Our culture is fixated on vampires and zombies — creatures that live as parasites. In June there was widespread fear that we were on the verge of being taken over by zombies — the zombie apocalypse. After news about several cases of cannibalism turned into a panic about zombies infiltrating our cities, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a statement to calm the growing alarm: “The CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms.)”
I wonder if this fear, the fear of zombies, is related to our growing realization that we are under the control of foreign powers, that our working lives are under the dominion of financial markets, that we have become zombie-like creatures, in a state of living death, never quite able to escape the slavery of our debts, the debts that allow the wealthy to live like vampires.
We live in a world where the rich and powerful enjoy the pleasures of life, even as they life off of systems that feed on the lives of others, the lives of people who live from paycheck to paycheck, trying to pay the bills and buy groceries and keep the creditors happy and pay the rent. Our economics have created a system that enslaves people through debt: we work so much because we owe so much, and our debts keep on growing because interest rates compound exponentially.
We shouldn’t forget that the economics of this country was fueled by slave labor, and there is something of that old way of treating people that has stuck around in the DNA of our economy. For example, last month Wells Fargo got into trouble when it was discovered that they have been signing up black and brown people for loans at higher interest rates, even though they qualified for lower ones.
In other words, without supervision, the mortgage system thought that there was nothing wrong with enslaving the working lives of racial minorities with more debt than white people, debt which funds the off shore accounts of the wealthy.
Since 2008 — the beginning of our current recession — the millionaires of the world have increased their net worth. They have made money off of the financial devastation of others; they make money off of people who are enslaved by debt. We’ve created institutions that sustain themselves by sucking the life out of others. In the 18th century, as he watched the powerful take over economic systems, Voltaire talked about the people in control of the financial institutions as vampires. In his entry on vampires in The Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire retold stories of corpses “who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living.” These vampires “grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite.” While walking in the financial capitals of Europe, Voltaire used the image of the vampire to describe the corruption of the bankers and the emerging finance industry:
We have never heard a word of vampires in London, or even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were sock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.
We live in this parasitic system, where the wealth of the many is redistributed to the minority of powerful elite, economic vampires who dwell in modern palaces by sucking money from the working lives of others. In his recent book, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism, David McNally investigates the fixation of our modern imagination on vampires and zombies. The two come together, as “linked poles of the split society.” At one pole, we have vampires, “dreaded beings who might possess us and turn us into their docile servants,” McNally writes. At the other pole, are people who fear becoming zombies, “lifeless, disempowered agents of alien powers.”
We fear the vampires, those who suck the life out of us, who possess and live though us, rendering us servants to their systems. And, as McNally notes, we fear that we are becoming zombies, going to our jobs as if we were the living dead: subject to alien economic powers, forces beyond our control, the flows of finance that insinuate their way into our work, the economic institutions that enslave us through the work of our hands, as we deposit paychecks, use our credit cards, and repay our growing debts.
This is the kind of world that the prophet Amos condemns. “They sell the righteous for silver,” Amos prophecies, “and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,” (Amos 2:6-7). “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan… who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” (4:1). You “abhor the one who speaks the truth… you trample the poor and take from them levies of grain… [Therefore,] you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine” (5:10-11).
Amos offers a harsh word from God to a people who maintain a society where the rich get richer and the poor are crushed at the bottom, crushed with inhumane labor, and crushed under the weight of poverty.
Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp… who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils… they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away (6:4-7).
As the people who lounge in luxury benefit from unequal systems of labor and property, they convince themselves through religious practices that God is happy about the way things are. But their worship is a form of self-delusion, because God is so disgusted with their way of life that God will not attend their worship services:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. (5:21-23)
Yet after such a harsh word, God doesn’t leave the people in condemnation. God offers a vision of restoration: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24). According to the God of Amos a world is possible where resources are redistributed for the sake of the poor instead of for the wealthy. This was also the vision at the heart of one of Woodie Guthrie’s songs. If he was still alive, he would have been 100 years this summer. He wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a patriotic protest against the shallow sentimentalism of another song his fellow citizens were singing at the time, “God Bless America.” In response, Guthrie sang,
There was a big high wall…that tried to stop me/ Sign was painted, it said private property / But on the back side it didn’t say nothing/ This land was made for you and me… / In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple / By the relief office, I’d seen my people. / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?
Although he’s been dead for some time now, Woody Guthrie’s question still haunts us: “Is this land made for you and me?” In this world populated by the living dead, where people crushed under poverty and the weight of debt, the prophetic words of Amos and Guthrie call our global economy into question. With the financial health of world markets in a state of collapse, we should be hoping for Christ’s return, for the day of the Lord, when all things will be restored. But Amos’ prophecy exposes what our hope tries to hide: that God’s salvation will be a day of judgment, the undoing of the unjust economic systems of this world that sustain our comfortable lives. “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord,” Amos writes. “Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light… Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18, 20).
To hope for the day of the Lord — to hope for salvation — is to open ourselves up to judgment, to open ourselves to fear and trembling as we wonder if we are on God’s side.