The General Synod of the United Church of Christ ended on Tuesday after a remarkable week. I'll have more to say about some of the resolutions adopted at a later time. Tonight I wanted to share with you the text of Bill Moyers' address at General Synod.
Written by Bill Moyers (transcribed)
June 23, 2007
Reprinted here from United Church News
Thank you. Thank you for that extraordinary welcome, and thank you, Bob, for that very generous introduction. As you were speaking, however, I was reminded of three incidents that happened in my life a few years ago, all on the same day. I had been the CBS Evening News Analyst with Dan Rather, and I was also producing a summer series of CBS News with my old friend, one of the great journalists of my time, the late Charles Kuralt. The series ended, and as often happened in August, I would fly home to see my parents in East Texas. On this particular day, I came out of CBS News on West 54th Street, and put my bag in the back of the cab, and went to La Guardia Airport. At the airport, the porter opened the trunk of the cab, and reached in and pulled out the bag. It had the CBS logo on it. Not my name, just the logo. You know the logo, the famous black and blue eyes - a lot more black and blue today than it was then.... But.. but the porter looked at it, and looked up at me, and looked at it and looked back up at me, and he said ... "Aren't you in a soap opera?" I started to say "Yes, the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, but, I didn't think Dan would appreciate that.
I went on and checked in, was sitting there reading a paper, and a lady came up, with a bun of white hair, and looked over the logo of the paper, and she was looking right into my eye, and she looked at me and said, "I know you. Who are you?"
Flew on the plane to Shreveport, Louisiana, which is the airport nearest my home town, was waiting for that same bag at the baggage claim, and another lady came up to me and said, "Oh, oh my goodness, ohhh my goodness, oh! I can't tell you how much I enjoy your work, Mr. Kuralt." "But you look different in person than you do on television." And I said, "Yes, ma'am. On television, I'm fatter and balder. And she said, (so help me, these all) she said, "Oh, we love you both ways."
The moral... the moral is, so much for notoriety.
What a joy it is for me to be here; to see in person, leaders I have long admired from afar, John Thomas and Paul Sherry among them. To see Everett Parker sitting there: so early a pioneer where faith, democracy and communications converge; so long an advocate of access to the media for all Americans, so that everyone's story has a chance to be heard. My wife Judith, who is also the CEO and Executive Editor of our independent production company, is the proud recipient of the coveted award in Everett Parker's name, and I see it every day when I go into her study.
And to see Bob Chase in action, Everett's successor in his own right, a towering figure, no pun intended... a towering figure in the fight to hold media accountable to the public interest, and the man who invited me here today. You can hold him accountable for that.
Thank you for including me in this General Synod, for inviting me to participate with you in this remarkable celebration of witness, and for the fellowship my family and I have shared with you through the years. We joined the UCC Community Church forty years ago this year, when we moved to Long Island from Washington. We had, as Bob said, been Baptists, but we found a new and welcoming home among the UCC congregation on Stewart Avenue in Garden City. Our children grew up in that church. The friendships we made there nurtured our lives. We sang together, prayed together, mourned together, downed steaming cups of coffee at Sunday morning forums together, went through weddings and funerals and confirmations and ordinations, and came to a deeper experience of grace, and a greater understanding of what it means to be brothers and sisters in the faith. Some of those old friends from that church are here today. I probably haven't seen them all: Ann Maloog, Lois and Jim McCartney, Joan Custer... So are Helen Durer and Virginia Crier, who are being honored by this Synod. Whitney Brown and Dean Allberg are here – they were just children then, and both are now UCC ministers. I think Jim Edelman is here. Jim was the young Assistant Minister back then, and is the Senior Pastor now, skillfully and lovingly leading the congregation to a new level of hospitality and inclusion. Ralph and Beverly Allberg are here. I spent the evening, the night with them last night. Ralph was our Pastor during our time there. Sunday after Sunday we arrived in need of a word from the Lord, and Ralph never failed to deliver it. I have sat at the feet of some powerful preachers in my life, Carlyle Marney, James Stewart, J.P. Adams, James Forbes, but Ralph Allberg is unique in his gift for meeting the needs of the heart, with language of today and wisdom of the ages. A collection of his sermons occupies a strategic place in my study. It is heavily underlined and worn with use, for I've gone to it often for inspiration and insight at hard turns in my own pilgrimage. I must also confess that it's been the answer to a professional plagiarist's desperate prayers. ... The Lord does provide.
But as much as Ralph's preaching touched me, it was the Allberg family's friendship that indelibly marked us. When our own family needed consolation and courage, Beverly and Ralph were there for us, arms outstretched and hearts open. Our years together remain a landmark in our journey. And consider yourself fortunate if you can say of your Pastor what I can say of mine, that the best shepherd is a good friend.
So you can see why I am grateful to be in your company this morning, to be among so many kindred spirits. I am at home in this church. You believe in the democracy of the pew, in the authority and power of the local congregation, and so do I. You believe in a witness based on the historic tradition of scripture but also the lived experience of today, and so do I. You believe, as Anselm said in Faith Seeking Understanding, the old story reconciled with the new discoveries of science and reason, and so do I. And you believe in the power and the promise of democracy, and so do I. I thank God ... I thank God for your witness and for the storied heritage of this Church. This United Church has the lineage that has influenced the American Experiment far beyond its numbers and its treasures. You have raised the prophetic voice against the militarism, the materialism and the racism that chokes America's arteries. You have placed ... you have yourself in the thick of the fight for social justice. You have aligned yourself on the side of liberty, equality and compassion, a church of prominent firsts, first to ordain an African American, the first to ordain a woman, the first to ordain an openly gay person, and the first to have a Baptist to deliver your keynote address. Justice Brandeis might have been speaking of this Church when he said the secret of liberty is courage. For this courage, you have been attacked. Like other mainstream churches across the land, you have been in the bull's eye of a highly organized and heavily funded campaign by corporate, political and religious forces who would stifle the prophetic voices that speak truth to power and call the Empire to repentance.
Fifty years ago when this UCC fellowship was forged, mainline churches were part of the progressive awakening that put the force of law behind civil rights and spread opportunity and wealth further than ever before in our history. Think about it. Half a century ago, America seemed on the verge of at last getting it right. Fewer than 150 years had passed since our Declaration of Independence had let loose in the world the radical notion of equality in the sight of God and under the rule of law. Eleven signers of that Declaration were members of UCC predecessor churches. Those words can still cause the heart to race:
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Once those words were abroad, every human being who could hear them, could imagine another world possible. They could think differently about the value that society had assigned their life. Yes, it's true. Slavery still exercised a malignant hold over our young generation, but that couldn't last long, once those words were loose in the land. The man who wrote those words knew it couldn't last. As a Southerner, Thomas Jefferson saw no political or social alternative to the peculiar institution, but he knew well that slavery degraded master and slave alike, and that any society that permitted half of its citizens to be despots over the other half was doomed.
"I tremble for my country," he wrote, "when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever." Jefferson knew from his own experience the perversity of owning another person as chattel. For the hand that wrote those words, "All men are created equal" also stroked the breasts and caressed the thighs of a slave woman named Sally Hemings. It is no longer a secret: this learned, philosophical and far-seeing founder had a long-term sexual relationship with his slave, who bore him several children. DNA confirms it, and even the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in Virginia accepts it. One guest at Monticello looked up at a dinner one evening and was startled to see a young servant who was the spitting image of the master at the head of the table. Jefferson never acknowledged those children as his own. And as he grew older, he relied more and more on slavery to keep him financially afloat. When he died, his slaves were sold to satisfy his creditors - all except for Sally. His probaters found in Jefferson's will an obscure passage, setting her children free. None of the others. Just the children of Sally Hemings. Two of them, of the descendants of those children, settled in Ohio, where their own descendants today have increased, some living as Blacks, and some as Whites. And two centuries later, despite their common parenting, race still divides them.
But here's the point. Jefferson could not really think that the words on that parchment were markers solely for white men of privilege and property who liked port and politics. He had to know. ... That the flesh and blood woman in his arms was his equal. In her desire for life, her longing for liberty, and her passion for happiness.
But the law ... but the law had been fashioned by white men of wealth privilege to keep her outside the gate of promise opened by the Declaration of Independence. She lay in his arms, the arms of its author, but could not travel with him to the Promised Land.
The philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler once told me in a series I did on PBS called Six Great Ideas, that whatever things are really good for any human being, are really good for all other human beings. The happy and good life is essentially the same for all, he said, the satisfaction of the same needs inherent in human nature.
So all that Sally Hemings asked from her long sufferance was that her master let her children go. The oldest and most plaintive of human petitions: Let my children go.
And he did. But only upon his death. Thomas Jefferson got it right, you see. But he lived it wrong. He got it right for the same reason he lived it wrong: he was embedded in the human condition. Addicted to his own place and privilege, he could send the noblest sentiments winging around the world, but refused to let them lodge in his own home. So much a creature of his time, he could not rise above his times. He knew the truth, and he lived the lie.
As we are, today.
It is the oldest war of all, the war of the self. Saul of Tarsus understood this when he wrote, "I do not what I want to do, and what I detest, I do."
Emily Dickinson understood it, too:
I felt a cleaving in my mind, as if my brain had split.
I tried to match it seam by seam, but could not make it fit.
So the authors of our freedom produced the Constitution that tolerated slavery and the cruel dispossession of Native Peoples who had been here all along. And we've been wrestling with the contradiction in our nation's soul ever since, the conflict between power and justice.
Recall with me, Job's incredible argument with God, that has come down to us through the ages, is one of the most wrenching of protests against the world where the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer. Drawn from the facts on the ground as any journalist should do, from the life he sees all around him, Job's outcry defines evil and innocence as socially ordained arrangements of power.
Where are the days of judgement, the times when the wicked are tried? They steal land from their neighbors, and walk away with their flocks. They drive off the orphan's donkey, and impound the widow's bull. They push the weak from the pathway and force the wretched to hide. The poor, [Job goes on] like herds of cattle, wander across the plains, searching all day for food, picking up scraps for their children. They carry grain for the wicked and break their backs for the rich. They press olives and starve. They crush grapes and go thirsty.
In these ancient words, we have the earliest indictment of poverty and injustice as intentional, willed priorities. Not the result of natural scarcity, not the consequences of disparities in I.Q., not the inevitable triumph of some immutable economic principle – no, Job saw that poverty and injustice were prescribed by the powers that be who arranged to serve their own self-interest and called upon obliging priests to bless it as God's will.
It has been a long struggle to put the world right. And you and I are the heirs of spiritual forebears who joined that struggle, who proved over and again that courage is the secret of liberty.
My friends and fellow congregants, this has been the prologue. Now comes the argument.
On this Saturday morning, June 23rd, 2007, in the opening ceremony of this Church's 50th anniversary, I've come to say, that America's revolutionary heritage, and America's revolutionary spirit, life, liberty and the pursuit of justice, for government of, by and for the people – is under siege. And if churches of conscience don't take the lead in their rescue and their revival, we can lose our democracy.
Hear me out on this... hear me out on this. It may take a little longer than I intended. I am – or was – a Baptist, after all. But you know, no matter how many of you stay around for these five days, this is the last time all of us will be together again. I mean, everyone who is here right now. And we have to connect on this, or the opportunity is lost.
"The world may be flat," as Thomas Friedman writes, "but it is increasingly marked by great gulfs that separates the people who live on it." Flying over Southern California recently, I could look down and see what I'm talking about most dramatically. You see a jigsaw puzzle of affluent walled communities, often contiguous with low income areas, choking them off. In California today, forty percent of all the new housing development is in the form of gated communities, a nearly fourteen percent rise since 2001. In some cases, developers make deals with government, literally to confiscate formerly public resources and amenities, parkland, lakes, beachfront, access, and use it exclusively for gated homeowners.
You see this flying over the capitol of Buenos Aires, of Buenos Aires, the capitol of Argentina. After the financial meltdown in 1999, there has been an economic recovery, but the main evidence of it is hundreds of new gated communities, barrios cerrados, springing up outside the city, with walls topped by razor wire and watchtowers, by armed guards with walkie-talkies. The wealthiest ones are actually called "countries," requiring I.D. and authorization to cross their "borders." And one resident said, "You can't see the poor here. That's part of the appeal."
But the realities on the ground don't disappear. Here's one: under a headline stretching six columns across the page, the New York Times reported that tuition in the City's elite private schools, kindergarten as well as high school, would hit $26,000 for the coming school year. On the same page under a two-column headline, the Times reported on a school in nearby Mount Vernon, just across the city line from the Bronx, with a student body that is 97% Black. It is the poorest school in the town. Nine out of ten children qualify for free lunches; one out of ten lives in a homeless shelter. During Black History month in February, a sixth-grader who wanted to write a report on Langston Hughes could not find a single book about Hughes in the library. Nothing about the man, or his poems. There's only one book in the library on Frederick Douglass, none on Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker, Leontyne Price, or other path breakers like them in our modern era. Except for a few Newbery Award Books bought by the librarian with her own money, the books were largely from the 1950s and the 1960s when all the students were White. A child's primer on work in the library begins with a youngster learning how to be a telegraph delivery boy, and all the jobs described in the book, the dry cleaner, delivery man, the cleaning lady, are White. There's a 1967 book about telephones in the library, with the instruction, "When you phone, you usually dial the number, but on some new phones, you can push buttons." The newest encyclopedia in the library dates from 1991, with two volumes, B and R missing. And there is no card catalog in the library, no index cards, and no computer.
Reality. On the ground.
Here's another: Carolyn Paine's face and gums are distorted because her Medicaid finance dentures don't fit. Her appearance has caused her to be continuously turned down for jobs. Carolyn Paine is one of the people in David Shipler's marvelous book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. She was born poor. Although she once owned her home and earned a two-year college degree, Carline Paine has bounced from one poverty-wage job to another, all her life equipped with the will to move up, but lacking the resources to deal with such unexpected and overlapping problems as a mentally handicapped daughter, a broken marriage, a sudden layoff that forced her to sell her few assets, pull up her roots, and move on. "In the house of the poor," David Shipler writes, "the walls are thin and fragile and troubles seep into one another."
We could ask Carol Ann Reyes about reality if we could find her. She's 63, lives in Los Angeles, suffers from dementia, and is homeless. Somehow, she made her way to a hospital with serious untreated ailments. The newspaper story that I read about her wasn't certain what happened to her there, except that the hospital, which is part of the largest HMO in the country, called a cab and sent her back to Skid Row. True, they phoned workers at a rescue shelter to let them know that she was coming, but some hours later, a surveillance camera picked her up wandering around the streets in a hospital gown and slippers.
Dumped ... in America. Dying alone ... in America.
It's been exactly a dozen years this summer, since Chicago experienced that devastating heat wave between July 14th and July 20th in 1995. Hundreds of people died, mostly poor and elderly, died of heatstroke, died of dehydration, died of kidney failure. Died alone! Behind locked doors and sealed windows. Out of contact with friends, family and neighborhood. Unassisted by public agencies or community groups. So many died. A local meat packer volunteered his fleet of refrigerated trucks to handle the overflow of corpses. A young journalist I know named Eric Klinenberg wrote a book about that summer. He called the book Heat Wave. It's worth your time, even now. Because like Hurricane Katrina nine years later, the heat that summer had the appearance of an act of God. And the official story tried to keep up the appearances. City officials ... actually blamed the dead, for not being prepared. But as you read in Klinenberg's book, "These fatal conditions actually reflected the hard reality of the City's social environment, a large population of isolated elderly, living in under-serviced, crime-ridden neighborhoods, with weakened social ties due to suburban flight. And without those commercial or community activities that make them able to go out and feel safe."
In the medical autopsies of political reports that established the official record for the disaster, Klinenberg wrote, "None of these common urban conditions show up as causes of death, but these extremes create the kind of slow motion emergency that can be fatally accelerated by a sudden event that becomes the tipping point."
Until then, the poor and the lonely are invisible. The Mayor of Chicago didn't seem embarrassed by what happened. He even quipped, that "Well, of course Chicago is a city of extremes."
You know, nothing seems to embarrass the political class today. Not the war in Iraq that bleeds dry so many lives. The Washington Post had another astonishing revelation this week, of troops returning from the battlefield with psychological wounds who are then lost in the mental health system that is supposed to heal them. By this Spring, the number of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq who have sought help for post-traumatic stress would fill four Army divisions. Some 45,000 in all, and they occupy every rank, uniform, and corner of the Country.
It's not embarrassing to our political class.
They're not embarrassed that more children are growing up in poverty in America than in any other industrial nation. They're not embarrassed that millions of workers are actually making less money today in real dollars than they did twenty years ago, despite the fact that they're putting in longer and longer hours. They're not embarrassed by the fact that we have the most advanced care in the world, and yet nearly 44 million Americans, eight out of ten of them in working families, are uninsured and cannot get care they need.
Astonishing as it seems, our political elite appear in no way embarrassed by the fact that the gap between the rich and poor in America today is greater than it's been since 1929, when the economy collapsed and America fell into depression. We have the worst inequality in the world among industrial democracies. You can't even get them to acknowledge that we're experiencing a shift in poverty. For years, the people at the bottom of our ladder were single jobless mothers. For years they were told they would move up the economic ladder if they would only go to school, work hard and get married. But now poverty is showing up where we didn't expect it: among families that include two parents, a worker and a head of the household with more than a high school education. These are the newly poor. And our political elites expect them to climb out of poverty on a downwardly escalating moving escalator.
I have to confess to you here. It's a mystery to me! Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these." Then you have to wonder, how the self-declared Christian nation leaves so many children to suffer?
According to UNICEF's report card for 2007, our country ranks near the bottom in child well-being in the developed world, far beyond even former Communist countries like Poland and the Czech Republic. We are dead last among 21 countries in measures of health and safety for children. And close to bottom even in material well-being, despite vastly greater wealth per capita.
What's going on?
I started to come and talk about the media, my business. But I decided I couldn't. That I had to talk to you about what your media are not telling you. Because they're not telling you what's going on.
For years now, our political and economic system has been fixed to favor people at the top. A small fraction of American households have been guarding a huge concentration of wealth and income while large corporations and financial institutions have obtained more and more power over who wins and who loses.
Now I'm going to quote some statistics. And I know the eyes glaze over when statistics are mentioned – but a great mentor of mine at the University of Texas once told me when I was in school there many years ago, that it's the mark of a deeply educated person to be deeply moved by statistics. I want to see ... if you are moved by these statistics.
In 1960 the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20% and the bottom 20% was 30-fold. Now it's 75-fold. Since 1979, the share of pre-tax income going to the top 1% of American households has risen by 7 percentage points. At the same time, the share of income going to the bottom 80% has fallen by 7%.
People, as I said, are working harder. Productivity has been growing. You're doing a harder job at work, working harder. But wages have been stagnating. Even the bargaining power of the once-privileged White college graduates has declined significantly in the last 30 years, along with those of male high school graduates. This left 80% of all income gains over these 30 years in the hands of that 1%.
It's like inviting a hundred people over for some pie. (I'm glad Beverly Allberg didn't do this last night.) But it's like inviting a hundred people over for some pie, cutting the pie into 5 slices, giving 4 of the slices to just one person, and leaving one slice for the remaining 99. You don't be surprised if they fight over it. Which is exactly what's happening when people look at their wages and then their taxes, and end up hating the government for everything it does!
And yes, as at places like at Walmart, they say, "But we do this for the consumer." And it's true: television sets, and cell phones, and iPods are cheap. But higher education, health care and public transportation, drugs, housing and cars have risen in price faster than typical family incomes, and Walmart produces none of those.
Listen. We don't need Karl Marx to analyze where this is taking us. Just read The Economist. That's right, the pro-business magazine considered to be one of the most influential defenders of capitalism in publishing today. On the eve of President Bush's second inauguration – I have this still posted these 3 years later on the bulletin board in my study – on the eve of President Bush's second inauguration, The Economist produced a sobering analysis of what is happening to the American Dream. The editors looked at the yawning gap between incomes. Thirty years ago the average real compensation of the top 100 chief corporate executives in America was 39 times the pay of the average worker. Today it's 1000 times.
The Economist examined our education system, which they said is increasingly stratified by social class, in which, as I said, poor children attend schools with fewer resources of their richer contemporaries. They looked at how our great universities are increasingly reinforcing rather than reducing these educational inequalities.
They looked at great corporations and found it harder and harder for people to start at the bottom and rise up in the hierarchy.
And the editors of The Economist, no socialist rag, looked at all the evidence and concluded, "The United States risks calcifying into a European style class-based society."
About the same time, the Wall Street Journal, no enemy of capitalism, concluded that the typical child starting out in poverty in Europe or Canada has a better chance of climbing out of it than a child born in poverty in the United States.
And about the same time, The American Political Science Association concluded in a major study of its own, that increasing inequalities threaten the American ideal of equal citizenship, and that progress toward real democracy may have stalled in this country, and even regressed.
It's not right.
America was not meant to be a country where the winner takes all. Through a system of checks and balances, we were going to maintain a healthy equilibrium. Because equitable access to public resources is the life blood of any democracy, Americans made primary schooling free to all. Because everyone deserves a second chance, debtors, especially the relative poor, were protected by state law against their rich creditors. Charters to establish corporations were open to most if not all – white – comers at the time, rather than held for the elite. Government encouraged Americans to own their own piece of land and even supported squatters' rights. Equal access, long a hope, became a reality for millions of us.
Although my parents were knocked down and almost out by the depression, and were poor all their lives – my dad's last paycheck after taxes was $96.25 (I still have that, too.) – Although my parents were knocked down and almost out by the depression, I went to good public schools. My brother made it to college on the G.I. bill. When I bought my first car with a borrowed loan, I drove to a public university on free public highways and rested in public parks. I was one more heir of a growing public legacy that shaped America as a shared project, and became the central engine, about the time of your merger, the central engine of our national experience.
Not now. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon's Attorney General, who like this one may, wound up in jail, disgraced... Richard Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell, said "This country is going so far to the right, you won't recognize it." And thirty years ago, a class war was declared from the top down against the idea and ideal of equality. It has been driven ever since by a radical elite, seeking to gain ascendancy over politics and to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that check the excesses of private power.
From land, water, and other natural resources, to the media and the broadcast and digital spectrums, to scientific discovery and medical breakthroughs, a broad range of America's public resources is undergoing a powerful shift toward elite control, contributing substantially to those economic pressures on ordinary Americans that deeply affect household stability, family dynamics, social mobility, political participation and civic life.
That class war was declared in a powerful polemic I read at the time, by the wealthy right-winger William Simon, who had been Nixon's Secretary of the Treasurer. In the book called Time for Truth, he declared "that funds generated by business must rush by the multi-millions to conservative causes." It was a trumpet sounded for the financial and business elites to take back the power and privileges they had lost as a result of the depression and the New Deal.
They got the message. Business Week put it bluntly: "Some people will obviously have to do with less. It will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more."
Their long range strategy – this is all spelled out – was to cut work forces and wages, scowl the globe in search of cheap labor, trash the social contract and the safety net that was supposed to protect people from hardships beyond their control, deny ordinary citizens the power to sue rich corporations for malfeasance and malpractice, and eliminate the ability of government to restrain what the editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal admiringly called the "animal spirits of business."
Returning us to the law ... of the jungle.
Looking back, it all seems so clear that we wonder that we could have ignored the warning signs at the time. What has been happening to working people is not the result of Adam Smith's invisible hand, but the direct consequence of corporate activism, intellectual propaganda, the rise of a political religion of fundamentalism opposed to civil and human rights that threaten its paternalism, and a string of political decisions favoring wealthy elites, who bought the political system right out from under us.
It's been a ruthless war. You can still go online and read those emails and transcripts of those Enron traders in the energy crisis some years ago, discussing how they were manipulating the California power market, and gloating over ripping off "those poor grandmothers." They loved it. Read how they talk about political contributions to politicians like Kenny Lay, who was George W. Bush's best friend and biggest contributor.
Listen. The unmitigated plunder of the public trust has spread a spectacle of political corruption across America that has no equivalent, except for the first Gilded Age. Back then, privilege controlled politics and the purchase of votes, the corruption of elections officials, the bribing of legislatures, the lobbying of special bills and the flagrant disregard of laws, threatened the very foundations of democracy, as it does now. And without the help of Walter Rauschenbusch, and without the help of our forebears, and without those people of conscience who got out and fought, the Gilded Age would have triumphed, and we would not have had the egalitarian reforms of the first part of the twentieth century.
Back then, Frederick Townsend Martin... – I know this because I'm doing a series to air next year on PBS on the Gilded Age, the first Gilded Age – back then one of the captains of finance could say, "We are rich. We own America. We got it God knows how. But we intend to keep it."
How do they keep it? Listen, and I'll close. I want you to hear something.
When powerful interests shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they often get what they want. But it's ordinary citizens and firms that pay the price, and most of them never see it coming. This is what happens if you don't contribute to their campaigns or spend generously on lobbying. You pick up a disproportionate share of America's tax bill. You pay higher prices for a broad range of products, from peanuts to prescriptions. You pay taxes that others in a similar situation have been excused from paying. You are compelled to abide by laws while others are granted immunity from them. You must pay debts that you incur while others do not. You're barred from writing off on your tax return some of the money spent on necessities, while others deduct the cost of their entertainment. You must run your business by one set of rules, while the government creates another set for your competitors. In contrast, the fortunate few who contribute to the right politicians and hire the right lobbyists enjoy all the benefits of their special status. Make a bad business deal – the government bails them out. If they want to hire workers at below-market-wages, the government provides the means to do so. If they want more time to pay their debts, the government gives them an extension. If they want immunity from certain laws, the government gives it. If they want to ignore rules their competition must comply with, the government gives its approval. If they want to kill legislation that is intended for the public interest, it gets killed.
This is not a quote from Karl Marx's Das Kapital. It's not a quote from Mao's Little Red Book. I'm quoting from Time Magazine. From the heart of America's media establishment comes the judgement, that America now has "government for the few at the expense of the many." And you begin to understand why Franklin Delano Roosevelt feared a government of money as much as he feared a government by the mob.
That ... that's the argument. Now for the altar call. You can take the boy out of the Baptist, but you can't take the Baptist out of the boy.
One morning, Judith and I arrived early outside New York's Riverside Church where we attend. In the quietness of the hour, I picked up a Bible from the pew, and opened it randomly to the Gospel of Matthew, where the story of Jesus of Nazareth unfolds, chapter by chapter. The birth at Bethlehem, the baptism in the River Jordan, the temptation in the wilderness, the sermon on the mount, the healing of the sick and the hungry, the parables, the calling of the disciples, the journey to Jerusalem and always embedded like pearls throughout the story, the teachings of compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation. In these pages, we are in the presence of one who clearly understands the power of love, the joy of mercy, and the healing of kindness.
But suddenly, as I was reading ... the story turned. Jesus' demeanor changes. The tone and temper of the narrative shifts, and the Prince of Peace suddenly becomes a Disturber of the Peace. "Then Jesus went into the temple of God, and drove out all those who had bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers, and he said to them, 'It is written, my house shall be called, A House of Prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.
No cheek turned there. No second mile traveled. On the contrary, Jesus turns angry. He passes judgement. And he takes action.
I closed the Bible, and sat there, and that morning, I didn't hear what Jim Forbes was saying. Because I was turning the text over and again in my head, absorbing the image of Jesus striding through the Holy Precinct that had been transformed into a market place or stock exchange, upsetting the dealers, scattering their money across the floor, bouncing them forcefully from the temple, indignant at a profane violation of the sacred – Jesus threw the rascals out
And sitting ... sitting in the pew that morning, I thought of what I've been saying to you today, how in the past generation as the number of the poor has increased, wages fell, health and housing costs exploded, and wealth and media became more and more concentrated, prophetic religion lost its voice and the religious right drowned out everyone else, and they hijacked Jesus. The very Jesus who stood in his hometown and proclaimed, "The Lord has anointed me to preach the Good News to the poor." The very Jesus who told 5000 hungry people that all, that not just the people in the box seats, would be fed. The very Jesus who challenged the religious orthodoxy of the day by feeding the hungry on the Sabbath, who offered kindness to the prostitute and hospitality to the outcast, who said "The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to little children," who raised the status of women, and treated even the hated tax collector like a citizen of the Kingdom.
The indignant Jesus who drove the money changers from the temple has been hijacked, and turned from the friend of the dispossessed into a guardian of privilege, a militarist, a hedonist, a lobbyist... sent prowling the halls of Congress in Guccis seeking tax breaks and loopholes for the powerful, costly new weapons systems and punitive public policies for people without political power.
Yet it was this very Jesus, the Jesus aroused by indignation when the sacred was profaned. It was this Jesus who inspired a Methodist ship caulker named Edward Rogers to crusade across New England for an eight hour day; who called Frances Williams to rise up against the sweatshop; who sent Dorothy Day to march alongside auto workers in Michigan, brewery workers in New York and marble cutters in Vermont; who roused E.B. McKinney and Owen Whitfield to stand against the Mississippi oligarchy that held sharecroppers in servitude; who summoned the young priest named John Ryan ten years before the New Deal to champion child labor laws, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage and decent housing for the poor; and summoned Martin Luther King to Memphis to march with the Sanitation Workers, the garbage workers, in their search for justice.
My friends, they say your church is ... dying. 1.2 million against the Southern Baptists, 16 million and growing. They say your church is ... lame, and limp, and liberal. And they're coming after you. Read the book recently done about how the Institute for Religion and Democracy is after your local congregations. But you know ... they don't take on people they're not afraid of. And it is a small, committed, determined People of Conscience who can turn this country around!
Please, please ... listen ... And listen, this new struggle for a just world – it's not a partisan affair. God is not a liberal or conservative. God is not a Democrat or Republican. She may be a Baptist, I don't know. But to see whose side God is on, just go to the record. It's the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the poor who are blessed in the eyes of God. It is kindness and mercy that prove the power of faith, and it's justice that measures the worth of the state, not empire. Kings are held accountable for how the poor fare under their reign; Presidents, too. Prophets speak to the gap between rich and poor as a reason for God's judgement. Poverty and justice are religious issues, and Jesus moves among the disinherited.
For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.
Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?
And the Lord will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.
This is the Jesus who drove the money changers out of the temple of Jerusalem, and it is this Jesus called back to duty who will drive the money changers out of the temples of democracy.
Thank you very much.