Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The spirit and power of the kingdoms of this world

A recent Lectionary reading included the story of the temptation of Jesus from Luke. Reading the story this time, I was not grabbed by anything about Jesus or the temptations themselves, but this little snippet about the other figure in the story:

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."
Luke 4: 5-7

What gave me pause was the idea that the glory and authority of all the kingdoms of the world are under the control of the devil. I suppose that this would be a much more self-evident proposition if I were an oppressed peasant in first century Palestine. I suppose that it would be more self-evident if I were a poor peasant in modern Burma or Haiti. But this also includes the liberal democracies of North America and Europe. This includes both the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the conservative end of the Tea Party.

The reason that this is a hard thing to read is that I am one of the privileged people that liberal democracies work for. Johann Maurer writes on his blog about Brian Fikkert's and Steve Corbett's book When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Ourselves This excerpt caught my eye:

Unfortunately, while public policy has historically encouraged wealth accumulation for middle-to-upper-class people, it has often discouraged wealth accumulation for the poor. Middle-to-upper-class people are encouraged to accumulate wealth through such things as tax-deferred (and often employer-matched) retirement savings (IRAs, 401Ks, 403bs [these are USA-specific examples]), and mortgage-interest tax deductions. At the same time, poor people have been forced to deplete their assets before qualifying for welfare assistance and have been penalized with the loss of benefits if they somehow manage to save and invest too much! The end result is that many poor families are highly vulnerable to economic shocks and unable to even think about their financial futures.

This is part of the privilege that is invisible to the people receiving it. For the professional class, the 401-K is such a part of the landscape it is almost invisible. At least until the stock market tanks. Until I read this I had not noticed the class differences in policy towards wealth accumulation.

The real issue for Luke is that government is all about power. The government will use that power to benefit some people at the expense of others. In all cases, it is to benefit the people with power. In most cases, the people with power are the already privileged and wealthy. In times of revolution, the people with power might, for a short time, be the formerly dispossessed and the revolutionary government may work to their advantage. Wealth will always flow towards power. Or perhaps more accurately, power will always pump wealth away from those without power. In the revolutionary situation, over time the formerly dispossessed will become the privileged and wealthy.

But I am left with more questions than answers. I know intellectually that the government, even one lead by Barack Obama will not bring about the Kingdom of God. I am fortunate that the kingdom of this world works more or less to my benefit. But Jesus did not come to the well off and privileged. He came with good news for the poor and marginalized. His kingdom is not of this world. It is a kingdom where the last is first and the world is turned upside down. It is as hard, says Jesus, for a rich man to enter this kingdom as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. By the standards of most of the world's population, I am a rich man. Right now, I keep being shown glimpses of my privilege. Faithfulness is not always easy and grace is not cheap. But one thing I know is that right leading and right action is always wrapped in the love of God, and in the love of God, all things are possible. And everyone who resided in the Kingdom is wealthy, but not with the wealth of the world.


Will T