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In a Chasm? Stop Digging!

September 26, 2010

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 18     Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15     Luke 16:19-31


In this day of email I don’t find much of importance in my letterbox very often, but this week I received two pieces of mail out of the ordinary. The first was my voting papers to cast my vote for a mayor and councillors for Auckland “The Super City.” The second was my ballot to vote in the US midterm elections in California. 


I have to say I find both documents discouraging. They bring out my less than attractive cynical side. I’m one of those people who believe my vote is a civic sacrament, a sacramental right, if you will. I have voted in every election for which I was eligible since I was 18. My healthy American skepticism about “the System” has not deterred me in the past. Nor has my frustration with my fellow citizens who choose not to vote, even though they are often the deciding factor of who gets elected. For instance, the 72% of the electorate who did not vote in Alaska last week have effectively chosen a radical right candidate to be their next senator. Of course if they choose not to inform themselves I share author Gore Vidal’s hope, who observed that “Half of the American people never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half.” Sadly the recent successes of the Tea Party in America suggest otherwise.


I can sympathize with those who choose not to vote out of principle because they believe that if voting ever changed anything, it would be abolished. Often it seems that way. But how different would the world be today if more Americans had voted in 2000. If they had I don’t believe the results would have been close enough for the Supreme Court to appoint George Bush as president. 


The problem is that not all politicians want to get out the vote. For those who represent the wealthy and powerful, it is in their self-interest to not encourage certain segments of the population to vote. As Dan Quayle once observed in a moment of total transparency, “Republicans have been accused of abandoning the poor. It's the other way around. They never vote for us.” So, from their frame of reference it is best that the poor not vote at all. If they can make it too cumbersome or confusing to vote they know many won’t.


Another strategy is to convince us that there really isn’t much difference between the candidates by hiding their true agenda. They know if we perceive little difference many will not bother to vote. If we believe the outcome doesn’t matter, they win. When we don’t vote, whether we are in the US or New Zealand and are poor, unemployed, ill, uneducated, highly educated, a woman, gay, a person of colour or compassionate we lose. Vote suppression is the only way the smallest segment of the population – the wealthy – can win elections.


I see vote suppression at work in our own election.


American humourist, Will Rogers, at a time when most politicians were men, once observed, “Anything important is never left to the vote of the people. We only get to vote on some man; we never get to vote on what he is to do.” I certainly feel that way about the concept of the Super City itself. While I believe what we had was inadequate for our growing region, we had no opportunity to vote on what the Royal Commission suggested for a structure or what Rodney Hyde, the powerful advocate for the richest in our community, decided it would be. We just get to vote on who is going to run it. Frustration with the government’s less than transparent process feeds cynicism that this is all about making the rich richer and the poor poorer and that cynicism feeds vote suppression. And if that doesn’t do it the ballot we have been sent should do it nicely. The last local authority election turnout was good by US standards – 44%, but that was down 2% from the previous one. Who knows what this ballot will do to it.


There are 542 candidates for 170 vacancies on the new council, local boards, the licensing trusts and local health boards. There are 23 candidates for mayor alone. 


With a few high profile exceptions, there is precious little information out there about who these people are and what their positions are on the issues. If I had lived in New Zealand all my life I might’ve met or gone to school with at least some of them. That not being the case I mostly have to depend on the booklet that came with the ballot. It has a brief paragraph about each offered by the candidate. Its chief purpose seems to be to say as little as possible about what they stand for with the exception that many want to lower my rates. At what cost they don’t say. Knowing party affiliation would be helpful in making an informed choice, but most claim to be an “independent.” Independent against “what” or for “what” is the question.


So in the midst of my despair about what the future of Auckland might be and my growing cynicism about how we are getting there, Jeremiah speaks to me today. He is not his usual ‘doom and gloom’ self. Yet, he has every reason to be so. His city is under siege and he is in prison. Things are bleak and getting bleaker, yet he does the inexplicable. He buys land to plant a vineyard outside the city. Yes, he probably got a good price considering the circumstances, but he still probably paid too much. He makes this poor commercial decision to invest in an image of hope of life after destruction and captivity. He does it because even after the enemy has done its worst, he is certain that God is still working in the rubble of Israel’s former life. That certainty moves him to act even when it makes no economic sense.


So while I am discouraged and would prefer to ignore my ballot I will do as Jeremiah and struggle to fill it out. It is an investment in hope for what could be, even when it seems futile. But hope doesn’t tell me who to vote for, so I’m grateful for Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.


Many, if not most, scholars question if this is one of Jesus’ parables because the last four verses speak of someone returning from the dead. I agree that those words belong to the primitive church. But I also agree with Dominic Crossan who hears Jesus in the beginning of it. He argues that like Jesus it makes no moral judgment about how good or bad the rich man and Lazarus are, the story just reverses a common expectation. The rich have earned God’s blessing just as the poor have earned God’s curse. Jesus is says, “Not so fast.” In God’s realm our expectations are not going to be met. Furthermore those mistaken expectations divide us from one another. They create an unbridgeable chasm between us and the shovel we use to dig it is fear.


The rich man ignores Lazarus out of fear. Lazarus’ poverty, sickness, age, vulnerability, and just plain difference are what he fears. Since he can’t run away far enough or fast enough, he digs a chasm or a gated community or goes to a different church or joins clubs Lazarus can’t afford. Jesus doesn’t say but he might send a check to the Mission to give the hungry a food parcel but he wouldn’t think of worshipping with Lazarus or living next door to him. 


Forty years ago I went to university in Santa Barbara. In those days rich and poor lived together. That is no longer true. The rich have built a chasm around it. Their servants and gardeners live at least 50 miles away because they can’t afford to live there. Even my university had to build faculty housing because their professors couldn’t afford a home there. Today it is a wonderful “make believe” place to live if you are rich, but if you are poor it is just a place to work. What the rich don’t know is that they are on the wrong side of the chasm. They have isolated themselves from 99% of the human family and it hasn’t made them any less vulnerable to the ravages of life. To see the image of God we have to be one with the whole human family. Anything less leaves us ultimately miserable. It is a misery that does violence to the souls of those who live this way just as the true cost of their wealth does violence to the “have-nots” and to our society as a whole. Jesus simply reminds us we are not made to live this way and don’t have to.


With the rich man in mind I will seek to vote for candidates whose primary concern is not about making me “richer” by lowering my rates at the expense of the most vulnerable. Instead, I hope to find enough candidates to support who are concerned about filling in the chasms that already exist in our community. I do not want to use my vote to dig new and deeper ones. Life is difficult enough without being isolated further. My candidates may not win, but in them I will invest my hope in a city that could be super. May Jeremiah and the rich man encourage enough of us to do the same.

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