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“It’s the Economy, Stupid!”

 

“It’s the economy, stupid.” James Carville, a strategist for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, uttered the phrase in 1992, pointedly reminding voters that under current President George H. W. Bush, the economy had gone into a recession and their lives were much worse as a result. The phrase hit a chord in the American public and Bill Clinton easily won the election for President.

The economy is God in the U.S.  Everything revolves around the “Almighty Dollar.” The economy has its own Bible, the Wall Street Journal. The economy has its prophets and priests. The economy is America’s Idol.

This has been true from the beginning.  The first settlement at Jamestown, VA, established in 1607, was an economic venture called the “Virginia Company.” It’s goal was to make money. Period. Slavery was brought to this county to provide free labor to ensure that landowners made money. Our nation is built on the foundation of capitalist pursuit of wealth.

In a series of sermons delivered to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1953, Martin Luther King, Jr. identified “money” as America’s false God.  Initially, his civil rights work focused on voting and access to education, but after the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act were passed, King shifted his attention more and more to the ways that American worship of the false God of money was at the root of the evil of oppression.  The capitalist economic system was the noose tied around the neck of poor, the low-wage workers, the migrant farm workers, and the chronically unemployed.  This belief led him to form the Poor People’s Campaign to demand an “economic bill of rights” that included the right to full employment, the right to a guaranteed annual income, and the right to affordable housing.  We know what happened next. The prophet was killed.

Since his death on April 4, 1968, the economic disparities in America have only widened and the worship of wealth has only increased.  We see our national devotion to the god of wealth and money clearly in the midst of the pandemic.  The economy is the giver of life. The economy is the sustainer of the American way of life. “It’s the economy, stupid,” the prophets of the economy cry out.  “If the economy fails, we will all die,” the priests of the economy warn. “We must reopen the economy and make the sacrifices required,” say the acolytes.  And so we reopen schools and sacrifice our children. We reopen factories, sacrificing low-wage and immigrant workers. We sacrifice our grandparents. We sacrifice communities of color. We sacrifice the air we breathe. We sacrifice the water we drink. We sacrifice the land.  And we make the sacrifices because the Economy demands it.  In return, the Economy promises to make a few worthy people excessive wealth, and the rest get just enough to survive.

It was true in 1607. It was true in 1953 and it is true today. And all the while, we print “In God we trust” on the currency of the economy. And we say, “God bless America.”

But God does not bless idolatry. The prophets of the Bible again and again speak of God’s curse on the people who turn away from YHWH, the Maker of Heaven and Earth and their deliverer. But again and again, the people turn to the worship of false gods with names like Molech, Baal, and Astarte.  These gods were economic gods. The people trusted in these gods to grow their crops and improve their lives and protect them. The people sacrificed whatever was expected–including “passing their children through the fire” to get the promised benefits. This is the nature of idolatry. It is what believe to be the source of our   survival and wellbeing.

The Biblical stories of the people of Israel show us that idols ultimately fail to deliver. The power of idols is limited and temporary. They cannot save. They will ultimately disappoint and we will look back and realize too late that all the sacrifices we made were wasted.

God did not bless the people of Israel for their idolatry and God will not bless the people of America.  Every Old Testament prophet condemned the economic oppression they saw in the nation. From Amos to Zechariah, the prophets spoke against the economic systems that deprived the poor of life.  Their words are relevant to us today at a time when the economic systems are designed to create and maintain income and wealth inequality and when our leaders legislate for the interests of the profiteers over the poor.

But prophets also offered a word of hope and encouragement.  For instance, while God announced a curse on those who put their trust in human strength, military might, unjust gain, and any other false god through the prophet Jeremiah; God announcer blessing on those who make the Lord their hope and confidence and calls them to return to God for healing.  The prophet Jesus called us away from pointless accumulation and worship of things that are temporary to the pursuit of things that are eternal, treasures in heaven—treasures that come out of pursuit of justice and righteousness.

Jesus’s words call us to decision: which God will we trust? Which God we will worship? Which God we will devote ourselves to? Our choice is between Jehovah-Jirah and Capitalist Economy; between the Provider God of community and justice and the enslaving “god” of oppression and exploitation; between God’s economy of grace and the world’s economy of greed.  Our future will be determined by the God we choose and we cannot choose both.  Blessing comes when we “seek first the kingdom of heaven and God’s justice and all these things will be added to you.”

Let us be the prophets of the true God in this time. Let us call out our nation’s idolatry that is ruining us, and call our leaders to a new economy that puts people above profit and the environment above wealth.  Only then, will we be like the tree planted by the river that will survive and bear fruit even in the midst of a drought. Let us renounce the old “god” and trust in the true God who calls us to the beloved community where God’s abundance is shared by all.  Let it be. Amen.

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