Samuel’s Warning

Thursday, June 23, 2011 — Week of Proper 7, Year One

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 972)

Psalms 105:1-22 (morning) 105:23-45 (evening)

1 Samuel 8:1-22

Acts 6:15 – 7:16

Luke 22:24-30

What a contrast of leadership images.

In our reading from Luke today, Jesus tells his followers to be servant leaders. “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. …I am among you as one who serves.” (Lk. 22:26b, 27c)

In our reading from 1 Samuel today, Samuel warns the people what they will get if they choose a king to rule over them rather than choosing God’s rule. The king will have retainers and advance men, laborers for his benefit and for the means of war, luxuries and prime real estate, the best of everything and a piece of everyone’s possessions. The ruler will disburse his wealth and power among his own class, among the wealthy and powerful. Samuel’s description sounds like what became reality during the reign of Solomon.

At first blush, someone might read this passage as a warning against the oppressions of government. And that is not an unfaithful reading, especially when government becomes oppressive. The description fits as a critique of many oligarchies, where a ruling elite holds control over the masses.

But as I try to project Samuel’s description into our present reality in this country, it seems to be a fit description of a kind of plutocracy that controls and influences so much in our nation today. It is the super-wealthy today — financiers and corporate powers — who have the luxuries and prime real estate, who benefit from war and get a piece of everyone’s possessions.

The richest 1% of Americans own 90% of all stocks and bonds and the wealthiest 10% now earn more than the entire 90% of our population combined. In the past 25 years, our economy more than doubled in dollar values, yet 90% of Americans saw their incomes fall by an average of about $4,000. The income of the wealthiest 0.01% jumped 384%. Bill Moyers calls that “wage repression.”

I’m nearly sixty years old. For the first thirty years of my life, the rest of us — the lower 90 percent — could make a good living and hope for improvement. Between 1950 and 1980 average income for 9 out of 10 Americans grew from $17,719 to $30,941, a 75% increase in income in constant 2008 dollars. That egalitarian growth stopped beginning around 1980. Bill Moyers traces the trend to the policies of trickle-down Reaganomics that has now created two Americas, a buoyant Wall Street and a doleful Main Street.

Commerce Department figures released this past November showed that American companies had their best quarter in history, while unemployment languished at high levels and wages remained depressed.

Now corporations and independent tax-exempt organizations can collect unlimited amounts of money legally to influence elections and politicians. Today we live in a nation where extending billions of dollars of tax cuts to the wealthiest during a recession in the face of a massive deficit is a non-negotiable absolute priority for one political party.

Samuel might say, “I told you so.” We have chosen our own kings rather than the values of God. The kings we have chosen to rule over us are the kings of wealth and power. The kings we have chosen to rule over us are the kings of competition and individual autonomy.

Jesus said it is not to be so among us. “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.”

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