COVID-19 is Concentrating Wealth Even Further; Can we Talk About the Surplus of Powerlessness in the Faith Community?

The Wall Street bull. Image: htmvalerio/flickr.

With the Sanders candidacy now over—and with thanks to the NYT’s Elizabeth Breunig for her finely wrought testament to Bernie’s integrity—it’s time to ask where social revolutionaries should look for possible openings and potential leverage.

The Sanders team is doing its level best to get positive-sounding “planks” into the the Democratic platform going into November. But we‘ve learned from bitter experience that such “planks” amount to combustible firewood in the candidate-centered campaigns that have dominated national politics for decades now. Not being stupid, the Sanders team wants more than lip service. They want key campaign staff positions—and senior administrative positions in any Biden Administration. 

I have to say, and not without regret, they shouldn’t hold their breath.

Late this week House Ways & Means Chair Richard Neal was interviewed at length on Boston’s main public radio station. Representing Western Massachusetts, Rep. Neal is without doubt one of the good guys among the senior members. He choked up when he mentioned that he has 90-year-old uncle, a second father to him, who is suffering from COVID in that hellhole of a soldier’s home in Holyoke. 

But when Rep. Neal was asked about who he and Speaker Pelosi and other senior Democrats are consulting about the economic measures needed in the face of collapse, Neal said that they talk all the time to Robert Rubin and Henry “Hank” Paulson, Jr. 

Rubin was Bill Clinton’s go-to economic policy guru and remains a thought leader in neoliberal circles (in fact, anyone who wants to know what “neoliberalism” is can simply check out what Rubin believes. Paulson, whom we remember more vividly than Rubin, was George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary and bumbling bailout czar. He is a white glove investment banker (and a former Goldman Sachs CEO) who clearly believes that what’s good for Wall Street is good for everyone—and never mind the big boys of the Street having given us the Great Recession. Like everyone else in the super-elite bubble that Paulson inhabits, he remains convinced that the way forward—the only way—is to trust people like himself to guide us through. He probably imagines himself in the role of J.P. Morgan—except that J.P. Morgan knew what he was doing

If these are the “wise men” Democrats are turning to for guidance, and if it’s any kind of indicator of the people a Biden Administration intends to rely on, we’re all in big trouble. 

It’s not that no one is paying attention to the haves and have nots and the need to close that gap in the wake of this catastrophe. I think it’s great, for example, that The New York Times has started to report intensively, and editorialize boldly, on the theme of inequality—a project that the editorial page director said was already in the works and that now becomes still more urgent. I recommend the project’s eye-popping opening primer on the extent of savage inequality we seem to be inured to accepting. 

Problem is, we already know how bad it is, but wealth’s ownership of the political system means that nothing basically changes. And wealth is very, very good at preserving its power. Note how some of the wealthiest of all—the members of the baronial class, if you will—are currently handing out billion-dollar peace offerings (tax deductible, of course) to ensure that the toiling masses remain pacified and even grateful for the system that oppresses them. They are engaged in the ultimate branding exercise, and they may well succeed. 

Meanwhile, where is the clarion call, the prophetic voice from American faith leadership that calls out the bullshit and that cries out for the sweeping systemic changes that some columnists might like to daydream about but will never come about without a mighty struggle and without a clear ethical vision guiding that struggle?

It’s pretty clear that most of America’s religious leadership—i.e., most white Christians—have allowed their religion to be colonized by a self-help ideology that perfectly complements—and blesses—the rule of the wealthiest and a basic contempt for the poor. But that doesn’t explain the eerie silence where the rest of faith leadership is concerned.

When I talk about this with colleagues I hear lots of theories: fragmentation, fatigue, and of course the overwhelming immediate urgency of giving support and comfort to the grieving and the fearful. But something else is going on, and I think it’s something progressive religious people will need to grapple with whenever there’s time to take a deep breath. That something else is the reality of failure. In the case of people of my generation, it’s 50 years of failure—of taking for granted that the gains of the 1960s and especially the 1970s were secure; 50 years of dithering while the Right was successfully muscling up, building its infrastructure, and capturing and eviscerating government itself. And now Trump. And now this. 

It’s understandable that we don’t want to talk about failure—and try to learn from it. It’s in our cultural DNA never to dwell on failure (with one notable exception: corporations do learn from failure; they debrief, and that’s one reason they remain incredibly powerful). Most Americans, and especially most liberal Americans, never take time to reflect on failure and learn from it. We resist the idea of failure in the same way we resist the idea of death. 

And here’s where I will sneak a little Easter message into an otherwise bleak critique—and this really is a message of love to my many, many friends in faith leadership circles: Let’s not be afraid of letting our illusions die—our illusions of being powerful and effective change agents, our illusions about being heard and respected in the public square. It’s okay, it’s even better, if all of that falls to the ground and we acknowledge that we have failed and are failing. And may this locked-in time, this time of supreme sadness, become the seedtime of a new awakening to faithfulness and fearlessness.