The Prophetic In The Face of Plunder

Micah IconBy Tommy Airey

Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance.

Micah 2:1-2

*This is the second installment in a series of seven pieces on Micah posted every Wednesday during Lent.
This week, Micah takes us from the personal to the political. I write from a church office with a cold, crisp view of downtown Detroit. Just on the other side of the skyscrapers, a man worth $100 million lives in a 14,500 square-foot mansion. He is buying cheap land from the city to plant a tree farm. He is hailed as a job creator and a blight reducer. But there’s more to the story: banks, land developers and young middle-class white folks coming in from the suburbs are targeting certain (poor, black) neighbors through city-imposed tax foreclosure & water shut-offs. These powers (including the multimillionaire tree farmer) are not innocent bystanders. Their intentions inevitably create unintended consequences. They prosper off the misery of poor people.

Micah exposes the nature of wealth inequality. It doesn’t just happen. Wealth necessitates poverty. Once wealth is hoarded (or inherited), this capital can be used to buy up land and houses, adding to the manna piles of the wealthy. Power and oppression are two white faces of the same currency. As the late Clarence Jordan awkwardly proclaimed as he stepped into the house of a wealthy acquaintance: “Nice piece of plunder you got here.” For those with eyes to see, where there is wealth there is labor that has been exploited and resources that have been extracted and hoarded. Always. It is the story of ancient Israel under monarchy as well as the story of the American empire.

The cycle of shame & inferiority intensifies as the wealthy create non-profits and foundations to paternalize poor and marginalized people. By and large, poverty does not come from laziness or “bad choices.” It comes from those who have the power to “devise” and “perform” a plan based on what they “covet” and then “seize.” Many of us, through birth or social connection, benefit from this system of power and oppression. Our cheap consumer products and expanding investment portfolios are fully complicit with this unjust scheme.

Today, every watershed in North America remains vulnerable to the wickedness and evil deeds of lawyers, lobbyists & legislatures in bondage to the profit motive. As Gandhi proclaimed: there is more than enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed. After we expose our own complicity in this arrangement, our repentance compels us to expose structural oppression—a vital aspect of the vocation of Micah and Jesus, whose death “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them” (Col 2:15).

A prophetic exposé can take many creative forms. The pastor, poet and activist Bill Wylie-Kellermann calls this “public liturgy.” The community of faith & conscience walks out of the sanctuary to march in the street. Last summer, Pastor Bill and 8 other Detroiters put their bodies on the line, blocking the trucks contracted by the city to shut off the water of low-income households. These peculiar urban worshippers bent the knee to a God who rains down drinking water on the righteous and the wicked, the rich and the poor. Holy Traffic!

We don’t all need to get arrested like Bill (who stopped counting his number of liturgical arrests when he hit 50 a long time ago). But we as we learn about the insidious nature of wealth & power in our world, our consciences may leave us no other choice. As the late Howard Zinn proclaimed:

Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty.

During this second week of Lent, Micah awakens us to an ancient-future world that is governed by elites who maintain their edge through the engineering of exploitation. Micah scripts a rigorous moral inventory around structures & systems: where am I implicated, complicit and/or silent with these unjust social, political and economic arrangements? What tangible steps do I need to take to confront what Ched Myers calls the dual task of rearranging our political bodies and the body politic?

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