Ill Fares the Land

By Charles Kiker

Ill fares the land
To hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates
And men decay.

Oliver Goldsmith, “The Deserted Village” (1730-1774)

Here in the Texas Panhandle, we watched Ken Burns’ documentary on the dust bowl and were reminded of the consequences of the mistreatment of the land leading to that ecological disaster. Ill Fares the Land.

Later we wasted one of the most precious commodities—far more precious than silver, gold, or livestock feed—the non-renewable water from the Ogallala aquifer. A friend who worked in the seed business frequently traveled the dirt roads of Swisher County. He said, only slightly exaggerating, that every bar ditch in Swisher County was a running creek in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Those creeks, along with Tule Creek, run no more!  Ill Fares the Land.

On Black Friday people of faith participated in prayer vigils at Wal-Mart stores across the country, praying for the employees of Wal-Mart, seeking more just wages and health care benefits. Some of my family participated in one of those events at a Metroplex Wal-Mart. We were not picketing Wal-Mart. We were simply praying for their employees, and asking customers entering and leaving the store to pray for them and for other low paid workers in America. Since we were not disruptive, store management ignored us. At the end of our vigil we gave local management a copy of a letter which was sent to corporate management, asking for fair treatment of employees.

Where wealth accumulates—the average full time Wal-Mart associate earns about $15,000 per year. The CEO of Wal-Mart has compensation of over 18 million dollars, over 1,000 times as much as his average associate.

Where wealth accumulates—in 2010 six members of the Walton family had wealth equal to that of the bottom 42% of American families.

Where wealth accumulates and men decay—according to a news item in Amarillo Globe News, November 30, 2012, top executives of Hostess Brands Inc. will receive bonuses totaling up to 1.8 million dollars while they close down the company, putting 18,000 people out of work. The company has not contributed to its employees’ pension funds for the last year.

Where wealth accumulates—according to a Wikipedia article, the CEO of Goldman Sachs had earnings of 16.1 million dollars in 2011. Goldman Sachs was of course too big to fail, and received a massive infusion of low interest federal bailout dollars in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

It is a well-documented fact that wealth is concentrating more and more at the top in our country. And some, myself included, see that as unfair.

A Facebook “friend” not concerned about fairness asked the question, “But what is fair?”

A Federal judge, asked to define pornography, said that he could not define it but he knows it when he sees it. I cannot define “fair,” but I know “unfair” when I see it.

Hebrew law provides for a sabbatical year for land:

When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield, but in the seventh year there shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest. You may eat what the land yields during its Sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food (Leviticus 25:2-7, NRSV).

And for people:

Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you. There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you . … (Deuteronomy 15:1-6, NRSV).

And in the year of Jubilee—the fiftieth year—all debts are forgiven, and land is returned to its original owner (see Leviticus 25:8 ff.).  It is important to note that in Leviticus 19:33-34 the Mosaic Law commands that the alien residing among the Israelites should be treated as a citizen.

Evidently these provisions helping to guard against gross inequality were not being observed in the time of the prophet Isaiah, circa 700 BC, for Isaiah observes gross inequality, with land and people being abused.

Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land.
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses without inhabitant.
For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
And a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah. (Isaiah 5:8-10, NRSV; a homer is approximately 6.33 bushels, and an ephah is .63 bushels.)

These Old Testament texts show that God was concerned with fairness to the people and for proper treatment of the land.

We cannot follow these texts literally, but it is high time and past time that we take their principles seriously!