The Commoditization of Social Relationships

In History by Caris AdelLeave a Comment

“The Solomonic establishment embodies the loss of passion, which is the inability to care or suffer.” (The Prophetic Imagination 41)

“The first transcontinental railroad was built with blood, sweat, politics and thievery, out of the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. The Central Pacific started on the West Coast going east; it spent $200,000 in Washington on bribes to get 9 million acres of free land and $24 million in bonds, and paid $79 million, an overpayment of $36 million, to a construction company which really was its own. The construction was done by three thousand Irish and ten thousand Chinese, over a period of four years, working for one or two dollars a day.

The Union Pacific started in Nebraska going west. It had been given 12 million acres of free land and $27 million in government bonds. It created the Credit Mobilier company and gave them $94 million for construction when the actual cost was $44 million. Shares were sold cheaply to Congressmen to prevent investigation….The Union Pacific used twenty thousand workers – war veterans and Irish immigrants, who laid 5 miles of track a day and died by the hundreds in the heat, the cold, and the battles with Indians opposing the invasion of their territory.” (Zinn 254-55)

(even as Sojourner Truth tried unsuccessfully for 7 years to convince Congress to give free land to former slaves.) 

We know this story.


If members of the group ISIS somehow infiltrated the United States and set off explosions with the same intensity in the same spots, certain political figures and CNN anchors might have a nervous breakdown on your TV set. But no, it’s just our own Big Oil and Big Rail doing their business…keep calm and carry on.
Michael Eyer, a former Oregon rail safety inspector, said the railroads’ tendency toward secrecy was institutional. “Part of it is that we’re the railroad and we run on private property and that’s the way we’ve done things,” he said.
Oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania seriously violate environmental rules and regulations, many of them more than once per day, on average.…“These violations are not ‘paperwork’ violations, but lapses that pose serious risks to workers, the environment and public health,” the report’s authors write.


A chosen few getting financial breaks isn’t news to us. This thread of prioritizing a few at the expense of the many runs through our country’s story. We know who and what is valued, and the memories are long for those who are not.

In all of our circles – personal, spiritual, social, national, and global, certain people and things are valued. Who, and why?  Solomon’s temple that we so revere was built with slave labor, and access to it was restricted, based on social status. Do we imitate his example and call it wise?

“In 1887, with a huge surplus in the treasury, Cleveland vetoed a bill appropriating $100,000 to give relief to Texas farmers to help them buy seed grain during a drought. He said: ‘Federal aid in such cases…encourages  the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.’ But that same year, Cleveland used his gold surplus to pay off wealthy bondholders at $28 above the $100 value of each bond – a gift of $45 million.” (A People’s History – Zinn 259)

When part of our national legacy is prioritizing the one percent, when it’s hard to imagine anything truly different, how do we create a new future? What do we need to unlearn in order to move forward with equality?

I was taught to read the Bible as fact, and if something was reported as good, it was good. So the wisdom and wealth of Solomon were good. They were blessings from God, and more than that, the modern-day lesson was that they were to be pursued. The typical view was that Solomon was someone to learn from, to honor and hold up as one of God’s leaders, aside, of course, from his marriages and idols (which were given as reasons why we should be isolated from the world and all its cultures and peoples).

But what if that’s not the case?
“It is clear that the U.S. national security state thrives on wisdom, might, and wealth. That triad of commitments, moreover, gets articulated among us not as savage militarism but as consumer entitlement in which liberals and conservatives together take for granted our privileged status in the world as God’s most recently chosen people.” (Journey to the Common Good 68)

By and large the church teaches that physical benefits and enjoyments are proof that God loves you, proof that you are on the right track. And lack of those indicates a problem in your own life; a problem with your faith, or a problem with your money. But as Dani said recently: “I think we really do a disservice to ourselves and the people around us when we attribute the good or bad things actually done by people to the supernatural, or even to some sort of intrinsic goodness like hard work.” 

We cannot rely on the trope of God’s blessings or ‘but for the grace of God go I’ and ignore the ways in which empire and all those who play by its rules pre-pick the winners and losers in a society. It is the responsibility and the privilege of those who are able, to understand the intersection of empire and daily life.

“When injustice manifests itself in every aspect of a nation’s life, we necessarily infer that the structures of violence are being condoned by the authorities or by influential persons such as rulers, prophets, priests, and the wealthy.” (Bible of the Oppressed 22)

How do we condone the structures of violence in our daily lives, and how are we working to recognize and dismantle them? What would solidarity with the victims of injustice look like in our churches, in our social media interactions, in our community?

When we compare Solomon and the empire of America, they look a lot alike. Which, I suppose, can be fodder for the ‘America is God’s chosen country’ crowd, but when we look at who is trampled for the sake of power and privilege, it is hard to see this as a system that Jesus would maintain.

Who is valued?

When we look at Manifest Destiny and the spread of the railroads being so key to the opening of the west, we have to look at who was honored. We hold up these ‘titans of industry’ and never question how they became that way, or how that mindset still holds today. We hold up titans of the Christian industry and never question what’s going on behind the scenes. Who is empire trampling on in its race to the top? Who is holding it accountable?

Railroad tracks now serve as a physical dividing line between those who have and those who have not. There is a literal right and wrong side of the tracks. Which side is honored and which is devalued? When you can drive through a city and literally see how history has treated the two sides, how do you rectify that?

How do those of us who benefit from societal breaks become numb to those who don’t? How can we create empathy and move towards solidarity?

When an empire gives ‘free’ things to people in desperate need, like healthcare, education, food and housing, why are they ridiculed as lazy takers, and yet people protected by court rulings and given millions in compensation aren’t considered the same? Our country and its citizens continually reinforce the idea that some people are worth special privileges and some are not.

“We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.” (TPI 39)

When will we as a nation seriously engage with the introspection needed to begin changing the way our country functions?

Why is free college education not ok because ‘someone’s got to pay’, but child tax credits, or homebuyers tax credits, or tithe write-offs are ok? Why did we eventually decide tenement housing was bad, but we’re still ok with slum lords and low-quality public housing, or even no public housing?

Who have we historically valued in the empire of America, and what do our relationships with each other look like today?

Where is our humility that maybe we’ve gotten this wrong?



Empire: The United States and Walter Brueggemann

   1. A Systemic Greediness
   2. Nightmare Into Policy
   3. Food as a Tool of Control
   4. The Grind of Endless Production



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