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The Rich v Poor Gap Widens

No doubt you have been hearing a lot about the debt ceiling this week, as politicians argued about whether the United States would default on bills already incurred. You might remember a similar debate in 2013, which included a government shutdown.

In that version of the argument, the GOP “engineered the budget impasse as a way to strip the [Affordable Care Act] of funding even as registration for benefits opened Oct. 1 or, failing that, to win delays in putting the program into place.”

A familiar face led that charge, Mitch McConnell, has also been at the center of the current fiasco.

This time, the GOP didn’t make a list of demands. Instead, the maneuver appeared to be punishment for the Democrats’ use of procedural options to pass legislation.

McConnell wrote: “Leader Schumer requested and won new powers to repeatedly reuse the fast-track, party-line process. As a result, Senate Democrats do not need Republican cooperation in any shape or form to do their job. Democrats do not need our consent to set a vote at 51 instead of 60.”

The debt ceiling has clearly been politicized, with the GOP willing to put the world’s wellbeing at risk. As one gauge, we saw the stock market drop 5% in September, with the debt ceiling joining a list of investor worries about China, the pandemic, and taxes.

The people who would be most injured by a US default would not be the wealthy, but the poor, who are more likely to depend on social programming and timely paychecks.

Thursday’s agreement to raise the debt ceiling by $480 billion effectively postponed a decision until December 3, and investors began adjusting to the new date, according to Bloomberg’s aptly named “Debt Ceiling Anxiety Tracker.”

A Dubious Distinction

But the debt ceiling debate also pulls back the curtain (again) on perhaps the most important reality of American economics. The people who would be most injured by a US default would not be the wealthy, but the poor, who are more likely to depend on social programming and timely paychecks.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called a potential default "disastrous for the American economy, for global financial markets, and for millions of families and workers whose financial security would be jeopardized by delayed payments.” This vulnerability is intimately connected with inequality. The USA, for example, leads all wealthy nations in low wage jobs: almost 24% of US workers “earn wages below two-thirds the median wage.”

This is not a new situation. The Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality put it succinctly a decade ago: “Over the last 30 years, wage inequality in the United States has increased substantially, with the overall level of inequality now approaching the extreme level that prevailed prior to the Great Depression.” These disparities also reinforce other oppressive systems, such as the pay gaps and exploitation based in misogyny and racism.

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This is a big deal. All in all, we know – that is, we have the data to conclude – that inequality makes life worse for everyone in a society. The bigger the gap between the rich and the poor, the bigger the problems: shorter lives, higher infant mortality rates, and poorer health have all been associated with inequality. Two important researchers on inequality, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, “collected internationally comparable data from dozens of rich countries” to document inequality’s impact on social health. They concluded:

“The problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even being too rich), but by the material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society. / … Our position in the social hierarchy affects who we see as part of the ingroup and part of the out-group—us and them—thus affecting our ability to identify and empathize with other people. / The importance of community, social cohesion, and solidarity to human well-being has been demonstrated repeatedly in research showing how beneficial friendship and involvement in community life are to health. Equality comes into the picture as a precondition for getting the other two right. Not only do large inequalities produce problems associated with social differences and the divisive class prejudices that go with them, but they also weaken community life, reduce trust, and increase violence.”

I hoped you recognized 21st century America in those words. But for anyone familiar with the settings for the stories of Jesus, you also recognized first century Palestine. In fact, Jesus’ life and ministry cannot be understood outside of that socioeconomic and political context.

No One Is Good

So I hope you’ll indulge me as I take a closer look at one of my favorite stories about Jesus. It takes place as he is “setting out on a journey,” and a man runs up and kneels before the itinerant preacher: “Good Teacher,” he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It’s the kind of question that makes evangelists drool, but Jesus, as always, gives an unexpected and unsettling reply:

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’” (Mark 10:17-20, NRSV)

There’s a lot to observe in that brief exchange, but I want to stay as close as possible to the topic of inequality. Since we can’t separate ethics and economics, I will pause just long enough to acknowledge the big difference between Jesus and the man.

The latter’s insistence that “I have kept all these [commandments] since my youth,” is an incredibly bold statement. Put it in contrast with Jesus’ initial assessment that “No one is good but God alone.” Those words reflect the complexities of the moral life, trying to cultivate self- and social awareness and do the hard work of thinking, speaking, and living ethically. In other words, if you’re not aware of your complicity, you’re simply not aware.

When I teach classes on meditation and other reflective practices, I emphasize that it requires a great deal of willingness to encounter what is embarrassing and even shocking in ourselves and our perceptions of the world.

You need to be able to laugh at yourself, forgive yourself, and change yourself, as well as your culture and society. Sometimes, that means listening to an entire Michael Jackson album that you somehow remembered from 1982. Sometimes, that means coming face to face with your complicity with, and the easy justifications for participating in, unjust systems: our racism, misogyny, ableism; our greed, hatred, and delusion.

When it comes to ethics, if you lean towards “All these I’ve kept from my youth” more readily than “No one is good but God alone,” you might want to check in with the state of the world and how you move through it. Because we are living within, participating in, all this injustice and oppression that surrounds us. How could it be otherwise?

You Lack One Thing

But acknowledging the complexities of ethical decision making, only made more complex in the centuries since Jesus, is a rather unsatisfying response. The unasked question remains: if you know all this and do all this, why are you here? What doubt is lingering in your mind? Why aren’t the easy answers, the superficial rules and sentimental platitudes, enough for you? If you know what society expects of you, and have done it, why are you here?

This is where the story becomes upsetting for everyone with privilege and power:

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’” (Mark 10:21-23 NRSV)

I’ve listened to a lot of people try to wriggle out of this text. Especially with the way that church funding has evolved, most pastors want to be very careful here. The man who has kneeled before Jesus is exactly the type of person the stewardship committee has listed as a favorite contact, a donor who abides by at least a minimum standard of morality and is loaded with cash.

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But here’s the catch: we, as readers standing in for the rich man, know that something is still off. There is some exasperation – and desperation - in his voice when the man replies, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth!” We know that superficially keeping those commandments doesn’t automatically lead to the full and lasting peace described in the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus answers, “You lack one thing.” It hasn’t yet been revealed that the man is rich; it’s the set up for us to realize that his many possessions gave only an illusion of fulfillment. It sounds like a paradox, but this is how greed works. Even when we achieve what we desire, or get what we want, the contentment fades and we quickly move on to the next thing.

If you want to start noticing how often this happens, an easy place to start is to pay attention when you eat. How often are you already reaching for the next bite, almost the instant you begin to chew? We are preparing for, anticipating the next forkful the moment the food touches the tongue.

This is the nature of grasping, which becomes increasingly devastating when we see it at work in economic injustice and oppression. No longer just the next bite, our greed climbs the social ladder and becomes the next deal, the next raise, the next merger, and the next sure thing. So fixated by our greed, we may not even notice the harm we do along the way: to ourselves, others, and the earth.

No More Rich, No More Poor

It takes intentional effort and practice to begin relating to ourselves, experiences, and one another in a different way. That healing and transformation is the heart of this little story.

Jesus had a habit of telling people to “go” or “get up” after he healed them. To the leper who said, “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” Jesus heals him and says, “go, show yourself to the priest”. (Mark 1:40, 44) To the paralyzed man lowered through a roof to get past the crowd, Jesus heals him and says, “get up, take your mat and go home”. (2:11) To the demon-possessed man whose healing ruined a herd of pigs, Jesus says, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” (5:19) To the woman who touched the hem of his garment, Jesus says, “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (5:34) And to the Syrophoenician woman who wouldn’t let Jesus off the hook until her daughter was healed, Jesus honored her persistence and her wit, saying, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” (7:29)

In the gospel accounts, Jesus’ healing ministry is about the wholeness and wellbeing of both individuals and society. He is facing head on the painful, difficult parts of life that are usually hidden out of sight. Leprosy, disability, mental health, chronic illness, social shame, xenophobia and the like are all profound social issues, rather than only individual circumstances. Though easily overlooked, this is also the case when Jesus offers healing to the man who came to kneel before him: “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

To enter Jesus’ community is to give up all disparities and the oppression that goes with them. This includes economic disparities. The one thing we lack turns out to be the beloved community, a relationship with ourselves, each other, and the earth that arises out of this radical letting go of greed and embrace of compassion. This liberation is the treasure in heaven, the abundance of living in a community where there are no rich or poor. As Jose Miranda helpfully pointed out,

“People generally forget that ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ are correlative terms. We say that someone is rich in contrast with the rest of the population, or with a majority of the population, which is not. … Jesus is not against wealth in the absolute sense of the word, but in the relative sense, in the meaning of social contrast. … Now, what this teaching is saying … is that in the kingdom there cannot be social differences – that the kingdom, whether or not it pleases the conservatives, is a classless society.” (Communism in the Bible, 19-20)

This is why Jesus says it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. As long as we grasp after wealth and power, willing to prop up our own wellbeing at the expense of others who are exploited and dehumanized, we lock ourselves outside of the beloved community.

The Source of Disparities

This last bit is essential: inequalities arise when we become willing to prop up our own wellbeing at the expense of others. The rich, disappointed man’s “many possessions” is a good test case.

A glance at the socioeconomic trends of Jesus’ day reveals that the most likely way that the man gained those “many possessions” was through seizing the properties of small landholders. These farmers were constantly and repeatedly stretched thin by the tithes, taxes, tariffs, and other expenses that were assessed against them. It became common to take out loans to survive, with their land as security. They were one bad harvest, drought, or pest away from defaulting on those loans and losing everything.

People like the rich man from our story handed out the loans, took advantage of the farmers’ misfortune, and plunged them into destitution while seizing the land.

If we go back to list of commandments Jesus rattled off at the beginning of the exchange, you might have noticed that Mark included one that is not in the 10 Commandments: “Do not defraud.” The phrase is also the Greek translation of Deuteronomy 24:14: “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” (NRSV)

Jesus is pretty clearly adding an economic context to the commandments that this rich man would rather avoid. And Jesus offers him a concrete way out, but it would mean exiting the entire system.

When Jesus made it clear that the way to fulfill the command to “Do not defraud” was radical solidarity, the rich man wouldn’t budge.

You may argue that Jesus is being too idealistic here, that it would never work. But please note that the impracticality lies mainly in human greed.

The rich man had a clear choice, and he chose his many possessions. That inability reveals the rich man’s, and by extension, our own, unwillingness to honestly grapple with the injustice that is used to gain the wealth in the first place. William Herzog II pointed out that:

“Perhaps it has not occurred to the rich ruler that, while he has never killed a man face to face, he has most likely degraded peasant farmers to the status of day laborers, and from the time a peasant becomes a day laborer, devoid of the safety net of the village and with nothing left to see but his animal energy, to the time he dies of malnutrition is a matter of a few years at most. Every time he alienates a peasant family from their land, he has pronounced a death sentence upon them. He has destroyed a family and killed its members. It may never have occurred to the rich man that, while he has not borne false witness in a court, he has defrauded the people of the land. Every time he has blamed his victims for the plight that he and his class have visited upon them, he is bearing false witness against them. It probably has not occurred to the rich man that, while he has never mugged anyone on the street and taken their money, he has used the system to rob the poor blind. He could not achieve his prominence and wealth except at the expense of others, but he does not see this as stealing. It is called getting ahead and climbing the ladder of power and prestige.” (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, 165-166)

The rich man went away “shocked” and “grieving,” because he didn’t want to lose his possessions or confront the harm his wealth had caused.

For any of us with relative wealth and power, we face a similar point of decision. As painful as it is for us to be honest about it, social disparities, including wealth, always arise out of exploitation.

This may be a controversial statement, but I really do not believe it should be. So I’ll give the final word to Wilkinson and Pickett, who remind us that:

“What is most exciting about our research is that it shows that reducing inequality would increase the well-being and quality of life for all of us. Far from being inevitable and unstoppable, the deterioration in social well-being and the quality of social relations in society is reversible. Understanding the effects of inequality means that we suddenly have a policy handle on the well-being of whole societies. … Rather than suggesting a particular route or set of policies to narrow income differences, it is probably better to point out that there are many different ways of reaching the same destination. … What matters is the level of inequality you finish up with, not how you get it.” (https://evonomics.com/wilkinson-pickett-income-inequality-fix-economy/ )

I am with Jesus, Wilkinson, and Pickett on this one. The level of inequality should be as close to zero as possible, because disparities make life worse for everyone, including the rich. And since I’ve leaned on Jesus’ words today, I’ll end with an appeal especially to those who call themselves followers of Jesus. Take his words seriously.

Stop spiritualizing and making excuses. Get on the side of the poor, until there are no longer any poor. And if you have “many possessions,” let Jesus’ words shock and grieve you, until you learn to let go of greed and live into justice: “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. Because that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “come, follow me.”

david "katchya" ketchum

The Emerging Church