WJOW (Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street)?

WWJD? Grab a bullwhip and beat the crap outta some bankers.  That's what he'd do!The other day, a Facebook friend of mine posted a big caption on his profile:  “JESUS Is With the 99%.”  Predictably, he got a bunch of “likes” from his liberal buddies, and just as predictably, he got some major pushback from his conservative friends.  The Christian camp has divided along the usual lines, with one side loudly shouting that Jesus would join the rowdy crowd occupying the parks of our major cities, and the other side decrying the suggestion that Jesus might be even a tiny bit “socialist.”  Sadly, if not entirely surprising, the proclamations on either end of the spectrum seem to reflect the political biases of the speaker with little, if any consideration for what Jesus actually said.

Whether or not Jesus would be with the whistle-blowing, bucket-thumping folks camped out in the parks is an interesting thought exercise, and one I’ll address in a bit.  Quite apart from this question, any reasonable reading of the gospels and the prophets should make it patently obvious that Jesus would absolutely NOT be defending the Wall Street bankers and financial elite against whom the protesters are shouting.

In this regard, the biases of conservative American Christians have gone unchallenged for far too long.  For the most part, I try to stay away from obviously partisan issues on this blog, but sooner or later we have got to face the fact that the Bible message is blunt and troubling:  when their interests collide, God sides with the poor and marginalized against the rich and comfortable.  When American Christians attempt to wrap a mantle of divine blessing around those in the upper strata of capitalism, they do violence to the clear message of scripture.  Let’s take a look at some examples:

Usury Even before they entered the promised land, God explicitly forbade his people from charging interest when they loaned money to each other.  Exodus 22:25 is the first such command, and in verses 26-27 it goes further to state that a cloak given in collateral for a loan must be returned at night so the debtor can stay warm.  One might be tempted to say this only applies to charging interest to a fellow-believer (Jew in those days) who is poor, but just before in verses 21-24, God forbids other sorts of oppression of the sojourner, the widow, and the orphan.  That context suggests to me that God might see anyone who is at economic disadvantage as “my people who are poor.”  Leviticus 25:35-37 and Deuteronomy 23:19 reinforce the prohibition against charging interest to “a brother,” although Deut. 23:20 explicitly permits charging interest of a foreigner.

Lest we think this is just an antiquated concept from the Mosaic law, take a look at Ezekiel 18:5-18.  Here, Ezekiel repeatedly refers to taking interest as an “abomination” worthy of death right up with robbery, adultery, and idolatry (see verses 8, 13, and 17).  These verses echo strongly the Levitical law both in forbidding usury and in criticizing those who fail to return collateral.  Nehemiah chapter 5 relates a similar account.

In stark contrast, the “financial services sector” embodied in Wall Street depends heavily upon the charging of interest…often exorbitant interest.  While mortgage rates are at historic lows (for those who can qualify, that is), credit card interest is another matter, ranging from 10-14% for normal usage, but jumping as high as 30% for delinquent accounts.  Factor in the myriad fees banks are now piling on top of their interest charges, and “usury” is not an unreasonable noun.  There was a time when we actually had anti-usury laws in the U.S.  More accurately, we still do in State law, but Federal law supersedes it for “National” banks.

What is more, the most usurious of rates and fees are most likely to fall on the poorest and least-educated of borrowers.  This is in part due to the fact that they are deemed the highest-risk and most likely to default, and the usual defense of usury on the part of lenders is that the rates are high to compensate lenders for the risk of losing their money to default.  I would counter that the recent rates of profit (and compensation packages) posted by the large banking institutions in this country suggest that whatever risk exposure they may have has been more than countered by the rates they charge, and of course mitigated even further by the taxpayer-funded bailout of the banking sector.

Likewise, the foreclosure of homes, cars, and other collateral clearly runs counter to the Biblical injunction to return a man’s cloak to him at night.  Again, one may respond that the lender is only carrying out the terms of a loan contract into which the borrower freely entered.  But is this true?  I actually read the terms of my home mortgage before I signed it…all 30 or 40 pages of fine print.  But how many, particularly among the less-educated, could understand those terms even if they did take the time to read them?  And how freely have they entered into a contract when they see the loan as the only thing between them and hunger or homelessness?

No, the Biblical injunction is that, at least where the poor are concerned, lending should be done not for the investment benefit of the lender, but for the moral and vital support of the borrower.  The world sees otherwise, to be sure.  God’s math is different, and no amount of free-enterprise posturing can defend Christians from the fact that we are complicit in an industry that blatantly disregards the law of God.

Interestingly, we could learn a thing or two from Islam in this regard.  When American Christians hear the word “Shariah,” they usually think of oppressed women, thieves getting their hands cut off, and all manner of capital offenses including converting from Islam.  It is indisputable that some countries do implement Shariah in this manner.  However, there’s another side to Shariah that, if Christian Americans knew about it, might scare them even more, and that’s laws guiding finance.  I encourage interested readers to check out this article on Shariah-compliant investment to learn more, and even Google “shariah investment” to see how it’s being implemented.  While some Christians might get lost in the legalism of the above article, the key elements are:

  • Muslims must choose investments only in companies whose business activities do not violate the principles of Islam;
  • Muslims may not invest in a company or fund that either charges interest or borrows money on interest;
  • If a Muslim invests in a company (for capital growth or operating purposes), he may not do so on terms of a guaranteed return (i.e. interest), rather he must take what amounts to an equity position where he will share in the profit OR LOSS of that company.  In other words, a Muslim investor must have “skin in the game.”

I’m not sure how this would work in the case of a home mortgage.  I don’t have an Imam to whom I could ask this; perhaps someone reading can help me here, but if I understand these principles correctly, I’m guessing if a Muslim were to lend money to someone else (Muslim or not) to buy a house, he’d have to do so solely on the basis of shared equity…that is he’d share in the gain or loss in value of the property at resale.  Perhaps he could also charge rent to the homeowner in proportion to his ownership share in the house, and maybe work out a declining-balance calculation whereby ownership gradually transfers from the lender to the borrower.  However, I’m pretty sure the American model where the primary risk rests with the borrower who may lose his home and assets, and where only the lender is protected by tax-funded bailouts, is in violation of Muslim Shariah.  I think it’s in violation of Judaeo-Christian principles as well.

Infinite Accumulation A repeated refrain among Christians when they are faced with Biblical challenges to their wealth is to respond that God does not forbid or curse wealth itself, and this is true.  The patriarchs were rich.  The kings of Israel were rich and at least with David and Solomon, those riches are portrayed in the Bible as God’s blessing…however it’s important to remember that the prophet Samuel warned against the king and his cronies accruing wealth (see 1 Sam. 8:10-18).  Some of Jesus’ followers were rich, too.

But the law of Moses has some interesting provisions that would have prevented the permanent creation of a wealthy class such as we see throughout history.  I refer, of course, to the laws of sabbatical and Jubilee.    Take a look at Deuteronomy 15:1-11.  (I mean it.  Take a break from this article and go read the law.) God provided in his law that debts (except to foreigners) would be canceled every seven years.  He also provided that generous assistance to the poor was a non-negotiable requirement.

Now go read Leviticus 25–the whole chapter.  In addition to the Sabbatical year described above, in the fiftieth year, any non-urban real estate that had been acquired over the last 49 years reverted to its familial ownership (and property was to be valued pro-rata by the number of years till Jubilee).  Taking interest or profit from the poor is expressly forbidden (Lev. 25:36).  (as an aside, have you notice that conservative Christians who advocate lower taxes on the basis of the Mosaic tithe, seem to have collective amnesia about Jubilee?  Coincidence?  I doubt it…)

Fast forward to Jesus.  I have never encountered a Biblical scholar, conservative or liberal, who disputes that the “year of the LORD’s favor” Jesus announced in Luke 4:18-19, refers to the year of Jubilee.  They may try to spiritualize it, but they don’t deny the allusion.  Jesus himself said very little else about debt, though I can think of no reason “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” somehow excludes debts of the financial sort.  Of all the “you have heard it was said/but I say to you” statements Jesus made, however, I can think of none that justifies the infinite pursuit of acquisition –and indifference to the poor– that marks American society today.

WJOW? So…would Jesus occupy Wall Street?  Obviously I don’t know.  I suspect he would not be camping in the park and thumping drums with the protesters, but I rather think he’d show up there just the same.  He’d blast the corruption and greed of the bankers with every bit of the zeal he showed when he cleansed the temple (John 2:13-17)  or when he lambasted the Pharisees for their nitpicking on the edges of the law while neglecting justice (Luke 11:39-44).  I do think he might encourage the folks who are there to at least be nice to the poor schmucks who will have to clean up the mess, and encourage people to keep the place neat while they’re protesting (after all, he did have his disciples clean up after the crowd in John 6:12).

I do know this…he’d be more likely to be in the park than in the boardroom at Goldman Sachs.  If the Goldmans were ever to invite him in, he’d go, but if they listened to him, I think they’d wind up behaving rather like Zacchaeus in Luke 19:8.  If you ever see bankers giving half of what they own to the poor, and returning fourfold anything they’ve taken by unjust means, then you’ll know that Jesus has …finally… been to Wall Street.

17 thoughts on “WJOW (Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street)?”

  1. Cadog

    Glad I am not the only one who wonders why we havent heard more about trials and jail for the Wall Street criminals who have visited untold devastation on more people than we can ever know.

    Jubilee .. great concept … I have heard it preached on like once or twice in over 30 years of adult Christian life.

    Re Islamic teaching on interest: I am not quite so sanguine. Like the payday loan businesses that prey on our local hispanic and other low wage workers, I think they simply charge high “fees” that are the equivalent of interest.

    And since I am usually at least a little contrarian — the parable of the talents suggests that interest, in and of itself, was/is not contrary to Jesus’s teaching. Just sayin …

  2. Dan Martin

    Well, in the parable of the talents Jesus at least acknowledged that a rich guy might give his money to bankers who would pay him interest…that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the practice, and to my knowledge is the only place Jesus touched on the subject of interest itself.

    You may note that in my post I discussed not just interest of any kind, but specifically “usury.” While the two are synonymous in the Biblical sense, I then went on to criticize the truly usurious rates credit card companies charge…the same can also be said of payday loans, title pawns, and a variety of other finance schemes directed specifically at the poor.

    I also pointed out that whatever may be acceptable in the charging of interest generally, it was explicitly forbidden to charge interest, or profit in any other way, from lending to the poor. I can’t go so far as a blanket prohibition on interest given the ways economies have evolved in the past ?? thousand years. I don’t think that’s necessary, to call out some pretty flagrant injustice on the part of those capitalists whom conservative American Christians routinely defend.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Interesting choice of verses, Chris. Who are you implying is unwilling to work…the protesters or the bankers whose entire profit is based on pushing phony pieces of paper back and forth? Not all “busyness” is work…

  3. Cashwell

    Really ask Tim’s wife who worked at a bank for 20 years. I don’t think she was pushing papers. I think she helped build schools churches small businesses.

  4. Cashwell

    You have no idea how many of those protestors are able bodied and don’t work. My MIL has a workforce of over 50 hrly workers and you know what her biggest competitor is? The govt. The free clothes, foodstamps, transportation. They have more babies to get another check, then the govt paying her unmarried boyfriend to child sit so she can work. I could go on and on with real examples not theory. These protestors are protesting not having ENOUGH and someone else having MORE than they have. They are not protesting not having a job.

  5. Dan Martin

    …and if that was her business I doubt she got six or seven figure bonuses. That’s not the kind of people the Occupy crowd is protesting, and it’s not the kind I think Jesus would be blasting.

    I do think Christians would do well to re-examine participation in the credit industry as a whole, but that doesn’t mean I think it should be eliminated. Seriously trimmed and heavily regulated, yes.

  6. Dan Martin

    Do *you* have any “idea how many of those protestors are able bodied and don’t work?” As opposed to how many, though able-bodied, can’t FIND work? Do you know any honest, able people who are unemployed and have been unable to find work for months or even years? Because I do…

  7. Stephen G. Parker

    Peace and blessing to you, Dan.

    Concerning Islamic home financing, I ran across this short statement in an article entitled “Should Muslims Occupy Wall Street Too?” ( http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/should-muslims-occupy-wall-street-too/0018829 ):

    “Wondering how a Muslim perspective can complement a non-Muslim one? Well, although Islam forbids riba (often translated as “interest”), it allows other equally rational means of providing access to capital in return for a predictable reward. For instance, a so-called “Muslim Mortgage” creates a partnership between a home’s resident and that home’s financier, with both sides exposed to the same potential benefit and risk. If the value of the house goes up and the partners choose to sell, both come out ahead. If it goes down and they sell, they don’t.

    Conventional “Western” mortgages, on the other hand, fix both risk and reward solely in the hands of the home’s resident owner. And if that makes a lender risk-complacent while encouraging an owner to pile on risk in hopes of a windfall, tragedy often ensues. ”

    That appears to me to be pretty much the same as your “guess”. I’m very ‘challenged’ when it comes to economics and finance, so I have a difficult time understanding what little I attempt to read on the subject. But that seemed fairly easy to understand even for me. 😀

  8. Dan Martin

    Chris, thanks for the link to the WSJ article which I had not seen. Frankly I tend to believe the polling trend as a lot of the actual “occupiers” sound rather like the “battle in Seattle” crowd. I would put a little more faith in the numbers if the writer made the methodology a bit clearer as selection bias can really skew actual numbers (interpreting statistics is part of my professional training); however, as I said, I don’t discount the general drift at all.

    Having acknowledged that, it doesn’t repudiate my contention in this blog post, because as you may notice, I did not come out with the usual liberal endorsement of the Occupy movement. What I said, and I still stand by this, is that the way I read both Old and New Testaments I believe Jesus would have pretty harsh criticism for the financial industry, and certainly would not be defending it the way conservative Christians are doing. That is not the same thing as endorsing the anarchist views of the protesters, which I did not do.

    Perhaps to put it most succinctly, I would say that it is quite possible to state that the actions of the financial sector, and government as it has supported that sector, are antithetical to God’s way without endorsing the “Occupy” movement as the only viable alternative.

    Which is why I refer you back to the two concluding paragraphs of the original post.

  9. Dan Martin

    Stephen, peace to you as well. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate the link to the American Muslim article. One quote to highlight: the article states that Muslim economic management “failed for much the same reason as most good things do: not because the principles were wrong, but because self-serving leaders found ways to manipulate them to their own advantage, regardless of the results for the rest of us.”

  10. Morgan Guyton

    Here’s what I preached on Sunday. http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/occupy-the-kingdom/

    Whether or not Jesus would be in Zuccoti Park or not, Christians need to occupy the kingdom of God. I do think that Jesus chooses the poor over the rich, but I also think he chooses the humble over the sanctimonious. When a woman wasted a zillion dollars of spikenard on him, he stuck up for her. The problem with protests sometimes is they talk as though every is banker greedy and every soldier is bloodthirsty. I know a lot of good people who are soldiers and bankers.

    I don’t judge the protesters. I don’t judge the people in my pews who don’t understand the protesters. My particular piece of the puzzle is to help people learn God’s mercy and show mercy to others in whatever they do.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I agree to a point, Morgan. I do think it is possible, however, to take the approach you describe to an excessive place where we no longer call out (1) injustice or (2) Christian complicity or even defense of such injustice. Which is why, though I don’t think we ought to be occupying Wall Street, I *do* think we ought to be standing against the synonymizing of Christian faith with Republican “free market” economics. My issue, then, is not so much pro or against the protesters, as it is solidly against those who, in the name of Christianity, are loudly denouncing the protesters and their concerns.

      As I said, I don’t think Jesus would have joined the protesters, but I do think his voice would be (is) quite clear in denouncing the actions of Wall Street and it’s “Christian” apologists.

  11. Los Palmer

    Dan, this is one of the best articles on the subject I have ever read. Please, let me know where you attend/serve in Atlanta (if anywhere) via email, I think I might be moving there soon from Florida and I need/want a place that cultivates this kind of knowledge. I’m sorry, I haven’t had time to read all the comments so I’m not sure how you feel about the previous request. I’m just trying/called-to to learn. Thank you.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      LosPalmer, thank you so much for your encouragement. I’m sorry to report that I have found a church that cultivates this sort of approach, and the church I attend would rather categorically NOT be there. Nevertheless the remnant need to be in contact…I’ll email you offline so we can at least chat.

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