Filed under: First Nations People, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Politics of Empire
Although I grew up in the state of Ohio, I never met Joe the Plumber who became famous in the recent US election campaign. When I have plumbing problems, I try to fix them myself because plumbers are expensive. When I don’t know the plumber I worry that they might find fantasy plumbing problems that will push up my bill even further. There is a limit, Joe!
I am a little ashamed of my suspicions about plumbers because I know that duck tape doesn’t always do the job. Plumbing is a good place to start talking about taxes as well as about leaky pipes. Usually people like me who don’t have much money live in old houses that need disproportionately more help from plumbers to fix long outdated or poorly designed drains and pipes. I am also a little like Joe. All things being equal I prefer not to pay taxes. But all things are not equal.
Joe became famous because he was on a Main Street near Toledo, Ohio when Barack Obama said “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Joe and his allies didn’t like the idea of governments promoting a form of economic equalization through taxes. Words like socialism and communism suddenly emerged from the closet for public scrutiny. Plumber that he is, Joe understands the usefulness of closets.
This principle of equality has deep roots in most religious teachings but I am most familiar with those of my Hebrew Christian roots. The whirl wind of public commentary got me to dig into the Bible to see if maybe this notion of spreading the wealth around has any connection in the story of Hebrews and Christians. I also wanted to understand why the idea makes people so mad.
Rulers say and do various things to show themselves to be defenders of justice and the protectors of small folks. Empires, imperia ideology/theology and notions of peace are reinforced by pronouncements and law codes that lift up the plight of common people. Nothing new here in Obama. This has been going on for millennia without modern media or press offices.
The problem is that wealth accumulation gets so far out of balance that empires and nations crumble. The Hebrews moved out of slavery in Egypt and nomadic life to settlement in Palestine over 3000 years ago. When they settled in Palestine and built a new life around God they were remarkably open to accept new solutions to old social problems like too much accumulation of land and wealth by a few.
As a child I thought that the verse “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it ” (Psalms 24:1 NIV) was really irrelevant and boring. My Old Testament seminary professor tried to tease my interest in this concept, as a connection to my craving for understanding how the Bible views justice. Still no fire of interest until 20 years later when I travelled to Palestine and Israel. I thought it would be smart to bring back some holy land. So I filled a tiny bottle with soil from what then was the Green Line or border between Israel and occupied Palestine. Then later, I asked my U.S. audiences if they could see, feel or smell anything particularly spiritual in the soil of the holy land. I knew I was pushing the edge when I did this but my use of the special soil this way allowed me to go to the next step and ask what is really holy in our world.
Eventually I got back to the verse, “The earth is the Lord’s …” and of course back to the whole problem of private property, public property and the distribution or redistribution of wealth. I learned that everything is holy, the land, the animals, the people, the crops, and the whole ecological system. The earth is a really big holy land. I am being swallowed daily in a completed sea of holiness according to this way of thinking.
In fact if you listen to the intent of the Bible you will learn that I don’t permanently own anything. There goes the permanence of the deed to our house but not because of foreclosure. This is a little hard for a person with an `age of enlightenment` brain and liberal economic way of thinking to swallow. God is not simply out there. God is everywhere in the known universe.
The God idea as put forward in these ancient Hebrew texts is not just mighty and terrible like most ancient empires but ”impartial and incorruptible” (Deut. 10:17). The mighty are not favoured over the weak. For the stranger in the land, exploitation, the normal practice, is replaced by love for him or her. Even land is to be redistributed on some kind of regular and fair basis every 50 years. In this social system it is not only God who has power through the sovereign emperor. People also have power in the world where God is everywhere.
There are rules, but the purpose of the rules and regulations is to keep the system in balance and work for re-adjustment when justice fades. Fate is not only in the hands of a remote deity, accessed through a national security system ruled by a monarch, emperor or President. The Hebrew prophets thought that the future was in the people’s hands and that the people had the right and responsibility to make it fair. The change that they called for with all kinds of creative and symbolic actions, and with some very tough economic analysis looked backwards to the original intent of the tradition. It also looked forward to the dangers of what lies ahead unless there is reform based on fair principles of the distribution of wealth.
As far as I know Joe the Plumber is a hard worker. I hope he earns a fair wage. But if he gets too lucky or smart he might corner up too much of the plumbing business which could lead to system breakdown. With expansion the quality of his work might slide as he worries about debts and possible foreclosure. He might even pay himself way too much. That wouldn’t be good for Joe or the rest of us in the long run. How would I get my pipes fixed?
Joe and his fans are not impressed with a government that practices a little Robin Hood economics, take from the rich and give to the poor. Some of his followers believe that it is a violation of the American way. The quest for social justice animated the Hebrews and Christians even down to the present day. But it was not without conflict at Wall Street and Main Street. A relationship with the Divine One, passes through the relationships among the rest of us. Joe has a right to his convictions but he and his allies will have to stretch the Bible beyond spirit and reason to make his doctrine one that can be based on Hebrew Christian traditions.
It may not be fair for me to put all this on Joe the Plumber and his fans. He is trying to make a living and get ahead. The bad news for Joe is that the principle of redistribution through legislation for the common good began ages ago.
I can’t talk about social justice without entertaining notions of how a new tax code might affect my life. I make a lot less than $250,000 so I might be safe from being a loser in this particular stage of the redistribution game. This year my social security check was $842 per month. But, the tax code is not just for me. What would it look like if it spread from very timid beginnings to the “whole earth”. My $842 per month would look gigantic to a landless worker in Zimbabwe or Haiti. How to actually implement world re-distribution is an exciting thought that gets my blood pumping again.
There are reports, Joe, that you are considering a run for Congress in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District for 2010. You will be a busy man, congress, pipes and all. Joe, we must talk to each other about taxes sometime over coffee before your campaign heats up.
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