Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Seeking Justice for the Community



As I read scripture, I am continually reminded that God is concerned about justice, especially justice for the poor and the marginalized in our society.  Some politicians may not be concerned about those who fall below the poverty line. Some of my fellow believers may not care.  But, it’s clear that God cares.
Consider the words of the Psalmist who declares:
Give justice to the lowly and the orphan; maintain the right of the poor and the destitute!  Rescue the lowly and the needy.  Deliver them    from the power of the wicked!  (Psalm 82:3-4 Common English Bible).
Or consider this word from the prophet Jeremiah:
No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly;  if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.  (Jeremiah 7:5-7 CEB).  
Then there is the word of judgment offered by Jesus:
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’    . . .  “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’  (Matthew 25:34-40).
Scriptures like these remind me that God is concerned about justice, and justice means something other than “law and order.”  The focus of God’s justice is creating a community of equity and fairness.  In Roman Catholic social teaching it’s called “God’s preferential option for the poor.”  
It is from this biblical perspective that I have tried to understand my role in society, and that of the church.  As a result I chose to join in the formation of a coalition of suburban congregations seeking to engage the political and economic systems so that they might become just and fair and responsive to the needs of the people living in our communities.  This coalition has its origins in conversations that began a year ago, and that led to the formation of the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations.  Our purpose is spelled out in our mission statement:
"The Metro Coalition of Congregations is an interfaith organization of clergy and religious congregations working together for transformative systemic and societal change in our communities. The Coalition, representing Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, is seeking partnership with civic leaders from metro Detroit communities, and is committed to building power in order to influence policy and become a strong, unified voice speaking out and taking action on issues that affect all of southeast Michigan. "
As a coalition we have chosen to focus our attention on the issue of financial and economic justice, with a special focus on the foreclosure crisis.  We have been engaged in a number of activities, including hosting a Faith and Financial Justice Summit in November that provided an opportunity for members of the faith community to hear from a number of sources, including political leaders and persons involved in providing assistance to those in need.  
Among the issues we discussed was the logjam that keeps the State of Michigan’s Housing and Development Authority (MSHDA) from releasing more than $400 million dollars in federal money designed to prevent homeowners from suffering foreclosure.  Very little of that money has found its way to its intended beneficiaries, and if you google this program you'll find little news coverage.  We'd like to see this change, so a meeting has been set up for members of the coalition to meet with the head of MSHDA to see what can be done to facilitate the movement of funds.   We have talked about putting pressure on banks that have resisted participating in efforts to work with homeowners to resolve these problems.
Consider for a moment that one in three Michigan homeowners owes more on their mortgages than their homes are now worth.  
One of the ways we are responding to this crisis is to launch a preaching series on Economic Justice in churches across the three Metro Detroit counties.  In sermons, worship experiences, and faith expressions we are trying to get the word out, letting congregants know what kinds of resources are available to them, and inviting them to get involved in changing a system that often works against the best interests of the community.   We observed this day at my congregation on February 19th.  Others are doing so throughout January and February.
We hope that these experiences will lead to conversations that will empower people in the community to work for fair and ethical banking, and financial justice.
By raising the issue in worship we want to counter the  personal shame and guilt that are often  associated with foreclosure and highlight the injustice of big banks that have been throwing congregants, their friends, and their neighbors out of their homes.  
I hope that you will reflect on these texts of scripture, these issues that confront us, and consider joining us in working toward a just and lasting solution.  For more information about the coalition see our website.

Reposted from Troy Patch

16 comments:

Gary said...

Mr. Cornwall,

What is the Biblical justification for living in a house without paying payments for the house you have previously agreed to pay?

Another question: If a person were renting a house, and did not make the rental payments as agreed, would the landlord be in violation of God's rules to evict the non-paying tenant?

Robert Cornwall said...

Gary,

The difference between home buyer and renter, is that a renter can move on and find a different place without the baggage of a mortgage. Many people buying homes, can't just walk away. They have that mortgage hanging over them.

The reality is that there are resources out there, if made available, could help many of these people stay in their homes and find a way to pay their mortgages.

Gary said...

What resources?

John said...

Gary,

The act of purchasing a home and the act of borrowing money are two different distinguishable actions. Thus your question about how one can justify living in a house they didn't pay for is a little off-point, and instead the more accurate question might be how can you biblically justify not repaying a debt - even if you have to surrender your home to repay it? Put in that light the implications are somewhat different. Then the Scripturalist must geve serious consideration to the impact of Bible passages regarding Jubilee and charging inappropriate interest. In fact there are many passages rebuking the lender and virtually none rebuking the debtor. If Scripture is not concerned with rebuking the penniless debtor, then
where is the Biblical justification for us to enter into such rebuke?

And in calling for aid to the poor, Scripture never inquires into whether they are personally to blame for their poverty.

All that being said, you do raise an interesting point: how do we balance our personal responsibility for paying our debts and earning our own way with our responsibility to nurse, feed, and house the poor, even the newly poor?

The poor have the same personal responsibility to pay their debt and earn their keep that those who are not poor have. Obviously their impoverished circumstances, which may be the result of their own decisions, prevent them from doing so. But there is definitely a fairness component at play in our hearts.

Perhaps the answer is the simple Biblical mandate: to those whom much is given, much is expected.

Gary said...

John,

I am not aware that the Jewish Jubilee has ever been in effect in the USA.

What is "inappropriate interest"?

Cornwall mentioned foreclosures. The foreclosure happens because the borrower fails to make the agreed to payments. The lender's security for the debt is, in part, the mortgaged property. The borrower volunteers to make the payments and the lender agrees to lend the money. If it is a voluntary transaction, where is the injustice? It might be unfortunate, and sad, that people are unable to make their payments, but I don't see how it is unjust for the lender to protect his money by taking the house if the payments are not made.

John said...

I see. So then your position is that Biblical principals (by which I assume you mean from the Old Testament) only apply to Jews and have no "effect in the USA." Well that is a surprise.

"Inappropriate interest" would be interest beyond that which the debtor can afford, and in some instances any interest charges at all. See, e.g., Lev 25, Deut 23, Psalm 15, Nehemiah 5.

Biblical injustice has nothing to do with what the poor ought to get, but instead about what those who are not poor ought to give.

Gary its all about sheep and goats. And as far as the poor are concerned in Matthew's treatment of sheep and goats, the issue is not why they are hungry, thirsty, naked or homeless, but whether you made the effort to take care of them.

Jeff said...

Justice to comprises more than contract law. It is much more comprehensive. A disciple of Jesus might well ask about the morality of a nation that makes free trade agreements for the unhindered movement of goods across border, but also restricts the free movements of the people that make them. Likewise, in banking the payment structure for atms -the poor pay a larger percent than the wealthy when fees are transacted per transaction rather than as a percent of money withdrawn. One might 'agree' to the contract but have no real choice. One additional point, as Christians, when we extend our concept of justice we will not only find ourselves reevaluating how our neighbors are treated, but how God deals with us in both judgement and atonement.

Gary said...

John,

If you want to legislate Old Testament Law, I'm all for that. But if we do that, I will insist on ALL of it, not just the part having to do with economics. That would mean that we would execute adulterers, homosexuals, several other varieties of law breakers. And that would likely mean that a lot of your friends would soon be gone. Still want to?

I don't think there would be much support from the Left for that.

John said...

My friends and yours! But of course there would have to be eye witnesses. And I love shrimp, lobster and cheeseburgers. So please, no Judeo-Christian sharia.

But we were talking about poverty, and discerning God's will in regard to the poor and about-to-be-homeless. I was not suggesting that we should make Jubilee the law of America. I was making the point that from the Old Testament through the New Testament God has expressed a consistent pattern of profound concern for the poor. Not only has God shown a consistent and abiding concern for the poor, but God has consistently called on the more prosperous to take good care of the poor.

My reference to the Scripturally attested practice of Jubilee was intended to call attention to the degree to which God is willing to curb the adverse impact of interest charges and foreclosure on the poor - that under Jubilee every 49 years land reverts back to the original owners and away from those who leased it, mortgaged it, or seized it to cover unpaid debt.

I am not suggesting that we should adopt this law, I am suggesting instead that principles of Jubilee disclose the enormous regard which God holds for a person's home - and conversely the truth that God holds a homestead in higher regard than a default in repayment of a debt.

What do these principles suggest to us today? Not that we should adopt Jubilee, so much as that we give heed to od's priorities.

In the grand scheme of things a homestead deserves greater protection than an unpaid debt. One does not trump the other, but a degree of sensitivity and balance is called for, and judgment, dismissal, disregard, and rejection of personhood have no place in the discussion.

God's justice is not so simple as requiring repayment of a debt; personal and institutional grace must play a role, and whatever conclusion we reach, we are still burdened with the ultimate responsibility to care for the poor and homeless.

With these concerns in mind we need to faithfully design policies which balance the rights and expectations of the lenders (especially if they survive on the largess of the taxpayer), the clear and present needs of the poor, and the moral obligations imposed on the rest of us.

Gary said...

What is the goal? Is it to make everyone "middle-class"? Or is it something more modest? We Americans already spend multiplied billions on government social programs, and many billions more in private charity each year. But, from listening to the Left, it would seem we are doing almost nothing. Why isn't the amount Americans are already spending enough? Is the money being mismanaged?

John said...

Gary,

What is the goal?

To honor God.

Is it to make everyone "middle-class"? Or is it something more modest?

More modest - to care for those
who need it, and to honor God's priorities.

We Americans already spend multiplied billions on government social programs, and many billions more in private charity each year.

Yes that is true, but still there are those who will be hungry tonight, still there are those who live out of their cars, still there are those who will lose their homes tomorrow from which no one will profit.

But, from listening to the Left, it would seem we are doing almost nothing.

Just as you exaggerate to make your point on the Right, apologists on the Left exaggerate to emphasize their message. The truth is somewhere in between

Why isn't the amount Americans are already spending enough?

Because it isn't. And because we will always have poor to care for.

Is the money being mismanaged?

Absolutely. The managers are human, and manage from the point of view of profit and personal gain. That means that the needs of the people are given less of a priority.

David said...

Let's start modest, with the multiple billions taken from the struggling in overdraft fees! Banks charged nearly $40 billion in overdraft charges in 2009 and it's not going away if the banks have their way.

When I was young, they simply asked you to find a new bank.

Yes, there's a war on the poor.

Gary, would this hurt you?

Gary said...

John,

I don't feel an obligation to pay more when someone is mismanageing the money. Solve the mismanagement first.

David,

I alone am responsible to insure that my bank account is not overdrawn. Provided of course that the bank has kept accurate records. If I fail to fulfill my responsibilities, it is reasonable to expect something negative to happen.

David said...

Well, nowadays my left hand doesn't know what my right hand is doing (I make it, my partner spends it).

I did spend many years raising a young family, on the edge. Missing a balance by a few cents could send you into the hole for months. You make one innocent error and they attack you like wolves. It's the same with a mortgage. 2 months behind (these things happen) and you can't recover with all the extra fees and lawyer fees to boot. I sent catch-up mortgage payments that ended up "forgotten" in bank employee's desk drawers in that situation. The second you're behind, they go in for the kill. I saved the house, but was bilked for thousands. The banks truly are set up so their employes are required to be evil, or end up like the suckers they "serve".

I learn things by reading. I know things through experience, not through some theological imaginings. It's like the marijuana issue. I was arrested, judged and sentenced. Spent the time in solitary confinement. If someone closes their minds and is for continued prohibition, I image them holding the keys. I have no interest in their arguments, because they're wrong. They're wrong to judge and punish me. I want to follow them around to judge every aspect of their revolting, fascist, anti-American, ungodly, narcissistic existence.

It's obvious to the most casual observer that it's a harmless substance. Resistance is futile.

John said...

Gary,

I sense that for you it's all about the rules, and how compliance prevents chaos. So you spend a great deal of time mastering the rules, and you work very hard to comply, and you expend a great deal of effort to get others to comply with the rules you have figured out. Ad to the extent you succeed, you have fended off chaos.

For me it's about people and their relationships. Rules are abstractions which people sometimes observe, and often violate, sometimes intentionally. Rules are important, but they are not of first importance. People are still more important than the rules which they follow, and break. And when the rules are violated it is often with bad results. So compliance is desirable, for everyone.

But like the traditional perception of biblical Jews, a religion based on rule compliance instead of grace is a dead end, because nobody is that good at rule compliance, and therefore it is only through grace that salvation can be achieved.

And what is grace? Surely not automatic punishment and unavoidable dire consequences for non-compliance. Grace is love, and acceptance of our errors; grace is being cherished for who we want to be as well as who we actually are. Grace is responsiveness when we need it most, and it is acceptance and forgiveness when we fail.

And grace is experienced in this world through the responsiveness of those with whom we are in relationship. In the end it is our relationships which will elevate the quality of our lives, not our rule compliance.

David said...

This is relevant to the posting-

A big meeting at our old church. I think I shall attend (and also get some petition signatures)-

https://ronpaulindetroit.eventbrite.com/?nomo=1