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Truthfulness, Exclusion, and the Church

Wealth disparity and poverty, in the US and globally, Christian teaching on it and recommended actions about it: I’m keenly aware of how inadequate my brief response can be to these matters. My aim here will be only to raise some points that particularly concern me, as a Christian theologian.

“Wealth disparity” strikes me as a somewhat evasive term. The truth it refers to is not just that people have different amounts of wealth but that some have luxury while others sicken and die, and this not as a result of some crisis but as a long-lasting, ordinary state of affairs. So when we are talking about wealth disparity we are talking about how people are excluded from what they need for health and for participation in society. The rates of difference vary but the socially, legally, morally accepted reality that even when there is enough to meet human needs, it is distributed in such a way that many urgent needs go unmet.

How the US and the world might organize better distribution to end the poverty that damages minds and bodies and families and souls and communities, the economic and social deprivation that is early death, that’s one matter, and it's important. But what concerns me most at the moment is that even in the face of evidence that we are able to meet urgent human needs, we cannot seem to make addressing poverty a political or moral priority.

Since this is the beginning of a month-long conversation, let me say a little about myself. I’m a southerner and a Catholic who grew up in the suburbs of Appalachia. When I was about twelve years old, I distinctly remember my mother, a kind and prayerful woman, taking me with her one summer day to a charity downtown. We made sandwiches and then packed them with chips and fruit in brown bags. About noon, people— mostly men who looked like they’d been sleeping rough— came to a screened door and I’d hand a bag out to them, only opening the screened door wide enough to put the bag through. Driving us home afterwards, my mother turned onto a street that is now Martin Luther King Boulevard, and said to me in a tense tone of voice, “Roll up the window and lock your door.” That’s all that was said, but I could hear the fear in her voice, and it shocked me. If Jesus said, whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do to me, if the poor are blessed, if Christianity is about love of neighbor and of enemy and I live in a society where almost everyone is Christian, why are there people on this street my mother fears to drive by? Why was there people on the other side of that barely-opened screen door? If we were doing “Christian charity,” why were we so afraid?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that my life’s work is about the discovery that people who know and believe the Christian gospel often live a Christianity shaded by sadness and riddled with self-deception, unable to find a way to live the joy of the gospel. In that case, can Christianity be true or good?

Christianity and wealth
There’s nothing surprising or remarkable in noting that Christian teaching condemns passivity in the face of need.  Both Old and New Testaments require love of neighbor. In the New Testament, the story of the good Samaritan debunks any claim that ‘neighbor’ can be defined in a way that excludes someone in need, showing as it does the falsehood of presuming that “we” are the good guys. A parable shows Lazarus (remembered by name) comforted in the bosom of Abraham after a life of poverty while the rich man (nameless) who ignored him suffers torment. It will be a miracle, possible for God but a miracle nonetheless, if any rich person can be saved.

It’s true that a number of New Testament  teachings about economic sharing refer to mutual love among Christians, not general altruism. In Acts 2 and 4 as well as in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Christians are shown to be (or to know that they are supposed to be) sharing their wealth to end poverty among themselves. There clearly is an emphasis in the New Testament on Christians not using claims of private property to ignore each other’s needs, although it is clear from those texts that they did not always succeed in that practice.

Given that a third of the world’s population and about seventy percent of the US population identify as Christian and that in both cases there is a vast disparity of wealth (which in the US has been increasing for the past few decades), it’s clear that Christians now are not succeeding in it either. The difference is that we seem to have forgotten we were supposed to try. As Christian Smith noted in his book about US Christian rates of giving,  

Contemporary American Christians are among the wealthiest of their faith in the world today and probably the most affluent single group of Christians in two thousand years of church history. … Most Christians belong to churches that teach tithings—the giving of 10 percent of one's income. Most American Christians also profess to want to see the gospel preached in the world, the hungry fed, the church strengthened, and the poor raised to enjoy lives of dignity and hope—all tasks that normally require money. And yet, despite all of this, American Christians give away relatively little money to religious and other purposes. A sizable number of Christians give no money, literally nothing. Most of the rest of American Christians give little sums of money. Only a small percent of American Christians give money generously, in proportion to what their churches call them to give. All of the evidence, we will see, points to the same conclusion: when it comes to sharing their money, most contemporary American Christians are remarkably ungenerous. (Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money, 3.)

By the end of his first chapter, he has calculated that

… if American Christians could somehow find a way to move to practices of reasonably generous giving, they could generate, over and above what they currently give, a total of another $133.4 billion a year to devote to whatever purposes and needs they would choose. What good in the world U.S. Christians could do with an additional $133.4 billion, year after year, is almost unimaginable, simply astonishing, nearly beyond comprehension.

Smith’s argument here side-steps the systemic issues behind the disparities of wealth, particularly concerning the power of workers to gain the share of their produce that they need and deserve. Nevertheless, his argument illustrates something about our toleration of or even resignation to the co-existence of great resources and great poverty.

It also shows that the Christian problem is not just how to apply an inspiring theory to knotty reality. It is a question for an actual group of people who are sharers in Christ’s death and resurrection, for the life of the world. If Christians in the US and globally do not imagine that mutual love among them requires urgent action toward both those who are their brothers and sisters in Christ as well as those they hope to welcome as such brothers and sisters, then we cannot be surprised that people tend to think the Christian story is a false one. It is not science or technology or philosophy that raises the great challenge to the truth of Christian convictions in our day: it is the failure of Christians themselves to witness to mutual love. That witness is not only about wealth, to be sure, but it is at least about wealth. Benedict XVI in his first encyclical: “Within the ecclesial family no member should suffer through being in need” (Deus Caritas Est, #25b). And yet, even among Christians themselves in the US and globally, fantastic private wealth holds back in the face of grave need.

There is one less well-known teaching I want to introduce into our conversation. The principle, dating back to the Church Fathers and strongly affirmed again by Catholic leadership in recent years is “the universal destination of goods”: the goods of the earth are intended to meet the needs of all. That is to say, God did not and does not make some people to have plenty while others go without their needs met. When that happens, it happens because humans have made it so, not because it is God’s will. The principle does not require that all persons have equal wealth, and it does not forbid private property. But it does require that human need takes precedence over private ownership. Hence its corollary: in time of mortal need, goods are common. Or, as St. Basil put it, “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him.” (Cited in Gaudium et Spes, #69)

American Freedom

Our moderator asked that we particularly address our comments to the US, to try to provide some boundary on our very broad topic. That is, after all, where we are and it is also an economic and political system that has, to put it bloodlessly, had an outsized impact on the world’s poor. At present, the World Income Database currently shows the US to have the highest rate of financial inequality among developed nations in the world.

America has always been about exclusion, even as it has always claimed to be about opportunity for everyone. The conquest of the Americas, the most fundamental wealth accumulation on this continent, is a story of war and broken treaties, of people driven onto reservations so that others could use the land that was their home.  Africans were forced into slavery, and they and their children were beaten and raped, bought and sold regardless of family ties, and refused access to education. They created much of the wealth of this land and were excluded from its enjoyment. That exclusion continued long past the end of slavery, in Jim Crow laws, in exclusion from depression-era benefits, in redlining and later reverse redlining, in mass incarceration and new forms of voter exclusion. Mexicans made US citizens after the Mexican-American war were not given the protections promised in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and in the mid-twentieth century as in the twenty-first, when Mexicans and Central Americans come to the US to do hard labor to create value, they are either managed as guest workers (who can only be in the US for a limited time) or left to work in ways that make it easy for them to be cheated by employers and deported by authorities, so that they too are excluded from full participation in the wealth they are creating. US citizens of Puerto Rico can tell their own story of exclusion.

Meanwhile, the majority of the US population are what we now call white (though Irish and Italians and even Germans and Swedes were not always considered white), and the majority of the poor in the US are white. Whatever advantages being white gives to them, it has not given them freedom from poverty, access to excellent education and healthcare, or control of their workplaces.

How can it be that a country that so prides itself on protecting the rights of all people can, generation after generation, ignore so many?

To take one key issue, freedom in the US means each individual may use his or her private property according to his or her own preferences, with minimal regulation (a caveat with varying significance in different periods). We agree that we cannot know what a person ought to desire, what is actually good. So we rely on a system of fairness: everyone follows the same process, the same set of rules, and whatever outcome arises from those, we will call it justice. It might reward merit or effort, and it might meet needs. We hope for all of those things. And we know that none are guaranteed and we know that they often are not what happens. But least, we tell ourselves, we are free.

This kind of freedom means that those who have more property have more scope for their freedom, which is to say, they have more freedom, including more power to shape our political life. But it’s more than that. This vision of freedom presumes that the subject of freedom will be independent and productive. Those who, for example, are sick, disabled, unable to speak the dominant language, too young, too old, or just too fallible seem in this system to be burdens on the independent and productive. For a system focused on allowing efficient producers to have more independence, such persons are problems to be managed, minimized, or removed. (This is the argument of Evangelium vitae, #18-20.) To be such a person is, typically, to feel shame.

Similarly, those whose bodies signify, in this culture, something other than pure individuality, those whose skin and hair, regional accent, or habits show them to be part of finite human history rather than “white” (here implying an escape from human particularity), find themselves to that extent outsiders to this freedom. Their histories are externalities, as it were, to the logic of freedom.

In short, it’s a philosophical mistake, imagining a human freedom that is an escape from creatureliness, from dependence and interdependence, from mortality. It leads to a justice that is mere fairness and a charity that is mere occasional philanthropy, rather than a practice of solidarity, cognizant of our interdependence.

Christians in the US have played key roles in the creation of that creatureliness-denying freedom, and they've also played key roles in surviving it, challenging it, and witnessing to faith within it. When we tell the story of Christianity in the US, which of those stories do we mean? Which ought to be at the center? Which most informs our action now?

Hope and the small work of truthfulness

My first priority as a theologian is to try to speak truthfully about the gospel and about ourselves. For example, what are Christians hiding from themselves when they speak of the personal wealth as "blessings entrusted to them by God" given that private property in the US is accumulated through a morally mixed, at best, historical process? Should Christians reclaim the category of “filthy lucre,” and if so, how can we use it well, given the complex networks of economic relationships we find ourselves in? For what should we be grateful and for what should we be penitent? My theological mentor used to tell me that we can only see what we can say. Our current talk is serving our willful blindness.

The challenge is not just intellectual. It’s moral: where will we find the courage and hope to face these questions? And it’s an organizational: where can Christians who are on different sides of this disparity have occasion to speak truthfully to each other?

In the end, the deep obstacle is despair. Dorothy Day argued that those who face vast, global struggles need the spiritual path St. Therese called “the little way.” Work patiently with people, in all their slow, odd, inconvenient humanity. Act directly, personally, locally in the way in front of you, no matter how small or imperfect the effect. Take the time (and oh, how much time it takes) to be a human creature among other human creatures. Neither Therese nor Dorothy Day were sentimental romantics. They were realists, working with the frank admission that we can only do what is before us. In our vanity, we despair of its doing any good, and so we fail to do it, we find excuses for why it is pointless, or we keep busy dreaming of silver-bullet solutions. Renewing parishes and congregations around truthful speech about who we are will be humbling, personally costly work, even if the numbers of congregations doing it became large. But the new creation evoked in the Magnificat begins in the smallness of human life, in our creatureliness, rather than in an escape from it.

Easter is the season for renewing hope, after all.

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