War authority–why and for what?

I can’t find online my letter published in the Daily Local News a week or so ago. So let’s put it in the blog.

This letter builds on my thinking in “Responsibility in the country, responsibility in the world” (August 10, 2014), beginning: “How is President Obama like the United States? Answer: both get blamed whatever they do.”

In my view, if one has to be blamed, it is better to be blamed for not killing people than for killing them.

Of course I’m not in favor of ISIS killing people either, destroying whole societies, breaking up historical works of art, and terrorizing the Middle East. The question is: who is going to deal with them?

You could say: the U.S. should, because by invading Iraq and trying to recreate it on a Western model we created the power vacuum and religious strife into which ISIS emerged. Or, you could say: Britain and France should, because after World War I those two colonial powers carved up the Middle East to suit themselves, and there has been trouble there ever since. Or, you could say: the United Nations should deal with it, and I agree in principle, but unfortunately its odd power structure (with one country on the Security Council being able to thwart all action) renders it no more effective than the U.S. Senate right now.

So, how about the neighboring countries who are next in line to be invaded by ISIS–most of them our ostensible allies–taking on the anti-ISIS assignment? Saudi Arabia did send out some bombers the other day, fine, that’s their business. Well they might make some use of their own military against ISIS, because ISIS’s

… real potential for destruction lies … in the implosion of Saudi Arabia as a foundation stone of the modern Middle East. We should understand that there is really almost nothing that the West can now do about it but sit and watch.

That’s according to Alastair Crooke, “Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS Is to Replace the Saud Family as the New Emirs of Arabia,” The World Post, 9/2/14. And they can likely find recruits on site for the plan, at least judging by Bin Laden’s success in lining up 15 Saudis among the 19 9/11 hijackers.

And the Saudis surely have the wherewithal to take there turn at being the Middle East’s policeman; their 2013 military expenses were 4th in the world (see chart below).

With all this in mind, here is my actual letter:

Ruth Marcus’s column “War authority both sides dislike” (Daily Local, Feb. 16) puzzles me, especially coming from a columnist who usually tries to be prudent and reasonable.

The “both sides” of the title isn’t Marcus’s; the title in her home paper, The Washington Post, is “Congress’s war duty.” But she does bring the argument down to two sides: those who think the president can hunt down ISIS on his own, and those who think Congress should be part of it (as in that creaky old constitution of ours, art. I, sect.8).

Her discussion is all about authority, domestic politics, and separation of powers. But wouldn’t we want to know first for what the authority, whoever has it, would be used?

In short, what’s the goal of any “war authority”? We didn’t know what our goal was when we invaded Iraq or Afghanistan, and how has that been working out for us? And for that whole part of the world?

Is it an American responsibility to stamp out evil everywhere we see it on the globe? Or should we expect some help from our friends (if any)?

Why don’t we put it the other way around: how much help should our friends (if any) expect from us?

Don’t the countries of the Middle East, northern Africa, and western Europe, whose citizens are the ones being attacked these days, have armies and air forces and military budgets (often partly financed by ourselves)?

How many Americans should we be prepared to lose, once more, in a distant war? And how many billions of dollars are we prepared to spend, when our schools and hospitals are desperate for funding?

How will we know when (if ever) we have reached our goal, whatever it is?

Ruth Marcus ought to ask what we want to do and why before she tries to figure out who should authorize it.

And there is a third side: those of us who would rather that American troops and treasure stay out of this one.

Finally: are we Americans making our share of sacrifices to keep the world in order (if that’s what you think our military is for)? Yes, more than our share. Here, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, are the figures for the 2013 calendar year:


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Quotation quiz for the day

Who said, addressing Americans from a Middle Eastern point of view:

“Your law is the law of the rich and wealthy people, who hold sway in their political parties, and fund their election campaigns with their gifts.”

OK, we’ve all known that for a long time except 5/9 of the US Supreme Court.

How about:

“The American people are the ones who pay the taxes which fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf, and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq.”

Well, all US taxpayers know that too.

Further hint: the two quotes are from 13 years ago now.

Answer here: Continue reading

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“The Plot against America” by Philip Roth

I recently read The Plot against America by Philip Roth (2004), a gripping historical novel, a genre that I always enjoy for the challenging light that it sheds on both the past and a present that could have been marked by a different past.

Roth takes two and a half years out of US history—from June 1940 to November 1942—to build a rather plausible alternative scenario. The hero aviator Charles Lindbergh, playing on the popularity of his 1927 trans-Atlantic flight and his isolationist philosophy, triumphs as a Republican presidential candidate over FDR and installs an increasingly tyrannical and racist regime abetted by the watchful eyes of the FBI and its interrogators.

Roth, Plot

I don’t recall it being mentioned in the book, but the plot’s plausibility is enhanced by the fact that Lindbergh’s father served as a Republican congressman from Minnesota from 1906-16 and adamantly opposed US entry into World War I.

The novel has its heroes, who like the anti-hero Lindbergh were actual historical figures. The outspoken radio commentator Walter Winchell speaks truth to power until he is assassinated. New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, orating at Winchell’s funeral, evokes Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen here (p. 305: “It can’t happen here? My friends, it is happening here”). And FDR, after recovering from his 1940 defeat, wins a special election in 1942, after Lindbergh’s disappearance, in time to rejoin his historical role of leading the US in World War II.

I suspect that Roth must have drawn on the 1933 “Business Plot” or “Wall Street Putsch” against FDR, foiled by West Chester native Gen. Smedley Darlington Butler, whom I mentioned in a recent blog.

As Wikipedia (see there for notes, links, and more info) summarizes that affair,

The Business Plot was an alleged political conspiracy in 1933 in the United States. Retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler claimed that wealthy businessmen were plotting to create a fascist veterans’ organization and use it in a coup d’état to overthrow President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt, with Butler as leader of that organization. In 1934, Butler testified before the United States House of Representatives Special Committee on Un-American Activities (the “McCormack-Dickstein Committee”) on these claims. In the opinion of the committee, these allegations were credible. No one was prosecuted.

That Wikipedia post (which, as often, keeps evolving) mentions Jules Archer’s 1973 book The Plot to Seize the White House, about the Business Plot, as well as Sally Denton’s 2012 The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right. The similarity of these titles to Roth’s seem to suggest an influence.

Wikipedia (see links and notes there), however, says:

…Roth has stated that the idea for the novel came to him while reading Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s autobiography, in which Schlesinger makes a comment that some of the more radical Republican senators of the day wanted Lindbergh to run against Roosevelt. The title appears to be taken from that of a communist pamphlet published in support of the campaign against Burton K. Wheeler’s re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1946….

The pamphlet in question is entitled “The Plot Against America: Senator Wheeler and the Forces Behind Him.”

Though Roth’s novel occurs later in FDR’s presidency, and though Roth puts an actual anti-FDR figure in power, it features the same right wing views, leadership of corporate chiefs, and fear of a duly elected US president. (As pointed out by Denton in “When The Bankers Plotted To Overthrow FDR,” NPR, the corporate fears of FDR as he took over the presidency in 1933, of JFK in 1961, and Obama in 2009 have something in common.)

Up until the melodramatic unraveling of the Lindbergh regime, this is an appealingly convincing excursus into the possibilities of US history, already replete with plenty of horrors from slavery to, as Roth amply brings out, anti-Semitism as witnessed by the 8-year-old central character who just happens to be named Philip Roth. One would like to be able to say that the “reeducation” and “redistribution” plans to “Americanize” Jewish Americans can’t happen here, but one would be optimistic, judging from the Native American and Japanese American experiences.

Still, as in history, Roosevelt emerges from both plots–the one denounced by Butler and the one imagined by Roth–in his essential historical role as the powerful leader at the time he was most needed.

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Hoping Mr. Costello is inspired by Gen. Butler

I was happy to have a letter in the Daily Local News on 1/9/15.

Ryan Costello, is the just-elected member of the US House of Representatives for PA district 6. Michael P. Rellahan’s article “Ryan Costello set to take seat in 114th Congress” in the 1/3/15 Daily Local started out:

The politicians from West Chester who have served as U.S. Representative for Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District hold remarkable and sometimes colorful biographical histories.

Like the private in the U.S. Army during the Civil War (Smedley Darlington, who served from 1887-1891) and grew to be a banker and the eventual grandfather of a military man known as the “Fighting Quaker.” Or the businessman who began his career (William Everhart, 1853-1855) in Congress 30 years after surviving the sinking of the ship Albion off the coast or Ireland.

Or the war veteran (John Hickman, 1855-1863) who led the impeachment hearing of a federal judge from Tennessee in the 1860s; and the Everhart scion (James Bowen Everhart 1883-1887) who supplemented his work as a Harvard-educated attorney by publishing works of poetry, notably “The Fox Chase….”

Yes, Costello joins a distinguished and varied roster. Time will tell whether he will be serving the public or his party.

I felt called on to react after Mr. Rellahan mentioned Smedley Darlington Butler. I had written a blog “Smedley Darlington Butler of West Chester,” 9/28/12.

In that post I noted:

On a recent trip to Virginia, I was surprised to see Butler mentioned in one of the commemorative markers at the site of the Battle of the Wilderness (May 1864, Ulysses S. Grant vs. Robert E. Lee). You can review the history in Wikipedia.

It turns out that Butler was largely responsible for the establishment of the battlefield park I was standing in….

As well as his grandfather Smedley Darlington, his father Thomas Butler was also a Republican congressman representing our district. His house, where his son Smedley grew up, is at 228 W. Miner St.

General Butler’s turn against the military-industrial complex is reflected in his pamphlet “War Is A Racket” (which you can read here). In further evidence of his intellectual independence, as I summarized:

… by his account, he foiled a right-wing plan to overthrow the government of the United States in 1933-34….

That is such a monumental business that I followed the trail as well as I could and I remain convinced that he could well, as many believe, have saved the Republic as well as FDR’s political career. I wonder if the alleged “Business Plot” against FDR inspired Philip Roth’s rather gripping historical novel The Plot against America (2004), in which the right wing takes power from 1940-42 before FDR regains his rightful position.

So, as the Daily Local titled my letter, here’s hoping Mr. Costello is inspired by Gen. Butler.

Here is the text as published.

I’m glad that the article “Ryan Costello set to take seat in 114th Congress” (Daily Local, Jan. 3) mentions West Chester native Smedley Darlington Butler, grandson of a long-ago Republican holder of the 6th congressional seat.

General Butler, the most popular military leader of his time, wrote “War Is a Racket” in 1935, showing the obscenity of military profiteers controlling policy to their own benefit.

Mr. Costello could well be inspired by Butler, who is honored on one of the four panels in the West Chester Courthouse’s former North Wing at 10 North High St., next door to Mr. Costello’s future office.

Although Mr. Costello has been criticized for accepting over $15,000 in campaign contributions from the NRA, he did declare that such contributions will not influence him. I hope that he will reassure his constituents by keeping his distance from what President Eisenhower, also a former general, warned the country about in 1961, the “military-industrial complex.”

— Nathaniel Smith
West Chester

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General Petraeus, national security, and national hypocrisy

General David Petraeus is back in the news, no longer as the mastermind of the Iraq “surge” 8 years ago and then director of our war and spying efforts, but as a potential felon (CBS News: “Former CIA Chief David Petraeus may face criminal charges,” 1/10/15). Oh, the irony: in the video there (at 1:31), Paula Broadwell says the interviews with her were motivated in part by his concern over his legacy.

I haven’t been a very big fan of Petraeus for a while. On 11/19/12, I posted this in “Justice and other themes”:

Online comment on Susan Estrich, “Gen. Petraeus loses big time … but so does the nation,” 11/15/12:

As befits a friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Susan Estrich doesn’t want to see a connection between personal behavior and national reputation. Petraeus has made the US and the CIA look bad, and may or not have revealed intelligence secrets to unauthorized people. It’s nice he’s a gentleman, but I doubt that is on the job description for general or CIA director. Neither is being a playboy a great background for elective office, as he could have intuited from the fall of president Nicholas Sarkozy of France and president Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. These references are not random, since Petraeus was rumored to be planning to run for US president.

You’d think I’d admire David Petraeus, with his PhD from Princeton, as I do Joe Sestak (PhD Harvard) and Tom Wolf (PhD MIT).

But something about him made me nervous. Maybe it was his rumored political ambitions. I do not think currently (as opposed to the eras of Washington and Eisenhower) that a general should run for president. Our society is already too close to loss of civilian control, as shown for example by the futile efforts of Congress to rein in the CIA and NSA. At the time Petraeus was in charge of Central Command, US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the CIA, it almost seemed the generals were in charge of our foreign policy. Petraeus always denied he would run for office, but a lot of people, including me, didn’t really believe him. I guess we do now, especially if he goes to jail.

Patraeus used to be easy to admire. He talked well about reducing civilian casualties, and he had an operations plan that recognized the importance of Iraqis and Afghans in the future of their own countries. That was a big step forward over the Bush administration’s tacit belief that people all over the Middle East were just longing to be more like us. But whatever the merits of the Petraeus approach, it was a hopeless job.

So now the General is in trouble again: “F.B.I. and Justice Dept. Said to Seek Charges for Petraeus” by Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo, The New York Times, 1/9/15. Short version:

F.B.I. agents discovered classified documents on her computer after Mr. Petraeus resigned from the C.I.A. in 2012 when the affair became public.

“She” is his biographer Paula Broadwell. The affair is not the issue here, and probably whatever documents he gave her didn’t really threaten national security, and probably she was more discreet about them than she was in sending anonymous emails that a presumed rival perceived as threatening, thus precipitating the whole investigation.

Still, on the negative side, she wasn’t doing her own writing about Petraeus; see Vernon Loeb, “Petraeus ghostwriter ‘clueless’ to affair,” Washington Post, 11/12/12.

At the time of the scandal, Doug Muder in “Shadows Cast By the Petraeus Scandal,” The Weekly Sift, 11/19/12, did exhaustive reading to come up with the even more upsetting issues:

The surveillance state is eating its own. In the post-privacy era of the Internet and the Patriot Act, the FBI has become the Eye of Sauron: Once its attention has been drawn to you, it will soon know your secrets and the secrets of all your associates, whether or not anyone has committed a crime.

Glenn Greenwald lays out just how much investigation resulted from just how little probable cause: A friend of an FBI agent gets some mildly disturbing anonymous emails, and before you know it (and apparently without needing any warrants), the FBI is reading personal messages of the head of the CIA and his successor four-star general in Afghanistan….

And, the Weekly Sift article concludes:

And there is a hypocrisy angle. Petraeus was a proponent of the Pentagon’s “spiritual fitness” push, which (while carefully framed as non-religious or non-sectarian in theory) in practice means Christian evangelism in the military….

The Army’s spiritual fitness test and Under Orders both strongly imply that the non-religious can’t be a good soldiers or reliable team members of any sort.

Chris Rodda may be a bit too gleeful in Petraeus’ downfall, but expresses a sentiment that I … can’t help but share: “Hey, General Petraeus, how’s that spiritual fitness stuff working out for you?”

Now the US government is caught up in trying to avoid the same hypocrisy trap of saying one thing and doing another. The Times article indicates that:

Mr. Holder was expected to decide by the end of last year [2014] whether to bring charges against Mr. Petraeus, but he has not indicated how he plans to proceed. The delay has frustrated some Justice Department and F.B.I. officials and investigators who have questioned whether Mr. Petraeus has received special treatment at a time Mr. Holder has led a crackdown on government officials who reveal secrets to journalists….

As is often commented, the Holder Department of Justice has been extraordinarily diligent in pursuing journalists and their purported sources for leaks or ostensibly confidential information of a type the government doesn’t want in circulation. See, for example, “Will James Risen Be Jailed? In Press Freedom Fight, NYT Reporter Tells Court He Won’t Name Source,” Democracy Now!, 1/7/15. Risen is quoted there as noting:

By launching criminal investigations of stories that are outside the mainstream coverage, they are trying to, in effect, build a pathway on which journalism can be conducted: Stay on the interstate highway of conventional wisdom with your journalism, and you will have no problems; try to get off and challenge basic assumptions, and you will face punishment. Journalists have no choice but to fight back, because if they don’t, they will become irrelevant….

and also:

Without aggressive investigative reporting, we can’t really have a democracy, because the only real oversight for the government is an independent and aggressive press. And I think that’s what the government really fears more than anything else, is an aggressive investigative reporting in which we shine a light on what’s going on inside the government. And we can’t do that without maintaining the confidentiality of sources….

So now, it seems, the Department of Justice needs to go after Petraeus so that it won’t seem abusive in going after the supposed perpetrators of other leaks of allegedly confidential information.

The Wikipedia article on John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer currently serving 30 months in prison for giving classified information to the media, has a “poetic justice” themed quote from Petraeus:

General David Petraeus, CIA director, made a statement to CIA employees: “This case yielded the first IIPA successful prosecution in 27 years, and it marks an important victory for our Agency, for our Intelligence Community, and for our country. Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws”. [See the full statement here.]

But here’s the difference: Petraeus gave confidential information to his biographer (or more accurately, it seems: compiler of notes), if he did, in order to impress her personally and/or enhance his “legacy” (the law of unintended consequences). And Kiriakou gave information, if he did, to a reporter writing about policy. Those concerned over human rights abuses can’t help but be sympathetic to him overall, because “He is notable as the first U.S. government official to confirm in December 2007 the use of waterboarding of al-Qaeda prisoners as an interrogation technique, which he described as torture” (Wikipedia).

Petraeus’s defense seems to be that Broadwell didn’t reveal any secret information. Well, that didn’t work for Kiriakou, who “admitted violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by e-mailing the name of a covert C.I.A. officer to a freelance reporter, who did not publish it” (Scott Shane, New York Times, 1/5/13).

The overall problem seems to me that our society has traditionally valued truthfulness, openness, courage, and self-sacrifice for the sake of principle… and now seems to criminalize those very traits.

On the hypocrisy theme, having just seen “The Imitation Game,” whose main character Alan Turing commits suicide while under a hormonal “treatment” for his sexual orientation, I also can’t help commenting that many careers, in government and elsewhere, have been derailed by charges of homosexuality, along with the supposed ease of blackmail. This cartoon turns it around aptly in the Petraeus case:

Petraeus : serving openly

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The good old days: 1776

…The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all
mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not
local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers
of mankind are affected, and in the event of which, their affections
are interested. The laying a country desolate with fire and sword,
declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and
extirpating the defenders thereof from the face of the earth, is the
concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of

excerpt from the introduction to Thomas Paine, Common Sense, Philadelphia, 1776

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Exodus, the parable of the talents, and the accumulation of wealth

The other day I saw the movie Exodus. For a fairly weak movie, it was well worth seeing, and not only for the big wave. So I reread the relevant parts of the Books of Genesis and Exodus, which are quite gripping narratives considering they were written down over two and a half millennia ago, not long after the Iliad and Odyssey took on written form.

The rereading reminded me how much counting there is in the Bible: generations, years, wives, children, animals, property, money, plagues, years in the wilderness, commandments….

Moses’s many-times-great uncle Joseph, who 400 years before the movie begins was responsible for getting the Israelites into the situation from which Moses had to save them, was a champion accountant and financial planner.

After his successful interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream with its 7 fat + 7 lean = 14 cows (Genesis 41:14-36), Joseph is raised to great power and skillfully consolidates Pharaoh’s economic dominance (Genesis 47:13-22; all biblical quotes from English Standard Version at Bible Gateway):

13 Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine. 14 And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought. And Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. 15 And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” 16 And Joseph answered, “Give your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year. 18 And when that year was ended, they came to him the following year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.”

20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh’s. 21 As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other. 22 Only the land of the priests he did not buy….

Joseph’s success shows the usual triumph of those who have over those who have not. To update the text to our own frame of reference, just replace Pharaoh by “the 1%” and Joseph by “banks too big to fail” as you read.

The most notable New Testament account of the biblical accumulation of money is the parable of the talents. In the version of Luke 19:12-27:

…“A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. 13 Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ 14 But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. 16 The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant![c] Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ 18 And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ 19 And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ 20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”

The story holds its mysteries. Is Jesus praising the servants who invested the minas well (1 mina = 100 drachmas; 60 minas = 1 talent)? Is money really a good thing? If so, does the investment represent faith or good works? Or conversely, is the moral of the story that people should not let the accumulation of worldly wealth distract them from the life of the spirit? Is this nobleman who is proud of reaping what he does not sow, becomes a king, and slaughters subjects who oppose his rule a good or a bad role model? Does he, by leaving the scene and returning with a higher rank, represent Jesus? Or is he an evil exploiter? Is the story a warning to the non-faithful… or to the faithful?

It seems to me the moral would be clearer if it were the parable of the 3 pots of beans: the master would leave some dried beans to his servants, of whom two plant theirs and end up with many beans, while the third keeps his on the shelf. Beans, representing a necessity of life, have a better resonance than money, a social creation.

Matthew (25:27), in his rendition of the parable of the talents, has the master specify to the non-investing servant: “you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.” (Or, in some other translations: with the money-changers or money-lenders or usurers, but τραπεζίτες literally = banker.)

Maybe the master would have liked his servants to invest in Pharaoh & Joseph Inc. over in Egypt?

Jesus doesn’t usually have a positive attitude toward money. He chased the money-changers (or vendors, in Luke 19:45-48) out of the Temple. He advised one ruler: “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22) and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).

In the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8–10 ), a woman searches for her lost silver coin and rejoices when she finds it, and it specifically represents the soul of a repentant sinner; but that doesn’t prove that investing one’s capital is a positive value, and in fact, that woman has kept her coins around the house, like the servants who didn’t dare invest.

The Old Testament world can be a pretty tough place to live; the New is usually less oriented to the material and more to the spiritual, and though the consequences of delinquency can be severe, there is always the hope of grace. Actually, I would have thought the non-investing servant and the enemies of the master returned as kind should have been pardoned and lived happily ever after cultivating their gardens.

Perhaps the parable is an anachronistic throwback to the Exodus ethos, when Joseph did: invested Pharaoh’s many talents or minas wisely in agricultural futures and real estate. Joseph’s success allowed him to settle his relatives in Egypt, from where later Moses had to lead their descendants to other real estate with a more favorable location, where Jesus ultimately was able to preach and tell his often challenging parables.

movie poster from IMDb

PS This is my second no doubt daring entry into theological thought; the first was “Free will, whose will? Some theological questions for the day” written just as Pope Francis was about to be elected.

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