In Every Generation, Pharaoh

Rabbi Arthur Waskow with Lee Moore

In Every Generation, Pharaoh*

By Arthur Waskow with Lee Moore

There is a double spiral in evolutionary and human history: Spirals of growing and deepening Community have given rise to more efficient forms of Control; the newly effective forms of Control have burst the outer and inner bounds of the Community that birthed them; to encompass these newly invented patterns of Control, there have emerged newer, broader, deeper forms of Community; and so on.

This rhythm can be understood as the dance of God in the world. But Control has a way of running amok, blocking the rhythm. In the last fifty years there have emerged institutions so huge, so controlling, so global in their reach that they have to a considerable extent escaped the forms of community and connection-making that have been shaped over the last several centuries by national democratic processes, and have become major top-down unaccountable power centers.

Most of these global institutions have been businesses, understood as "private" corporations despite their enormous power over the planetary public. These corporations have then used their power — often secretively — to move into the political processes of many nations to create or reshape some major international financial and economic institutions — especially the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. They have been able to bypass and negate decisions previously made in public visibility by the national governments.

The corporations and their servicing institutions have especially endangered decisions won by decades or even centuries of painful struggle at the national level that affirm both the basic process of public accountability and the specifics of workers rights, environmental protections, and public health and educational services.

To put this in the archetypal language of biblical tradition, these global corporations and their servicing institutions are Pharaoh in our generation. Pharaoh was not consciously and deliberately evil; he worried about his country, and grew fearful that an odd and indigestible minority might make trouble for the complex pattern of its governance. The arrogance that grew inside him until he was swallowed up by it was probably rooted in the loneliness of pyramidal power. So much depended on him that he became convinced that his own wisdom was indispensable — and total.

If we look for a Pharaoh in our lives today, we should be looking not for deliberate evil but for people or institutions who hold such great power that they become convinced that they are indispensable, and who are isolated from critical comment and accountability so long that when they meet it they respond chiefly with stubbornness and anger.

Out of his sense of over-all responsibility to the way he understood society was supposed to run, Pharaoh ended up enslaving workers, ordering the deaths of little children, and bringing down upon his country a series of environmental disasters — the "ten plagues."

This much — the increasing rigidity and arrogance of unaccountable power — we may ruefully recognize in many areas of our lives: families, workplaces, whole communities and nations, even the relationship of Homo sapiens to the earth in our own generation. But from this story we learn not only to understand the expectable, but to embrace the unimaginable. For the story teaches that the deepest truth of the universe — God's Own Self — rose up against all logical expectations, using both human resistance and the rebellious earth itself to topple the greatest concentration of power in the world and to turn a bunch of runaway slaves into the beacon of history for freedom, justice, and holiness.

Our religious traditions remember not only Pharaoh: they remember also a series of such imperial powers — out of which, again against all "logic," came the birth of new religious communities that transformed the world.

  • Both Jews and Christians remember the Roman Empire, which used its arrogant power to crucify Jesus and torture ten of the greatest rabbis to their deaths, to sow ancient Palestine with salt so that crops would not grow, and then to sell its people into slavery. Out of that oppressive addiction to Control came both the new Community of Rabbinic Judaism, and the new Community of Christianity.
  • Muslims remember that the arrogantly powerful of Mohammed's (PBUH) day forced him to flee from Mecca to Medina in order to bring God's teachings to the people. Out of that resistance to Control run amok came the Community of Islam.
  • Buddhists remember that Gautama had to leave the power of the palace to understand the sufferings of the poor and to experience and teach enlightenment. The entire Buddhist worldview was born from that experience.
  • In the last century, many peoples came to remember that Gandhi had to face a mighty empire to fuse the ancient insights of his people into the teachings of satyagraha (soul-force or nonviolence). From that experience of the Imperial Raj came the birthing of a planetary consciousness of nonviolence — a new level of Community merging from suffering under colonial Control.
  • And one of the most poignant and powerful expansions of that community of nonviolence came in Black America's response to racism and segregation, Control run berserk in the form of police dogs, lynch mobs, and church bombings.
  • The indigenous communities and spiritual traditions of the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, remember how they were shattered by arrogant political leaders in concert with arrogant economic bosses.
  • Growing numbers of women remember how the spiritual experience of women has been suffocated for millennia by the arrogance of some religious, political, and economic tyrants.

These are the separate streams of the separate memories of our different traditions. Today these different streams flow together into a great ocean of planetary outrage and planetary promise.

So today many of us remember not only "our own" but all these spiritual struggles for justice and compassion, while according special love and connection to the experiences, symbols, and histories of our own.

As we have already seen, the Bible's Exodus saga vividly portrays the journey from an effort to save lives during the Great Famine to the arrogance of unaccountable power. Through a sense of great effectiveness in dealing with a moment of great danger, Pharaoh falls into an arrogance that necessarily separates him from the web of life. So to the Bible it is not surprising that the web of life separates Itself from him. Instead of turning himself toward transformation, instead of reconnecting with the web of life, he lets his arrogance become still harsher — and more brittle. He and the Land of Egypt, he and the peoples of Egypt, he and God become still ,more estranged from each other. The very alienation he has chosen brings his downfall.

What made possible the Bible's story of Exodus, and turned it into the politics of God, was the Bible's perception of the Unity that connects all life. From the very existence of that web of consequence came its inner urge to express that web through harmony. If a butterfly's wings can create a hurricane six thousand miles away, if a Pharaoh's arrogance can stir a plague of mosquitoes to a boil, then every life-form must honor all the others, for its own sake and for the sake of the Web. So in the biblical vision, one crucial aspect of the universal harmony is resposiveness, the ability to look into the Other's face and see there whast stirs justice.

Today, in our generation, we all face global corporations and international economic institutions that clearly have enormous power. Some believe that they place themselves beyond public accountability, and that their policies endanger the earth, shatter the lives of children, enslave workers, turn the very water of life into a commodity too expensive for hundreds of millions. Others believe that their structures and behavior increase prosperity and freedom for most people.

Certainly they did not start out to be destructive. The business corporations simply followed the logic of market economics: Find a niche to sell in, do it well, make profits, invest them in more ability to meet new needs, use advertising to increase the public's sense of what it needs, use political power to protect the ability to sell and meet these needs, and to prevent obstacles from undermining that effectiveness. Grow. Grow.

Count costs to the health of an overused earth or to the health of overworked workers as an external question for the public as a whole to deal with. Oppose higher taxes that would make it possible for the public to address these problems, because taxes will reduce profit, the chief incentive to grow. Grow. Grow.

Meanwhile, other institutions are emerging that seek not their own profit but the stability of the profit system. No new versions of the Great Depression, thank you. Loans should make it possible for newer, poorer countries to join the process. Since each country may be better at producing some specific good than any other, eliminate tariffs that protect the inefficient.

Some of these institutions are formally understood as "private corporations" but have enormous power to shape the destiny of nations. Others — especially the global triad of the World Bank, IMF and WTO — are formally understood as "public" but make crucial decisions privately — even secretly. Since they exist to stabilize and make more efficient the world of profitable corporations, they go for expertise and advice to that world. So they come to be heavily influenced by private centers of power and wealth, with little accountability to the public from which they officially draw legitimacy.

This global "Pharaoh" of today is not a single person, not even what we usually would call a single institution. There are interlocking arrangements among great states, great corporations, and hybrid institutions that serve both. The interlock works out in pharaonic ways. Let us look at several examples:

"Structural adjustment" is an example of a major policy imposed on many nations by the International Monetary Fund, as a condition of getting loans that are intended to salvage a stricken economy or jump-start one that is in the doldrums. "Structural adjustment" affects billions of people, yet is little known to the public in the richest and most nearly democratic countries — where the money comes from. It becomes known to the citizens of poor countries — the ones that need loans — only when the need becomes dire and the conditions are being imposed.

The strings that are tied to loans usually include "austerity" programs, or "belt-tightening" measures, that can take many forms —

  • Privatizing government service
  • Charging "user fees" for primary education and health care, even for water.

    (Both these policies are intended to end waste and to provide a "revenue stream" that will attract foreign investors who hope to make a profit as the revenue stream increases.)

  • Eliminating government subsidies on food, fuel and medicine
  • Cutting public spending on health care and other social services.

    (Both these policies reduce taxes, which interfere with the profits necessary to attract investment.)

  • Raising interest rates, to attract more investment money.
  • Orienting economies to promote exports and industrial production valuable to bring in foreign exchange, rather than growing domestic food supply and sustainable businesses.

Under these programs, countries have to prioritize fiscal profits, or they do not receive assistance. At first glance, linking loans to reform measures may seem like a good idea to help countries get back on their feet and out of a cycle of dependence. However, the impact of structural adjustment policies has not only perpetuated this cycle but intensified it, beyond its previous proportions. Let us explore a few examples.

Let us begin with a question of water, since it carries so many echoes of the Exodus saga. In that story, the flow of liberation quickens whenever water enters: Moses is reborn in a river, flees to a wellspring, turns the Nile to blood, leads the people to freedom across a sea that drowns Pharaoh, and in the wilderness brings forth water from a rock when the people are stricken with thirst. Jewish tradition adds that during the entire journey, Miriam the ecstatic midwife/ prophet/ singer/ dancer nourishes the people from a well that follows her and dries up when she dies.

In Bolivia, in 2000, the World Bank insisted that as part of its conditions for a crucial loan, the city of Cochabamba agree to privatize its water supply: that is, sell it to a private company that would then charge "user fees" to anyone who wanted to drink or cook or manufacture with it. The user fees would make sure everyone conserved water instead of wasting it. And privatization was supposed to bring new capital — from outside Bolivia — that would improve the water system and over the long haul, prime the pump of economic development. (Even under this theory, profits would go to the foreign investors, not the Bolivian people.)

So the city government did agree to sell the water system. After all, the loans were indeed crucial, and where else could they borrow money? And besides, in some such situations the sale itself has been known to bring sizeable private, personal commissions to the politicians who arrange it. Indeed, later investigators reported that the foreign investors paid the government less than $20,000 of up-front capital for a water system worth millions, and charged that private deals were made to persuade the politicians to approve.

The buyer was an international corporation owned chiefly by Bechtel, a US company with many fingers in the nation's and the world's water supply. Bechtel's subsidiary then doubled and tripled the water rates for Bolivian households.

Result: a "drought" in every home. In a society where households have clothes washers and showers and bathtubs and several toilets, and where many have more than one kitchen and a dishwasher and a garden hose, there is no need for Moses to strike a rock to slake the people's thirst. — In that world, user fees for water may make sense, especially if basic needs are supplied free.

But in a desperately poor society, suddenly the water had turned back to stone. "In a country where the minimum wage was less than $60 a month," says one report, "many users received water bills of $20 a month and more. Families that had built and used their water wells or irrigation systems for decades suddenly had to pay for this water."

But the corporation had no mechanism for listening to the suffering that followed. It was bent on what it hoped would not only maximize its profits but in the long run bring more investment money to improve the water system for Bolivians. To the people, Bechtel and its subsidiary seemed to have themselves become stone-hearted. Could water be drawn from the stony hearts of a corporate Pharaoh? The people cried out for deliverance. For water. Would speaking to the stone bring water forth? Or would striking the stone be necessary, as it was for Moses?

The townfolk tried to negotiate, and at first they seemed to have won a rollback of water prices. But Bechtel and its allies in the national Bolivian government acted like the pharaoh who under the pressure of a frightening plague would first promise to let the people go and then renege as soon as the plague had ended. The Bechtel subsidiary and the Bolivian government first agreed when crowds went into the streets, and then reneged as soon as quiet was restored. When protesters went into the streets again, the Bolivian Army appeared, fired on the crowds, and stirred even more unrest.

Still larger crowds appeared, demanding not just price rollbacks but return of the water system to public ownership. The company and the government again gave in. But when the crowds thinned, again they failed to deliver. In one of these dances, the government actually gathered the leaders of the opposition to negotiate and then arrested the whole lot, moving them out of town to secret locations. The water activists were not paralyzed; they called a general strike, halting all business and traffic. And in the final turn of the screw, the government suspended civil liberties and appointed a military governor.

But nothing the government and the company did would quiet the waters. In the end, Bechtel pulled out. The citizens of Cochabamba set up a new kind of publicly owned water system with real public participation in planning and decision-making.

And then, after it all seemed over and done, with freedom won and water flowing, Bechtel behaved like the Pharaoh who after all was said and done, after even the death of every Egyptian firstborn, mobilized his chariots and chased the Israelites to the edge of the Sea.

What Bechtel did was to sue the Bolivian government for $25 million in damages and lost future profits, claiming as an "expropriated investment" the millions of dollars in potential profits it had hoped to make from buying the water system.

That legal move came in the form of a "request for arbitration" to the little-known International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an arm of the World Bank — the same institution that pressured the Bolivian government into privatizing its water system in the first place.

This arbitration will be held in complete secrecy. None of the arbiters will be water-starved housewives or children sickened by polluted water. Many or all of them will be business executives who understand such complex economic issues as why the poor must choose between food and water, must pay to drink for the greater good of foreign investors and the hope of a future prosperity that was ever receding from reality.

Not all the dramas of "structural adjustment" echo so neatly the symbols and the rhythm of the Exodus story. But they each have their own poignancy, if we keep remembering how many lives are destroyed in each drama.

  • Cameroon had one of the highest incomes in Africa, until a 1982 oil crisis hit and left the country with a growing external debt. In 1988, as a condition for being allowed to borrow money that it desperately needed, Cameroon began a series of "structural adjustment" programs routinely demanded in such circumstances by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These included measures to reduce export taxes on forest products and devalue the currency. Under these policies, timber production grew sharply and the logging industry expanded. After an IMF-advised 1994 currency devaluation, the number of logging enterprises increased from 194 to 351 as foreign investors flocked to the opportunity. Lumber exports grew by 49.6% between 1995-96 and 1996-97, and the once vibrant forests were left barren.

    Meanwhile, the IMF required Cameroon to cut government spending, and that damaged environmental-protection programs. Between 1995 and 1997, nearly 1000 government positions were eliminated from the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors. With barely any staff to monitor and enforce environmental protection measures, and few incentives for appropriate forest management, Cameroon had little chance to cultivate sustainable forestry practices.

    In spite of a new Ministry of Environment and Forestry in 1992, membership in the International Timber Trade Organization, and the passage of a revised Forestry Code in 1994, the government's inability to enforce good management practices contributed to the wholesale destruction of one of Africa's most valuable environmental resources.

    The clear cutting of those forests not only wiped out a local base for a sustainable economy, but also contributed to global scorching. In the balance of carbon in the atmosphere, those trees used to play an important role as a "carbon sink," soaking up carbon and reducing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — the primary cause of global scorching. Now they are gone.

  • Costa Rica was the first Central American country to implement a structural adjustment program. Cuts in government spending meant less money for public services, like education and health care. A 35% cut in health programs led to a dramatic increase in infectious disease rates and infant mortality. Devaluing the currency and focusing on exports increased pressure to compete by cutting wages for workers. After 11 years of the program, real wages declined by 16.9 percent.
  • Senegal was said to be "an IMF success story" due to increased growth rates. But from 1991 to 1996, unemployment there increased from 25 to 44 percent.
  • During the first four years of Hungary's structural adjustment program, unemployment there rose from 0 to 13 percent.

The "productivity" of countries can increase without those profits making their way to the bulk of the population, and without debt decreasing substantially.

At first, these relationships may seem mystifying. We are used to defining "Pharaoh" as "the State," and so the diminishing of governmental power may seem to be a path of liberation. But where the government is at least partly democratic and accountable while huge corporate institutions are not, or if the government and huge corporations are aiding and abetting each other, we must redefine Pharaoh.

Two case studies on global oil companies make the point:

  • According to Friends of the Earth, one of the world's largest oil companies, Chevron, has been "flaring" natural gas by-products directly into the atmosphere near Nigerian communities, resulting in severe air pollution and increased respiratory ailments among local residents. Local residents near Chevron's facilities have complained that their farmlands and water supply sources have become polluted and unusable as a result of Chevron's operations. Chevron's activities are conducted through a joint venture with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. When Nigerians protested in May 1998, Nigerian state security forces and Chevron's own "private" security forces jointly attacked the unarmed protesters from company helicopters — killing two protesters and wounding thirty.
  • Unocal, another of the world's largest oil companies, in 1991 teamed with other companies to finance and build a natural gas pipeline in Burma. To support its work, it partnered with Burma's military government.

    The pipeline project fragmented the habitat of many endangered species, destroyed wetlands, cleared forest, promoted logging, and increased poaching of endangered species. Burmese peasants began to protest the pipeline.

    To prevent these protests from interfering with the pipeline and to provide security for the construction, Burma's military drastically increased its presence along the pipeline. This military occupation yielded a corresponding increase in gross human rights violations including rape, torture, forced labor, forceful displacement of thousands of local peoples from their homes, and summary executions. As one of the results, Unocal is currently being sued by Burmese peasants who suffered a variety of abuses at the hands of Burmese army units that were securing the pipeline route.

When global corporations "hire" the local army, they are doing on a larger scale what domestic corporations used to do — still do — when they "hire" a local sheriff in a county where they have great economic clout. The sheriff, like the Burmese army, can prevent workers or environmentalists from making trouble. The difference of scale is, however, a real difference. For the corporation to rent a nation's army means the end of democratic decision-making in that entire country. It is harder to win back democracy if there is nowhere in the nation it survives, than if it is lost in Harlan County, Kentucky, or Carlotta, California, or any other single locale while democracy continues in the wider arena.

The blurring of state and corporate power so that corporations are able to override laws and regulations that are the product of decades of democratic struggle can take other forms, as well. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allows foreign corporations to use Chapter 11 to challenge environmental laws simply for diminishing or interfering with the value of their business interests. That gives foreign investors greater rights than U.S. citizens have under U.S. law.

These suits are heard before secret international tribunals whose proceedings are completely closed to public participation. The tribunals' decisions are not subject to an appellate review, and the corporations don't have to use all the legal remedies available in domestic courts before bringing a suit to the international tribunal.

For example:

  • A Canadian company, Methanex, has sued the U.S. government for nearly $1 billion, alleging that a California ban on the highly toxic gasoline additive MTBE would hurt the company's profits. The additive, which Methanex helps produce, had leaked from vehicle and storage tanks, poisoning California water supplies and putting citizens at risk for liver, kidney and nervous and gastrointestinal damage.
  • Mexico was forced to pay $16 million to a foreign investor when an ecologically sensitive zone it had established prevented the operation of a hazardous waste treatment facility.
  • The Canadian government lost a Chapter 11 case when the country limited exports of PCBs — poisonous environmental pollutants — in an attempt to comply with an international environmental agreement. Even though the environmental treaty calls for export bans, the dispute panel ruled that Canada did not act in a "least trade restrictive" manner.

Whom do these institutions represent? From where do they get their power?

The great corporations are theoretically responsible to their stockholders — either very wealthy people, or huge investment institutions acting in the name of unwealthy people who have handed over their cash. In either case, the active stockholders are an infinitesimal fraction of the world's people whose lives their companies affect so deeply.

n fact, as a number of recent US financial scandals make clear, even the stockholders may know little of what the corporations are actually doing, and the reforms recently enacted are focused on protecting the stockholders from rapacious managements. If workers get some protection, it will only be in their capacity as stockholders in retirement accounts; otherwise, the financial reforms will not protect customers, workers, or those who breathe, eat, and drink the air, earth, and water affected by the companies.

These are presumably "private" institutions. If we turn to others that are presumably "public," we find that the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the IMF have risen to a position of immense, unregulated power — shaping the economic framework for an estimated 1.4 billion of the world's people. Yet they hold meetings behind closed doors and away from public accountability. The WTO "tribunal" system enables corporations to challenge domestic laws designed to protect the environment or public health as "barriers to trade."

In WTO 's short history, "tribunals" have handled more than 150 trade disputes, and delivered binding rulings that require the losing government to pay hefty fines. These decisions then must be upheld by member countries, at risk of losing their membership in the Organization. Here, too, there is little public information and almost no public redress or responsibility for actions the institutions take.

How does this square with "the politics of God"?

At first glance, it might seem that biblical tradition would seek to engulf and wash away all such forms of central power, just as Pharaoh is washed away by the Sea. But the ongoing life of the people, and therefore the biblical teachings, were more subtle than the archetypal myth.

As the Israelites kept facing hostile tribes and peoples, they came to feel they needed more centralized leadership to struggle against the kings of other peoples. (I Samuel 8) They demanded that the Prophet Samuel choose for them a king. At first, Samuel felt personally aggrieved. He had been the people's leader; why were they rejecting him? He had taken no bribes, cheated no widows.

But when he appealed to God, he came to understand that his own personal pique was unimportant. Corruption in the Enron/ Worldcom sense was not the issue. The deeper problem was that the people already had a King — in heaven — and it was God that the People were rejecting.

Then Samuel transmitted a warning at two levels:

At the level of what we might call "theology," he warned that a king might distract reverence away from the Whole, into its carved-up parts — might himself become an idol, drawing the people into idolatry.

The people demanded: Give us a king.

At the practical level, Samuel warned, a king would conscript men for his army and women for his bureaucracy, would tax away a tenth of the people's abundance.

The people insisted: Give us a king.

God and the Prophet gave in. But the man whom Samuel at God's behest chose to be the first king was not a very good one. The people's first experience with royalty was not to imprint them on this political structure.

But the king's personal incompetence was not a sufficient safeguard for the people's freedom and spiritual health. There must also be an institutional process. The Torah describes a new approach: a limited constitutional monarchy. A king, but no pharaoh.

The Israelites subjected their king to public accountability. In Deuteronomy 17: 14-20, they forbade a king to amass wealth, or wives, or an aggressive standing army ("chariots and horses"). They forbade a king to "send the people back into Mitzrayyim" — that is, the Tight and Narrow Place, the house of slavery, Egypt.

And they required the king to relearn the Teachings of Torah, by writing and reading the Torah in the presence of Levites and priests. By the late Second Temple period, this meant that in every seventh year, the whole people — who had assembled in Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest festival of Sukkot — heard the king and the high priest read some crucial passages of Torah — especially verses on the needs of the poor and the limits on the king's own power.

These ideas were not limited to the biblical institution of Israelite kingship. In every generation, one of the deepest concerns held by Jewish thought and action, as well as a deep concern held in other religious and spiritual communities, has been how to deal with pyramids of unaccountable power — especially by making them accountable and by halting their most destructive behaviors.

In the economic/ ecological sphere, as we have seen, the way that the Israelites did this was through the observances of the Sabbath rest not only on every seventh day, but also in the sabbatical seventh year, and (at least in prophetic demand) the seventh seventh year plus one, the fiftieth year of Jubilee Home-bringing.

These rhythms limited, and periodically tried to dissolve, the amassment of wealth in the hands of particular families, and the use of the earth to do this.

We often note with amazement the provisions (Lev. 25 and Deut. 15) for the sabbatical and Jubilee years, providing for periodic pauses in the process of amassing wealth and exploiting the earth; requiring the annulment of debt every seventh year; and requiring in every fiftieth year the total redistribution of land on an equal basis to every clan. These provisions (even though the Jubilee redistribution was actually done perhaps only once in biblical history) merit our astonishment and admiration.

Yet at the same time we must note that implicit in this rhythm is that a time of enrichment, a time to accumulate wealth, was also permitted — even encouraged. The Sabbatical-Jubilee pattern did not require continuous economic equality, the abolition of all hierarchy all the time. It limited hierarchy, rather than abolishing it. From generation to generation, a sense of community would be restored from whatever disparities of wealth and power had undermined it. Sustainable community, rhythmically renewed community — not absolute community.

Between sabbatical years, in "ordinary" history, there were also safeguards against too much accumulated wealth, too much "efficiency": the obligation to leave gleanings for the poor, to pay workers before the sun sets on their labor, to return a garment pledged to secure a loan if the worker needed it to keep warm or modest. (Deut. 24: 10-13)

In regard to loans, for which the World Bank and IMF demand "structural adjustment" and similar conditions," what was the politics of God?

If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in your Land that YHVH, your G-d, gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him. . . . . For destitute people will not cease to exist within the Land; there fore, I command you, saying, "You shall open — yes, open! — your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your destitute in your Land." (Deut. 15:7-8,11)

When you make your fellow a loan of any amount, you shall not enter his home to take security for it. You shall stand outside; and the man to whom you lend shall bring the security to you outside. If that man is poor, you shall not sleep with his security. You shall return the security to him when the sun sets, and he will sleep in his garment and bless you, and as for you it will be an act of righteousness before YHWH, your God. (Deut. 24:10-13)

This sense of resistance to top-down unaccountable power and this search for ways to limit it was permanently encoded by the Rabbis as the ongoing central reason not only for the powerful celebration of the Passover festival but also for every festival and for the Sabbath. And their concern was not only symbolic and ceremonial, but was carried into a myriad practices of daily life:

  • According to the Talmud, if an employer asks a worker to "carry on their shoulders" a heavier load than is customary, the employer is liable for harm suffered by the employee. (Tosefta Baba Metzia 7:10)
  • When on occasion across the centuries some merchant cornered the market in scarce citrons — a fruit that was ritually required for each household to celebrate the harvest festival — the rabbis threatened to legalize the use of lemons instead, to prevent the merchants from jacking up the price of citrons.
  • And they provided that any ordinary Jew (at least a male) could bring a grievance before the community at large by interrupting the reading of the sacred Torah in the midst of the Shabbat service.

Judaism transmitted this strong desire to limit pharaonic power to Christianity, to Islam, and (as Michael Walzer has shown in Exodus and Revolution) even to modern secular liberation movements. In the African-American variant of Christianity especially, the biblical imagery of slavery and liberation in Egypt is particularly persistent.

Applying all this to the dangers of top-down unaccountable power at the global level, what might we create as the ancient Israelites created the rules to limit kingly power?

Surely some way for the great corporations and their related global institutions to report to the people, to read aloud in public the values and the rules that bind them and explain what cases they are examining.

Surely some way for the people's representatives, sworn to uphold the healing of the Unity of earth and human society as the Levites and the priests were covenanted to uphold God's will, to sit and watch most closely what these global institutions do.

Surely some way of rhythmically and periodically returning wealth and power to the wider community, dissolving hierarchies not forever but for a time of pausing, dissolving the guilt of the rich and the resentment of the poor — not perhaps forever but for a time of pausing. For in just this way were the sabbatical year of release and Jubilee intended to renew a measure of equality and community.

Surely provision for transformative leaders like the ancient shoftim, "judges" in the conventional translations but in actuality men and women who were much more like charismatic leaders of the poor and the oppressed than they were like neutral figures perched high above the people.

Surely provision not only for individual prophetic voices ready to challenge the pretensions of a king, but also prophetic communities- networks of criticism and resistance.

Surely the creation of moments like the ancient pilgrimage festivals when the assembled power of the community as a whole, all its workers and all its citizens, would gather to recall the downfall of a Pharaoh and the joy of rest, reflection, and renewal.

Perhaps the broadest, most visionary attempt to imagine encoding all this in contemporary law is the proposal by Rabbi Michael Lerner and The Tikkun Community that on a regular and repetitive basis, every corporation that does business in the United States be subjected to a thorough periodic review of its impact on the earth, on its workers, on its customers, on the people who live nearby its offices and installations, on its investors. Its charter might be revoked, depending on how fully it is meeting its social responsibilities. The proposal cuts through questions of the limits on Federal and state power, on private property and governmental regulation, by suggesting this be put forward as the "Social Responsibility Amendment" to the Constitution.

The imaginative reach of this proposal is both its strongest attraction and its deepest problem. For it would have to start from absolute scratch with, for example, no Congressional base of support, and unlike the Equal Rights Amendment does not yet have any underlying mass movement from which to spring. That movement would have to be built. If it were, many other proposals and efforts might provide the building-blocks for an ultimate SRA campaign.

What other vehicles might advance this approach, while having more initial support with which to connect and build? — Two possible example: Friends of the Earth has developed an International Right to Know Act to require reporting on global corporations' destructiveness at least to the extent domestic Right to Know legislation does. It has some Congressional support. And in Minnesota, there are proposals before the state legislature to insert provisions for public accountability and review into all corporate charters.

These proposals focus on America. Neither provides for the involvement of most citizens of Earth in the process of making our modern Pharaohs accountable. The world-wide public attention that has been brought to bear on the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank since the great Seattle demonstration has shown how action in the streets can begin to force some primitive levels of accountability. Even more dramatically, the speed of the US Congress in July 2002 in rushing to make corporate finances more transparent after the Worldcom revelations also shows that people with money and power — in this case, investors — can get quick responses in a crisis. (The post-revelation skids in the stock market represented the unspoken threat of a de facto "capital strike." That got Congressional attention.)

But Congress has taken no equivalent action on behalf of sweatshop workers or people poisoned by chemical plants or the dying victims of high drug prices or the children neglected and abused because their parents are so overworked they have no time to spend in parenting — let alone the people who are themselves emotionally and spiritually exhausted by overwhelming overwork forced on them.

Between 1963 and 1965, the numbers and passion of the people in American streets who were demanding the end of racial segregation and racist voting laws grew so great that Congress responded. Today, around the planet, we face the question whether the unruly transnational alliances of labor unions and environmental organizations and people in the streets and angry investors and exhausted mothers can not only give birth to specific legislation, but turn sporadic protests into ongoing oversight institutions on a global scale.

If the global corporations now make up a runaway House of Lords without a legitimate king or Magna Carta, what would it take to create a Global House of the People? How would Friends of the Earth and the United Auto Workers, the Red Cross and the micro-investment grass-roots Grameen Banks, Buddhist temples and women's organizations, all share a platform and speak in a voice that could call Caesar, Pharaoh, to account?

In many spiritual traditions, the arrogance of unaccountable power is remembered not only as destructive to the material and socio-political well-being of the people but also to their spiritual health, their ability to achieve compassion, awareness, and a sense of meaning in their lives.

These teachings have helped inspire one of the most important threads of human effort over millennia: struggles to share power rather than bow to centralized control, efforts to win justice for workers and "ordinary folk," to encompass all with compassion, to protect the earth that embodies and nurtures all life.

These teachings have also contributed to a sense that all life is subtly intertwined and surcharged with meaning; that, for example, the exploitation of human beings — which would seem to happen in a realm separate from rivers, frogs, cattle, lice — in fact has an effect upon these beyond-human life forms.

In many of our lives today, the same understanding might be expressed through words like "process," "reaping what you sow," "karma."

In either form, to be wise is to learn is that since all life is intertwined, loving what seems strange and separate is necessary to open up love for what is most familiar: "Love your neighbor as your self" is not merely a cautionary admonition but a "law of gravity" that stands alongside the law of restfulness. If we are able to love our neighbor, to love the stranger — then on balance, over time, not necessarily easily, we are more likely to receive love in response. If we pour contempt upon our neighbor, we are very likely to reap hatred in return.

In its age-old struggle against Pharaoh, Jewish tradition goes out of its way to remind us that this struggle never ends. Every year we reexperience this ancient struggle, and every year the most powerful crystalline teaching of that memory — the Passover Haggadah — looks beyond its own memory of its own origins to speak directly to us its readers:

"In every generation, one rises up against us to destroy us."


"In every generation, all human beings are obligated to look upon themselves as if they — we — not our forebears only — go forth from slavery."

* This paper has greatly benefited from the research of Lee Moore, project coordinator for The Shalom Center; the comments of Richard Kohl; and the reports of Antonia Juhasz , project director at International Forum on Globalization, San Francisco,; Jim Shultz of The Democracy Center, San Francisco,; David F. Waskow of the International Trade Division of Friends of the Earth; and Sarah Anderson, John Cavanaugh, Thea Lee, and the Institute for Policy Studies, Field Guide to the Global Economy (New Press, 2000).