On May 13th, politicians and the business community united to celebrate the beginning of the I 40 crosstown freeway project in Oklahoma City, which will send bulldozers through two poor neighborhoods, Riverside and Walnut Grove. We deliver food every week to people in need in the central Oklahoma City area who don't have transportation to get to a regular food bank. We go to those neighborhoods a lot. We know elderly people who have lived there all their lives. Because of our great concern for what is going to happen to them, and to others, I and a friend attended that press conference, carrying a sign, "WOE to the RICH who STEAL the LAND of the POOR." The politicians and business people there were not interested in contemplating their duties of justice to the poor, but I preached them a short sermon anyway. After interrupting a politician who was lying to the group, we were asked to leave.
Maybe we should think about those duties, though. Last year, Midwest City seized an entire working class neighborhood in order to build a big box store. Oklahoma County is planning to raze the working class housing around Tinker Air Force Base. OCU is in the process of clearing out the neighborhood east of its campus, and is using the government's power of eminent domain to force unwilling sellers to move. Oklahoma City levelled blocks of houses along NW 10th to widen the street for the benefit of suburban commuters.
For the fool speaks foolishly, planning evil in his heart: how to do wickedness, to speak perversely against the Lord, to let the hungry go empty and the thirsty be without drink. And the trickster uses wicked trickery, planning crimes: how to ruin the poor with lies, and the needy when they plead their case. Isaiah 32: 6 to 7
The response from the religious communities of Oklahoma City to the ongoing destruction in these neighborhoods has been indifference and silence. Governments portray the destruction as a positive thing for Oklahoma City. The churches, synagogues, and temples of this city do not challenge this claim; by their silence, they signal agreement.
Woe to those who enact unjust statutes and who write oppressive decrees, depriving the needy of judgment and robbing my people's poor of their rights, making widows their plunder and orphans their prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, when ruin comes from afar? To whom will you flee for help? Where will you leave your wealth, lest it sink beneath the captive or fall beneath the slain. For all this, his wrath is not turned back, his hand is still outstretched. Isaiah 10: 1 to 4
It is not hard to understand why we are so silent. These tragedies happen to poor people, and everyone knows that the neighborhoods of the poor are fair game for social and economic engineering. The religious communities of this city are doing nothing to stop this destruction.
Some will point to the many religious works of charity as evidence of their concern for the poor. The Bible most certainly teaches charity, but it also commands justice. If there was more justice towards the poor, perhaps there would be less need for charity. And charity by itself does not fulfill the spirit nor the letter of God's commands concerning our duties of justice towards the poor:
The Lord rises to accuse, standing to try his people. The Lord enters into judgment with his people's elders and princes: it is you who have devoured the vineyard, the loot wrested from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding down the poor when they look to you? Says the Lord, the God of Hosts, Isaiah 3: 13 to 15
Doesn't this community owe its poor citizens the same rights as everybody else? Not in Oklahoma City. The property rights of the poor are trumped by the covetous greed of business and political groups which evidently believe that "anything goes" is a proper moral foundation for economic development.
Are the poor human persons, just like the rich and the middle class? Not in this town. No one in their right mind would propose putting a freeway through Nichols Hills, but since in the eyes of the Chamber of Commerce and others like them, poor people aren't people in the same way that ODOT planners and Oklahoma politicians are people, their territory is fair game. No poor person is safe from the covetousness of a richer and more powerful neighbor with a disordered conscience.
Shouldn't the government respect the poor like it does the middle class and the rich? Of course not. Oklahoma politicians make careers out of demonizing the poor. Our leaders tell slanderous lies about them for political advantage. They echo the conversation of the community.
Shouldn't poor neighborhoods receive the same police protection as the middle class and rich neighborhoods? Not in Oklahoma City. The president of the Riverside community association supports the I 40 relocation because he hopes it will get rid of the crack houses in his neighborhood. Shouldn't we ask: Why doesn't the city allocate resources properly so that this neighborhood is rid of this plague, without having to destroy housing to get rid of them? No middle class or wealthy area would put up with a crack house in its midst. Perhaps the reason those nuisances have been allowed to flourish is to drive down property values and encourage people to leave. Perhaps the city council should spend less time posturing as economic developers and more time concentrating on the basic jobs of city government, such as providing adequate police protection to all of its neighborhoods, not just those where the middle class and the wealthy live.
The behavior of local governments towards these poor neighborhoods is shameful. When the Deep Deuce was ethnically cleansed by what amounted to a due process white riot, the people who lived there were paid pennies on the dollar for the real values of their property. Some people were forced to move more than once by central planning commissars who were implementing what they thought were bright ideas, but which turned out to be horrendous mistakes. Hard feelings remain about that evil which happened 20 years ago, and the area, which was once a living, vibrant neighborhood, remains a weedy, empty, useless expanse of dirt to this very day. That's what happens in a culture of death.
People talk about the pathologies of the underclass, but the social pathologies of the rich and the powerful are far more deadly for our community than those of the poor. Among the issues that could be mentioned: only the rich have the power to send bulldozers through entire communities. Since the 1960s, millions of units of low income housing have been destroyed in the U.S., not by a free market process of willing sellers meeting willing buyers, but rather by a highly politicized and corrupt series of due processed pogroms and expulsions. The government claims property owners receive "fair market value," but the price that is paid is ultimately dictated by politics, and is derived using methodologies which are themselves designed to steal the property of the poor at below market rates to benefit the rich and the powerful.
The game is rigged to favor the state from the very beginning; it is hypocrisy to pretend that there is fairness or equity in our process of seizing land via eminent domain. The ones who say "this is fair" are the ones who benefit from it, so of course, they're happy. People who are poor often do not have the skills, the knowledge, or the resources to fight in court for a better price for their property, and there isn't exactly a line out the door of people offering assistance. They are on their own and don't think the people in those neighborhoods don't know that.
Regarding Walnut Grove and Riverside, the politicians claim this I 40 route choice is the most cost effective plan, and that there are no real choices other than the destruction of these neighborhoods. Those who have followed this developing situation know that even though hearings were held, they were strictly pro forma, by the book, another item checked off the to do list. The fix was in from the beginning because this was the choice the real estate, trucking, and highway construction corporations wanted. They have spread enough money around for long enough that they pretty much get whatever they want, as even a casual review of the state budget will prove. (Did you know the state is building a four lane freeway between Manitou and Snyder, Oklahoma? It has left turn lanes, so in places it is FIVE LANES! Do you know what the population of the Snyder Manitou Metroplex is? Your tax dollars at work.)
The media and the politicians claim that leaders of the threatened communities have agreed to the demolitions. This is also said about the OCU project and the city's destruction of the housing along NW 10th so that it could become a four lane street that benefits suburban commuters. So what else is new? The rich always claim that the crimes they do to the poor are in the best interests of the poor, that the community will benefit, and that in fact, the poor consent to their persecution. Since this is pretty much the standard party line, and it is presented by the aggressors, we should question the voluntary nature of the consent.
We see evidence of how much the governments around here really care about Riverside in the desperation of its neighborhood association president, who sees the destruction of part of his community as the only way to be rid of their crack house problem. Over the last two years, the media have reported that this proposal was enormously controversial in the Riverside neighborhood; indeed, the effect of proposing it was to divide the neighborhood against itself. Clearly, the people there, in the face of overwhelming odds, are trying to get the best deal possible.
The realities of Oklahoma history and politics suggest problems for those displaced and impacted by this project. ODOT is making big promises of "millions of dollars" for amenities and impact mitigation in those neighborhoods, but has the legislation been passed and signed? Is the money in the bank and waiting to be spent? No, this project is not fully funded. Those big promises may turn out to be worthless. The neighborhoods could be destroyed, and the freeway never built. Or the neighborhoods could be destroyed, the freeway built, and then the amenities and impact mitigation not funded.
It is a mistake to consider the specific issue of the looming destruction of Walnut Grove and Riverside apart from the larger issues and the local context. The continued destruction of affordable housing in Oklahoma City is itself a grave objective evil that is causing increasing problems for the poor. It raises rental costs by continually reducing the amount of affordable housing. A person making minimum wage in this city can easily pay more than half their income in housing and utility costs. Maybe this is a perverse unintended consequence, but maybe also there is some of "Those who HAVE are using their power and connections to rig the system against those who HAVE NOT" in this too. To pretend this is just the inevitable consequence of a dynamic free market is to insult the intelligence of everybody involved. There's nothing laissez faire about it at all.
Here is the common sense analysis: if you destroy the housing of the poor, it makes it that much harder for poor people to maintain their households. And if you make it harder for poor people to maintain their households, you have more broken marriages, single parent families, drug abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, child abuse and abortion. Kids drop out of school or stop learning. Suicide rates climb.
If you destroy a neighborhood, where people have lived all their lives, you are destroying a place that is valuable. If people have lived there for decades, then it also has stability. There is plenty of scientific documentation regarding the negative effects on families of the destruction of neighborhoods, whether it be by war or by government due process. These "externalities" are not listed on ODOT's balance sheet. This particular route choice is cost effective only if they are allowed to shift these burdens onto someone else, and typically, those who are displaced pay the heaviest price.
These are human persons being impacted by these deliberate policies. They are not just collateral damages. It may seem odd to make this point, but I suspect that the economic and political leadership of this city and state do not see the poor as their neighbors. If they did, they wouldn't treat them this way. They don't treat the people in Nichols Hills or Gaillardia this way. Why is that so?
Nobody can read what the Bible has to say about how we are to treat the poor and conclude that this shredding of the social contract by the corruption of due process and abandonment of our neighbors is lawful in the eyes of God.
Right is repelled, and justice stands far off; for truth stumbles in the public square, uprightness cannot enter. Isaiah 59:14-15
Where are the voices that will defend the poor against the attacks of the rich and powerful in Oklahoma City? The silence from the churches and synagogues is deafening. Thus, it's not a surprise that our politicians act like crazed teenagers with car keys and cases of whiskey. When it comes to economic development in Oklahoma these days, the mantra is, "Anything goes!" This is what the public square looks like when communities of faith become just another NGO in a culture of death and abandon their duty of solidarity with the poor.
Power feeds power, corruption feeds corruption. As people get the habit of looking the other way, the situation gets worse. The Oklahoma City solution to poverty is evidently for poor people to move someplace else. They are in the way. They are not wanted here. And if they won't move voluntarily, eventually the City, or the County, or the State, will get around to deconstructing their neighborhoods so that the land can be used for "higher and more productive purposes" that relate to the economic development of this area.
Public relations experts help us manufacture consent and disguise what it is we are doing, creating virtual Potemkin Villages that obscure reality. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, they say, look at the pretty smoke and bright mirrors! We speak of urban renewal, public private partnerships, jobs and economic development, and especially prosperity. Everything is done with great legality. Studies are done and requirements are satisfied. In the end, the result is always the same: the poor people lose their houses, the rich gain them for their "more productive" activities. Thus, a perverse Robin Hood philosophy governs the political and managerial classes of Oklahoma City: we aim to increase our prosperity by stealing from the poor and giving their property to the rich. A war of all against all prevails in the culture of death we are becoming, a place where might and money is what makes right. No longer Beautiful, we are now America the Merciless.
When I read the Bible, I find enormous concern in the law, the prophets, the wisdom writings, the psalms and laments, the gospels and the epistles for preserving the space and rights of the poor. Then as now, the space of the poor is subject to theft by the rich. In fact, the Law of Moses mandated the redistribution of land during the Jubilee years, which occurred at regular intervals, so that the poor would receive the land back that they had sold under the duress of hard times to the rich. Isaiah writes:
Woe to you who join house to house, who connect field with field, till no room remains, and you are left to dwell alone in the midst of the land. Isaiah 5:8
The duties of justice we owe to the poor are not a minor theme in the Holy Bible. There is more material in the Bible about justice, the poor, poverty, widows, orphans, and the rich than there is about adultery, fornication, concupiscence, lust, and idolatry. Any concordance of scripture can easily demonstrate this. According to the prophets of Israel, governments are judged based on how they treat the poor. Jeremiah writes:
"You shall say, listen to the word of the Lord, king of Judah, who sit on the thrones of David, you, your ministers, and your people that enter by these gates! Thus says the Lord: Do what is right and just. Rescue the victim from the hand of his oppressor. Do not wrong or oppress the resident alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. If you carry out these commands, kings who succeed to the throne of David will continue to enter the gates of this palace, riding in chariots or mounted on horses, with their ministers & their people. But if you do not obey these commands, I swear by myself says the Lord: this palace shall become rubble. Jeremiah 22:1 to 5
And so it came to pass. Ezekial also condemned the rulers of his era for their treatment of the poor:
Thus the word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, say to her: you are a land unrained on (that is, not rained on) at the time of my fury. Her princes are like roaring lions that tear prey, they devour people, seizing their wealth and precious things, and make widows of many within her. . . Her nobles within her are like wolves that tear prey, shedding blood and destroying lives to get unjust gain. Her prophets cover them with whitewash, pretending to visions that are false and performing lying divinations, saying, "thus says the Lord God," although the Lord has not spoken. The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery, they afflict the poor and the needy, and oppress the resident alien without justice. Thus I have searched among them for someone who could build a wall or stand in the breach before me to keep me from destroying the land, but I found no one. Therefore, I have poured out my fury upon them, with my fiery wrath I have consumed them, I have brought down their conduct upon their heads, says the Lord God. Ezekial 22: 23 to 25, 27 to 31
And so it came to pass. Moses put it very simply in Deuteronomy 27:19:
Cursed be the one who violates the rights of the alien, the orphan, or the widow!
And so it comes to pass. Holy Scripture tells us to defend the poor, not to attack their neighborhoods. God calls us to render justice to the afflicted and the destitute, not to demonize them and tell lies about them for political advantage. The command is to rescue the lowly and the poor, not to add to their burdens. We should deliver the poor from the clutches of the wicked, not serve them up on a silver platter for the rich to feast upon. (See Psalm 82.) These are not passages of scripture extracted from their context and used to proof text my point. The theme of the duty of justice towards the poor pervades the Bible from the Torah to the Apocalypse, and all points in between.
Make no mistake about this. God will judge our city by how we treat the poor. We should not trifle with the justice of God, for the ash heap of history is littered with the bones and the ruins of failed empires and fallen cities who did not fulfill their duty of justice and solidarity towards the poor.
If the leaders of Oklahoma City think we can build a bright and prosperous future by ignoring God's word, then they are fools. We are building our house on shifting sands. When the rains and storms come upon us, we will be in danger. Because we have weakened our moral foundation, we may fall and be swept away. Our leaders are the blind leading the blind; if we continue to follow their ruthless and cruel schemes, our city will fall into the ditch of economic ruin and stagnation.
Do you turn away, avert your eyes, and close your ears to the cry of the poor in Oklahoma City for justice and protection? Do you demonize the poor by agreeing that they deserve to have their neighborhoods destroyed, and say that this is "for their own good" and the good of this community?
Do you praise, cooperate with, and support the economic terrorists who deny the value of community, who scorn the poor as unproductive and useless, and who demand that the resources of the poor be given to the rich at a court ordered price so that they may be more productively used? Do you speak truth to power, to your congregation, to your neighborhoods, regarding their duties of justice and solidarity towards the poor? What would Jesus do? Do you really think He would drive a bulldozer through Walnut Grove and Riverside?
How has she turned adulteress, the faithful city, so upright! Justice used to lodge within her, but now, murderers. Your silver is turned to dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and comrades of thieves; each one of them loves a bribe and looks for gifts, The fatherless they defend not, and the widow's plea does not reach them. Isaiah 1: 21 to 23.
Here's another clue from Isaiah:
Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and sabbath, calling of assemblies, octaves with wickedness; these I cannot bear. Your new moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load. When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you. Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes, cease doing evil, learn to do good. Make justice your aim, redress the wrong, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow. Isaiah 1:13 to 17
My reading is that the response God wants is prayer, fasting, repentance, and conversion of the heart which leads to a change in the way we do things. Charity is important, good, true, beautiful, and we all need to do more of it because there aren't enough resources out there to help the poor right now. More people are being left behind for the wolves to devour every day. But we also have to recover the biblical connection between charity and justice.
My Pentecost prayer, which I invite you to join, is for the failure of this, and all other schemes that take from the poor in order to reward the rich.
Lest you think I am resorting to class warfare to make my point, let us remember that the rich are human persons too, and they have the same need as the poor to be called to accountability for their actions. We could have an interesting argument about whether or not Jesus believed in fairies and leprechauns, but there is no confusion about the fact that Jesus believed that the rich were at risk of grave spiritual trouble. The rich have always preyed upon the poor throughout history; if we think this doesn't happen now, it's only because we have willfully shut our eyes so we do not see, and closed our ears so we do not hear. The present problem is an example of this. It's not the poor driving bulldozers through the neighborhoods of the rich, it's the rich and the powerful driving bulldozers through the neighborhoods of the poor. Not once or twice, but again, and again, and again, and again.
There are many humble, generous, & spiritual rich people in this community and I praise God for their presence among us. There are also those whose priorities are disordered and whose hearts are filled with envy, greed, and covetousness, and they obviously have the ear of the government. "For the love of money is the root of all evil." All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. God says:
"Those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor will themselves also call and not be heard." Proverbs 21
"For all this, his wrath is not turned back, his hand is still outstretched." I am sure that given the wide net this open letter casts, that there are ten righteous saints out there reading this, men and women who do care for the poor, who preach justice, and live in solidarity with those who are humble and ignored. Thank you for saving this city from utter destruction.
Praying that the Holy Spirit will fall on us all during this season of Pentecost, and fill us with the holy and sacred fire of love and concern for the weak and helpless among us, I remain,
Your brother in service to the poor,
Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House
1524 NW 21, Oklahoma City, OK 73106, 405.557.0436; http://www.justpeace.org
Prayers against the I 40 crosstown freeway project:
Catholic version | Jewish version | Protestant version
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