time, he mustered his armies and extracted natural and human resources. Solomon practices a similar policy of extracting foreign slaves to be used as no-cost labor like other empires around him. But wait, there’s more. The biblical writer wants us to know he did not limit his policy to foreigners. He also extended his forced labor practices to his poor brethren (1 Kings 5:13–15), conscripting them into debt slavery.

What can we derive from Solomon’s practice found in the Old Testament? First, according to 2 Timothy 3: 1-15 Paul asserts the Scriptures are to “instruct [you] us” or are what will “make [you] us wise” (3:15, NIV). I can imagine Paul was probably reflecting on Psalm 19:7, which assures readers that Scripture is “making wise the simple.” The church must become shrewd in reading our economy to help guide the community. Paul reminds the community in Rome to “owe no man anything but love” (Rom. 13:8-10). Paul identifies Christian love (agape) as both a way of being and a course of action that we owe to others (v. 8). Maybe Paul wanted to remind us that love fulfills the law (vv. 8, 10) to love our neighbor as ourselves (v. 9).

Second, Paul’s encouragement in 2 Timothy 3 should give us the courage to challenge the status quo. In 2 Tim. 3, verses 9 and 13, Paul coaches us to contrast the “mindlessness” or “folly” of the “impostors”/”false teachers.” Maybe the mindlessness or folly is heaping unbearable debt on the backs of the poor. Early in my career, I worked for a sales company. They taught me to “reduce to the ridiculous” the cost of an expensive item. Tell buyers that for the cost of a cup of coffee a day, they can own the item. However, withhold the fact that they have to pay for it and the interest for years.

I think the church can help make us wise by not assuming the ruling elites to be sympathetic to the vulnerable. Our experience in Lebanon sees the lingering effects from unregulated market-based economic policy and practices. And if the body of prophetic oracles were faithful to God’s character, we learn they were very concerned with the plight of the poor and used prophetic voices to confront social injustices challenging us today to not “…turn[ed] aside the needy from justice…to rob the poor…” (Isaiah 3:14).

Harming the poor has a profound and far-reaching impact on many social levels, and the Bible has much to say about the poor. It sees society reducing humanity to a commodity to be bought and sold as “buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:6). Returning to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in my opening paragraphs calls our attention to our real selves if left unchecked. Humanity is capable of great horror, or as Jeremiah the prophet puts it, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (17:9). Mr. Kurtz’s deathbed words remind us of “The horror! The horror!” Let’s read the signs of our economic times, and call the church to speak out seriously against harmful economic practices. But more than speak out, I would like to see the church act in tangible ways to practice our love for God with our love for neighbor. Maybe that’s our mission.

______________

Brueggemann, Walter. 2016. God, Neighbor, Empire, The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/17/the-100-best-novels-written-in-english-the-full-list

5 thoughts on “Re-Reading Our Times

  1. I’m relieved that here in the UK we have an Archbishop who makes this theme one of the central planks of his ministry. He has spoken out against payday loan firms and has encouraged the church throughout the country to set up credit unions, which are now emerging in many places. He has just published a book ‘Dethroning Mammon’ which the Governor of the Bank of England was seen reading on the Underground. He also sits on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, and attended the G20 meeting at Davros this year. He and Pope Francis are speaking with one voice on behalf of the poor, and that is how the church should be.

    • Thank you for sharing your comment. I think it’s a helpful start that the Archbishop is challenging predatory lending and its harmful social impact and has written Dethroning Mammon. We need the church leaders to weigh in on this subject. I know the Pope has confronted the widening income inequality gap and calls the church to do more for the poor.

      Interesting enough, some economists are calling for a modern debt jubilee. Maybe our church leaders need to re-think the positive consequences of calling for a debt jubilee too.

  2. The poor gets poorer and the rich richer. This is the mark of our economic systems. Yes the church should get involved in the debate and in action. We need a theology of poverty. we have a lot of biblical teaching on loving the neighbor and caring for the poor.
    This is the conclusion of reading our times here in Lebanon and elsewhere. Thanks for raising the issue.

    • Thank you, Antoine, for your comments. We need church leadership to do a better job of confronting the status quo, rather than knowing the problem exists and not offering a helpful way forward.

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