The Common Good
March-April 2003

Hey You, Listen Up!

by Thomas Cahill | March-April 2003

A Bible study

Let me tell you about a society of peace and prosperity that existed long ago. In this society, many people had much more than they needed. The construction business was experiencing an unprecedented boom; elaborate wine cellars and even personal vineyards were in vogue. All the markets were buzzing; the communications, entertainment, and travel industries had never enjoyed such escalating profits.

The men and women of this society—at least the ones who luxuriated properly—would have been shocked to hear that there were some in their midst who enjoyed none of these pleasures, people leading lives of quiet desperation. The people on the hilltops would have been greatly offended had anyone dared suggest that the dispossessed were their responsibility—that, in fact, it was their uncaring wealth that was responsible for the plight of the invisible poor.

The scene I have set is not in the Hamptons or Marin County, but in Samaria in the Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century B.C. The prophet Amos was so shocked by conspicuous consumption on such a grand scale that he realized that this was a novel form of social injustice:

They hate those who teach justice at the city gate
and detest anyone who declares the truth.
For trampling on the poor
and for extorting taxes on their wheat:
although you have built houses of dressed stone,
you will never live in them;
although you have planted pleasant vineyards,
you will not drink wine from them:
for I know how many your crimes are
and how outrageous your sins,
you oppressors of the upright,
who hold people to ransom
and thrust the poor aside at the gates

—Amos 5:10-12

Prophets are, by their nature, inconvenient party-poopers. It is a mistaken notion that prophets can see the future. Rather, they tell us what is true right now. Amos is the first in a long line of Hebrew prophets who tell the people the truth, however unwelcome, about how they actually stand with God.

A decade or so after Amos' time, another prophet, Micah, finds himself confronted in the southern kingdom of Judah with the appalling Canaanite tradition of sacrificing children to the god Moloch. This practice had begun to attract even some Israelites. Micah, sickened, tells them in no uncertain terms that God "has already shown you what is right: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).

The ancient Jews had an amazingly unitive view of life. They did not need to distinguish prayer and moral action as if these were separate movements: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk with God—that is, to be moral and prayerful—were all simply aspects of the same process.

Mary, the Muscular Prophet
A third example of prophecy comes from early Christian tradition. Luke reports that "it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be taxed" (Luke 2:1). Despite the decree, it wasn't really the whole world—just the poor and lower rungs of the middle class, because in ancient Rome the rich only pretended to pay taxes, while everyone else bore the brunt of supporting the state. And Caesar Augustus' taxation method was even more cumbersome than, say, Florida's voting procedures.

Joseph had to travel all the way from Nazareth to his birthplace, Bethlehem, "to be taxed," as Luke tells us, "with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child." If you lived in one of the better neighborhoods, you didn't need to be saddled with such inconveniences. But if you were poor or a member of a minority group, a 100-mile journey by donkey when you were nine months pregnant was just the way things were.

Were Mary and Joseph bitter? Did they wonder if God had abandoned them to be permanently oppressed by the rich and powerful? No, their lives were not confined to the politics or circumstances of the moment, however appalling.

In her song of celebration about the baby she was about to give birth to, Mary spoke eloquently in the Jewish prophetic tradition—by seeing beyond the surface realities to the deep truth of human affairs. "My soul extols the Lord," she exclaimed,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because he has acknowledged his servant's humiliation. Look: from now on will all ages call me happy because the Almighty One (holy his Name) has done great things for me! His mercy falls on every generation that fears him. With his powerful arm he has routed the proud of heart. He has pulled the princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:46-53).

Of course, God has yet to do any of these things, but in Mary's view they were as good as done—because God is just and keeps his word.

The Beatitudes
Mary's son, Jesus, will grow up to speak in the same prophetic tradition as his mother. Each of the prophets is an individual, of course: Amos the most outraged, Hosea the saddest and most appalled, Mary the most muscular and triumphant, Jesus the most gentle. Jesus almost never rants and seldom criticizes—and in this he is the most positive of the prophets. "Happy the poor," says Jesus,

for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Happy the afflicted, for they will be comforted. Happy the undemanding, for they will inherit the earth. Happy the hungerers and thirsters for justice, for they will be filled. Happy the merciful, for they will be given mercy. Happy the pure in heart, for they will see God. Happy the peacemakers, for they will be called God's children. Happy the persecuted for justice's sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3-10).

With one or two exceptions, this doesn't seem a particularly happy lot. What's happy about the poor ("in spirit" or otherwise), the afflicted, and the persecuted? Empty stomachs that hunger and dry throats that thirst don't sound so happy; peacemakers usually get their comeuppance; and is anyone more persecuted than "the pure in heart"? "Happy the unhappy," we might say in summary.

But these are the Beatitudes, and they represent Jesus' basic program. Like his mother, Jesus sees that, in some sense, the future is already here—present at least in seed—and that the rewards of the just lie outside ordinary time. Notice also that while some of the "happy" ones—the afflicted, the persecuted—are clearly put upon, others—the poor in spirit, the champions of justice for the downtrodden, the merciful, the peacemakers—have chosen to be the people they are. This division points to Jesus' two audiences: the powerless, who need to be reminded that God loves them and will see to their ultimate triumph, and the powerful, who need to be encouraged to abandon their own comfort for the sake of others. The main purpose of the good news of Jesus is the same purpose as that of the entire prophetic tradition: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

If Amos, Micah, Mary, and Jesus were to return to us [in 2003], they would have the same thing to say to educated, prosperous Americans that they had to say to our counterparts so many centuries ago. They would look out across our world and notice that one-sixth of the world's people face actual starvation, subsisting precariously on less than $1 a day; that one-half of the world's people exist on less than $2 a day, which means that millions of the world's children go to bed hungry every night. This is completely unnecessary, because there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone.

Amos, Micah, Mary, and Jesus would look out across our country and notice that a black teenager is six times more likely to be sentenced to prison for a nonviolent crime than is his white counterpart. If the crime involved violence, he is nine times more likely to be sentenced to prison. If the crime involved drugs, a black youth is 48 times more likely to be sentenced to prison than is a white youth convicted of the same offense. Though black teenagers represent only 15 percent of the under-18 population, they make up 58 percent of all teenagers admitted to adult prisons—which are our principal training grounds for hardened criminals.

Given such statistics, is it any wonder that our schools are failing? My daughter, who teaches literature to minority students in a difficult urban high school, said recently that her greatest enemy is the despair of her students. They know instinctively the statistics I have just quoted: They must live with them every day, and they know how little chance they have of succeeding against such odds. We are still sacrificing our children to evil gods.

I mentioned earlier the unequal taxation imposed by Caesar. Why did he do it? Well, he couldn't very well tax his friends and cronies, the very people who helped him obtain his office, now could he? Obviously, the non-rich would have to take up the burden. It is horrifying that the United States is now embarking on the same course of unequal—and unjust—taxation that was once the modus operandi of the Roman Empire (and which, as I show in How the Irish Saved Civilization, became the main reason for Rome's downfall). Between 1995 and 1999, the number of Americans with million-dollar incomes more than doubled, while their taxes fell by 11 percent. For all other Americans, the portion of their income taken by taxes rose.

Payroll taxes, which fall most heavily on low- and middle-income families, were increased in the 1980s in order to generate a surplus that would help the federal government pay benefits to an aging population. But now, thanks to the disappearance of the budget surplus, the payroll tax is being used up to cover deficits elsewhere in the federal budget. Why are we suffering such deficits? For one reason only: to fund tax cuts for the rich. The new slogan appears to be: "Leave no millionaire behind." And the gulf between the rich and poor widens daily, as the rich become the immeasurably rich while the poor become the unthinkably poor.

Amos accused the people of Samaria in words that seared and phrases that smote. They "cram their palaces," he said, "with violence and extortion." They had "sold the upright for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals"—from Gucci, no doubt. But he also said that all this could be reversed, if only the people of Samaria would turn away from their own self-absorption and toward those who, however silently, cry out for help. "Then," promised Amos, "shall your justice flow like water and your compassion like a never-failing stream" (Amos 5:24).

The worst feature of contemporary society is its tendency to leave each of us locked up in himself or herself, connection-less. To lessen this isolation we have developed all kinds of therapies, spiritual, psychological, and physicalfrom groups that meet and talk endlessly to day spas, week spas, month spas, life spas. But none of these things, from primal scream to herbal wrap, seems to be doing the trick, any more than the huge houses and wine parties of the Samaritans did the trick for them. What we need to do is open our heart to the plight of others, as if our heart were a dam, so that indeed our justice and compassion may flow. What is essential is that each of us steps forward to join the ranks of those who hope, that we hold out our hand—to someone. There is no other way to walk with God.

This article was adapted from a talk given by author Thomas Cahill at the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington, D.C.

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