Friday, May 30, 2014


I often choose to read books that trouble me - books of social commentary - books that describe and discuss matters that should concern me as a Christian.  Usually books such as these are not written by Christians; at least the authors do not profess to be Christians.  However, they often give the feel of moral indignation and of a sense of injustice.

One such book that I recently read was The Divide by Matt Taibbi, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine and the author of other books of social commentary.  The cover blurb describes the problem addressed as " ... a statistical mystery:  Poverty goes up.  Crime goes down.  The prison population doubles.  Fraud by the rich wipes out 40 percent of the world's wealth.  The rich get massively richer.  No one goes to jail."

Hence the title of the book.  The Divide tells the stories of our two justice systems:  one for the "haves" and another for the "have-nots."

While the author does do a great deal of analysis, the power of the book lies in the stories he tells, stories from both sides of the divide, illustrating his points with accounts of real people.  But before diving too deeply into these he gives this statement:

"Unquestionably, however, something else is at work, something that cuts deeper into the American psyche.  We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we're building a bureaucracy to match those feelings" (page xx).

Taibbi all through the book shows his moral indignation.  He feels a sense of unfairness that enormous crimes by the rich go unpunished and even rewarded, while the poor are rounded up for alleged infractions and often end up helpless and/or imprisoned.

Chapter after chapter, story after story, Taibbi makes his case.  His stories are accounts of real people - poor blacks, poor whites, poor Hispanics, caught in the "stop and frisk" or similar policies of large cities.  He devotes a long chapter to the stories of the abusive treatment of undocumented immigrants.  And he alternates these with tales of successful (often "legal") swindles pulled off by millionaire bankers.  The poor have little, if any, legal counsel and are rushed through impersonal court systems, while the wealthy are represented by top-of-the-line law firms.

This is not a "political" book.  Taibbi doesn't place the blame on any one political party or politician.  He does, however, place much blame on a memo authored by our current Attorney General Eric Holder, when he was a little-known official in the Clinton administration.  The memo warned of the dangers of "unintended consequences" if large corporations and their executives were prosecuted - job losses for innocent lower level employees and the resulting economic losses.  Apparently the "too big to fail" thinking resulted from this.  Of course, a corollary would be "too-big to jail."

The book is over 400 pages thick and I suppose my greatest criticism would be that the stories at times are too long and detailed.  And yet this is one of the books great strengths; Taibbi forces us to share in the misery of those who are being beaten down by the system, as well as in the frustration at the long legal maneuvers of those who get away with their crimes.

This book does make some suggestions, but mainly I felt a sense of hopelessness when I had finished.  What can be done?  Some things can be done to alleviate much of the injustice, but probably not too much will be.  What can I as an individual do?

Stepping back and looking at the present situation through the lenses of history and the Bible, we can see that while the particular injustices that Taibbi describes may be unique to our country and our age, they are not new phenomena.  The poor appear to have always been the ones to suffer more for their "crimes," while the rich and powerful seem to be free from the consequences of theirs.

We see these problems addressed in the Old Testament Scriptures.  The author of Ecclesiastes had a few things to say (cynically?) about this nearly 3,000 years ago:

"If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, don't be shocked at the sight ... (Ecclesiastes 5:8; see also 4:1-3; 7:7).

The prophets raged against it.  In fact, as I read The Divide I kept being drawn back to Amos' tirades:

"Those who turn justice into wormwood and put down righteousness to the earth" (Amos 5:7; see verses 10-15).

But the most severe threats against injustice come from Jesus Himself.  He concludes His sermon on things to come by promising that He Himself is going to return to judge the nations for their mistreatment of the poor, the hungry and the prisoners.  See Matthew 25:31-46.

Is Taibbi correct in his analysis?  Do we in America really hate "the weak and poor"?  Do we really have a "groveling terror of the rich and successful?"  I fear that he is correct.  I have heard statements from many implying this and sadly I have heard such things from those who claim to follow Jesus.

I'm not sure what we can do about injustice.  But one of the first necessities is to admit it exists.  Another is to cease blaming the victims.

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