Appalachia Poster Child for Systemic Injustice: West Virginia A Theological Challenge for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

In Matthew’s midrash of Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus tours all over Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, curing all kinds of diseases, and proclaiming that God’s kingdom has come. The verses in Chapter 4 selected by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary for the third Sunday after the Epiphany are the preface to Matthew 5:1 through 7:29, the great Sermon on the Mount. Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, and invites his disciples to leave their nets and become “fishers for people,” traditionally interpreted to mean saving souls from hell. But John Dominic Crossan, points out that Jesus could have brought his message anywhere in Roman occupied Judea. Why Galilee? Why Capernaum? Perhaps because Herod Antipas had built a commercial fishing operation on the shores of the lake, in direct competition with the local fishermen such as Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the others. Roman imperial foreign policy, “Romanization by urbanization for commercialization” (Crossan, God and Empire, p. 102), had predictable results: namely rampant unemployment, poverty, and deprivation. What used to be freely fished from the lake now is only available at high prices from the markets. Fishing boats that had been in fishing families for generations now were taxed as franchises. Perhaps the phrase survives in the tradition because Jesus said it as a bitter joke. In the systemic injustice brought about by imperial, commercial interests,“people” are the only things left to be fished for.

It is a parable for twenty-first century Appalachia. Instead of “Romanization by urbanization for commercialization” we have state subsidization of multi-national corporations for economic exploitation. West Virginia’s gas, coal, and timber wealth is controlled by out-of-state commodity interests, which are limited by weak or non-existent state regulations that often benefit those who are able to pay their way around them. Case in point: The “debtor in possession” agreement protecting Freedom Industries from financial responsibility for the chemical spill that now pollutes the Ohio River from Wheeling to the Mississippi is the same J. Clifford Forrest who filed the original Chapter 11 for the company (Charleston Gazette-Mail, 1/18/14).

In the first century, the Apostle Paul read the riot act to the hapless Corinthian house church, which had fallen into the usual factions and disagreements that every organization falls into. Paul’s sarcasm is scathing: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.” They have apparently forgotten what Paul taught them about the saving grace of the risen Christ. They have reverted to the hierarchical Roman social system of patronage, and are fighting over who owes what to whom and why, and who deserves to sit at the head table, and who will get the best food. Some of them have even begun eating their meal before coming to participate in the sacramental communal meal because they don’t want to associate with people who are beneath them in the Roman social hierarchy. Piety in the form of proper behavior is clearly the order of the day.

West Virginia’s status as a poster-child for Appalachian systemic injustice was further illustrated by the New York Times of January 21, 2014 (“Law’s Expanded Medicaid Coverage Brings a Surge in Sign-Ups”). Sabrina Tavernise describes the mind-set of the people of Mingo and McDowell counties in southern West Virginia, where the Freedom Industries chemical spill polluted the water supply: “Lack of economic opportunity, low levels of education and the resulting despair have driven a raging drug epidemic and created a kind of fatalism.” She quotes Lavetta Hutchinson, a nurse in McDowell County who said, “People think they are going to live as long as they are going to live, and there’s nothing they can do to change it. They don’t see the value of prevention.” They hate President Obama and his “Obamacare” plan; they refuse to apply for health insurance in the West Virginia exchanges, but when offered permanent eligibility for Medicaid, they sign up. A caveat, however, according to Tavernise, “it remains to be seen how Medicaid coverage will work once millions more people across the country are in the system. Low reimbursement rates discourage specialists from taking Medicaid patients.”

Indeed, “people” are the only life forms left to be fished for. But it is tough going, convincing the people that it is when they lose their life and livelihood that they will truly find it. That teaching has been reduced to a New Age self-help mantra (“follow your bliss”), often masquerading as Christian piety: “God has a plan for you.” Tavernise reports that a woman at a recent enrollment event used “biblical terms to disparage Mr. Obama as an existential threat to the nation . . . [The volunteer assistant thought to himself,] This man is not the Antichrist. He just wants you to have health insurance.” Meanwhile, life expectancy for men in McDowell County, “a remote patch of mountains dotted by coal mines and forests logged for timber . . . is 64 years – the lowest in the country, and even lower than Pakistan. Rates of smoking and diabetes are nearly double the national average, and almost half the men are obese.”

Jesus’s first words in the version of the Sermon on the Mount from the sayings gospel of Thomas are, “Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven’s domain.” Thomas is largely assumed to be without the gloss of late first-century Christian interpretation, which assumes that the poor “in spirit” are the ones Jesus was talking about. But Jesus said the poor, who have nothing that the conventional, imperial world deems of value, own the kingdom of God – just like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. In the twenty-first century, the earth that the poor and disenfranchised should inherit has become a commodity to be exploited. West Virginia land use rules do not assign mineral rights to land owners. Frackers claim ownership of marcellus shale mineral wealth right from under the people who have owned the land for generations; surface coal mining destroys the mountains, the streams, and the valleys, and trumps all environmental regulation from potable water to clean air statewide.

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) took on the role of victim in the Elk River chemical spill (The New York Times, 1/18/14): “You feel like everyone’s turned against you,” he complained, “outsiders” want the energy and chemicals that come from West Virginia while demonizing the industries that created them. “People say ‘not in my backyard.’ But in West Virginia we’re willing to do the heavy lifting.” Poor brave West Virginia – doing all that hard work with no regard for the health and safety of workers, citizens, and the land itself. Governor Tomblin promised to “never back down from the EPA.” “Montani semper liberi!” Manchin declared: “Mountaineers are always free.” Free to live in poverty; free to work for minimum wage; free to die. Coal and chemical industries employ 4% of West Virginians; Walmart is the top employer; West Virginia ranked 49th in median household income in 2009.

This is freedom?

The first century Corinthians had decided that the message of the cross is foolishness. Paul says it’s only foolishness to those who are not being saved. But the “saved” are not the fittest, the richest, the smartest who deny others access to the means of survival: food, clothing, shelter, even the work required to earn them. In 1 Cor. 1:17, Paul says that he was not sent to baptize people, but to proclaim the gospel so that “the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” The power of the cross is not saving people from hell. The power of the cross is in the radical denial of self-interest that overthrows social systems of patronage that have strayed far from Jesus’s experience of God’s kingdom as a seamless fabric that supports and sustains all of life.

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