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Joseph Hough

MOYERS: What you just saw in Jefferson, Wisconsin, is part of a bigger story, a story of class war waged by owners, managers, and investors who are running away with the spoils of victory.

Look at this recent issue of FORBES magazine: America's 400 richest people got richer in the past 12 months, with an aggregate net worth of — brace yourself — $955 billion, up 10% from the previous year.

Now look at this headline: the widest gap between rich and poor since 1929, more than doubling in the last two decades.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington has studied after tax income and found that if you take the 110 million poorest paid Americans, all their income combined is less than the combined income of the richest 2.8 million Americans.

Now some people say the class war is over, that with so much economic power and the means to make those big contributions to a political system that rewards donors over voters, the rich can perpetuate these extraordinary levels of inequality forever.

Joseph Hough doesn't think so.

Hough is the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, called there from retirement after a lifetime as dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School in Tennessee, and the Claremont School of Theology in California.

He recently took a hard look at those economic facts and was outraged.

So outraged he took to the pulpit and called on the three Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — to challenge to the powers that be.

MOYERS: You recently did a very radical thing. You called on the children of Abraham — Muslims, Christians and Jews — to engage in an act of refusal.

HOUGH: Well, my perception, Bill, is that there is a definite intentional move on the part of political leadership in this country. In the direction that I think is not at all compatible with the prophetic tradition in Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. And that is the obligation on the part of people who believe in God to care for the least and the poorest. That central teaching, that sacred code, I think, is very well summed up in Proverbs where the writer of Proverbs says, "Those who oppress the needy insult their maker." "Those who oppress the needy insult their maker."

And I think that it would be a wonderful thing if we could stand together, these three great Abrahamic traditions, and say, "Look, we do not countenance this sort of thing. It is not only unfair, it is immoral on the basis of our religious traditions, and we believe it's an insult to God."

MOYERS: And it is what?

HOUGH: The growing gap between the rich and the poor which has become almost obscene by anybody's standards, and the stated intentional policy of bankrupting the government so that in the future there'll be no money for anything the federal government would decide to do.

MOYERS: We've all heard this from economists.

HOUGH: Yes.

MOYERS: And political pundits, and analysts, think tank experts. But we're hearing this from the president of a seminary?

HOUGH: Yeah. You are. And the reason you are is because I think that it's not just a political pundit issue. It's not just a think tank issue. It is a deep and profound theological issue. And it has to do with whether we are faithful to the deepest convictions called for by our faith.

Because the central teaching of Jesus is-announced when he says, from Isaiah 61, "God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, deliverance to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of Jubilee." And as you know, the year of Jubilee was the year when land reform was supposed to take place, debts were to be canceled, slaves freed.

Jesus drew from that Jewish tradition, that Covenental tradition, and the obligation to care for the needy. Jesus Christ was a Jew. To his soul, he was a Jew. By the time he was 11 years old, people were absolutely astounded how well he knew the Jewish tradition.

He crafted his message in direct connection to the Jewish tradition, and it was no accident that Luke put Isaiah 61 in Jesus' mouth at Nazareth. "The spirit of God is upon me because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor." If you go through the Gospel to Luke, the entire theme of Luke is this.

It appears also in the Sermon on the Mount. It appears indirectly in the feeding of the five thousand or four thousand, whichever you want. It's reported four times in the Gospel, more than any other single event in the life of Jesus. In every case, and it also, in a way, it foreshadows the Eucharist. Because the Eucharistic meal was first a meal for the people who were the followers of Jesus. And if you look in Acts 3, you will see that those followers of Jesus saw to it that people who didn't have enough to eat could come to that table and get enough to eat. That was the radical model they put out there. Nobody likes to talk about that very much. But there it is. Right in the middle of Acts.

And they continued to worship in the temple. This is a continuity with the best in the Jewish tradition, and it is also no accident that there's some strong similarities in the Koran. And that is why I think all of us in the Abrahamic traditions who share this conviction about care for the least fortunate should simply make some kind of public declaration that enough is enough. We've gone far enough.

And it is not at all in the spirit of American democracy to generate inequality, and to contradict equal opportunity in our society. Those are not the norms we've lived by.

MOYERS: Again, I come back to the paradox, which is that these policies to which you are protesting, which you say are immoral were enacted by a Congress and an Administration elected to a significant degree with the support of the religious right — Conservative Christians who got active in politics and saw that their candidates were elected, and they're seeing now the policies that they believe they elected those officials to carry out.

HOUGH: Well. That's true, Bill, but my Dad, as I told you, is a Baptist preacher. He was until he was 84. And there was a notorious drunk in town who when he got drunk, he really went after preachers. But he said he was born-again Christian. And one day, someone asked my father if he thought Brother Suggs was a born-again Christian. And my father said, "Only God knows that."

But, you know, the Lord Jesus said, "By their fruits, you shall know them." And speaking as a humble fruit inspector of the Lord, I'd say that if this person is a born-again Christian, there's a mixed signal somewhere." I feel the same way.

If Tom Delay is acting out of his born-again Christian convictions in pushing legislation that disadvantages the poor every time he opens his mouth, I'm not saying he's not a born-again Christian, but as a the Lord's humble fruit inspector, it sure looks suspicious to me. And anybody who claims in the name of God they're gonna run over people of other nations, and just willy-nilly, by your own free will, reshape the world in your own image, and claim that you're acting on behalf of God, that sounds a lot like Caesar to me.

MOYERS: Can a secular democracy, in a pluralistic society, where there are many faiths, including people of no faith, can that democratic government be expected to represent the religious, prophetic imperatives of people like you?

HOUGH: Well, maybe so, maybe not, Bill. But I'm getting tired of people claiming they're carrying the banner of my religious tradition when they're doing everything possible to undercut it. And that's what's happening in this country right now. The policies of this country are disadvantaging poor people every day of our lives and every single thing that passes the Congress these days is disadvantaging poor people more.

MOYERS: I don't think even conservatives dispute that the inequality is growing in this country. You somehow sense that inequality is more profoundly disruptive and dangerous than others.

HOUGH: I think some inequality in terms of economics is necessary. That doesn't alarm me a great deal. It is the obscene degree to which economic inequality has taken hold in America that I think is highly questionable. There is no justification under Heaven for some corporate executives to make 1,000 times as much as their average worker. Their contribution may be great. But it's no less than Peter Drucker, my colleague at Claremont for 25 years, said→

MOYERS: Management guru par excellence.

HOUGH: Management guru and certainly nobody's fuzzy-headed liberal. Peter Drucker says, "This compromises the integrity of a corporate executive. Why?" Because it does not accept, and it does not in any way acknowledge the incredible contributions of people who work at various levels, the various constituencies of a corporation to its well being. It is driven by other factors than acknowledgement of who contributes to the well being of the corporation.

Now Bill, I'm not naive. Nobody believes that everybody can be exactly the same, get the same. But there's certain bare minimums, what Amartya Sen, my favorite development economist calls. A Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen calls the capability to function in society. And Sen says that no society can claim to be fair if there are substantial numbers of its citizens who are not receiving enough assistance or income to have the capability to function. Now, what does that mean? It means to buy food, to have a place to live, to have their children educated, to get reasonable health care and a job.

And we want to ask the people of our traditions to join us is asking every single political leader we encounter, "What are you gonna do in order to help make this happen?" Let's make that the litmus test of whether or not we're gonna vote for a particular leader.

This is not a partisan issue. I mean, my God, who in the world could possibly stand up and say, "I'm a Christian. I don't think we should really give much attention to the life of the poor." Some do. But I don't think it's a party line thing.

I mean, I'd like for this debate to be carried on in such a way that we could, and here I'm talking about Abrahamic traditions. We could ask ourselves "What changes in the direction of this country are necessary if it really is gonna make a claim to be a democracy?" We're not asking it to be a theocracy. A democracy. That's what it's about. Politically, that's what it's about.

MOYERS: It's about?

HOUGH: It is about whether Democrats and Republicans who are sensitive to this move, where people who are sensitive to this move in our society politically, are able to get the will to say, "Enough is enough." I mean, let's stop this business, and let's look again and ask the question, "What will really make this a country that we can be proud of, and one that that pays attention to all the people, not just a few."

MOYERS: A recent Nobel Laureate has said that he thinks the time is coming for civil disobedience again. What do you think about that?

HOUGH: I think it may come to that. I think it may come to that, I really do. I don't know what form it's to take. It's got to be civil disobedience that is not destructive. One of the problems I have with some of the demonstrations against for example, the WTO and at Davos.

MOYERS: The World Trade Organization?

HOUGH: The World Trade Organization, and the Davos conferences one of the problems I have with those is that some people seem just bent on destruction and violence. And I think Martin Luther King's exactly right. If you try to advance your cause with violence, you provoke violence, and the way the world is structured, if you try to promote your cause with violence, you're gonna lose. The only way to promote your cause is civil disobedience and the willingness to take the consequences for it. And I think we're just about there.

MOYERS: Joe Hough, thank you very much.

HOUGH: Thank you.

Transcript, October 24, 2003 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS transcript on-line

Thirteen/WNET PBS © Public Affairs Television. All rights reserved.

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