Transcribed from the sermon preached October 9, 2016
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: James 2:1-9, Luke 6:20-38
So James is writing his letter to a community that is pretty well off. They are not all peasants, and some are rich. And some people are favoring the fancy folk and disrespecting the poor. So he says, do not show partiality… you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you? is it not they who drag you into court?
Then Jesus, in the sermon on the plain in Luke throws a very heavy poor lives matter sermon, ending it with the measure you give will be the measure you get back. It turns out that is true on a social level as well as a personal level.
Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in Why Nations Fail, (2012 Crown Publishing) write that nations succeed or fail depending on whether or not their political and economic institutions are inclusive or exclusive. “To be inclusive, economic institutions must feature secure private property, an unbiased system of law, and a provision of public service that provides a level playing field in which people can exchange and contract; it also must permit the entry of new businesses and allow people to choose their careers.”
“Secure private property rights are central, since only those with such rights will be willing to invest and increase productivity. A businessman who expects his output to be stolen, expropriated, or entirely taxed away will have little incentive to work, let alone any incentive to undertake investments and innovations. But such rights must exist for the majority of people in society.” (ibid p.79
In Guatemala for instance, there is little incentive for the poor to innovate and thrive since if their success sticks out, it is likely that someone will steal their product or their land – and in the process kill them. Land rights of the poor are always in flux, so people seek to survive from year to year. Many of the indigenous have sought to get as far away from corrupt society as possible – putting themselves at a disadvantage of being far from markets, but hoping to be out of the reach of the wealthy and powerful who would like to exploit their labor and land. People have no hope that an education will enable them to advance, so they don’t try. Since people assume nothing is really going to change, there is no long term hope or trust, government workers either don’t try hard or they get what they can while they can through bribes. With poor or corrupt law enforcement the powerful get what they want and exploit with impunity. Because the government is corrupt, nobody wants to pay the taxes so there is no money for services. It is a self perpetuating cycle that keeps all but the very few rich down.
“Secure property rights, the law, public services, and the freedom to contract and exchange,” say Acemoglu and Robinson “all rely on the state, the institution with the coercive capacity to impose order, prevent theft and fraud, and enforce contracts between private parties. To function well society also needs other public services; roads and transport. .. Inclusive institutions also pave the way for…technology and education… The low education level of poor countries is caused by economic institutions that fail to create incentives for parents to educate their children and by political institutions that fail to induce the government to build, finance, and support schools.” (ibid p.80)
Political institutions determine who has power in society and to what ends that power can be used. If the distribution of power is narrow and unconstrained, like in North Korea or colonial Latin America, then the powerful will set up economic institutions to extract labor and resources to enrich themselves.
Economic and political institutions feed each other for better or worse. “Political institutions enable the elites controlling political power to choose economic institutions with few constraints or opposing forces…Extractive economic institutions, in turn, enrich the same elites, and their economic wealth and power help consolidate their political dominance.” (ibid. p.81) The elite are able to shape economic and real estate law, judicial systems, police and military to further solidify both their economic and political power.
The authors point out that colonists who were able to subjugate existing large populations, for instance in Peru and Mexico, were able to establish extractive economic and political institutions, which have then continually stunted the growth and prosperity of the whole society. On the East Coast of the United States on the other hand, the native population was much less dense and quick to evade attempts to subjugate them. Investors tried then to exploit the colonists themselves but they didn’t have sufficient labor force, so laborers had more leverage. Through this contingency, the US got lucky, and established a basis for broad economic and political power which eventually enabled prosperity.
On the other hand, we know that the notion of race became a legal and economic means of creating an economically and politically powerless labor force. People of color, blacks and indigenous people were systematically exploited and oppressed – with few or no land rights, no freedom of choice, no voice or vote, little or no education, and a discriminatory justice system.
Withholding freedom and services from a population will come back to bite a nation. The measure we give is the measure we will get.
So as a nation struggling with an ongoing problem with racism, we want to promote voting and an equal political voice: Taking the right to vote away is a bad idea. Citizens United, the law that treats corporations like a person has to go. Buying elections will hurt the whole nation in the long run. Next thing you know laws will be written where billionaires somehow manage to pay no taxes at all and still don’t have to pay a living wage to their employees. We need both political and economic incentive for education, living wage jobs, and equal justice. Among the poor at least, education, any education that leads to a job should be free. The money we put into education will save us money and trouble in the long run. There are more African American men in prison than college, and it costs at least $50,000 a year to house a prisoner. And prison life is the worst education and the worst racism in our entire culture. Kids are getting PHDs in violence and racism in prison. There should be extra incentive for education toward open and plentiful job markets. A living wage job will also promote family health, since a man with a job is much more likely to marry and stay married than a man without a job. And of course, we need training and accountability in law enforcement. And personal honesty and integrity is the backbone of society.
I could go on. We could talk about immigration and foreign policy that continues to extract wealth and resources from people of color, while propping up unstable extractive political institutions, but I think I will stop. But as Christians, we are to have love as our primary motivator. Love on a social level is equal opportunity and equal justice. The measure we give will be the measure we get back.