Burn the Damned Thing Down
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
June 16, 2019
[This sermon was delivered at Caldwell Presbyterian Church on June 16, 2019.
The given texts were assigned to fit into a series currently underway at the church, and thus do not correspond to the Revised Common Lectionary texts for the day.]
The preacher and writer Will Campbell tells the story of a hippie in Nashville who, a few years after the most active period of the Civil Rights movement, was publicly protesting on a street corner. A restaurant owner had denied him service: “The law says I have to serve Black folks, but it don’t say nothing about having you dirty, bearded, hippie peaceniks in my reputable establishment,” the proprietor said. Incensed, the fellow, whom Will called ‘Booger Red,’ took to the street with placards, protesting the unfair treatment.
It happened that a flatbed truck pulled by, with two young Black men in the back, resting with their hats pulled down over their eyes. Sitting at the intersection, Booger Red approached them. “Come on, fellas, the mistreatment of people continues. Come join the protest with us against this injustice.”
“What’s going on?” the young man asked, seeming rather uninterested.
“O Brother,” Booger Red said, “they won’t serve us even a hamburger because of our long hair and beards. We need you to come demonstrate with us as we demonstrated with you.”
Unmoved, one of the young Black men adjusted his hat ever so slightly. As the truck began to pull away, he looked up from under the brim, and said, “Burn the damned thing down.”
The Gospel lesson we have read this morning captures Jesus telling a fiery parable with apocalyptic elements. I want to pull the images and words apart over the next few minutes to listen for the echoes of all the language at work in the text and in our own city.
We begin with a landowner. This character immediately plunges us into the political world of both the ancient text and our context. Land, its use, its ownership, and the ability of common people to access it is a defining issue of justice in every era. Land use and ownership is directly tied to the ability of communities to cultivate self-determination. Wars are fought over territory. The answer to the fundamental question of liberation that the Book of Exodus poses is resolved in the settling of the Promised Land following the sojourn in the wilderness. People cannot be free without land. In our day, most of our questions of justice are built, in some way, around access to land. Gentrification, Urban renewal, Indigenous rights, climate change, immigration, sustainable transportation, and food and water rights are all directly related to land and access to land.
It is not by accident of course, that the “Leader of the Free World,” who is hell-bent on becoming the most noxious person ever to hold that office, and possibly also the last one, is a real estate developer. And an especially sleazy one at that. He does not appeal to our better angels, as one former president said, but one could hardly find a more fitting figurehead for the legacy of American Empire.
Land and our relationship to it is fundamental to faith. It is also a fundamental to the common good, or to the way we order our societies, and to who benefits from that order. Land stands at the center of what we would call our “political economy.” It is the very ground we build culture upon.
In the case of the reading this morning, it is the bounteousness of the land that leads this wealthy landowner to a moment of reflection. “What should I do?,” he asks. “My barn is not big enough to store all my excess harvest.” The answer is the same answer on display in the gentrifying neighborhoods of our city: “Tear it down!”
You’ve seen it: in our older Charlotte neighborhoods, a house sells, but for those with excess capital, any old house is not good enough, never mind that nearly 1700 people, including 450 children, are unhoused every single night. Those with so much excess demand ostentation to complement the violent expropriation of land from the poor. The whole process is injury plus insult, plus another, bigger insult. So, a simple but adequate house gets torn down, and a mini-mansion goes in its place. “What will I do with I my stuff? And how will people know that this rat is winning the rat race?” they ask. So they say to the old home, “Tear it down!” And of the old neighbors, “tear them down, too.” Such is the nature of our city. But not only ours. The pursuit of maximum profit and the love affair with amenities are ends in themselves. Far from needing justification for such excess, now anyone pursuing a path not laden with luxury must justify their existence, especially if it that existence might harm property values. The landowner of Luke 12 is not an aberration in Charlotte. He is, in our current arrangement, the model citizen.
With that in mind, I’d like you to skip over towards the end of the Gospel reading. You know the passage – “consider the lilies,” Jesus says, and he brings up an interesting comparison. “Even Solomon, in all his splendor, was not clothed like one of these.” Solomon is a curious analogue here, as he receives only a couple of mentions in the New Testament. In the context of a discourse on economics, Solomon might have some very specific echoes for Jesus’s audience.
While the popular image of Solomon in our minds has to do with wisdom, that was not Solomon’s only legacy. Rather, he left behind a contested legacy, filled with questionable judgments and much exploitation. Solomon did not just dispense wisdom. He was also a real estate developer, the builder of the royal palace in Jerusalem, and following the palace, the first Temple. The recounting in 1 Kings of Solomon’s regime of construction is epic – he got everything he could imagine from every place he could acquire it. Workers cut the magnificent cedars of Lebanon and had them shipped inland from port. They quarried “great, costly stones” (5:15). They used olivewood to put a fine finish on much of the temple. Everything possible was covered with fine trim or had decoration carved into it. And then, for good measure, many surfaces were covered in pure gold. And to get all of this done, according to 1 Kings 5:13 and 15, Solomon conscripted forced labor to accomplish the task. He enslaved his neighbors to build a Temple to the liberating God of the Exodus. According to 1 Kings, he enslaved more than 150,000 of them. And he forced 3,300 other neighbors into upholding the scheme as supervisors. Solomon, Temple builder, was at the same time Pharaoh, empire keeper.
Solomon’s legacy in the political economy of Israel was as an extractor of wealth. He took from the poor to give to the rich. He widened the wealth gap. He dispossessed peasant people to build two magnificent buildings with his name attached to them, which sounds like another head of state I know.
So when Jesus brings up Solomon, he is, at the very least, poking his finger in the eye of the figurehead of the extractive economy. “He stole everything that wasn’t tied down,” Jesus is saying, “but he still could not create anything as beautiful as a simple flower.”
Back to the landowner: with echoes of Solomon in our heads while wandering around this section of Luke, we get to read the rest of this parable. He asks the question, “what will I do with my excess?” and determines that he will tear down his barn. That very night, his life is demanded of him. This is not because tearing the building down is the wrong move. It is precisely the right move. You could ask Jesus what to do with the barn, and he would respond as the young Black man did to Booger Red, embodying the revolutionary spirit of Jesus: “Burn the damned thing down.”
Destroying the barn is the right move, but the vision of what to do with all the excess is crucial. When the developers and landowners tear down, it is not done for the purpose of sharing, but for hoarding. There is no party planned for the just distribution of the common wealth built from the land. The whole idea is greed. One might hear in this echoes of the housing crisis of 2007/08. The wealthy destroyed the housing market, and they did it to get rich. And they got away with it!
The wealthy landowner wants to tear the whole thing down in a plan to hoard more. He has a strategy that will feed his need for greed. But in Jesus’s telling, the rebuilding plan will not happen. The tearing down is the point.
For Jesus, the tearing down is the point.
For Jesus, the extractive economy has to be destroyed.
In the political economy of Jesus, reparations for harm done are necessary. Sharing the spoils of the violent expropriation of land is the first – but not last – step.
For Jesus, there is no treasure worth having but the reign of God, which is made manifest in the lives of the poor and oppressed.
For Jesus, the tearing down is the point.
And he learned this from his mother. Early in Luke she sings, while he is still in her womb. He is inside her. He can hear her. He learned to sing, too:
He has torn down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty (1: 52-3).
Such tearing down is the inbreaking of God.
God’s business is the destruction of unjust systems.
Now, some of you will find this an unsatisfactory place to end. You agree with me, but you don’t think you can live in the rubble of a broken system. You need some positive direction, some building up. Well, Habakkuk has one more word for us. His city, like ours, was built by bloodshed and founded on iniquity (2:12). The walls themselves are crying out, the plaster shouting from the woodwork (2:11). “Write the vision,” Habakkuk says (2:2). And the nonprofit consultants, the philanthropists and the foundations, the visionary leaders and the task forces and the think tanks all run to Habakkuk. “Let us help write the vision,” they say. They want to set up processes and outcomes, vision statements and reports. They always run to the front. Even without getting close to the poor and broken-hearted, they are ready to pitch their programs and studies.
Do not listen to them. Do not listen to them. We need the vision of the poor, not of the donor class and their enablers. I commend to you my neighbor Carolyn, who has suffered under the weight of the extractive economy from the moment of her birth 60-plus years ago. She recently offered this testimony to one of our staff at QC Family Tree:
When you are poor you don’t think too much on the future. I told my son that when we die we are going to have a mansion with the Lord. Maybe this sounds selfish, but I said Lord, I want my mansion before I die. From one year to the next, as long as I have breath in my body, I hope the Lord will bless me with a home. It doesn’t even have to be a mansion – just a brick home with a beautiful bedroom.
Carolyn knows that to get to her vision, politically, is a complex process. But she also knows that the solutions to the problems are relatively simple. The answer for inadequate housing is better and more housing for poor people. The solution to the unequal distribution of opportunity is a more just distribution of wealth. The problem of lack of access to land can be resolved by land reforms. We know that a jobs guarantee, robust labor unions, guaranteed minimum incomes, and quality universal healthcare can go a tremendously long way towards solving the systemic problems that Carolyn bravely stares down each and every day. A city of justice is the vision Carolyn has for Charlotte, starting with a brick house.
The powerful have offered us a different vision: task forces, reports, visions, branding. We are a city built on iniquity, only committed to treating the broken windows, but never the faulty foundation. But you and I both know that any vision document that does not result in Carolyn (and not only Carolyn) getting a beautiful bedroom in a brick home won’t be worth the paper it is written on. And none of them have had that result yet. Which won’t stop us from producing them anyway – more task forces, more reports, more recommendations, more glossy print, more branding.
Kindred, the time for all that is up. The time for justice is now. Our lives are being demanded of us, and this is what is required: houses, jobs, wages, healthcare, and every good thing this earth has to offer, given without encumbrance to God’s beloved poor and oppressed. There is no more time for anything less.
And so in that light, I’d like to offer you an apocalyptic proposal fitting of Luke 12: let’s take every last copy of every last report, stuff them all into a big building until it is bursting at the seams, and burn the damned thing down.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 This story is recounted in Will D. Campbell, Forty Acres and a Goat. Jackson: Banner Books/University Press of Mississippi, 2018. P. 141.
 The actual quote, according to Will, is “burn the motherfucker down.” I have changed the language for two purposes – 1. To accent the precision of the word “damned,” which is a theological word that I think captures the intent of the statement, i.e., that the building and what it represents stands under the fiery judgment of a just and righteous God; and 2. To avoid the vulgarity from the pulpit and in further publication. But, n.b., I do not think of any word as vulgar. I do, however, think that the complacency and intransigence of white communities in the face of obvious injustice is vulgar.
 If I could write an hour-long sermon, this would be it. And at this place I would talk a little about the economic theory that is sometimes called “primitive accumulation.” The idea is to try and explain why, at some point in history, land went from being shared and used as part of the common wealth of human settlements, to being accumulated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.
Adam Smith imagines this process of primitive, or original, accumulation as something relatively painless, built on a meritocratic ideal. Some people were more industrious, he thinks, and worked harder, and thereby accumulated more resources. So quite naturally, they bought or otherwise appropriated more and more land.
Marx is more clear-eyed on this issue. In Capital, he argues that the taking of land from the peasant classes was done by violent expropriation, resulting in arrangements like the feudalism of medieval Europe or the capitalist societies of the West. This explanation of primitive accumulation sounds far more in touch with the realities of both historic land distribution, and the ongoing struggles for land rights in our time.
 This next section relies heavily on Walter Brueggemann, Solomon: Israel’s Ironic Icon of Human Achievement. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2005. Dr. Brueggemann also offered an overview of the reading of Solomon presented in that volume during a lecture at First Presbyterian Church Charlotte in February 2018, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGGnzvW57oc
 There at least two more echoes that need repeating here, but this sermon is already a bit long. For one, in John 2, Jesus cleanses the Temple, and included in his conversation with the leaders there, he says “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will build it back.” I cannot help but hear that passage while reflecting here. While it requires some careful exegesis, at the very least it suggests that Jesus as builder is engaged in a very different kind of economy that Solomon or Ezra, the priest who led the construction of the second Temple. That economy, as detailed in Nehemiah 5, was terribly exploitative, leading again to neighbors with money enslaving neighbors without money.
Also, I hear the echoes of the prophets. When Jerusalem is sacked in 587/586 by the Babylonians, the prophets make it clear that political crisis had economic and spiritual roots. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Micah, along with others, are quite clear that the economic iniquity of Judah leads to its downfall under the judgment of God.
 See footnote 2. You know what I really mean here.
 See footnote 2. In case you skipped reading the other footnotes, this ought to say, “burn the motherfucker down.”