Two billionaires were launched into space in the past two weeks.
I joined millions of others in watching the ships’ ascent, brief stay at the edge of space and descent back to earth.
Thankfully, all went according to plan, with passengers on both ships returning safely to earth, and emerging elated over the, perhaps, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Before, during and after the flight, I couldn’t help but echo the sentiment I’ve seen others already write about upon hearing about the “space race” between billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos.
We have so many people in the U.S. and around the world who struggle to meet their most fundamental needs while these men spend millions of dollars to develop crafts to take them into space.
A recent U.N. report noted that the global pandemic has pushed another 320 million people into a situation of food insecurity, bringing the worldwide total to 2.37 billion individuals, or 30.4% of the population.
The National Center on Child Poverty reported in May that, based on the latest U.S. census data, 38% of U.S. children (27.1 million) live in low-income households, while U.S. Housing and Urban Development reported in March that there was a 2.2% increase in homelessness in 2019 – marking the fourth year of increase and not yet accounting for the impact of the pandemic.
The needs are great. Exacerbated by the global pandemic, certainly, but this is nothing new.
Jesus’ prophetic critique of systemic injustice, “the poor will always be among you” (Matthew 26:11; citing Deuteronomy 15:11), remains a rebuke that echoes throughout the ages regarding the economic inequality and injustice that persists in every nation past and present.
It’s hard not to feel judgmental regarding the significant time, energy and money being invested to take these wealthy men – and a few select individuals who either paid a significant amount for a seat or were selected for the privilege of a ride – on a roughly 10-minute trip to space and back that might be best compared to an extreme rollercoaster ride for the uber-wealthy.
To be fair, Bezos and Branson do a great deal of charitable giving.
According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual report, Bezos ranked first in philanthropic endeavors in 2020 with $10.15 billion in giving.
Of course, as one writer noted, with a net worth of $148.6 billion, the $100 million Bezos donated to Feeding America last year is equivalent to a $75 donation from a family with a household net worth of around $97,000.
Branson, though not making The Chronicle’s top 50 list for 2020, famously pledged in 2013 to give away half his wealth to charity by the time he turned 70. He is said to support 28 causes through 37 different charities.
His 2013 commitment was part of The Giving Pledge launched in 2010 by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, and it is a laudable commitment on the part of all who made it.
And yet, some of the initial shine has faded from this effort, with reports emerging that, for many wealthy individuals, “their giving can’t keep up with their escalating fortunes.”
It’s easy to be judgmental, but there is also the reality that few of us give at the level that we technically could to help meet the needs of our neighbors both near and far, known and unknown.
I’m not talking about something as radical as selling all our possessions to give to the poor – though that is the instruction of Jesus to one would-be wealthy follower (Matthew 19:21; Luke 18:22) whose experience we like to pretend was unique to this man and not applicable to us.
Rather, I’m simply observing that we all know we could expand our philanthropy in light of the great needs so many in our world are facing.
So, it’s fair and proper to ask, “Who should have so much wealth that they literally are unable to give it away quickly enough to outpace the unrealized capital gains from their various investment portfolios?”
And yet, turning the mirror my direction, someone could legitimately ask why someone like myself should have enough wealth that they can own a home, two cars, a camper, multiple kayaks and bikes, have disposable income to spend on entertainment and travel, and be able to both save money for a “rainy day” and invest for retirement when so many struggle to meet their basic daily needs.
I confess that I’ve never prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread,” from anything more than rote recitation because I never have had to worry about where my next meal would come from. I live in a situation of multifaceted privilege that I, regrettably, do not recognize often enough.
I’m not an economist – or even a prophet, for that matter. I don’t have any concrete solutions or a “thus says the Lord” to offer, and I know there is no “silver bullet” or panacea to address the world’s ills and inequities.
But I do know that people of goodwill, of good faith, must hold a mirror up first to ourselves and then to our world, in order to shine a light on our privilege, to point out inequity and injustice wherever it exists and to work in whatever ways we can, large or small, toward a social order in which the basic needs of all are met.
Perhaps this billionaire space-race taking place during a global pandemic when inequities are at their most visible will serve as a catalyst for collective soul-searching that results in sufficient mobilization to address persistent and pervasive, but not inevitable or unsolvable, global challenges.