A New Story
Exodus 3.1-12A, Acts 20.28-31a:
God is still speaking! We know that or we wouldn’t be here, right? So what do you think God is saying about what is happening to the people of Puerto Rico?
I know that God has been speaking to me about how income inequality and climate change are intertwined, and—no surprise—God is working on rearranging my thinking. Or, more precisely, God is making me think about things I overlooked.
God speaks to me/us through many different messengers. David Leonhardt in the August 6 New York Times addresses “Our Broken Economy, in One Simple Chart”. The chart, prepared by inequality researchers such as the renowned Thomas Piketty, shows change in income over time divided into income levels; it demonstrates that income inequality has soared only in the last 30 years or so. In those years, it’s the very affluent who have received significant raises. Between WWII and 1980, the middle class and the poor were receiving healthy raises, and their take-home pay was rising even more rapidly in percentage terms than the pay of the rich. Between 1980 and 2014, however, the change in the distribution of income on the chart resembles a hockey-stick graph—mostly flat and close to zero before spiking upward at the end but only for the very rich.
So the basic problem is that most families used to receive something approaching their fair share of economic growth, but they don’t any more.
What these numbers and many more like them tell us is that there is nothing natural about the distribution of today’s economic growth. There is nothing natural about economic bounty flowing overwhelmingly to a very small share of the population. There is nothing natural about the Jones Act that requires all goods ferried between US ports, such as from any continental port to Puerto Rico, to be carried on ships built, owned and operated by Americans. There is nothing natural about Wall Street banks earning $900 million since 2000 managing Puerto Rico’s $126 billion bond sales smoothing PR’s path to financial debacle.
Books are being written now about how the change in the distribution of economic growth happened, how this change was designed and how this change was implemented. Books such as Dark Money by Jane Meyer about the Koch brothers and their ultrarich friends, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal by Kim Phillips-Fein, and the latest, Minority Rule: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean. Minority Rule is the story of an Economics Nobel Prize-winning economist James McGill Buchanan. Buchanan spent his career working to implement his fundamental view that governing should be left to the market because otherwise the majority would want to invest in public services and tax the wealthy to do so. He led a push to undermine citizens’ trust in public institutions, to get their anger directed at public institutions, and divert attention away from increasing income and wealth inequality. Fortunately, after Buchanan’s death in 2013, his archives are now open and the explicit plans revealed.
The public services that economist Buchanan and his fellow travelers worked to undermine are the very things that can flatten income inequality. Listen carefully to the list because it includes the very things that are under attack in Washington, D.C.: strong public schools and the opportunity for a post high school education at reasonable or no cost; pre-K education that prepares poorer students to become effective learners; a public transit system that lets people commute to work for far less money than it takes to operate a car; affordable health care for all. I could go on but the picture is clear, isn’t it?
No, not yet. The leader of the US Department of Justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is investigating “race based discrimination” in college admissions implying that undeserving minorities are unfairly getting benefits that whites don’t have. This notion of undeserving minorities getting all the benefits seems to be an add-on reason for some not to invest in transit, pre-K education, and in places like Puerto Rico.
In an opinion piece by Ira Katznelson, Columbia University professor and author of the book When Affirmative Action was White, Katznelson reminds us that the most important pieces of American social policy—the minimum wage, social security, and the G. I. Bill including its housing benefits —conferred enormous benefits on whites while excluding most blacks, especially Southern blacks. Katznelson lets us know that this legacy persists. The median household wealth for white families is $134,230 and is mostly equity in housing. For African American families, it is just $11,030. And household wealth for Puerto Ricans is probably approaching zero, and our president is reminding them of their outstanding debt
Hurricane Irma grazed Puerto Rico just days before Category 4 Hurricane Maria hit directly. Warming oceans provide the energy for hurricanes. The warmer the water the more energy fed to hurricanes. And, of course, it is obvious Puerto Rico is vulnerable to rising seas. The rising is accelerating.
The Puerto Rican migration that was from the pull of mainland US has been enhanced by the push from the storm. The storm may spawn one of the largest mass migration events in recent US history. If that happens, PR will provide the newest climate refugees, joining former residents of coastal Louisiana and the shrinking islands of Alaska’s Bering Strait.
In the words of Edwin Melendez, professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College in NYC and director of the school’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies: “Some people know that the conditions on the ground are so harsh that their families are not going to be able to stay.”
It was a time like this when God stepped in directly.
The Book of Exodus explained what happened. God’s people, his chosen people, were suffering. They had sought refuge from a drought, changing weather, as refugees in another country, Egypt. The country had initially welcomed them, provided for them, but now, under a new regime, the second, third, and subsequent generations of the refugees were being oppressed, worked as slaves, called strangers, foreigners, perhaps illegals, without rights as citizens; they were crying to their God for relief. They didn’t want to stay under those conditions, but they knew no other place or way to live.
Moses, one of God’s people, had escaped Egypt after killing an Egyptian oppressor and was living humbly in a neighboring country, tending sheep, while his people remained under oppression. The skills developed in his youth in the pharaoh’s household were not being utilized but he wasn’t subject to oppression or abuse—life was OK.
God, though, had observed his people’s misery, heard their cry, and come to deliver them and bring them out to a new land. God reminded Moses of the covenant between the Hebrews and their God, and Moses’ responsibilities. Moses came to understand that he was being called to live up to his covenantal obligations, as God was living up to God’s covenantal promises.
Puerto Ricans are suffering from the intertwining of extreme inequality in income and wealth, and climate change, the two biggest issues of our time. Some are seeing them as strangers, foreigners, not fully American, without full rights as citizens; Puerto Ricans are crying to their God for relief.
So God is now calling on us—you and me—to be the Moses in our time.
Exodus reminds us that we are in covenant with God and with our community. Given that what is happening has such strong moral and justice elements we have no choice.
So. What to do, keeping in mind that Puerto Rico is the poster child of similar things happening all around the world?
It is time to push for climate justice. The effects of climate change are felt by people disproportionately with their contribution to the causes of climate change and people of lesser means are priced out of participating in the cost-saving primary responses to climate change—maximizing energy efficiency and using clean energy sources like wind and solar. We are called to drive the changes in this unfair system that puts people in danger and keeps people poor.
Creation justice, or climate justice, has a strong connection, an intertwining with economic justice, racial justice, health justice. The intersections are so strong that working on one of those justice issues makes for an incomplete and inadequate effort if you are not considering or also working on the injustices it is intertwined with.
Paul was the champion of the early church. He spent his adult life, not a short life, spreading word of the Way from Jerusalem to Rome. Paul and a small group of apostles reached out to convert communities, to form communities, to spread the word of the Way shown them by Jesus of Galilee. They were organizers, telling a new story of love, hope and liberation in the Roman Empire, in the face of resistance from the Empire and some Jewish authorities. Their story is told in the book of Acts, and in Paul’s letters.
Within a couple hundred years the Way had become Christianity and it was the religion of the Empire. Our community is a direct beneficiary of the work and sacrifice of those women and men.
Paul wrote a new story in his time and its deep meaning is still relevant today. But now we need to tell Paul’s story with new words, words and actions that fit the circumstances today. It is we, the people of faith in community, who must play a central role–take responsibility to care for each other, our health, our environment, our climate, the more vulnerable in our midst, in short our neighbors as if ourselves. We must tell a new story.
Those opposed to a new story will be fierce in their opposition and they have enormous money for think tanks, media campaigns, political influence, and more.
Climate justice in Puerto Rico would include a new energy system based on clean distributed energy. But this is not what the Koch Brothers and their fossil fuel brethren have in mind. They are pushing the US Department of Energy to adopt quickly a new rule to reward coal and nuclear plants for their “reliability and resilience” because their fuel supply can be stocked up. Experienced analysts have studied the last several years of power company reports and found that problems related to fuel supply are bogus. They counted for 0.0007% of major electricity disruptions.
2000 years ago Paul said “Then, I know that as soon as I’m gone, vicious wolves will show up and rip into this flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth to entice the disciples to follow them, not Jesus.” Paul is warning them, and us, about alternative facts, right? Facts that aren’t facts, but lies–lies that sow fear, fear of scarcity, violence, and differences, fear that breaks apart community.
Paul’s message gives us courage to do what’s right in the common good.
The dominant culture of today and the advertising that supports it say—“use, rely on, fossil fuels, it’s the only way.” There is a responsible reply to challenge the dominant culture: net zero carbon resolutions, divestment/investment resolutions and implementation, energy efficiency improvements, solar panels and gardens, more wind turbines, and reducing trash. We are creating a new culture. We are telling a new story. Not a story of the kind of consumption that hurts our planet and thus our neighbors, but a spirit-driven story of justice, real sustainability, community and love.
My story and yours will be different. But each of our stories supports the others’ stories, and that is why they must be told and retold. Living this new story may not be easy, but together we can do it.
We’re all in this life together, in explicit or implicit covenant to care for each other and all creation, so that all of creation and all in creation can survive and thrive, including those yet to be born. That is the essence of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Hear the Spirit. Love God. Love your neighbor. Welcome the changes that must be made. Challenge the culture that gets in the way of God’s love. Write and tell a new story. We have work to do, my friends. Let us be about it. Let it be so.