Thursday, October 27, 2011

Naked Greed Day

Posted by Jack

The following is an article from Evangelicals for Social Action. It was written by Paul Alexander.

Jesus taught neither violence nor passivity in response to financial exploitation. Jesus instead taught a prophetic, nonviolent, and active third way to respond to economic oppression and injustice that empowers the disenfranchised and exposes the corruption in the economic systems. Jesus said that when someone seeks to exploit you economically by suing you for your clothes off your back, you are to take off all your clothes (your inner garment too) in public and give it all to the greedy people suing you. Jesus taught his followers to strip naked in public court and hand over their underwear, which in effect says something like, “You think I’m naked? You know what’s really naked? Your greed and self-interest.” The humiliation then fell on the people whose greed was so rampant it was unclothing people, taking their houses, their lands, their possessions, their incomes, their hopes, and even the very shirts off their backs.

“When someone sues you for your outer garment, give them your undergarment as well” (Matt. 5:40). This seemingly absurd teaching of Jesus is actually a powerful way to take a public action against economic exploitation, corruption, and greed—and now is the time for us to expose naked corporate self-interest by baring our own bodies in public. One way to do this is to be sure and participate in Bank Transfer Day on November 5.

Then on November 12, 2011—Naked Greed Day—gather at banks, corporations, and trading companies that have amassed billions of dollars at the expense of the 99% and remove one piece of clothing as a symbolic gesture to expose their greed, so that it is no longer clothed and hidden. Two banks to include are Citigroup (with 427 offshore tax dodging subsidiaries) and Bank of America (with 115 offshore tax dodging subsidiaries). According to the Executive Excess 2011 Compensation Survey, 25 companies paid their CEOs more money than they paid Uncle Sam in taxes, two of which are Prudential Financial (CEO compensation $16.2 million; US Federal Income Taxes $722 million refund) and General Electric (CEO compensation $15.2 million; US Federal Income Taxes $3.3 Billion refund). There are concrete ways to fix these problems:

1. Narrower CEO-worker pay gaps, like around 20 to 1 rather than the current 325 to 1.
2. Eliminate taxpayer subsidies for excessive executive pay—“ordinary taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for excessive executive compensation.”
3. Accountability to shareholders for CEO pay.
4. Accountability to broader stakeholders—all of us!—the communities and people that are affected by tax dodging, high CEO pay, and low wages.

We can publicly oppose corporate greed by removing one piece of clothing as a sign to the world that we the people are being stripped to our underwear by the destructive economic policies and practices of complicit corporations and governments. The self-interest that damages the common good must be exposed, and Jesus taught that a powerful way to expose it was to expose oneself. These removals of clothing should be done in ways that respect the dignity of children and all people, for the businesses we expose respect neither children nor all people as much as they should, and the honor of our actions of protest must exceed theirs. These removals of clothing should also not be wasted and left in front of the businesses, but should be donated when possible to those who need them, so that our nakedness that exposes the Naked Greed of the wealthiest already begins to clothe others who are in need.

Humiliating ourselves can invite those who profit so much from the low wages paid to the majority to change their behavior, or at least it can focus attention on them in a new way so that respect for their exploitative business acumen is undermined and laid bare. The removal of clothes in public to humiliate oppressors was done in South Africa to oppose Apartheid, in Liberia to end the wars and oust Charles Taylor, and at other significant times in history.

The historical context for Jesus’ teaching was the indebtedness that many people in the Roman occupations experienced. Low wages and laws that favored the wealthy led to loss of land to pay debt, which led to more debt for the landless peasants who labored on the increasingly large estates of the wealthy, which led to the wealthy and landed lenders suing the poor for the shirts off their backs as collateral for the loans.

Picture a courtroom with judges, witnesses, prosecutors, observers, and the accused poor person. The poor person would be the poorest of the poor if all they have for collateral is their outer garment, their robe—their clothes! Perhaps it’s a farmer who lost his land because of imperial legislation that consolidates land in the hands of the few, thus creating an overabundance of people who will work for poverty wages and who accumulate debt just to survive. The prophet Amos condemned this behavior: “They who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth ... lay themselves down beside every altar upon clothing taken as collateral” (2:7-8).

The rich began seeking nonliquid investments to secure their wealth. Land was best, but it was ancestrally owned and passed down over generations, and no peasant would voluntarily relinquish it. Exorbitant interest, however, could be used to drive landowners ever deeper into debt. And debt…created the economic leverage to pry Galilean peasants loose from their land. By the time of Jesus we see this process already far advanced: large estates owned by absentee landlords, managed by stewards, and worked by tenant farmers, day laborers, and slaves. It is no accident that the first act of the Jewish revolutionaries in 66 C.E. was to burn the Temple treasury, where the record of debts was kept (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, p. 178).

A poor person with no land, no assets, and no money is being sued for his shirt to make sure that he repays his debt. All he has is his clothes and his body. When the judge says that the poor person is to give his outer garment to the creditor, the poor person is told by Jesus to strip off all his clothes and stand there completely naked in the courtroom. In front of everybody, in public, expose their injustice and corruption and greed and exploitation by exposing his own body. It is the system that is corrupt and guilty, not the poor person who is in debt.

Jesus’ teaching left the poor person’s body intact and whole, only naked and exposed. And that nakedness did not shame the poor person as much as it shamed the people who caused it to happen: the one suing as well as the system that allows such an atrocity to happen.

And this third way of dealing with economic exploitation and abuse that is neither violent nor passive is one of the powers of the Occupy Movement. One could fight economic exploitation with violence by killing the creditors and legislators for destroying so many lives, but even though that has happened, it is not wise. Or people could organize a violent revolution to change the system, but even though that has happened, it is not wise either. There are violent ways to reduce debt and set the oppressed free, but in my opinion these must be rejected. Yet it is why those who own the loans have access to such powerful militaries—to make sure violent debt reduction options are less likely to happen.

But I like to imagine a nonviolent revolution that includes debts being forgiven as credit card accounts in corporate computers are erased and people around the world have trillions of dollars of credit card debt erased. Mortgage interest rates lowered, yes! But also mortgage principal balances lowered. Imagine a revolution where billions of dollars of debts owed by countries in the global south to billionaires in the global north were just erased. Millions, no billions, of people would rejoice and there would be a very few very frustrated millionaires and billionaires. But there are nonviolent ways—and legislation is one of them—to persuade and require the purveyors of economic injustice to reduce debt, increase wages, and contribute more to the common good of all people.

A passive way to deal with having the shirt sued off your back is just to go along with it silently, and many people choose to do this. Give them your clothes and go home. At least you still have your underwear. The wages many were (and are) paid for working all day every day could not cover the costs of rent, food, and basic necessities so you had to borrow just to be able to feed your family. Now they are taking your clothes, your robe that keeps you warm at night, to make sure you pay back the loan and interest on food your family has already eaten. A passive response is “That is just the way it is. The world is unjust.” “There is no sense in trying to do anything about it, what can a poor person do anyway?” “You can’t fight City Hall and you can’t fight Wall Street.”

But Jesus did not say, “When someone sues you for your outer garment, you’re probably going to lose anyway so just give it to them and go home and be glad you still have your underwear.” Jesus did not say, “When someone sues you for your outer garment, give it to them but then ambush them on their way home and bash their head in. Then take your clothes back.” Jesus did not say, “When someone sues you for your outer garment, join the violent revolution and overthrow the imperialist pigs and burn the debt records.”

Jesus did say that when someone is destroying you economically you should be neither passive nor violent, but you should expose their greed by taking off your clothes in public. So let’s do it.