Laboring

I can remember when Labor Day was about honoring workers.  I suppose it still is, in some circles.  At the top, however, the strategy is to give all the breaks to the wealthy and convince those they exploit that it’s for their own good.  In as far as Trump has a playbook, this is on page 1.  All around the community I see poor, exploited people with Trump signs on their houses.  And they’re big.  Great.  Never been bigger signs.  The policies he’s enacted, however, have taken money from their pockets and lined those of the wealthy.  Why do you think he refuses to share his tax records?  Tax fraud is a crime.  If you’re a laborer, anyway.

I grew up working class and I still think that way.  I’m skeptical, though.  I don’t take anyone’s word for it.  That’s what happens when you become a professional researcher.  Looking at actions instead of words is most instructive.  As my step-father used to tell us, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  Just let him pick your pocket and tell you he’s been on your side all along.  Can Labor Day be anything other than a lie under such circumstances?  The American aristocracy has both a firm grip and tax incentives not to improve the lot of those who are barely getting by.  And yet we take a day off and pretend that everything’s fine.

Polls repeatedly show that those in power have no idea of the realities of the lives of the working class.  They can’t name the price of a loaf of bread and, especially in the present day, don’t care to.  Many people in the United States fear socialism.  Ironically, many of them are “Christians” who completely ignore the socialism of the book of Acts.  Early believers, the Good Book says, pooled their resources and shared everything out equally.  It’s a pity it didn’t last.  Nations with socialized medicine—the only humane way to live—have handled the pandemic better than those that rely on health insurance at the same time its own government is trying to dismantle the only plan that would cover everyone.  Why do we find it so hard to care for the workers?  Maybe this Labor Day we can stop and think for a little while where we’d be without those who actually keep things going.  And maybe in November we’ll vote to help them out.

What Labor Day used to be; courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Overlooked Scripture

In this great Trump Tower of capitalism in which we all live, I often wonder about the overlooked Bible. Fundamentalist Trump supporters certainly know how to thump it, but do they know how to read it? This thought occurred to me as I was rereading the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 recently. The narrative isn’t hidden or obscure. Here’s how it goes: the earliest Christians were communists. Literally. Peter himself was involved. After Jesus’ ascension, his followers pooled their resources and divided them up by how much each person needed. Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife duo, sold their property and presented the money to Peter and the collective. They held a little back, though, just in case. The result? Peter saw through the lie and they died instantly. The point was pretty clear—Christians don’t hold anything back for themselves. They live communally.

Obviously, this didn’t last very long. Let the one without a savings account cast the first stone. In fact, by half-way through Acts the holy experiment is already forgotten. Nevertheless, it was the ideal. Christians were people who took care of one another, especially the poor. By the time communist governments (which didn’t work because people are people) took hold, Christians were dead-set against them. Okay, well, they were godless—but the idea behind them was biblical. Today any form of socialism is soundly condemned by most evangelicals. Apparently they don’t read the book of Acts any more. There was no moment when this commune was castigated in Holy Writ. It simply vanishes without a whimper to be condemned as utterly evil in these latter days.

The wedding between capitalism and Christianity has proven an enduring one. Capitalism allows, indeed pretty much mandates, selfishness. It’s difficult to live in such a system and not feel entitled to more than you already have. Who ever says, “No thanks, I don’t need a raise. I have enough”? Those who attempt communal living are generally called “cults” and the suspicion is omnipresent that the leader isn’t holding (usually) himself to the same standards as the pedestrian members. The story in Acts 5, however, is even more extreme. After Ananias lies to Peter and dies on the spot, his wife Sapphira comes in just as those who buried her husband are returning. Peter baits her with a question about how much money they received for their property and when she concurs with her late husband, the undertakers have a second job for the day. This is a faith taken seriously. It was bound not to last.

For Better Information

Government by Twitter is such a trendy thing. I’ve got a Twitter account and I can’t keep up with it most of the time. I wonder how anyone has time to get off the golf course long enough to let the thumbs fly these days. I got an article in my inbox stating that James Comey, the director of the FBI, has a hidden Twitter account. Well, you’d expect it to be hidden. This is the FBI, after all. The purpose of Twitter, however, is provide a steady flow of information—a stock ticker, if you will, of the radicalized normal. None of this is why I’m addressing the Hon. Comey today. It’s because those who suspect they’ve found his account believe he’s being using the name “Reinhold Niebuhr.” Those of us in religious studies with an interest in American religion can’t help but do a double-take.

Reinhold Niebuhr, along with his brother H. Richard, were prominent theologians. Reinhold was perhaps the last theologian, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., to whom anybody paid any attention. In fact, he was the rare academic who’d attained the sobriquet of “public intellectual.” He even taught in a seminary. Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought has influenced countless government officials who knew how to read, back in the days when being literate was a requirement for government office. Perhaps a little too Neo-Orthodox for today’s Nones, Niebuhr was nonetheless a pacifist and, dare I scrawl the word, a socialist. What’s more, Presidents in the days when the office had some dignity cited him as a source of political thought and contemplation. As much as they try to make us forget, I remember the days before a red hat was all you needed to dictate policy. The days of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Now, nobody really knows if this mysterious Reinhold Niebuhr account really does belong to James Comey. The FBI hasn’t been terribly friendly to the cause of freedom as of late. In fact, it may be the one government agency with timing even worse than mine. There’s a fair consensus that had the bureau not revived the passé email server scandal when it did we might still be living in a democracy. I have to try to be careful not to get too worked up. It’s easy to be anxious these days. When things start to get too oppressive, however, we can think of Reinhold Niebuhr, the last theologian. The man who gave the world the serenity prayer. We’re gonna need it.

Across the street from the J. Edgar Hoover building, Washington, DC