Class

“As long as people think they have a chance of getting to the top, they just don’t care how rich the rich are.”

I cannot help but wonder how true this statement is.  The fairytale we most want to believe is that it is possible to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  It is the universal myth we hold most dearly.  And there are just enough compelling stories to keep the myth alive.

I am a Canadian, so I got up at 4 AM to watch to royal wedding.  Kate Middleton, the great granddaughter of coal miners, grew up to become a princess.  If it could happen to her, then it must be possible.

The truth isn’t nearly as fun or compelling.  You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to move beyond the status you were born into.

The correspondents of the New York Times wrote a book, Class Matters, on this very topic.  Their conclusion: people who are born into poverty are destined to remain there.  When access to education, healthcare and healthy food is not equal then bettering your living conditions becomes almost impossible.

When people of faith start talking about these issues then something uncomfortable begins to happen – faith and politics start to intermingle.

It doesn’t take a New Testament scholar to figure out that Jesus was concerned about the poor, the widow and the orphan.  These were the people at the bottom.  When we ignore those whom society defines as the least, we choose to be less Christian.

Why do I say all this? Because things like taxation are Christian issues.  Giving tax breaks to the rich probably isn’t what Jesus would recommend.  Trickledown
economics doesn’t work.  Cutting social welfare programs may save federal money, but it isn’t Christian.  Reducing spending on education will only ensure that those with wealth improve and the poor will stay poor.

What would it look like to apply the biblical idea of jubilee to our tax policy?  Do the rich really need to keep getting richer?  What is so wrong with the upper class becoming middle every once in a while?  Could the government play a missional role in helping everyone get through the “eye of the needle?”

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3 Comments

Filed under canada, Class, Class Matters, faith

3 responses to “Class

  1. Catherine Darrow

    > You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to move beyond the status you were born into.

    Well, only about 300 people are struck by lightning annually in the US. On the other hand, did you know that somewhere between 15% and 30% of college freshmen (depending on the university) are first-generation college students? I couldn’t find aggregate numbers, but some schools publish them individually. That’s hundreds of thousands of people every year getting a better education than their parents had.

    There’s another crowd — probably with some overlap — of first-generation entrepreneurs; people who own businesses whose parents didn’t. I don’t know how many of them there are, but I bet it’s more than 300; it’s enough that they have blogs and social networks and stuff.

    And then there’s another crowd of quietly frugal people who slowly build wealth over a lifetime, and wind up leaving millions to charity. There’s a whole chunk of the internet devoted to that lifestyle — not people who wish they could do it, but people who ARE doing it.

    That’s not to say class mobility is common, but it’s certainly not as rare as you paint. Not even close. A big chunk of each generation is doing something their parents never did. It’s achievable, it just has to be something you really want to do in life.

    But that’s really the core of the issue from a Christian perspective: it is my opinion that, absent oppression and injustice, a life in pursuit of riches will pretty reliably get you rich, no matter where you start. But it does consume you with the effort, and Jesus called that folly.

    Whether one is rich or poor is unimportant — what is important is a life dedicated to God. And if one is able to become rich, that’s a cool opportunity. I won’t say it’s sinful to pursue it. But I will say it can be foolish.

    Given that class mobility is possible, I’m not sure that it’s a terrible tragedy that more people don’t undertake it.

    I mean, Jesus sure didn’t seem to be concerned about getting ahead.

    > Giving tax breaks to the rich probably isn’t what Jesus would recommend.

    I don’t think you know that. The one time Jesus talked about taxes, he didn’t say anything about the rich or the poor in particular; he was talking about taxes as a whole, in principle. The only tax system God ever instituted — Israel’s — was a totally flat tax of 10%, with allowances made for those who would find it a hardship. God didn’t say anything about the rich paying more than the middle class.

    In fact, this may really surprise you: I find a progressive tax system kind of morally dubious. There’s something fair in everyone paying the same rate, but when a majority of society votes to take money from a rich minority and spend it on themselves, well . . . I have to think that looks like legalized theft.

    I think we have to be wary when arguing the rich should pay a higher tax rate than anyone else. Their money is theirs. We have a moral responsibility to care for the needy, but we don’t have a moral responsibility to force other people to do so. Stealing money for a good cause doesn’t make stealing permissable. If a rich person wants to be a philanthropist, that is to his credit before God; if he wants to play Scrooge, that is between him and God too. It’s none of my business.

    In discussions about tax rates and the rich, I’m much more worried about “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not covet” than anything else.

    Love thy neighbor as thyself. Be happy for your rich neighbor’s riches as you would be if they were your own. And don’t do anything to him that you wouldn’t want done to you, if you were in his shoes.

    > Trickledown economics doesn’t work.

    Well . . . that’s an economic opinion, not a Christian one, and hardly uncontroversial. If you read the Wikipedia article about it, you’ll see there are some compelling cases to be made that it does work.

    But from a Christian perspective, I think whether it works or not — which is to say, whether letting the rich keep their money indirectly helps the poor — is beside the point. We have a moral responsibility to help the poor ourselves, voluntarily. We do NOT have a moral responsibility (or even permission) to do whatever we want to other people so long as it maximally benefits the poor. Just because something helps the poor, that doesn’t make it right.

    > Cutting social welfare programs may save federal money, but it isn’t Christian.

    I think it is. I don’t think such programs are Christian in the first place.

    I see nowhere in scripture that advocates taking care of the poor with other people’s money. The only pattern we have of a welfare system in the old testament — the provisions for gleaning, the Jubilee year — weren’t paid for out of the tithe. Each person was taking care of his neighbors with his own resources.

    More interestingly, we are told that the new testament church held property in common, and took care of the poor together. Yet their method was voluntary donation. Remember that story about Ananias? “The land belonged to you; the money was at your disposal.” Remember the Macedonians donating to care for the Christians in Jerusalem, and how far Paul went out of his way to avoid commanding them to do so — how the donation was voluntary? Remember how poor Christians took joy in donating to help other poor Christians? It wasn’t about the obligations of wealth, it was about the joy of giving.

    And there’s another piece of the puzzle, too. I think it’s clear in scripture that caring for the needy isn’t done out of obligation, but out of compassion. Not because someone deserves a life as good as their neighbor’s, but because you want to give them a gift. It’s as much for the giver’s benefit as the receiver’s; maybe even more so.

    Remember the woman who poured the expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, and Judas’ objection that it should have been sold and donated to the poor? And Jesus’ surprising response: “The poor you will always have with you”? He seems much more concerned with the benefit the woman would derive from her perfume, and he seems curiously unconcerned about the plight of the poor. It’s about her, it’s about giving as an opportunity. It’s not about needs and obligations and entitlements.

    Red Cross, World Vision; these are caring for the poor in the Christian way: voluntarily, personally, with love. I don’t think anyone ever felt loved by the Social Security Administration.

    Bureaucratic welfare, from my perspective, is a mockery of Christian charity. Even if it operated perfectly, with no corruption or waste, no overlooked people, it is still going through the motions of charity and compassion with none of the actual love. It’s like a loveless marriage or a song played by a computer. It hits all the notes and completely misses the point.

    And I think it does one very, very destructive thing: it makes us think our neighbors’ needs are not our problems. If a neighbor is losing his house, we don’t think, “I should help him.” We think, “I’ve done my part, I pay taxes” and “He should apply for government assistance” and “What a shame his paperwork didn’t go through, we really ought to improve the system.”

    We’ll never behave like the good Samaritan if we think the government will do it for us.

    > Could the government play a missional role in helping everyone get through the “eye of the needle?”

    Yikes, Glen!! You seem to be suggesting that the government should take rich people’s money away so it’s easier for them to enter the kingdom of heaven! I . . . I really hope that’s not what you’re saying, but I can’t make any other sense out of it.

    Do you really think Jesus would condone that? Can you picture him saying, “Go and steal all of that guy’s money, as a gift to him to help him get saved?”

    At the risk of seeming insulting, there are two things that are really, really wrong with that idea.

    I remember a Christian comedian once saying, “For those of you who want to get saved, we have people down in the front who will pray with you. And then we’ll take you out back and shoot you so you don’t have time to backslide.” I’ve even seen someone argue with a straight face that killing babies is a GOOD thing, since we’re giving them a free pass into heaven, but if we let them grow up, they might screw it up.

    We are not permitted to do evil to people. Period. It doesn’t matter that we think we know good will result. We don’t know. The guy we wanted to shoot after his salvation may backslide terribly and turn away from God, or he may do great service. The responsibility and privilege to make that choice is his, and we have no right to take it away from him.

    And so with rich people. It IS hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, but navigating that hardship is his responsibility and privilege. If God calls him to give all of his wealth to the poor, he will have to do the hard soul-work of going through with it. Who are we to deny him that? What gives us the right to force him to do it but take away the opportunity to do it voluntarily?

    That is the first major problem with the idea.

    The second major problem is that you seem to think facilitating salvation is a valid role for government to play. This has been a temptation for Christianity since the beginning. You know how Israel’s problem, all through the old covenant, was idolatry? I think the church’s problem, all through history, has been trying to turn the kingdom of heaven into a kingdom on earth.

    Remember right from the beginning, how people were expecting Jesus to establish a government in Jerusalem? He certainly could have. He could have instituted a new Jewish government, a new law, he could have thrown out Rome if he’d wanted to. But the kingdom of heaven is not like that. None of the gospels or the epistles breathe a word about reforming or removing Rome.

    Remember the Holy Roman Empire, Constantine through the church of the middle ages? It may have been a government, but we can all agree pretty well that it wasn’t much of a church. The kingdom of heaven is not that way.

    And in Europe, during the years in which a Catholic king would outlaw Protestantism and vice versa — for everyone’s good! — don’t think there wasn’t much at stake. You can try to baptize babies to assure their salvation, you can try to outlaw heresy by force to nudge the masses along the right path. All you build is an abomination and a mockery of the real thing: the voluntary choice, the divine romance, the hard pursuit of God.

    We have no place forcing anyone a little closer to God. Through government, arms, or threats . . . the kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with earthly coercion. Never did. Never should.

    —-

    You know, you write about politics and Christianity a lot. And I think that’s good; a Christian outlook certainly informs a political view. God’s command to “do justice, love mercy” has a lot to do with the law, and I think we’re right to try to craft law with that in mind.

    But I think you ought to consider your approach carefully. I won’t say liberal ideas are unChistian; I think Christianity is different altogether from a liberal or conservative philosophy. But I will say this, that there are a lot of sincere, Godly, conservative Christians out there. And I think you’d learn a lot by talking to them.

    And I think you’d stand a better chance of persuading them to come around to your view if you understood why they thought the way they do. Like, when you talk about welfare, you’re beating a “charity ought to trump greed” drum, but that’s not my issue. I’m thinking “justice ought to trump jealousy.” We’d agree about both of those ideas in the abstract, so to convince me, you need to persuade me that welfare actually IS charity . . . or conversely, I would need to persuade you that it actually IS unjust and based on jealousy.

    I don’t think there’s any moral failure on either side of these Christian political debates. Well, at least not any conscious moral failure. I think the difference is in what we think a Christian-informed (but not Christian!) government ought to look like, and what principles apply. I think that’s a really worthy discussion to have.

  2. Jeff Neuman-Lee

    A comment to Catherine,

    Just because someone has money does not mean that they have earned it all on their own. Your overlay of American individualism onto the Old Testament misses much of the Old Testament’s understanding of participation in the community.

    If you take the concept of the Jubilee seriously you see the hard work of the entrepreneurs re-distributed every 50 years.

    Catherine, you don’t (and you can’t) match up the economic systems of the old testament and today.

    Which leaves us with questions as to how best exemplify Jesus’ love. In America we work together to bring about a best community. We know that we need each other and, at least, too much poverty is a drag on the rest of the people.

    There is no such thing as a perfect free market. All markets are based in political agreements. We set up areas of competition and areas of control. Just look at it, that’s how it works.

    You can’t escape the arguments of how to be a community together with a fantasy

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