Today is the 14th “Moral Monday” in North Carolina. Each week, progressive religious leaders in the state are protesting budget cuts that they claim are disproportionately affecting the poor and vulnerable. Nearly 1,000 individuals have been arrested during these demonstrations, including several personal friends and colleagues. Moral Monday leaders are in Asheville today, and are determined to take their witness to all thirteen of North Carolina’s congressional districts.
I read recently that the gap between rich and poor in the United States is as great as it has been in almost a century. Every day seems to bring a new infographic or article in my newsfeed, slicing and dicing the issue of wealth inequality. According to an April Bloomberg article, “the Gini coefficient” (a way of measuring the gap) has grown 20.2 percent in the last 40 years. The current U.S. Gini is equivalent to the figures for Ecuador, Madagascar and China. And according to Pew Research’s analysis of Census data, “During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%.”
What’s interesting about the gap is how far removed our perceptions are from reality. As this video illustrates, not only is the gap much greater than we think it should be, it’s also far greater than we think it is. The Occupy movement may have faded from our collective consciousness, but the 1% are still with us … and they’re making a killing.
Conservatives and liberals may differ on how to address the issue of wealth inequality (although according to the video above, they basically agree in what the distribution of wealth ought to be). But the issue should concern all of us, whether Democrat, Republican, or Independent. Societies risk becoming unstable the greater the disparity between rich and poor. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make this argument in their book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, which rates a number of the world’s countries based on the problems that come with inequality. As they say, “The impacts of inequality show up in poorer health, lower educational attainment, higher crime rates, lower spending of social capital, [and] lower cooperation with and trust of government.”
Enter Jesus and his teachings about wealth and God’s reign. In this week’s lectionary passage he encourages his flock of listeners not to worry about their place in the kingdom of God, but there’s a catch: they are to sell their possessions and give alms. I am reminded once again of the force of the biblical message when it comes to economic matters—two or three thousand verses on wealth and poverty—as opposed to homosexuality, which commands so much of our culture’s religious attention, yet is addressed in some six scripture verses.
But wait, I am often told when I broach the topic of economics and wealth from the pulpit. Money isn’t the root of all evil. Love of money is! The idea is that money is morally neutral—so long as people make their money honestly and don’t hurt anyone, what’s the harm?
What’s the harm, indeed? Just last week I read about new research suggesting that “people of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to break traffic laws, lie in negotiations, take valued goods from others, and cheat to increase chances of winning a prize. Perhaps most surprising … is that the tendency for unethical behavior appears not only in people who are actually rich, but in those who are manipulated into feeling that they are rich.”
Jesus appears to agree with money’s basic corrupting potential, since he told us how difficult it would be for a person who is wealthy (not a person who loves money) to enter the kingdom. And there’s no talk of “love of money” in the passage today. The problem, says Jesus, is that our hearts cannot be so easily extricated from our stuff.
Here Jesus urges us into an ethic of generous sacrifice and eschatological expectation. Rank acquisitiveness has no place in the reign of God. God’s own self is our example, who gives of the kingdom not grudgingly but out of “good pleasure.” We are called to focus on the coming of the Son of Man, not on our own storehouses of treasure. Jesus seems to know what we know deep down: we are not good spiritual multitaskers. We have a hard time focusing on two things at once: we cannot serve both God and wealth.
What’s most notable about Jesus’ words here is that his command to give alms does not center on the needs of the poor, but of the wealthy. There’s no talk of how much better off the poor would be with the alms we give. Instead, we will be better off. Jesus calls us to a life of congruence, oriented toward God—a treasure that will truly last.
The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation in Falls Church, VA. She is a writer of numerous articles and essays, and the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time through Chalice Press. The book has been featured on PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and in Publishers Weekly, and was named a “must read for 2013″ by Ministry Matters.