Teresa and three "shares" that fight income inequality
I posted a similar piece in April--I redid it when I presented at Broad & Washington last night.
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; but I actually think the devil has made us fairly neutral on the moving train at worst, or at best defenders of the top one percent.
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. Christians, perhaps, need to do more than just right the wrongs—we have to show Jesus in the process.
We want to model the example of Teresa of Calcutta. Known for her good will and kindness; her gentle and prayerful spirit and reputation proceed her. The Mother Teresa quote I want to work with is really based on Jesus’ saying in Matthew 25. Mother Teresa doesn’t mince word, she makes it clear that helping the poor, the disenfranchised, the untouchable is all about Jesus. Serving without Him is just incomplete:
“I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.”
I think we need to develop eyes to see Jesus in the world around us. God actually created all of us in his image—and Jesus says he’s coming to reconcile himself to all things under heaven and earth. He tells us that we are to be one with Him, and one with each other, as he is with the Father. We mustn’t forget that Jesus being in the least of these isn’t exclusive—he’s always in all of us. We get converted when we see others and they do when they see us. The truth is, when the rubber hits the road, doctrinal and political differences won’t matter as much as action.
It can easy to burn out trying to right the world’s wrongs on our own. It is impossible to really make this world perfect, and working through the institutions that the one percent has offered can feel like wading through a swamp. Progress can be made, but people need to find their hope in the alternative—they need to find their hope in Jesus and the community that is born out of the abundant hope he offers us. We can’t do it on our own, we need Jesus. That is our story.
That hope is made manifest through the Holy Spirit in Circle of Hope. Our compassion teams are doing to resist evil and restore God’s goodness among us. Shalom House’s peacemaking efforts tie directly with protecting the least of these—so often the victims of war, and those who are actually shooting the guns are the poor in their respective nations. The Debt Annihilation Team frees people of crippling debt that is often a result of their poverty or it exacerbates it. And what about our free baby and kids goods exchanges? The work of redistribution so plainly and so simply is contagious and effective.
Here’s how you can do your part. Three things we need to share together.
Share your money. Not just with the Common Fund, though that is an appropriate starting point, but in general—feel free to give it away. Giving it away unlocks its hold on us. Be conscious of where it goes.
Giving your money to our common fund helps put people in counseling, helps open good businesses like our thrift stores, it helps finance thinks like advocacy for affordable hosing.
Share your time. 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. But if we are going to really change the world, we need to touch everyone. Make friends with people. If there’s one thing that Facebook is teaching us is that all of us are 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. We’re all untouchable in some sense.
Share your heart. Give it to Jesus, commit it to community. Some of our so serious about this, we make a covenant to express our promise to doing it! Grow your passion and give it away generously, don’t horde it, use it and it will grow. 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 like Mother Teresa when you are doing it, but that’s not the point. If you see Jesus in yourself too, 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 to mean something. Even our love and praise needs to be better distributed.