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Being a Christian among the sin of wealth inequality
Starting a dialogue about Christian response to the poor can be a little challenging, especially when the contemporary Christian climate isn’t generally receptive to a systematic upheaval of our economic system.
One can read the Bible and see that as Christians, we should prioritize caring for the poor. One can look at contemporary figures and note that there is a huge problem in terms of income equality in the United States. Or, like I did this week, one can look at ancestors in our faith, like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, and see that they felt convicted to help the poor, too.
This isn’t a coincidence. Truly, like Jesus and Moses say, “the poor you will always have with you.” It’s our job to be openhanded toward them. Like the Psalmist says, we need to defend the cause of the weak and maintain their rights. If we don’t, we show contempt for them, we disrespect God—if we are kind to them, God rewards us. If we don’t listen to the poor, we won’t be listened to. We’re all made by God, both rich and poor, and are loved equally by him. If we are indeed righteous, we’ll care about justice for the poor—the wicked don’t care about that. What does it mean to know God, Jeremiah asks? To defend the cause of the poor and needy. Zechariah tells us not to oppress widows, orphans, the poor or immigrants really explicitly. Jesus calls the poor blessed. Jesus says he is in the least of these and then tells a man to sell everything he had to get into heaven. All of those possessions are fleeting anyway, they don’t last, sell them and redistribute your wealth. James tells us the poor need the strongest faith. And of course, Jesus is often rejected by the wealthy, so he befriends the poor to do his work on earth.
Jesus cares about the poor, and it is obvious in his Word.
Of course, these scripture passages generally strengthen Christian charity and even though there is mention of justice, rights, equality, and love for the poor—and scorn for the rich, what does the Bible then say about the rich? Certainly the “one percent” could quote their great philanthropy and be justified in sucking up way more than their fair share. But not if they read James, I suppose.
Here’s James 5—yes, this is actually in the Bible.
James 5:1-6 Pay attention, you wealthy people! Weep and moan over the miseries coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted. Moths have destroyed your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you. It will eat your flesh like fire. Consider the treasure you have hoarded in the last days. 4 Listen! Hear the cries of the wages of your field hands. These are the wages you stole from those who harvested your fields. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of heavenly forces. 5 You have lived a self-satisfying life on this earth, a life of luxury. You have stuffed your hearts in preparation for the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who doesn’t oppose you.
It’s clear, I think, that the writers of the Scripture, followers of Jesus, and Jesus himself care deeply about the poor, and not just in a charitable way, but in a way that longs for systemic and long-term justice.
According to Mother Jones, the top one percent of the country owns nearly 35 percent of its wealth. The next ten percent own nearly 39 percent of the country’s wealth. And the bottom 90 percent own a little bit over a fourth of it.
Of course, I’m telling you this because it looks like the entire country is confused about how wealth is distributed. Here’s a chart of what Americans think wealth distribution is in the U.S., what they think the ideal might be, and what it actually is. The situation is getting worse too. Today, the top one percent take home a quarter of the nation’s income, where in 1975, it only took nine percent.
As Wall Street profits increased 700 percent between 2007 and 2009, unemployment doubled, while home equity decreased by a third.
The average worker in the U.S. needs to work a month to get what the top executive in his company makes in an hour. The top one percent own half of the country’s stocks, bonds, and mutual fonds—the bottom half only own .5% of it.
Meanwhile, the bottom half of the country, criticized as “takers,” take in less than the investment income of three men in a year. The income of a family of four on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) is literally less than what average member of the Forbes Top 20 makes in a second at the office.
If one took the richest 200 individuals in the world and combined their wealth or net worth, it would be more than half of the world’s wealth combined. The U.S. has the fourth worst wealth inequality among all nations.
Of course, the weak counterpoint to all of this despite income disparity, income mobility is high in the U.S. But of course, even the conservatives in Washington will tell you U.S. income mobility is worse than that of Canada and Western European countries.
I hope we’re seeing how desperate the situation is.
We really need an anti-poverty movement. One that doesn’t just end in charity but the kind of liberating and institutional change that can actually change the situation in the U.S. The church, I believe, is positioned to actually do something about the wealthy inequality in a systematic way.
So let’s be different; let’s try and do the right thing. Jesus is calling us toward that. There are certainly different ways we can approach such work. Dorothy Day and Teresa of Calcutta were worlds apart, literally and strategically, but we both known for the helping the poor.
Mother Theresa was born into the church and by twelve she felt a calling to follow God. She wanted to become a missionary and wanted to spread the love of God. She left home at eighteen and become a nun by 1931. She taught at a St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta but quit doing that when she was impacted deeply by the poor around her.
She resigned and devoted her life to poverty and working with the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. She established Missionaries of Charity, which as locations across the world and become a profiled fund raiser, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and advocate for the global poor. Her advocated fiercely for the poor and believed in the right to die with dignity.
She’s received love and praise both in India and in the world, from Christian and government and civilian groups.
Her work challenged the notion that service and dedication were good enough—we actually need to offer love and joy to the poor. That’s their right as much as anything else. In India, she would touch the untouchables, people at the lowest level of society.
Known for her good will and kindness; her gentle and prayerful spirit and reputation proceed her.
Dorothy Day on the other hand, was a chain-smoking woman, filled with the righteous anger of God. The kind that might flip some tables. She spent most of her life in New York City and converted to Christianity late in her life. She went through her share of dysfunctional relationships before starting to follow Jesus.
She’s credited with establishing the Catholic Worker newspaper. Peter Maurin, her social activist mentor, encouraged her to write as a way of spreading Catholic social teaching and a peaceful society. The two of them also formed into the Catholic Worker Movement—a group of autonomous communities that offer care and healthcare to poor individuals.
She was a national and global advocate for the poor—believing that Christ was in the face of the poor. If you failed to see that, you might not believe in Jesus at all. But more than just serving the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and offering them clothes, she stated that prayer was integral to doing her work. If you don’t pray, you’ll miss the point.
Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa are well-known and well-loved examples of Jesus followers who are strong advocates for the poor in the world. But it does seem like that their contributions are small, compared to the magnitude of the Powers that Be, the transnational corporations that run the whole globe, the elite one percent and their insatiable greed.
But the key is to not despair; the systemic changes that we seek begin at a grassroots level. And we’re doing a grassroots thing in Circle of Hope. Circle Thrift gave away nearly $31,000 this last quarter to the MCC and local partners, too. Heads Together Haiti raised $5000 to give microloans to Haitians ready to start a new life. For the Love of Childs gave way $3000 to help improve a school and its library! We’ve annihilated consumer dead. We are lobbying City Council to pass a land bank bill that puts city-owned land in the hands of communities—not developers.
Our community can do quite a bit together, I think. We have modest goals, for the most part. Sarah Mueller, this week, was trying to engage our stakeholders in a discussion about what we should do next and I’m not sure we’re totally inspired yet, but I think we are getting there. We really do want to change the world, and here are a few ways you can get us from here to there.
Share your money—both Day and Teresa lead us here. Not just with the Common Fund, though that is an appropriate starting point, but in general—feel free to give it away.
Giving your money to our common fund helps put people in counseling, helps annihilate their consumer (and maybe student!) debt, provide affordable things to people in need through our thrift stores.
Good steps in disrupting our systemic problems, I think.
Touch the untouchable like Teresa. I don’t just mean touch sick people. Touch people that are ignored in society. If you think they are just poor, they aren’t. I think you should befriend your neighbors—many of them are some of the poorest that we are talking about. Go ahead and have lunch at Love Park and see how many homeless people you can talk to. I think it will bring that joy and love that Mother Teresa is talking about.
But if we are going to really change the world, we need to touch everyone. Make friends with people. Facebook is helping us all become untouchable, we don’t even need to have face-to-face relationships to know what’s happening in the lives of our friends, or to even discuss anything that’s going on in the world. Our relationships are stale and digitized.
Invite someone to your cell who might not agree with you about worldwide poverty and income inequality. That’s a great thing to do and will benefit all of us, honestly. Let’s work toward that goal.
Give away your money, relate to people that might help you change the world, but use your voice: defend the vulnerable like Day does in the Catholic Worker. In a world of endless voices, make your voice heard—it is meaningful. Share it with the world; voice your opinion, you have a lot to contribute to the general discourse. Don’t just deconstruct either, try to offer a vision of different world altogether. Protest and tear down, but promote and plant too. We are doing both in Circle of Hope and we need the partners to do it. Serve with us and make a difference. Your time and your voice are important to the work that we are doing. I hope you feel that and know that.
These steps are a good start. I know you may not think that you are Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa when you are doing it, but that’s not the point. If you take it easy on yourself, you might think that you can do a little before changing the world. You don’t need to be in the “one percent” of world changers like Teresa and Day to mean something. Even our love and praise needs to be better distributed.