Let’s get uncomfortable together. How much pride and security do we get from the size of our paychecks, savings, and the things we own? It would be easy for me here to attack the one percent that have an outsized influence on global poverty and income inequality. I cannot affix blame on them uniquely as we support an economic system that legally sanctions and supports income inequality. Let me dial this back closer too home.
I am by my own spiritual measure, failing in the area of desiring more wealth and security. I aspire to productive principles of economy that are supported biblically to apply my trade honestly, work hard, and not be slothful. These are admirable and desirable traits that not only serve me and my family but serve society. This is not my sin or point of spiritual failure.
My lack of perfection is driven by my desire for financial security, my pride in what little wealth I may have, and my stinginess driven by fear of economic collapse. Again, to a degree, none of this is necessarily sinful as prudence and avoiding gluttony or wasteful behaviors is admirable as well.
It takes a negative turn though when my own financial security becomes more important than, well, what it should be! How much is enough? How much do I trust in God’s grace, God’s guidance, and God’s providence when it comes to money and material goods?
I fear economic failure. I am in my 50’s and have been provided for all throughout my life despite living below the poverty line in my youth – I was never left wanting. I have always had viable employment and never had any break in employment history – not even a week. And yet I am fearful of letting my family down or at not having provided my family enough. This fear is driven by the history of my own youth, insecurity, love, pride, and selfishness. The latter is not wanting to lose what I have or being covetous of what I do not have relative to others. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, I have made my peace with material wealth and desire – but I am still not immune from fear and worry. The latter can influence my politics, my career choices, my charitable dollars, and my behavior for good or bad.
There is an exclusionary group that I cannot join called Resource Generation[i]. I am too old and too poor to join! I do not have the problems they have to face today. They are Millennials born to wealth that are uncomfortable with class privilege and committed to giving back wealth. The Washington Post[ii] reviewed this non-profit group that’s helping young rich people give away their money today. This article takes a cleaver to philanthropy and may challenge you to consider your affection for wealth. A line that caught my eye from Resource Generation guidance on giving:
“Give enough that it feels risky — if you feel comfortable, you’re probably not stretching enough. If you feel destabilized, it might be too much.”
If any of you have ever gambled with any seriousness you may recognize this philosophy. Professional gamblers that are successful play at stakes where they can temper a losing streak without going bust but not too low a stake that they cannot make enough profits to value their time and skill.
Problem gamblers will edge towards and past the point of betting that can “destabilize” their economic life. Both the professional gambler and the problem gambler use both prudence (hard numbers) and feelings (situational awareness and enjoying gambling). However, the problem gambler will put more emphasis on feelings and sensation than on hard numbers and prudence. If you feel your gambling is destabilizing your life consider calling the National Gambling hotline[iii] for education and support.
Should not our charitable dollar principle follow the same path? I don’t think I have ever walked into a church ready to lose 300 dollars as I have walking into some casinos or horse racing venues. Come to think of it, should I ever be wagering an entertainment dollar on a poker hand or a horse when that same dollar can be directed at a better cause than my own gambling sensation or my desire to increase my wealth (the latter is unlikely!).
How much is too much? I mentioned one-percenter earlier. In the United States, you need an individual income of about 328,000 dollars or a family income of 475000 dollars to be in the top one percent. However, must of us live in the top one percent globally, at least income-wise according to investopedia[iv], which by the way can sell you a course on how to invest to reach the worldwide 1%!
- An income of $32,400 per year would allow someone to be among the top 1% of income earners in the world.
- To reach the top 1% worldwide in terms of wealth—not just income but all you own—you’d have to possess $770,000 in net worth.
- The bar to enter the top 1% wouldn’t be this low were it not for the extreme poverty that so much of the globe endures.
Considering wealth and society is a moral and ethical responsibility for every society regardless of spirituality even without spiritual or religious affiliation attached.
My nation (United States) boasts a strong moral high ground of which 70% of our nation proclaims a Christian orientation with another 6% having affiliation with other religious traditions. That is 3 in 4 Americans hold religiously oriented values.
Christianity, Wealth, and America
President Jefferson[v] made his own bible by cutting out and pasting the words of Jesus Christ. I raise this as the Red Letters in the bible apply to all Christian denominations. There is no doubt that Christianity plays a major role in United States elections and policy formation. We all see politicians including the current Commander in Chief seeking the Christian base. Do our politicians, our policies, our economic system, and our Christian base support Christ’s teachings?
Today a group in Philadelphia called the Red Letter Christians[vi] focuses on Jesus Christ’s message and what it implies. Here is an excerpt from one of their articles on wealth by Shane Claiborne:
“In the radical economics of the early Christian church, it was said that God doesn’t look at how much you give, but how much you have left. They went so far as to say that if a Christian keeps more than they need while their neighbor has less than they need, the Christian is a thief. If we have two coats, we’ve stolen one. Or, as the apostle James put it in the New Testament, “True religion is caring for the widow and the orphan and keeping ourselves from being corrupted by the world.”
“Mark tells us [that] just as Jesus was setting out on a journey again, a man ran up to him, knelt before him, and asked, “Good master, what must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus answered, “Why do you call me good? Nobody’s good, but God alone. But you know the commandments: Do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not cheat; honor your father and mother,” and the man replied, “I have obeyed all these commandments since my childhood.”
Then Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and he said, “For you, one thing is lacking: Go, sell what you have, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.” On hearing these words, [the man’s] face fell, and he went away sorrowful, for he was a man of great wealth.”
The NCR article explains this passage and Blessed are the Poor passage in depth. The article in my judgment seems to support we need not give away everything to be holy, but we do need to change our outlook on wealth and on the poor if we are to hold ourselves up to be Christian. Could we be more like Zacchaeus:
“When Zacchaeus the tax collector encountered Jesus, he immediately repented, pledging to give half his money to the poor. And, if he had defrauded anyone, he would pay him back fourfold. (See Luke 19:1-10.) Another author noted that Jesus rejoiced in this act, recognizing the reality of Zacchaeus’s conversion. He did not say, “That’s not good enough! You need to give away all your wealth!”
As an aside here, the recovery communities like Alcoholics Anonymous practice amends both materially and spiritually while recognizing limitations as well. They practice spiritual pursuit, not spiritual perfection. Financial matters are a serious component of recovery and spiritual happiness. The same applies to Gamblers Anonymous and other self-help groups. You do not need to be in recovery or have an active addiction though to be chained by financial gluttony and materialistic driven gluttony. You can still borrow from the recovery communities, practice spiritual pursuit, not spiritual perfection.
The questions still for me is heavy. How much of my excess earnings should go to my emergency fund, to my savings, to my children, to my debt reduction versus to my church, to the homeless, to poverty, to social justice causes, or other common good causes?
As long as I have any debt, and I have sufficient obligation, I am not comfortable with giving enough that feels risky even if it will not destabilize my economy! My debt does not stop me from giving to my church or causes, but it does limit my giving. What is your risk tolerance?
Let’s talk about debt. Our nation is a debtor nation. Under our current Commander in Chief, our deficit ballooned to nearly $1 trillion in 2019. Our individual debt is bad as well. See where you standard relative to your peers at debt.org (link below). Do you know what your DTI is today? The median household income hit $61,372 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s almost $20,000 more than it was in 2000. But the typical American household now carries an average debt of $137,063. That is not spoken about at parties. Americans do not honestly discuss financial struggles. They do vote out of fear though on messages of economic hope.
While most Americans have idealistic views on fairness and equality, at the end of the day most are struggling to make ends meet behind the white picket fences and cars with kids college stickers affixed. Throw in a layoff or medical scare and many families are thrust into financial crisis. Present a platform that raises taxes and speaks to other people’s needs and their vote might not be Christian-centric.
Am I willing to vote for politicians or support policies that will hurt me financially but help the common good locally or internationally? I have voted this way, and it is never a clean slate as no candidate meets the Jesus Christ standard, but sometimes I do have reservations.
Selfishly – why should up and coming kids get free college education when others still have college loans? Will raising minimum wage deflate my earnings by dollar inflation, making my purchasing powerless? Seen from a selfish perspective, there are many local and international policies that I would not support – but from a humanitarian and spiritual perspective, I should be advocating for actively. Are any of our leaders today champions for the common man or for the oppressed? Do people even recognize these figures today?
The current second choice for the Democrat nomination is a Jewish candidate whose policies mirror the Beatitudes of caring for the poor and addressing economic inequality. The Christian base is apt to call him socialist and radical as Jesus was labeled in his time. The front runner Christian Democrat has more centrist policies shying away from “risk” and “stretching” policies to change toward a more humane nation but nationally and internationally. The Commander in Chief’s economic policies are in direct opposition to the Beatitudes as are many of his other policies. Three choices, all fallible, none nowhere near perfection. The debate also includes how much can our nation give and stretch without jeopardizing our “destabilization” risk to our country? Americans are worried and are driven by fear economics.
Let me give you a little secret if you have read this far – you deserve it. Every time in life I have weighed giving money that was risky for me (not in my budget or a loan that I would probably never get back) and still gave it I was always repaid in ways I would never have foreseen but financially and spiritually.
If I give only what is comfortable is it really giving or only feeding my own sense of moral righteousness? What portion of my check should go to taxes that make America a greater place for everybody? How should America support and lead the world on issues of world poverty and income inequality? These are Christ-centric questions. It is easy to answer the ten commandments and thou shalt not kill. After that – things get interesting.
You and I are the 1 percent by world wealth standards or by proxy as we support income inequality worldwide. Standing up to this will and is risky and a stretch. In the meantime, we have the opportunity to give our time and money to good causes. Before you do that though, balance your own books as well! In the end everything is connected.