The Hungry Spirit

Isaiah and the Foreclosure Crisis

Today’s Washington Post sits open on my desk with the headline: “Settlement launches foreclosure reckoning—U.S., states pledge relief for homeowners under deal with five big banks.” Next to it, my Bible is open to Isaiah 55. Could two descriptions of “relief” be more opposite?

In the first, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Ally Financial, and Citigroup steal the homes and life savings of hundreds of thousands of people. (If you or I “robo-signed” documents, we’d be charged with forgery. It’s illegal.) But with no cop big enough to wrassle the Big Five into a noisy, urine-stained jail cell, and no judge with a gavel hard enough to thwack down a decent judgment, applying pressure for some restitution fell to grassroots groups, the states’ attorneys generals, and partisan powerbrokers—a tenuous coalition at best.

After 16 months of posturing, the “principalities and powers” behind the Big Banks agreed to let some artisan bread crumbs fall from their private-dining, Madison Avenue tables. Now, the 750,000 people whose houses were stolen at pen-point can sign up to get approximately $2,000 each in restitution. As blogger David Dayen put it, it’s the equivalent of the banks telling their victims, “Sorry we stole your home. Here’s two month’s rent.”

The banking settlement “forces” the lenders to give some money back. Forty-nine states will get a much-needed trickle of cash and cash-like substances. And they’ve agreed to reduce the principal on mortgages with “negative equity” to the tune of $17 billion over three years. However, that amounts to about 2.4 percent of the $700 billion needed to bring borrowers’ noses to the surface, according to Capital Economics’ Paul Diggle. The fine doesn’t nearly match the crime. And the banks have been tucking this money away in slush funds in preparation for the settlement. They are paying out of their excess—not until it hurts.

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Why I Love Credit Unions

I finally “moved my money” from Wells Fargo to Lafayette Federal Credit Union. It’s local. It’s half a block from work. Charlotte, the branch manager, already knows my name.

Mind you, I never actually opened an account at Wells Fargo to begin with. I opened my account 20 years ago with a regional bank. But it was bought by Bank of America. I then switched to another regional bank. But it was bought by Wachovia. Last year, Wachovia was bought out by Wells Fargo. I’ve never been a big fan of the mega-money institutions. But ever since they drove our economy into a ditch and did it, in part, by taking the homes of poor people and minorities, I felt the biblical prophets giving me a kick in the pants. Hence, the next stage of my financial pilgrimage.

Credit unions, as we know them today, originated in Europe in the 1800s as financial self-help cooperatives among small business owners and farmers in particular locales, geared toward providing for and protecting their economic sovereignty. Eventually credit unions came to be organized around seven principles: 1) voluntary membership, 2) democratic governance, 3) member control of capital, 4) autonomy and independence, 5) education of members and public in cooperative principles, 6) cooperation between cooperatives, and 7) concern for the local community.

“If love is wise,” wrote Pope Benedict in his 2009 encyclical Charity in Truth, “it can find ways of working in accordance with provident and just expediency, as is illustrated in a significant way by much of the experience of credit unions.”

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Slaves in Our Family

My family held slaves.

Among my maternal grandmother’s papers there is a 1820s deed of sale. In the list of farm equipment and livestock are the names of two “negroes.” The right-hand ledger column lists their dollar value.

That branch of my family is from Louisiana. In that same region, there were several slave uprisings, including the Pointe Coupee conspiracy in 1795 and the Cane River rebellion in 1804.

In 1793, Father Jean Delvaux, a priest who served the Catholic parish in Campti, Louisiana (where more than 100 years later my grandmother would be baptized), was deported to Cuba by his bishop for leading “seditious movements” proclaiming the abolition of slavery and “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” the motto of the French Revolution.

On my family’s deed, the price for two human beings—chattel slaves—was about $1,000.

“THE AVERAGE PRICE of a human being today,” says researcher Kevin Bales, “is about $90.” That’s the price averaged across the global market. In North America, slaves go for between $3,000 to $8,000. In India or Nepal, you can buy a human being for $5 to $10.

But didn’t slavery disappear after abolition? Isn’t that what the Civil War was all about?

Bales, author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, has a succinct response: “Thinking slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation is like thinking adultery stopped with the Ten Commandments.”

However, Bales also wants to make clear that the 27 million people enslaved today represent the smallest percentage of the global population ever to be in slavery. And the $40 billion generated by slavery into the global economy each year is the smallest proportion of the global economy ever represented by slave labor.

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What's Wrong With Capital Punishment

THE STATE OF Georgia executed Troy Davis at 10:53 p.m. on a Wednesday in September, by lethal injection. It took him 16 minutes to die. By the next morning there was fresh graffiti scrawled across a wall in my neighborhood: “Troy Davis was murdered.”

Sometimes the very stones cry out.

Nearly a million people worldwide signed Amnesty International’s petition urging authorities in Georgia to commute Davis’ death sentence.

Davis spent 20 years—nearly half his life—on death row for a crime it’s doubtful he committed, and the penal system ground inexorably forward. No one could stop it. Not Davis’ family. Not lawyers, protesters, or petition signers. Not the six prison officials who expressed “overwhelming concern that an innocent person could be executed in Georgia.” Not the Georgia governor. Not former president Jimmy Carter, nor William Sessions, director of the FBI under President Reagan. Not even the pope. No one.

Davis addressed his final words to murder victim Mark MacPhail’s family who sat in the front row at the execution. “I know you all are still convinced that I’m the person who killed your father, your son, and your brother—but I am innocent ... I am so sorry for your loss. I really am. Sincerely.”

TROY DAVIS COULDN’T get a stay of execution—despite substantial new evidence supporting his innocence—in part because of the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The Act was part of the Republican “Contract with America” signed into law in 1996 by President Clinton, who was pushed to bring a speedy and lethal conclusion to domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

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The Art of Householding

My "life plan" -- at age 23 -- was to own little and to move where the Spirit led. It was a late 20th century American religious quest interpreted through Dorothy Day’s Catholic anarchy, the factory theology of Simone Weil, Septima Clark's "practical politics," and the joyful authority of Clare of Assisi. Full of idealistic forward motion, I was ready to see and save the world -- in that order. My move in 1986 from California to inner-city Washington, D.C., was to be temporary.

Instead, I came into possession of a 1901 Victorian row house, and 25 years have passed. (Here's a koan for you: "Choosing your vocation.") I was given the gift of stability.

In 2000, after living in two other houses owned by Sojourners community's housing cooperative, Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter and I purchased our house on Fairmont Street. She was looking for more space (or at least a kitchen larger than a closet) and urban anchorage. I was already living in the house, didn't want to move, and needed a yard for my dog. I agonized over the ethics of "ownership" until my mom convinced me that "buying property is what the women in our family do." Julie and I scraped together the down payment, added in "urban homesteading" and first-time homeowner tax credits, learned the intricacies of joint tenancy, and shouldered the mortgage.

The "gift of stability" is considered the fourth vow in Orthodox and Benedictine monastic life. Poverty, chastity, and obedience are the "evangelical vows" that make one radically available to those in need of the gospel. Stability, as Thomas Merton put it, means to "find the place that God has given you and take root there."

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The Most Interesting Woman in the World

Have you seen the Dos Equis commercials starring actor Jonathan Goldsmith as "the most interesting man in the world"? "People hang on his every word,” the narrator intones, "even the prepositions." Though the ad is clever and funny, the "Stay thirsty, my friends" tagline makes clear that what's being sold is unquenchable thirst.

Contrast this with the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the well. What's on offer in John 4 is "living water." But obtaining it requires a more daring leap than the short-term gains of "Interesting Man's" carpe diem philosophy.

Who is the Samaritan woman with whom Jesus holds his longest discussion in the gospels? First, let's clarify what she is not. She is not a whore, nor promiscuous. She's not spiritually dead or "hopelessly carnal," as some male interpreters have claimed.

For too long this "type story" in John's gospel has been sold to us as a sexual morality tale based on an interpretation of the woman as a sinner because she had "five husbands." Sadly, this serves patriarchy more than scripture. Assuming personal licentiousness on the woman’s part is a result of a patriarchal bias "to reduce women to their sexuality and reduce their sexuality to immorality," as Sandra M. Schneiders writes in Written That You May Believe.

A different interpretation surfaces when John 4 is read in context as part of a Cana-to-Cana framework that places the woman at the well between the Pharisee Nicodemus (3:1-21), who has religious power, and the royal official (4:46-54), who has political power.

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Baptizing for Life

My 7-year-old nephew steps cautiously into the baptismal pool. Surrounded by a few hundred people attending the noon Mass, he yields his shivery thin boy-body back to the waters of life. His younger sister and brother, faces upturned in wonderment, stand below him waiting their turn.

This day had not come easily. When my nephew was born, my brother and sister-in-law were just shy of celebrating three years of sobriety. Every morning during that time, separately and together, they had chosen to live consciously, with eyes wide open; to admit powerlessness over drugs or alcohol; to ask for God’s help.

Those years before sobriety were a time of sickness and slavery. The etymology of “addiction” conjures up giving up one’s name and selling oneself. In addiction the individual becomes debilitated, diseased, obliterated, while the ravenous demon grows stronger. In addiction one trades a unique identity for a drink, a hit, for “pottage” (see Esau in Genesis 25:30-35).

Of course, addiction is not an individual disease; it’s a family sickness. It has required us, as a family, to look hard at our co-dependencies and denial, our anger, depression, and lack of self-regard. Gaining sobriety hasn’t been only for my brother and sister-in-law; it’s been for all of us. Their tenacity has led us into new terrain. I don’t know where we’ll end up, but we have matured as a family.

When my nephew’s head sinks under water, I think about how many of my ancestors also had this moment. For some it was at a small marble font in a city church; for others it was a Nebraska farm pond or in the yard of a Cajun country church with a circuit-riding priest.

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Rachel's Wail for a Murdered Teen

Last week the body of a young woman was found near my house. She was 17 years old. She'd been murdered. The garbage men reported finding her in a supercan in the alley. For a few days she had no name. Now I know her name was Ebony Franklin.

Ebony took a bus from her dad's apartment in my neighborhood to her mom's on the other side of town. She never made it home.

How do we make sense of something senseless? In the days following, I prayed about Ebony's murder. I read the news reports. I prayed for her family and whoever killed her. I tried to find order in the chaos of violence. There's none to be found.

And yet. It is one of the corporal works of mercy to "bury the dead," one of the spiritual works of mercy to "pray for the dead." It is counted as a righteous act. It is an act of justice. Because what we mourn when Ebony Franklin's body is found in a garbage can is the loss of a "way" of life, a value system that holds human dignity as sacred.

The prophet Jeremiah best exemplifies the conflict between dreaming the world as God intends and staring into a body bag holding a child. Grieving, in Jeremiah, is a public act of resistance. It resists the "royal consciousness," to use Walter Brueggemann’s phrase, which would have us believe these things just happen.

"Royal consciousness leads people to numbness," writes Brueggemann, "especially to numbness about death." Numbness occurs when one’s passion is stolen. Literally, it means the removal of one's ability to articulate and claim one’s own suffering.

When we are numb, we behave as others expect us to behave. We let experiences be sold to us as pre-packaged events. But, reminds Jeremiah, it is our ability to claim our own suffering -- our public grieving, our "praying for the dead" -- that enables us to recognize that we are made in God's image, not in the image of empire.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2011
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Out of the Mouths of Asses ...

It's often good to have a donkey with you when you pray. They provide a natural antidote to excessive piety. Take my recent retreat day at the Jonah House Catholic Worker community in Baltimore. Since 1992, the members of Jonah House have served as caretakers for a 20-acre Catholic cemetery that had been abandoned since the 1980s. Bit by bit the community is reclaiming the graveyard from the underbrush and overgrowth. It’s bordered by the Emanuel Tire Co. reclamation plant, a Section-8 housing complex, and the Maryland National Guard.

On All Saints Day I visited Jonah House to quietly pray the litany of the saints while surrounded by that "great cloud of witnesses" -- both living and dead. It was a stunning autumn morning. Sunlight filtered through the red oaks. However, while walking the quarter-mile track around the graves and headstones, I was unceremoniously shoved from behind -- hard.

This was my introduction to Vinnie the 3-year-old donkey. Despite the name, Vinnie actually is female. (The president of the St. Peter's Cemetery Foundation demanded that the next animal adopted into the community be named after him. What can you do?) And she's very strong. After I completed a few more circuits of the prayer walk -- with Vinnie doing heavy prodding and me jabbing back hard between "amens" -- we reached a rapprochement. I walked with a handful of grass in my left hand and Vinnie sauntered easily beside me, nibbling as we went. I felt like St. Francis. A victorious achievement in sacred cross-species communion.

It was all going so well, until Vinnie called her friends.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2011
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Loving the World

"For God so loved the world ..." Lately John 3:16 won't leave me alone. It hovers above my shoulder as I read The Washington Post. Really, God? You love this world?

The Indus River flooded this summer. Engorged to 40 times its normal size, the raging water left 1,700 Pakistanis dead, made environmental refugees out of millions of people, and sentenced countless to death by second-hand consequences. If those floods happened in the U.S., they'd spread from Dallas to Duluth.

Pakistan's leaders and relief agencies sent up urgent pleas for aid. Response was slow. Didn’t we just give to Haiti relief? What if our aid goes to the Taliban? American taxpayers just bailed out Wall Street; we can’t bail out every flood, hurricane, and drought that comes along. Really, Divine Creator? You agape this clamoring chaos?

In 2007, climate scientists predicted these floods. Glaciers feeding the Indus river basin are the largest ice fields on earth, other than the polar caps -- and they are melting. Pakistan's heavy monsoons are cyclical, but climate change is making them more erratic and extreme. The massive, World Bank-sponsored Tarbela Dam project on the Indus disrupted its natural flow and vastly expanded the flood plain. The project also managed to transfer a major portion of Pakistan’s natural resources into the hands of a wealthy few while displacing 100,000 people. The "timber mafia" -- a network of organized crime that includes government officials, land-speculators, and the desperate poor -- has accelerated deforestation. Timber gangs can clear 90,000 trees in two nights. "These forests used to absorb the ferocity of the floodwater," explained a Pakistani forestry scientist.

Maybe so few gave aid for the Pakistani flood victims because we know it's going to happen again. And again. This is "what global warming looks like," say NASA climate experts.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2010
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