Thinking Beyond Ourselves in Hard Times

May 1st, 2009
This article is featured in the Money (May/June/July 2009) issue of Circuit Rider

In a Sojourners review of the book, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money (Oxford, 2008), Duke professor Dana Trent remarks that “most U.S. Christians have not wrestled with the theological and moral teachings of their traditions.”

Protestantism contributed to some ironic developments in Western societies. By diligent earning, modest living, and consistent saving, early Protestants often accumulated significant wealth, which increased their investments in corporations that produced consumer goods. All this is documented by Max Weber, who saw “Protestant ethic” as the spiritual engine for the growth of capitalism. The individualism of such earning and investment encouraged many disciples over the years to believe what many latter-day Americans have said: “It's my money. I can do with it what I like.” No wonder many ministers in America abhor talking about money with parishioners. “Doing what I like” is not exactly a biblical rule.

For the Methodist tradition in particular, the easiest place to begin would be John Wesley's famous tripartite advice: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” It is a great beginning of ethical guidance for Christians in the world of economics. The hard question for us all in 2009 is what that advice means in a time of great economic distress worldwide.

Less Earning, More Giving

Wesley specified “give all you can” as a qualifier to more individually-oriented earning and saving. The biblical tradition says that the beginning of “all you can” is tithing. The statistics in Passing the Plate show that average giving among American Christians is 2.9% of after-tax income, far from the traditional 10% tithe. Some of your earnings and savings belong to your neighbors—that is the first severe contradiction to the individualistic ethic, “It's mine.”

But there are other contradictions that have come home to us in recent months as the world staggers from losses of wealth impossible for most of us to imagine. Earn all you can? The CEOs of the top 400 corporations love that advice. “Earning” an income of 347 times that of the lowest paid worker in one's corporation? No problem! Oh yes, a big problem, say increasing numbers of Americans, Christian or not. There is a colossal injustice in any such disparity between earnings. The larger tradition of the Methodist social creed acknowledges this injustice. Ministers should explore, with their congregants, a question seldom asked in American society: How much “earning” is too much earning? To answer this with any honesty, one has to take account of the cost of “my” earnings to my neighbors. Is it not scandalous that, subsequent to firing a thousand workers in his company, an executive gets a 20% raise?

To the balcony for his first speech to Congress on February 24, 2009, President Obama invited Leonard Abess, a Florida corporation president who recently distributed the $60 million he'd received in bonuses to his employees and former employees. Cheers to Leonard Abess for taking seriously the call to give! Tithing is the baseline. Jesus advised at least one rich man to give it all away. That's what Andrew Carnegie did in his retirement.

Remember the (More) Poor

The authors of Passing the Plate found that, these days, most American Christians are “feeling pretty poor.” Humanly enough, cutbacks in income and consumption leave almost anyone feeling that way. Even among those of my generation, born in the Great Depression, a lifetime of saving finds us, in 2009, deprived of a large chunk of those savings by economic forces we do not understand. Typically we decide to keep that old car, forego a vacation trip, pay down a credit card debt, delay a plan for new kitchen appliances. To dwell on this sort of cutback, however, is to forget the people, worldwide, who suffer enormously now from this recession while some of us Americans are suffering modestly.

Of some retirees in Florida the New York Times reported that they were all in grief: “their money died.” I have no adequate formula for how the pastor should minister to that grief. But I know from Methodist teaching about justice and the teachings of Jesus himself, that in face of the current huge economic crisis, it is time for pastors to gird up their theological loins and to recall congregations to some very basic biblical truth. Perhaps one blessing which the Holy Spirit has in store for the Christians of America is such recall to very familiar verses:

“Human beings shall not live by bread alone.” (Luke 4:4, Deut. 8:3)

“You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 6:24)

“Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a person's life does not consist of in the abundance of their possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

“I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12)

“There was not a needy person among them.” (Acts 4:34)

“….Only that they would have us remember the poor…” (Galatians 2:10)

I confess that these last lines worry me the most. There is no social ethical principle–none–so prominent in the whole Bible as God's priority of concern for the poorest of our neighbors. In the economic world of 2009, the poor are not only “always with you” but with us by growing hundreds of millions. It will be easy in the United States now to mourn the cutbacks afflicting the middle classes and “our” poor. But the world's poor are on a track towards deep desperation, and we have no right as Christians to ignore the possibility that the Holy Spirit is calling us to “remember the poor,” domestic and worldwide, every day we see the recession news on TV or in the newspapers. We ministers ought to be telling our congregations that still-rich American Christians must tighten our budget belts, not only for the sake of our families and our local poor, but for the poor worldwide.

To preach and teach that way will be to repair to some hard, unwelcome extensions of Wesley's third axiom for hard times, “give all you can.”

Give more than you gave from last year's higher income.

Support higher taxes if they support the truly poor, local and worldwide.

Resist the lures of advertisements that equate patriotism with consumption.

Try bartering your skills with people of other skills, without money.

Petition the politicians to decrease war-spending for the sake of justice to the poor.

Answer the objections of friends–"You're being foolish with all this generosity"–with the simple witness, “I believe it is what Jesus requires of us.”

I have often wondered what Jesus meant by being “rich towards God.” (Luke 12:21) I suspect that the above extensions of Wesley are close to the meaning. The big question for us ministers, in these recession times, may be whether we will have the courage to believe and preach that this poor man Jesus knew what he was talking about when he so taught us.


Donald W. Shriver is President Emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York and author of Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds (Oxford, 2005). This article originally appeared in Circuit Rider magazine.

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