“This struggle [for congregational polity in the 16 /1700’s] was a revolutionary institutional struggle, a struggle against the cage of centralized power in church and state and economic order. … But during the past century our society has been moving in the opposite direction, in the direction of a new centralization of power in mammoth bureaucratic government and industry, the fragmentation of responsibility, retreat into privatized religion–all of this in a world of massive poverty and hunger. …A major question today in a world of multinational corporations is how to achieve a separation of powers and consent of the governed, a self-governing society in the midst of corporate structures that are rapidly becoming a new cage. So we have moved from cage to cage.” — James Luther Adams in “From Cage to Covenant” as found in the text The Prophethood of All Believers.
These words spoken by James Luther Adams in 1975, 34 years ago this month, ring even truer today than they did then. A lot has transpired in the past 34 years that make these words of Adams eerily prophetic in the tradition of the great prophets of the Hebrew writings.
Adams argues that in order to survive this new cage that we need to develop new covenants that consider “communal responsibility in the economic sphere.” He details five components of a covenant that he believes is essential for this age. He posits that (1) humans “become human by making commitment, by making promises. ” Realizing that this process includes the breaking of these promises with a renewal of making new promises. He posits (2) that “the covenant is a covenant of being.” We covenant with that which is transforming in whatever way we might interpret the transforming. (3) “The covenant is for the individual as well as for the collective.” He states that “we are responsible not only for individual behavior but also for the character of the society…” How we are known in the world is each of our responsibilities. Perhaps the best way to describe this is to quote Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s famous quote, “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” This displays the moral character of a nation.
What is our character if we are the country where a three month old child can be denied health insurance for being in the 95 percentile of weight for that age of a child? Or where a person can lose health insurance coverage because the required treatment is considered by the health company as too costly. Or where the number one cause of bankruptcies is due to medical costs. This is an example of the “centralization of power in mammoth bureaucratic government and industry.”
Adams posits that (4) the “covenant responsiblity is especially directed toward the deprived.” Who falls into the gap between the covenant and the system? This is where our work lies to close the gap so that no one falls “from neglect or injustice.” And (5) the covenant follows a rule of law that is founded in faithfulness and love. “What holds the world together, according to this dual covenant then, is trustworthiness, eros, love. Ultimately the ground of faithfulness is the divine or human love that will not let us go.”
We have our work cut out for ourselves since we did not act to stop the cage from being developed in 1975 to today. We allowed government to deregulate the protections that have been linked to the financial collapse and resultant recession. The gaps between the working classes and the wealthy are wider than ever before in my lifetime. The corporate giants of finance, healthcare, oil, and industry have more of ahold on our lives than ever before stripping us of our endowed rights to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This is where our congregations can be relevant to an age of individualism and capitalism gone awry. We can be offering a different message than one that is found in the prosperity gospel driven congregations of our day. Jesus may indeed want you rich but the richness is in how we relate to one another not in how much money we each have. If there is a judgment day, it is the day when we are asked whether we have loved our neighbor as ourselves. It is the day when we are asked if we truly were our brothers and sisters keeper. How do you fare in this regard? What are you willing to do differently to honor a new covenant of being? Blessings,