Thursday, February 12, 2009

Repo man

About seventeen years ago, I was living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where I was a resident missionary with STEM Ministries.

STEM is a missions organization with a focus on the North American church. By providing groups from the United States and Canada with short-term experiences in third world nations in the Caribbean and South America, it hopes to awaken the church in two of the wealthiest nations on Earth to the global scale of God's work.

In other words, it might seem really pressing to build a state-of-the-art nursery with a cappuccino bar for the workers, but there are Christians in the Dominican Republic where they'd be grateful for a corrugated tin roof to keep the rain and sun out.

It's a pretty straightforward proposition: Show American Christians what the rest of the world is like, and let God challenge their preconceptions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you forget right away, sometimes your experiences in the third world stay with you for the rest of your life.

While I was there, one of the nationals we worked with came to the ministry with a problem. He needed money, or the bank would take the land he and his family had been living on. Seventeen years is a long time, so I don't remember all the details. What I mostly remember is Steve Schmidt, our base director, mentioned that another missionary he knew would categorize this fellow's problems as the wealthy ignoring the plight of the poor, if not outright taking advantage of them.

Steve dismissed that as nonsense, since as he (correctly) pointed out, the fellow in question did have the money for the bank payment, or at least he used to. Like many people, he had used the money for other things, including things that he hadn't needed.

That's actually a common situation in Haiti, I'm afraid. A boujwa will come and buy a piece of property from someone for a handsome price, and tell him that he's going to build a house there in 10 years or so. Ten years will come and go, and then the boujwa will start building his house.

The former owner of the land, sadly, will still be on the property and will no longer have the handsome sum, which he theoretically could have used to buy land elsewhere, buy some goats or pigs to start a business and raise his family out of poverty, or something of the sort. Sadly, the owner usually will have done none of those things, and now has nothing left to show for the money he once was paid. It's all gone, and soon they are not only out of the money, they are out of the place they have lived for years.

There's no denying that the fellow who sold his home and then frittered away the money -- aside from any money that was put to a good use, like sending the kids to school -- made some really stupid decisions with his money, and in the end has to shoulder responsibility for his plight. On the other hand, it's a pretty cold thing to throw a family out of their homes, and leave them to fend for themselves.

Steve isn't that cold. He gave our national colleague some of the ministry's designated mercy money -- not enough to cover the whole payment, but a good chunk of it. The idea was that he would have to earn the rest of the money somehow, and make some adjustments, rather than us encouraging dependency on the "rich white missionaries."

Still, the story has stuck with me for the past 17 years because I can't shake the fundamental wrongness of evicting people from their homes. That feeling has stayed with me, and in recent months has grown still stronger, as banks that essentially preyed upon people by offering them mortgages that they couldn't afford, all in the name of making a buck. And while those homeowners have been thrown out onto the street, figuratively or literally, the executives responsible for the mess have been raking in huge bonuses even as the economy comes crashing down around the ears of the rest of us.

One fellow I know -- a dyed-in-the-wool God-is-a-Republican sort of Christian -- insists that capitalism is biblical. I'm not sure entirely how he justifies that, but there you have it. American-style capitalism unquestionably grew out of the Protestant work ethic practiced by groups like the Puritans and the Moravians, but it's quite a stretch to my mind to see Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" as being in sync with a text that never really got into particulars of economic theory beyond things like stressing the value of honest weights. At best, I can say that it is an extrabiblical economic system that can be shaped by biblical values of compassion (as opposed to the greed that drives the market most times).

But you know, home ownership is one area where capitalism keeps running afoul of biblical values, I think. In the U.S. economy, if I default on my mortgage, the bank theoretically has the legal right to foreclose on the mortgage and kick me, my wife, and our children, out onto the street.It doesn't matter if I've lost my job because of what the financial giants have done to the economy, it doesn't matter if they sold me a predatory mortgage for a market price that is three times the house's actual worth. If they have my signature on that mortgage contract, theoretically they have the legal right to kick me out of the house and try to sell it to recoup their losses.

There's something else at work here, though. While the hardcore apologists of a free market will expound on the virtues of tough love and making people take the consequences of their bad choices like parents disciplining an unruly child, it's not hard to find public sympathy for homeowners who are falling prey to economic forces that they have no control over.

There is something fundamentally unjust about evicting people from their homes. Not just unfair, but unjust. There is a fundamental connection between people and the homes they live in that we violate at our peril and to our shame.

The Bible backs me up on that. In ancient Israel, where my friend sees evidence of capitalism at work, that relationship was inviolate. An Israelite could buy the land of another Israelite, it's true, but only for seven years. Levitical law requires that when that seven-year period ended, the land had to be returned to its previous owner. The Torah also instituted the Jubilee, a period that came once every 50 years, where all debts were canceled, all slaves were set free, and all property rights were restored.

And therein lies a challenge for the American church as we stand on the cusp of what may blossom into the Second Great Depression. As we move forward, we must be mindful that we do have neither the right nor the authority to dictate to the rest of society how it should function.

But we should -- we must -- champion justice, and we have an obligation to advance alternatives to what our society practices, alternatives that respect and safeguard the basic dignity of everyone, especially those whose lives so often are chewed up in the cogs and gears of the systems that make our society work.

Some countercultural groups like The Jesus People in Chicago, or A Simple Way in Philadelphia, have explored the power and strength of communal living in contemporary society. Clearly that's not for everyone, but the alternatives are limited only by our faith and our imagination.

In the name of the one we claim to follow, we have a calling to do better.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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