Thursday, May 15, 2014

Preaching Poverty, Work, and Wealth

Here we go again.

What is it about preachers, poverty, and work?  I hear there's another Christian book that's been published about poverty, and how the Bible tells us to fight it.  It's written, like most of them are, by a select group of pastors and other professional Christians - like professors and authors - who supposedly know what it's like to slave away in menial labor at menial pay for a lifetime.

I don't read these books.

Not because the conclusions they typically reach are inherently wrong.  Those conclusions usually run a tight gamut between rhetoric about finding pride in work, taking responsibility for one's expenses, and God's hidden rewards for doing a lowly job well.  And as somebody who's done some lowly labor in his time, and hates living in debt, I can testify that hard work often is its own reward.

And that hard work doesn't necessarily pay the bills!

Being Poor Can Be Hard Work

Inevitably, professional Christians who write about poverty and employment end up focusing on poverty as a crisis of laziness.  But isn't slothfulness only one part of the "least of these" kaleidoscope?  A lot of poor people have jobs.  A lot of poor people work very hard every day.  A lot of poor people are intelligent.  Therefore, might there be a lot of poor people whom writers of these types of books insult with their esoteric platitudes about manual labor, or their insinuations that government welfare programs are inherently unBiblical?

Sure, for the people who are simply too lazy to get out of bed and provide financially for the progeny they're creating with their baby mamas, a swift kick in their rear might be appropriate.  Along with a wholesale remodeling of corrupt welfare programs, which have created the phenomenon of generational (or "institutional") poverty that has perverted our inner cities, and is now spreading into suburbia.  Like many Americans, I become indignant when I drive through poor parts of town and see faded jalopies sporting gigantic, expensive chrome rims.  I fume after hearing anecdotes about SNAP exploitation, and I can't help but assume that liquor stores wouldn't proliferate in slums if the business wasn't there to make them profitable.  But here again, righting the wrongs of conventional welfare abuse simply comprises one of many parts of the "least of these" kaleidoscope.

Some people are raised in dysfunctional families, never learning how to learn for a variety of reasons that they can't control.  When they grow up, they are completely unprepared for socioeconomic reality.  Isn't it kinda hard to blame these folks when their parents abdicated their responsibility for raising self-sufficient citizens who can contribute to society?

Then there's the problem with immigrants who enter the United States illegally with their children; children who eventually discover they can't legally work when they come of age.  There are also people who've been incarcerated, or enrolled in alcohol or drug abuse programs, and then can't find anybody who will employ them afterwards.

It's easy to criticize people who are tired of digging ditches for minimum wage, especially when you aren't one of them.  Most manual labor is hard on the body; people who dig ditches, wash cars, mow lawns, stand behind cash registers all day, clean bathrooms, build fences, lay bricks, change motor oil, make beds, and collect garbage use muscles on a daily basis that you and I likely don't know we have.  Now multiply all of that exertion by their bodies by the number of years - or decades - they work in those jobs.  Then add to that their need to tolerate indignant - or even worse, dismissive - attitudes by passers-by and employers who presume themselves to be of a higher social station.  Then they get to go home, year after year, to someplace you'd probably decline to spent the night - let alone your life - and do it all again tomorrow.

Yes, to a certain extent, there are jobs in our economy that will never pay well, but still need to be done.  Some jobs simply aren't designed to provide the wages and benefits necessary for an employee to raise a family, like employment in fast-food restaurants.  Personally, I suspect that any minimum wage - whether it's $7 or $15, artificially suppresses all lower-end pay rates, because it prevents jobs from being individually valued by the skill set required.  In a way, minimum wage removes a lot of the incentive employers should have for delineating tasks and compensating workers accordingly.  But what's particularly noxious about this picture is that workers seem to be depending on these types of jobs more and more.  Why?  Because middle-income, move-up jobs are disappearing.

Paying the Cost of Living

Indeed, is poverty in America a problem of laziness, or a problem of low-wage, low-prestige jobs being more abundant than better-paying jobs?  America's middle classes appear to be failing to keep up with inflation and the cost of living, but how much of that is their fault?  Most new jobs being created today are part time, or "work-share," as employers now try to disguise the fact that they no longer want to pay for benefits like sick time and healthcare.

Stories abound in the media about families with multiple incomes not being able to afford food, rent, transportation, healthcare, and other costs.  Consider, too, the exorbitant rents people have to pay in the suddenly-hip, gentrifying slums of large metropolitan areas like New York City, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Miami - all cities with huge poverty problems.

Food prices?  Have you been to a supermarket lately, and not winced at the bill?  Childcare costs?  Either a parent stays home, out of the workforce, or goes to work, and pays a huge chunk of their take-home pay to whomever is raising their progeny.  And don't forget public transit fares, and personal vehicle maintenance.  And healthcare?  Many families living in poverty either ride out a high-deductible policy through their employer, or work multiple part-time jobs which lack employee-subsidized healthcare.

But you don't hear preachers and professors spending a lot of time addressing these issues that take poor people a lot of time - and money - to address themselves.  Not that most preachers, professors, and other professional Christians earn a lot of money, either, but they're usually on staff at a church, college, seminary, or in a denomination that offers the financial safety net evangelicals like to blame the government for providing those who aren't.

Can you see how all this schtick about taking pride in the work of one's hands can ring pretty hollow?

Where the Buck Stops, or Starts

For their part, liberals have brought up some questions about poverty that conservatives - such as professional Christians - don't like to seriously consider.  After all, it can get politically dicey addressing macro economic issues that appear to divert attention - and responsibility - off of poor people, and onto America's hallowed money machine.  Yet, if we're going to tackle the poverty problem, shouldn't we at least include the people in the best position of providing the jobs poor folks need?  And aren't we being a "respecter of persons" when we pretend that poor people deserve more blame than greedy Wall Streeters and one percenters?

If we're serious about addressing poverty Biblically, what's wrong about having a frank discussion about the direct casualties of capitalism run amok?  Profit over principle?  Cost savings versus labor expenses?

What's wrong with holding accountable the employers and power elite who create negative working conditions for poor people?  For example, one of the reasons we're having an illegal immigration crisis is because many employers simply don't want to pay workers what low-skill jobs are worth, or they don't want to provide decent working conditions.  Globalization has played a big factor in deflating wages, since American companies can offshore jobs and labor to places around the world where people don't expect safe working conditions and honest pay.  And most American consumers happily go along for the ride - even as their jobs evaporate - because they're too cheap and petty to realize that their low-price Walmart "bargains" are coming at somebody's expense.

Nevertheless, perhaps the biggest elephant in the room that a lot of professional Christians, evangelicals, and conservatives in general are trying hard to avoid involves greed and hoarding.  People like me can't talk about this sort of thing without being branded as a socialist or a redistributionalist, but hey - if we're going to talk about poverty, we've got to talk about where the money is.  And where is more and more money going in our society?  To our fabled one percenters.

Wealth inequity is no secret in the United States, even if plenty of us want to ignore what wealth inequity means.  Most of the people today receiving most of the wealth in our country aren't doing it by the sweat of their brow, or the work of their hands, or the ingenuity of their brains.  They're investing in companies that, in turn, are creating value by laying off thousands of employees, outsourcing jobs, and merging with peers to dilute competition.

How are poor people supposed to compete in this type of environment?  Not everybody is an inventor of new, marketable ideas and products, and can create their own wealth.  Besides, if everybody created jobs, who would staff the jobs being created?

When Is Much Too Much?

And what about people of faith who are sitting on huge sums of money?  What about self-professing evangelicals worth hundreds of millions of dollars - and more - who are "tearing down barns to build bigger ones"?  Do you hear professional Christians chiding these people for apparently hoarding the wealth God is giving them?

Preachers will harp on adultery, homosexuality, fear, honoring our parents, gossip, and poverty, of course, yet few sermons get preached on this disturbing passage from Luke 12:16-21.  As you hopefully can recall, it's when Christ gives His parable about the successful farmer who hoarded his blessings:

The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.  He thought to himself, "What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops."  Then he said, "This is what I'll do.  I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I'll say to myself, 'You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.'  But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.  Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?"  This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.

Now, if you're cynical, like me, you'll find the escape clause in the last sentence, and rationalize that as long as we're rich towards God, and generous with our tithe and offerings, then we won't be modeling the greed of the successful farmer.

But let's look at the context of this parable, shall we?  Christ gave it in response to somebody in the crowd who wanted a relative to share an inheritance with him.  It would be like me walking up to the billionaire in my church - yes, my church has at least one billionaire in its membership - and demanding that he give me some of his money, because he has so much of it.

Hey, what's a couple of million to him, right?  I'd like to think that I have a greater need for it than he does.  But Christ chides the man who asks Him to force his relative to "share" his wealth.  "Who appointed me to be an arbiter between the two of you?" He asks.  And then Christ warns all of us to be on guard against every sort of greed.  "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions," He teaches.

Then Christ launches into His parable about the rich farmer.  And by doing so, He address both the greed of the person who wants more from somebody else who has a lot, and the greed of the person who has a lot, and still wants more.  Which, if you think about it, is all relative, isn't it?  After all, there are many people who have less than we do, no matter how much we've got.  And unless you're Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, there are many people who have a lot more than we've got.

The sin isn't in possessing stuff, but in our greed for more.  And in our hoarding of what we've got.  Because what we've got, even for the farmer, is merely stuff God has given to us.  So I'd be wrong for asking the billionaire in my church for a tiny, measly fraction of his billions, but it's possible that he's sinning, too, if he's hoarding his billions.

Hey - I have to admit that I don't understand why anybody needs a billion dollars to survive.  I mean, I know the cost of living is higher now than it was when this guy was born, but good grief!  Do you realize how much money is involved in one billion dollars?  And he's got multiple billions!  His assets are broken out in all the major financial magazines.

Not that I know how much money he's tithing, and giving in offerings to various churches, ministries, and outreach opportunities within our city, state, and denomination.  I've heard that he gets courted a lot by ministry leaders from around the world, for obvious reasons.  Yet still, after he's given them however much money he's given them, he's still worth billions of dollars.  Billions!  What's he keeping it for?

Responsibility Redistribution

Yes, it's simple, base, unvarnished ignorance on my part, but I don't know why anybody keeps billions of dollars in their portfolio.  Against what are they hedging themselves?  Sure, maybe that portfolio is invested in even grander schemes that are generating money and jobs, but he's still the one in control of it.  He's the one building bigger barns, and in my simplistic understanding of this passage from Luke, why he can do so with apparent impunity from professional Christians confuses me.  Especially since he's probably not the only evangelical one percenter out there who's doing it.  The poor get blasted all the time for being a drag on our society and our economy, but the way things are going these days, it doesn't look as though the hoarders within our one percent are being all that virtuous, either.

For all I know, this guy in my church is wrestling with his wealth management advisers, his lawyers, and the boards of the companies he controls regarding how he can glorify God with the wealth He's given him.  With that kind of money, few things are simple.  And I have no idea how much richer he'd be if he hadn't already given away however much he's given away to God's work.  I don't want to be the greedy sinner here, so I pray to our Lord that I would let Him be God in this man's life, just as I pray He's God in mine.

But in my weakness, I can't help but wonder...

Wonder at how - and if - all of this money that is in our great country, and mighty economy, could be better spent.  Not just for my own benefit, because I'm personally trying to trust in God for whatever I need.  But in addressing our national poverty on a broader scale.  Probably not in simply handing cash out to people, since "free" money can cause its own problems, but in changing the way Wall Street values companies, the way investors want to make money, the reasons people keep what they get, and the way ordinary labor is paid.

After all, no one percenter earns their wealth in a vacuum.  Neither does anybody else.  And that's the kaleidoscope effect in action, as different pieces slip into and out of place, around and around.

One of the few constants in this puzzle is that the poor will always be with us.  But the level of poverty can change.  So can the things that make people poor.

And the fact, the truth, the hope of our holy God looking at each of our hearts, and seeing how the Fruit of His Spirit is at work as we address these issues.

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