[This article is part of the series The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. We also welcome sermons. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org]
The LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man … Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:1-7)
King David’s manipulation of military maneuvers in order to advance his own sexual interests are a clear and explicit example of abused power. David utilizes his power as King to send an innocent man to certain death in order satisfy his own immediate interest with Bathsheba. What is remarkable though, is that it takes Nathan’s parable for the King to realize the gravity of the evil he has perpetrated. David had the legal capacity to satisfy his short-term desires, and he acted accordingly, without an ethical thought interrupting. He does not seem to realize the sin he has committed until it is expressed to him in more explicit terms.
David’s ignorance is a natural consequence of absolute power. People of privilege tend to become accustomed to a world that conforms to their desires. In modern banking this mode of thinking continues with equally deadly consequences. In 21st century American society, the impulse of privileged people to act out of self-interest alone is coupled with a capitalist economic system that echoes the fictional Gordon Gekko’s famous mantra “greed is good.” When economic leaders understand their greed as the engine of the global economy, rather than a sinful abdication of their responsibility to the communal good, we arrive in situations where action’s like David’s murder of Uriah are understood as merely the consequences of a world driven by self-interest, the cost of doing business.
This fact is becoming clear in the streets of New York City, where foreclosure and evictions have reached the scale of a crisis in the last decade. A full report detailing the foreclosure crisis in New York has been prepared by NYC Communities for Change, but the basics are straightforward. For years banks wrote risky, and high-cost loans disproportionately to poor and minority communities. Wells Fargo, offers one particularly high-profile example, as they have agreed to pay a $125 million settlement on charges that they “knowingly targeted minorities for risky mortgages that came with higher costs.” The consequence is that these homes are being foreclosed on, and families are being throw into the street, all so that the banks could make easy money on the backs of the poor by knowingly writing those prohibitively expensive loans years ago.
While the abuses of power and privilege in modern banking may not be as explicit as David’s crime, they are parallel. People in power tend not to consider the cost of their self-interest in communal terms. Most families who are facing foreclosure in New York City today are the victims of banks who regard a homeless child as a reasonable side effect of their profit motive just as David regarded Uriah’s death as a reasonable way to Bathsheba. Of course, like David, when confronted with the stark violence of what they have done, most of these bankers would likely deny that they value profit over people, but their actions reveal their values.
Many political leaders in the United States today speak as if they have no responsibility to the common welfare, they are merely holding space open for a system of self-interest to operate relatively unfettered. The biblical text calls for a higher standard of leadership, one where leaders understand they are responsible not merely to their own desire but to the welfare of the community they serve. Perhaps this biblical parable, told by Nathan to King David, could stand to be repeated to the politicians, economics, and bankers of today. Perhaps its message needs to be made abundantly clear: it is sinful to impoverish the powerless for the sake of your own greed.
John Allen is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a chaplain to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.