I heard Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine say years ago that one out of every seven verses in the Bible spoke to the proper use of money. If one-seventh of the Bible tells us how to dispose of our wealth, why then does the church that claims priority of Scripture so rarely proclaim these texts?
A seminary professor who purchased some stock related getting up early every morning. Before saying a word to God or family, he checked the paper to see how his stock was doing. He realized his struggle for riches was becoming an obsession on the way to idolatry.
My intent is not to make people feel guilty who are struggling to send kids to college, pay medical bills, make car payments and purchase. I instead want to speak to a structural problem in the American system that is destroying the middle class while creating great wealth for a few.
In a recent column in the New York Times titled “The Millions Left Out,” Bob Herbert wrote: “The United States may be the richest country in the world, but there are many millions–tens of millions–who are not sharing in that prosperity. According to the most recent government figures, 37 million Americans are living below the official poverty threshold, which is $19,971 a year for a family of four. That’s one out of every eight Americans, and many of them are children. More than 90 million Americans, close to a third of the entire population, are struggling to make ends meet on incomes that are less than twice the official poverty line. In my book, they’re poor.”
Many of these people don’t have health insurance. This means that they are an injury or illness away from total poverty. As Herbert wrote in another article, “The Right to Paid Sick Days,” nearly half of all full-time private sector workers in the U.S. get no paid sick days.
“The situation is ridiculous for those in the lowest quarter of U.S. wage earners,” he wrote. “Nearly 80 percent of those workers–the very ones who can least afford to lose a day’s pay–get no paid sick days at all.”
They can lose their jobs because they are sick or have a sick child. This is unjust and it needs to be addressed by the church. As Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Lk 6:20) Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says in the curses that follow, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Lk 6:25) In these verses we have a reverse kingdom.
I have heard people make angry and condescending remarks about the decisions of the poor who live in a world where there is no good decision: Do I take my meds, or pay the rent? Do I stay at home when I am sick. or work because I have no sick pay? Do I get a “payday loan” at 500 percent interest to pay my light bill, or do I pay the fee to get my electricity turned back on?
These dilemmas go on and on for the poor. The church needs to be an advocate for those in need.
What makes these facts more distressing is that there are a few Americans who make obscene amounts of money.
In his book, Screwed–The Undeclared War Against The Middle Class, Thom Hartmann says the inflation-adjusted average annual pay of a CEO went up from $7,773,000 to $9,600,000 between the years 2002 to 2004, while the inflation adjusted median annual household income went down from $46,058 to $44,389. Workers lost $1,669 at the same time that CEO pay increased more than $1.8 million.
People who make hundreds of millions of dollars are not harder workers than those who make less. They have been given an advantage by our system. Much of the wealth acquired by the richest of Americans is due to the system being changed in their favor.
The distance between the rich and the poor is the same as it was in 1929, when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. After that, the government corrected the problem by a progressive income tax that did not over-tax middle and low-income people but taxed those who made what today would be about $2 million at 90 percent. During this time the middle class grew.
Tax increases for people who make obscene amounts of money would provide public money for health care, good schools and the building of public transportation for the common wealth of us all. Before people who make huge sums of money will pay 90 percent in taxes, they will purchase health insurance for their workers, pay livable wages and make charities in our land rich.
Historically, inequality always leads to a bad end. If the poor and middle class can’t buy a car, the rich can’t sell one. Historians tell us that when the separation between rich and poor is as great as it is in our country, that country is ripe for revolution or at least a high crime rate and great social upheaval. Health workers tell us that if the poor get sick, the rich die in the epidemic that follows. A Christian would say since Jesus is Lord, blessing those he curses and cursing those he blesses is foolhardy.
A task of the church in our time should be to call our land to a more-just lifestyle that cares for the needs all people. Justice calls us to lead in health care for all, a college education funded–as in most countries–by government so that the poor get a more equal chance to succeed without incurring huge debt, and a tax structure that does not allow the rich to horde up great sums of money while paying too little to workers and charging too much for services.
Most people who strive for wealth believe they would use it to help others, but great wealth often only creates a desire to obtain more. Fear keeps us from feeling that we have enough, no matter how much we acquire. Striving to save ourselves by ourselves is at the heart of such fear.
Only faith that recognizes that all we have is a gift from God, and gifts are made to share with our neighbors, can overcome this sin. Institutions like the church and government are needed to help us.
As Paul rightly says: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Rom 7:19-20)
Larry Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Biscoe, N.C.