Friday, January 22, 2016

Sixty–Two People, Half the World, What a Stunning Statistic!

I first heard the statistics concerning wealth distribution released by Oxfam the other day with horror. According to their study, the richest 62 people in the world have the same combined wealth as the poorest 50% of people in our world ($1.76 trillion USD)—that is 1,760,000,000,000,000,000, or 1.76 million million million dollars! In percentage terms, only 8.382375298816469e-7% (0.000000083%) of the people of the world hold the same as ‘the other’ 50%.

Aside from statistics related to problems of death through violence (genocide, abortion, war, the Holocaust, etc), I can’t think of a statistic that has shaken me more. It is horrific. How has this come to pass?

I did a bit of digging on the 62 and some—like Charles and David Koch from Koch Industries, the Waltons of Wal-Mart, the Mars who make Candy (mars bars, yummy)—are from the same families, so it is a little worse; it is actually 57 people or groups who hold this wealth (see http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/list/#version:realtime_show:1). Most are from the USA (30) and Europe (16), with ten from Asia, and the others from South or Latin America (3), Russia (1), and the Middle East (1). So, the vast majority of this wealth is held by 46 people in the western world. Unsurprisingly, 54 are men—it’s a man’s world, or should I say, a ‘rich man’s world.’ Many are in the computer technology and media world, some in beauty, fashion, clothes and accessories, some in supermarkets, some in industry, and a number in investment and real estate.

This is a deterioration of an already bad state of affairs disparity; in 2010, the 388 richest people owned the same wealth as the poorest 50%. Then, by 2014 this had dropped to 80, and now 62. What will the next five years bring? The richest few are buying up the world, and the world is being enslaved to their wealth accumulation. The wealth is not trickling down far enough, only to those who serve the uber-rich. Between 2010 and 2050, the wealth of the poorest 50% dropped by 41%, while the richest 62 gained $500 billion—nice.

Now, as I said in my last blog, I have just been thinking about Jesus feeding the 5000 (John 6). In truth, the 5000 fed was more like 10 to 20,000, as there were women and children present (like the boy with the fish), who were not counted (ancient patriarchy, sigh).

When this occurred, those present were poor and desperate, under severe economic oppression and wealth disparity. The nation, indeed the whole Mediterranean, was held captive to Rome. In Rome, life was good for the elite—with the Empire and most of the population serving them (half were slaves). In Israel, Rome had its lackeys; the Herodians, who were big on building projects and an excessive lavish lifestyle, the chief priests and others who made up the Sanhedrin (council of seventy–one), some other priests, and Rome’s tax-collectors who also took their own cut (e.g. Zacchaeus). There was also the problem of land acquisition, with the wealthy buying up land into huge holdings, while the people of land worked the land on a basic wage at best with the money going into the coffers of the rich (sound familiar). There was no real middle class with the rest of society poor struggling to varying degrees, from the wealthier artisans through to the slaves, peasants, and those who languished in squalor—the lepers, beggars, blind, lame, mentally ill, and physical disabled (such were the people at the feeding). If Oxfam are right, then our world is not that different.

We see the heart of Jesus in the feeding. He heals the sick. He feeds the poor. He welcomes sinners. He doesn’t hang out with the wealthy and elite, he avoids them. In fact, there is no record of him going to the seats of Galilean power, Tiberius, Sepphoris, or Hippos. In fact, he performs this miracle, and most of his work, in the wilderness, with the poor coming in crowds to him. He repudiated the rich, challenging one rich fool to stop building up his huge assets more and more but to be generous to God and the poor. He told a story of a rich man in hell, while the poor beggar he ignored is in heaven—a complete reversal of popular theology. He urged another to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow him. He urged his followers to follow that same pattern—live light and give generously. When Zacchaeus the reformed tax-collector gave half he had to the poor, and refunded fourfold those he had ripped off as a tax-collector, Jesus cried out that salvation had come to him and his household. Jesus venerated a poor widow who gave everything she had to the Temple Treasury. He honoured Mary who poured perfume over his feet, despite the protestations of Judas, who himself was a thief. He repudiated the Pharisees who were obsessed with wealth acquisition. Jesus would not be impressed with this statistic I am sure.

How to respond? There is a temptation to think there should be a revolution when we hear things like this. And indeed, there might be—such situations can often lead to outcry and violent overthrows of regimes (take Communism for example). The problem is that these don’t work, inevitably a fresh regime comes in that falls into the same trap—greed and oppression to fulfil the agenda! Jesus advocated something much cleverer and subversive. We see the desire for revolution at the conclusion of feeding account (John 6:14-15). After their great feed, the well-fed 5000 recognised that with the sort of power Jesus had, surely the time was ripe to storm the Romans, Herodians, Sanhedrin and anyone else who got in their way, and bring Shalom (peace). They declared Jesus the long awaited Prophet (Deut 18:15-18), sought to seize him and make him king by violent force, and then no doubt head for the Herodian and Roman bases in Israel and take back their world. Jesus took off—he wasn’t interested in a violent revolution or being that type of king. He knows that this will not work.

The kingdom he advocated is from the bottom up. This is where people recognise that the inequality of the world must be addressed, but now with violent revolution. Rather, it begins with ‘me’ and making a change from greed and consumption to generosity and giving. Such a kingdom is found where people see a person in need and respond by healing, feeding, and caring—like the Good Samaritan who stopped at real expense (money, time, and danger) to tend to a man robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. Jesus himself repeatedly stopped to heal, feed, and care for people as he want about his days. In this story, he healed the sick and fed the crowds. Amazing miracles happen when people get generous.

Surely, what is now needed is for there to be an outcry against the economic oppression of our time. Globalization has enabled the smaller and smaller group of people to control more and more. The response is to become cleverer at avoiding their control. We need to become more generous. We need to redistribute our wealth, responding to need. We need to resist the empire, recognising who these people are and buying in other ways, growing our own stuff, repairing things, sharing things, and resisting. As we go to vote in forthcoming elections, we need to consider what will see the wealth of the world distributed to its workers more evenly. More importantly, we need to live out the politics of the Kingdom—heal the sick, feed the poor, care for the needy, and so on.

There is no easy answer, but it starts with us recognising what the Kingdom is about and letting that affect everything we do. Otherwise, in another five years 30 people will own the world. Then 10. Then 1. That doesn’t bear thinking about.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Jesus, Friend of Sinners (the Feeding of the 5000)

I was working through John’s account of the Feeding of the 5000 in John 6:1–15 yesterday and realised something I hadn’t noticed. The miracle is the only one found in all four Gospels (Mark 6; Matt 14; Luke 9). As in the other accounts, in John, Jesus provides food for the whole crowd, which may have been as large as 20,000, as only the number of men is noted.
John adds cool details. The disciples are there on the mountain with Jesus, so they are fed along with the crowd. He tells us that the loaves are barley-loaves, the bread of the poor, barley being cheaper than wheat. The fish are ‘small fish,’ which are perhaps pickled. A boy who can be anywhere from a little fella to a young man (the Greek is fluid) provides the food; a neat touch, also showing that there are children present. The food is worth around 200 denarii, which is two hundred day’s money for a day labourer. If we assume a NZ minimum wage for an eight-hour day (and they did longer days too!), that is something like $23,600 NZD, a lot of money. It is unlikely Judas has that much in his moneybag. We also see the involvement of Philip and Andrew, who are much more prominent in John than the other Gospels—likely because they were known to John’s readers. We see that Philip is good at finances, an accountant? We learn the time of the event, just before Passover, so probably March. The grass is lush, it is the northern Spring; soon the grass will burn off in the heat of summer. The way the story is presented shows Jesus as a new Moses, or one greater than Moses, who feeds Israel in the wilderness, who is redeeming Israel in a second and ultimate Exodus. The crowd recognise that Jesus is someone special, thinking him the Prophet anticipated in Deuteronomy 18:15–18, they seek to violently seize him and make him king—they believe he is Messiah. Jesus does a runner, he is not interested in being that sort of king, one who takes over the world with violent force. He has another plan—contemporary Christians in a violent world take note!
What struck me is that in John, unlike the other accounts, there is no mention of the disciples distributing the food, Jesus does it (John 6:11). Jesus is thus the ideal host, and the one who serves the crowds. This is Jesus the Servant, who will be seen most clearly in Ch. 13 as he washes the disciples’ feet—a slaves dirty job. Most significantly, this will be revealed as he is glorified on the cross, fulfilling the mission for which he was sent, dying for the world as the Lamb of God.
What really struck me is who he is feeding. He feeds the crowds made up of all sorts, desperate for healing in a world where people died young. In the crowd are interesting people. Cast your eye to the end of John 6 and you will see that by the end of the next day, after hearing Jesus teach that he is the ‘bread of life,’ ‘many of his disciples’ found it a bit much. They grumbled, as they were offended. After a discussion, ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.’ Jesus then challenged the Twelve, asking whether they want out as well. Simon speaks up effectively saying ‘no way, we are here for the long haul, you are the One! Jesus then reminds them that he chose them, and ‘yet one of you is a devil.’ John explains that this is a reference to Judas (John 6:70–71).
Even though these people would desert him and and Judas betray him, Jesus was prepared to provide for them and feed them! Further, he hands them their food himself. They all go home well-fed. There was even leftovers, the disciples gathering twelve baskets afterward. One of these was his betray Judas, ‘a devil!’ This is our God, who provides a world for all people, replete with food and drink; and even for those who hate him and deny him. This event again shows Jesus’ amazing grace toward sinners. He loved to hang out with them, and he delighted in serving their needs. Later, at the Last Supper, he would eat with his betrayer and his denier (Peter). Each Sunday we have Communion, Jesus dines with us, and we too are sinners. We come with differing levels of faith, yet Jesus does not discriminate, all are welcome to the Table. Jesus is truly the friend of sinners. So we must treat the world. I am glad Jesus will eat with sinners, cause I am one. There is yet hope for us all. 


Saturday, January 2, 2016

Dear World, Some thoughts for 2016

As we launch into another year, 2016, I thought it would be good to make a few suggestions to a few people around the world in the hope that they may listen, that we could have a year of relative peace and prosperity on planet earth.

Dear Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi,
Please can you end this violent desire to take over the world? I admire your zeal, but sometimes zeal is misguided—and this is one of those times! Seeking world domination and the imposition of extreme Islamic ideals by violent force is stupid because you will fail and many will be killed as you try. People generally don’t respond to being told they have to follow a certain religion. Take it from us Christians, we have tried this, and it does not work! So, please give it up? Why not just lay down the weapons and say, ‘enough,’ end the conflict, urge your followers to do the same, and retire?

Dear Donald Trump,
As John McEnroe said, ‘you cannot be serious!’ Please just go back to your business and reality shows and leave global politics to others. You scare the living #@$& out of us all with your rhetoric. I am not sure if there is anyone in NZ that takes you seriously as a President. The things you are saying are ridiculous. So, please give it up now. I used the enjoy the Apprentice, so just have another series. We can handle your hair, but not your politics.

Dear America,
If Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi and Donald Trump don’t heed the above appeals, as I am sure they won’t, please do not vote for Trump. There are other trumpets to blow, none of whom are perfect, but at least seem to be reasonable. Unless you want apocalypse now (the final trump-et), and I know some of you do (please read your bibles carefully!), please vote for someone else as the Republican candidate. The world needs some seriously wise leadership at present. Is Trump really the way?

Dear the American Gun Lobby
Come on! Is it really the answer to arm more and more Americans to stop gun violence? Stop the weird logic and get real. The more people are armed, the more people will get shot. It’s kind of obvious to us in a place like NZ. But hey, that’s your constitutional right I suppose. Or is it a constitutional wrong? Anyway, even if you don’t listen to this, please don’t vote for trump, and don’t shoot cyclists even if we stuff up.

Dear Auckland Council,
Can you just can silly ideas like trains down the centre of Dominion Road? How about monorail running over the top of such roads and the motorways? The roads are ridiculous as they are, without trains added to the carnage. In a city with a ton of volcanoes and a harbour, which is ever expanding with single level dwellings (just go for a drive out west beyond Hobsonville, Riverhead, etc), the roads will soon be a car park (it is most days already). So, buses aren’t really a goer, nor should we go underground. How about something over the top? Just saying. Also, on the matter of single level dwellings ever spreading into the hinterland—can you start building some more apartment blocks around the place? Not leaky ones—been there, done that. But good solid ones? Again, just saying? Ah yes, and perhaps a new mayor? Again, just saying.

Dear Labour,
NZ needs a strong left and right. At the moment, John Key is having a field day. Nothing against Andrew Little, he seems a decent enough sort of bloke, but is he the best you have got to take on the National machine? They are in their third term and the wheels should be coming off. But for wheels to come off, they need to be under pressure from an articulate, intelligent, leadership, which picks the right issues, and with popular appeal, takes on the government. It feels like I am watching the All Blacks play Namibia, or Georgia, kind of a training run with little opposition. I don’t know who is out there, but please scour the country and find someone who can take on the Key, English, Joyce, Collins and co. And please can you get together with the Greens and put something coherent together rather than bash each other up? A divided opposition cannot win. And it has to make sense to the ‘ordinary NZer,’ whatever that is? Seems like at least Dotcom won’t be a factor, that will help.

Dear NZ Drivers,
Please take care around cyclists this coming year. Us cyclists will do our darndest to stay out of your way, stick to the left, not ride in huge bunches (except in races or maybe early on a Sunday morning). If you do your part as well, that would be great. We will try and do ours (sometimes we do forget, sorry). Give us heaps of room. Be patient with us, even if we suck, cause you have all the power in those beasts you drive. And please don’t drink and drive. Don’t throw bottles out windows and fill up the bike lanes with glass. Then we can drive to the left and not get a puncture. Slow down. Keep left. Be nice. No more road rage. And please don’t join Isis.

Dear Cyclists
Be nice to other vehicle drivers. Keep left. Don’t fill up the road. Don’t run red lights and do things drivers don’t expect. Stay safe.

Dear Christians,
Let’s all devote ourselves to stop moralizing, bemoaning the world around us, and give our guts to serve this nation. Let’s get out and be the volunteers that makes NZ tick. Let’s get involved in our schools and community groups not to impose ‘Christian law’ on the world, but to make this nation the best it can be by relentlessly serving out of love. Let’s be nice to atheists and others we disagree with—the beauty of being human is that we can choose our own path. Let’s give generously with our time and money to the things that really matter—things that bring justice and spread mercy. Let’s move past criticism and disunity, to love. Let’s make Jesus really proud of us and the way we treat each other and others, how we stand up for good and how we care for those in need. And let’s pray heaps. The world needs it bigtime.

Dear All
Let’s eat well this coming year. Let’s exercise heaps. Let’s work hard, but let’s have fun. Let’s laugh. Let’s lighten up, de-stress, and enjoy this awesome world. Let’s work hard toward reducing our carbon footprints. Let’s really contribute to society. Let’s pause and smell the roses, see the sunset, walk the beach, climb the hills, enjoy the wonderful world we live in. Let’s support each other when things are bad. Let’s rejoice when things rock. Let’s watch less TV, drink less booze, eat less junk food, and not waste our lives. Let’s make 2016 a brilliant year.

Whoever you are, have a bloody awesome 2016.