Sixteen Tons of Number Nice Coal

I remember my dad talking about the coal industry of his boyhood home in West Virginia.  And while he grew up in a rather privileged home, he did have a sympathetic heart for miners that virtually had no future in the mines.  Wages were poverty level, the conditions were dangerous and the only future many miners faced was black lung disease and indebtedness to the company store, in a company town that exploited those families at every turn.

When Tennessee Ernie Ford came out with his ballad, “Sixteen Tons” in the fifties it surely resonated with the stories Dad had told us kids.  The company store extorted the families in those company-owned towns unbelievably, he said.

The purpose of his morality tale was not to express sympathy for those consigned to that life of backbreaking labor and poverty, but as a warning, to stress to us the importance of getting an education so we wouldn’t endure the impoverishment his family had avoided.  It meant getting the hell out of there.

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt.

St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go

I owe my soul to the company store.

Such has been the hardship of the impoverished since time immemorial who are deprived of agency.  Folks ground up by predatory coal companies. Sixteen tons and a short life of misery. It meant poverty, illness, drunkenness and ignorance to my father. I call it the “sixteen tons” mentality of sweatshop and the mine.  It’s work till you’re all used up and then you drop. 

When Jesus is asked about the lawfulness of paying taxes to the imperial state that has its boot on your neck, he slips through a most cleaver trap.  If he answers “no,” he and his followers risk all the might of imperial Rome coming down on their little movement.

If Jesus answers “yes,” he will be complicit with the exploitive, demonic power of Rome.  It will mean giving approval to those tax collectors roaming the land confiscating the livelihoods of those already barely able to feed their families.  Not unlike those presently evicting families in the midst of this economic collapse.  Paying taxes would only be feeding the insatiable greed of rapacious tax collectors.

Back then it was, as now a short life of brutality and deprivation for far too many.  It was Hobbs “war of all against all.”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt.

St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go

I owe my soul to the company store.

It’s the company store or Cesar – one and the same.  Jesus asks for a coin used to pay the taxes.  Whose face is on the coin?  “Cesar’s,” someone answers.  “Then give to Cesar what is Cesar’s, and to God what belongs to God.”

Niebuhr’s insight into human nature was spot on.  He noted that most of us, when left to our own devices, usually do the right thing.  We are compassionate.  If we see a lost child, we attempt comfort and if we see suffering, try to get help.   If a neighbor’s house had burned down or flooded, we will work with others to provide emergency clothing and a place to stay until lodging can be found.  We will give to refurbish the neighborhood baseball field.  That’s just human nature.

These are the duties belonging to God.  Virtually every church would applaud such.   Most of the world’s religions as well.

Niebuhr says that such empathy and compassion tends to break down when it comes to nation states and large organizations – a number of which are actually larger than many entire countries.

From such, we might not expect much compassion or understanding.  AT&T is not going to care if you have lost your job and are being evicted.  In a number of hospitals, you will not be treated without insurance.  Or at least, not treated well.  Even if you are bleeding on the floor, before the emergency room nurse, they’ll send you to the “Accounts” window.

Management will close ranks to protect the institution.  The marginalized will be sacrificed.  Those with no power sold out.  That’s the story of Reconstruction after the Civil War.  Look how the U.S. regarded those butchered in the My Lai Massacre.  Swept under the rug.  And the war criminal Lt. William Calley?  Let off with a wrist slap.  Nothing to see here, folks.  Just move along.  Stuff happens.

On the failings of large organizations, I’m reminded of one priest’s understanding of the sometimes perversity of the institutional Church.  “I’m never disillusioned by the Church because I have no illusions about it.”

My dissertation was a study of clergy who had left the parish ministry over a thirteen-year period back in the seventies.  I remember one former pastor, who still had much anger when relating the story of one church he had just been assigned to.  This, years later.

He reported a call by the conference treasurer demanding to know where the monthly payments were.  What payments?   No one mentioned to him any mortgage payments.  When told the treasurer in no uncertain terms that there was no way the congregation could make these payments, the treasurer told him that if he walked the neighborhood, about one in ten would be Methodist.  He had a vision of his life going down the tubes at a ratio of one to ten.  After a few sleepless nights, he told the treasurer what he could do with that job.  Not the empathy one might hope for from Mother Church…

It’s the same story on COVID-19, the economic devastation of small businesses, and a host of other problems facing our nation.  Twisting slowly in the wind we are.  “Benign neglect,” Nixon counseled back then.  When fifty-seven families own as much as one half the country, don’t expect much sympathy.  You read it right – fifty-seven families!

But every now and then…  EVERY NOW AND THEN!   Someone in power does the right thing.  Somehow, out of nowhere.  Out of the blue.  Someone does the right thing.  A righteous woman, a righteous man rises up.  And we say, “Thanks be to God.”  A leader who’s cause for a “Glory Attack.”

This is why, in Isaiah, the foreign potentate Cyrus is called messiah.  Cyrus is to be the means of freedom for the Israelites from Babylonian captivity. They would return rejoicing.  “Every valley lifted up and every mountain laid low.”  The path of the Lord made straight into freedom.  Every now and then…  Israel took it as divine providence.  Out of Babylonia as out of Egypt.  As, centuries later, following the drinking gourd, escaped slaves boarded the Underground Railroad made their passage to freedom in the North.  Completely done with “Sixteen tons” till you dropped. 

Abraham Lincoln was similarly regarded by the enslaved and the abolitionists in America – Father Abraham.  Every now and then someone in the behemoth of big government does the right thing – the saving thing.  A strong deliverer arises.

In Matthew the question is whether people of faith are required to pay taxes, to cooperate with what was then a despotic reign. 

Whose face is on this coin.  It is the faces of the American people.  Yes, mostly old, dead white guys.  But even now, a bit of light shines.  Susan B. Anthony.  Sacajawea.  And, hopefully, Harriet Tubman.  And more exemplary women to follow.

We can turn around the “sixteen tons” mentality that uses up men and women in sweatshops and the gig economy.  Uses them up and spits them out.

In America, the discussion is more nuanced.  And as we head into perhaps the most contentious election since that of Lincoln before the Civil War, we have Christians of many opinions.  On both sides of the partisan divide.

There is no vigorous King Cyrus liberator figure on the ballot in this 2020 election.  It is America that is on the ballot. 

Jon Mecham is right, this election is for the “soul of America.”  My side believes that.  I’m sure the other side believes that as well.  And we all have our reasons.

So where to, America?  What does it mean when WE are Cesar?  It is our heads on the coin of the realm.

In America, each of us is a citizen with inalienable rights and duties who are to be the strong deliverers. We are anointed, each as a “little Christ” as it were.  To our families, our neighbors, our communities.  Each of us is divinely empowered to leave this nation a little better than when we arrived on the scene.

All of which is to say, that if we look around, we have the opportunity to do more than just pay taxes.  We are called to the joy of having skin in this game called America.

We can march for justice, we can support quality schools in our communities, serve on the school board. 

As St. Augustine said, “Faithfulness in the little things is a big thing.”  Our little things in the coming year will add ot a “big” thing.

But, right now, most of all, vote.  Vote for candidates that are problem solvers.  Vote for candidates who have a lived track record of empathy for the “least of these.”   Vote for candidates who respect the opposition and can work across the aisle.  Vote for those who can see beyond the interests of their own wallet.

It’s “Shinning City on the Hill” time.  Away with the “sixteen tons of number nine coal” until you drop, consumed by black lung disease or polluted water.

It can be “Morning in America” if we work for it.  Whose head on the coin?  All of ours!  WE are morning in America.

Not to vote is a sin.  So, do it!   Amen.

Dear friends in Christ

October 18, 2020, Pentecost 20, Proper 24

The Rev. John C. Forney

Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-13; I Thessalonians1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

“Sixteen Tons of Number Nine Coal”

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