By Neal Windham
As the distance between the haves and the have-nots grows greater, Christians have an obligation and an opportunity to respond.
“The good news is the market has won,” remarked well-known religious scholar Martin E. Marty at the close of the 20th century.1 By this, of course, he meant the global market had defeated the many closed antimarket systems of formerly communist countries. “The bad news [is]” he continued, “we . . . have not the faintest grasp of a social philosophy to animate, monitor, and inspire this market.” I could not agree with him more. It is precisely this lack of a just, compelling, and shared social narrative that led America into the Great Recession in 2008.
The problem, as Marty notes, is not that people consume things. People have to consume things. This has always been God’s intention: wood and bricks for building, water for irrigation and cleansing, plants and animals for food. Responsible consumption is integral to the very design of creation itself.
But how we consume things is quite another matter. At the risk of extreme oversimplification, I think Jacques Ellul got it right in his book Money and Power.2 Ellul was concerned that we have come to view money merely as a means of manipulation and control. Understood in this way, money grips people with visions of power and grandeur, alienating them by distancing the “haves” from the “have-nots.” It sends nations to war and spouses to divorce court. It gives birth to thievery, prostitution, and massive exploitation of the earth’s rich, natural resources. As such, it has every appearance of evil.
Yet, as Paul tells us, it is not money itself, but the “love of money” that’s the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10)3. Ellul gets this too. He understands, when viewed solely as another part of the material universe, money that puts food on our tables, clothing on our backs, and shelter over our heads has no life-sapping power to seduce, enslave, manipulate, abuse, and alienate. It no longer controls us. It takes its rightful place alongside the rest of God’s created, material universe as a simple means of conducting business, of managing trade.
But there is, of course, another problem looming here, and it’s a big one. Many of us don’t have enough money for even the most basic food, clothes, and shelter. While the stock market seems to be doing OK, we constantly hear jobs have not made a comeback. Ironically, ours is an age of both overconsumption and low compensation.
Clearly, we are on a collision course with deeper social fracturing. College graduates are living with huge student debt and a shrinking job market. Massive warehouses are being staffed with robots, and mom-and-pop stores are continuing to close as you read this essay. In the last several years, and since 2008 especially, a large and growing number of people in the United States and the world simply do not have enough money to make ends meet, and it’s not for a lack of trying. The jobs just aren’t there.
So what should believers do about this?
Root Out Corruption
First, we need to root out corruption by sowing verbal seeds of doubt wherever injustice exists.
Do you remember Amos, the blue-collar prophet from Tekoa? He prophesied during the complacent and treacherous years prior to the fall of the northern kingdom. His technique was doubt, which had the effect of incurring the wrath of the righteous and, at the same time, putting the wicked in the awkward position of questioning their own actions.
In Amos 5:18 he says, “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord?” The “day of the Lord” in ancient Israel was twofold, a day of blessing when the people had been faithful and a day of judgment when they had not. While these corrupt hearers longed for a blessing on the day of the Lord, they had duped themselves. Amos turned the tables on their pious, misguided expectations by questioning their faulty assumptions.
These people were anything but just. “Because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them,” Amos said (5:11). Moreover, God hated their feasts (5:21) and despised their music (5:23), so even their best acts of worship were in jeopardy.
Eventually, Amos’s bold accusations actually changed Israel’s status with Yahweh; she was guilty, corrupt, and soon to be punished (5:25-27). But “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” says the prophet (v. 24). The cries of the poor had been heard.
The point here is that this prophet spoke up, and his words actually changed Israel’s status with God. Some scholars call this speech-act theory, the idea that words have a performative function, that they actually alter reality. Think “I do” on a wedding day, or “guilty” in a court of law.
Remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s words “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Just as his speech has shaped our national identity, our words can make a difference for those who have been treated unjustly, both inside and outside our churches!
Renew Our Compassion
Second, we need to take a long, hard look at what it means to be a compassionate society. Once, while traveling in Austria, I met with an American who had picked up an Austrian pedestrian and driven her into town. During conversation, she commented that America did not seem to be a very compassionate nation. I suspect her remarks reflect a view of compassion as being the work of government agencies and programs, but I really don’t know what she had in mind. Still, the comment has stuck with me, for whatever reasons.
Years ago, in The Tragedy of American Compassion,4 Marvin Olasky commented on American compassion as it played out in the 19th century, long before the New Deal. He wrote that during that time New York and Midwestern farmers took in more than 91,000 disadvantaged children from urban ghettoes. The kids would come live with them until graduation, working on the farm and going to school, and then transition into the workforce or college. It was a large and successful commitment, a stunning American achievement. I would love to tell the Austrian pedestrian about these farmers!
Today, many Americans are adopting children from developing countries, and churches are stepping up in their communities too. Gabe Lyons tells how 450 congregations and 28,000 individuals got on board with the “Season of Service” in Portland, Oregon, back in 2008, establishing free medical/dental clinics to serve the uninsured, long-term mentoring for homeless families, and even a program where churches adopted public schools.5 Interestingly, Lyons calls these Christians “restorers,” believing their work, and the work of like-minded believers, to be ushering in a time of transformation “on a par with the Protestant Reformation.6
Revise Our “Cultural Liturgy”
Third, we need an altogether new “cultural liturgy” for American consumers. Philosophy professor James K. A. Smith of Calvin College comments, “This is how our hearts are lifted up to the Lord and recalibrated to be aimed at the kingdom of God: through material practices that shape the imaginative core of our being-in-the-world.”7 In his books Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, Smith is saying it is not so much information as formation, not so much worldview as worship, that ultimately shapes us. These practices (formation and worship) actually take precedence over what we think (information and worldview) in establishing our great life-commitments. (Smith is, by the way, clear that what we think is in no way optional.)
How is this relevant to my argument? Shopping has become one such cultural liturgy: the mall its temple, stores its chapels, cashiers its priests and priestesses, and sales counters its altars.8 Shopping is a formative practice, engaging not only our wallets, but the “imaginative core of our being.” Insofar as it is a dominant cultural liturgy, it is also an “act of worship” of sorts.
Perhaps we could reform this “liturgy” by buying for others on a regular basis, and always with a conscious view to how God sees all our transactions. Surely this practice would, like speech-act theory, change not just our attitudes, but the way we actually behave toward people, especially poor people.
Finally, Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Precisely. Nowhere in the Bible do I read of social, economic, or racial discrimination in Heaven. And, while “streets of gold” and “pearly gates” may seem extravagant, that’s all God’s doing, not ours. We don’t “consume” Heaven like we consume hot dogs. We can’t buy our way into glory. It’s purely a gift, and every one of its citizens has equal access and equal opportunity.
So, when we pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we’re actually asking God to shake things up down here. We are yearning for justice, equality, and jobs for everyone, for fair pay and an end to poverty, for genuine compassion, and the end of greed. And we are asking God for all this knowing full well that we ourselves are surely a large part of the answer to our own prayers.
1Martin E. Marty, “Equipoise,” in Consuming Desires: Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness, ed. Roger Rosenblatt (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999), 173. Marty refers here to the insights of University of Chicago economist and political scientist Marvin Zonis.
2Jacques Ellul, Money & Power (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 110.
3All Scripture verses are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
4Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion (Wheaton: Crossway, 1992).
5Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians (New York: Doubleday, 2010), 182.
7James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, Cultural Liturgies Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 15.
8James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 19-22. Smith develops the image in a highly creative way.
Neal Windham serves as professor of spiritual formation and ministry at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.