It’s Just Math


Post Author: Tabitha Isner

Editor's Note: This article is one in an occasional series called "All About the Benjamins," running this fall on Fidelia's Sisters. As many congregations and organizations are running stewardship campaigns and lining up budgets for 2012, we'll be taking a look at the sometimes-taboo topic of money, and the role it plays in our ministries.


On September 19th, President Obama proposed a deficit reduction plan that would be paid for by tax hikes for families making $250,000 or more annually, a group that makes up just 1.5% of the U.S. population.  Conservative pundits expressed concerns that President Obama was either engaging in or encouraging “class warfare.” To this, President Obama responded, “This is not class warfare—it’s math.”

At the same time, an “Occupy Wall Street” protest began in NYC, and now similar protests have spread around the world.  Protesters at such events have made a habit of chanting “We are the 99 percent” in reference to the fact that 1% of the nation’s population is taking home a quarter of all income in the U.S. each year (a phenomenon eloquently described by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz’s article “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%” in Vanity Fair’s May 2011 issue).

It just so happens that I spend my days as a policy research analyst, so I’m used to thinking about the implications of what others see as mere numbers. But this particular debate – class warfare versus math – got me thinking theologically.

Where does Jesus stand on class warfare?

That one is easy.  Jesus does NOT like warfare.  The Prince of Peace wouldn’t stand for it.

But wait…. how does Christ feel about math?

Searching my concordance, looking in the New Interpreter’s, flipping through my mental rolodex of dead theologians…. and …. Zilch.  Where other sources failed, Google provided an answer:

4GivenBlack

Thank you, Google.  That is, indeed, some Jesus math.

Despite the absurdity of an equation for salvation, the question is a real one: what does the Christian tradition say about the attitude we should take toward the rich in society?

The Bible has very little good to say about the rich and very little good advice for the rich. The rich are described as not allowing the poor even the scraps from their table.  The rich are described as having their reward on earth and therefore not entitled to tenderness in death. It’s easier, we’re told, to get a camel through the eye of a needle than a rich man into heaven. And the only advice for a rich man:  Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor.  In other words, stop being rich.  Woe, woe, woe… to you who are rich.

So there you have it. The rich are in big trouble.

What a relief for the rest of us!  If only those rich folks on Wall Street would do as Jesus says and give their money to the poor folks. The other 99% of us would really appreciate that.

But the disciples weren’t relieved to hear Jesus’s advice to the rich man; they were “greatly astounded.” They reply, “But Jesus!  Then who can be saved?” Unlike 21st century USA, the disciples assumed only two categories of people: the rich and the poor.  The poor were an easy-to-recognize group:  widows, orphans, slaves, beggars, lepers, anyone who was crippled physically or mentally. Everybody else was rich.  By degrees, perhaps, and types – farmer, herdsman, tradesman – but rich nonetheless. And that included the disciples, a group of fishermen, religious/political activists and one tax collector – all solidly middle class professions by modern standards.  They were wandering homeless with Jesus, but they still did not claim to be poor.

The Bible, I believe, is profoundly concerned about wealth.  Deeply suspicious of the rich.  Highly preferential to the poor. It boldly demands that the rich give everything they have to the poor. Such a stance really could be interpreted as class warfare.  Woe to the 1%!  Woe to Wall Street!

But such an interpretation arbitrarily draws a line at 1%, deciding on a whim which of God’s beloved children have too much and allowing those with a penny less than the magic number to join the poor in wagging their collective finger.

Mathematically, we are indeed the 99%.  But we’re not just the poorest 99%. We’re also the richest 99%. (I know you’re curious where exactly you rank, so go ahead, check your global wealth rank here and your U.S. wealth rank here.) And chances are, if you start factoring in the many advantages you have had in life, you’ll find that you are scoring awfully high on the “privilege scale.” (For example, if you’re clergy, you probably have a professional degree, in which case you are more educated than 97% of the U.S. population.[1])

Now I acknowledge that if the CEOs and Wall Street bankers of the world sold all their possessions and gave it to the poor, it would be significantly more cash than would come from your or my possessions.  While the amount that the top 1% could (and should) give is bigger than what you or I could give, the obligation is shared. All of us  – you, me, and Wall Street – we’re on the same side of this terrifying admonition to “give it all to the poor.”

So while income inequality and wealth distribution are serious injustices that our Christian faith calls us to address, we do not need to participate in a blame game that scapegoats the richest 1% for an economic system that they did not create alone. Treating the rich as outcasts or social pariahs is not how Christians are called to respond.  Blame and demonization are simply not Christ-like approaches to rectifying injustice.

Now let me be clear.  I support an overhaul of the tax system. I would advocate for an even more progressive tax policy than Obama has proposed. But I would like to do so while acknowledging my own participation in the economic system that produces such extreme inequalities.  I would like to do so while also suggesting that educational inequalities, health care access, sexism and racism are contributing to the problem. I would like to do so while standing hand in hand with my neighbors who grew up on welfare and never left, my neighbors whose homes were destroyed by a tornado, and my neighbors with stock options and golden parachutes.  Because standing together, we are more than 99%.  We are whole.

(And that’s some math I think Jesus would appreciate.)

********

Gospel postscript:  Having heard that “it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” the greatly-astounded disciples asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?”  And Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”  And then Jesus led his middle (upper) class disciples on to the next adventure in faithfulness.  Amen, I say, alleluia and amen.

 

 

[1] http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/cps/2009/tables.html


Rev. Tabitha Isner lives the bivocational dream. As a Research Analyst at Child Trends, she spends her days evaluating policies and programs designed to improve the quality of early childhood care and education for low-income children. As an independent consultant, she helps faith-based non-profits to evaluate their own policies and programs. As a Disciple of Christ, she teaches Sunday School at Plymouth Creek Christian Church in Plymouth, MN.


8 replies
  1. Alex
    Alex says:

    “Treating the rich as outcasts or social pariahs is not how Christians are called to respond. Blame and demonization are simply not Christ-like approaches to rectifying injustice.”
    Thank you for this. Great piece.

    Reply
  2. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I’m not sure how to address you without being rude. I remember you from when we were in high school/middle school. Please forgive me. I really don’t want to be disrespectful!
    I would agree with your argument, except I really believe Jesus was dealing with that (rich) man’s heart toward his money. He couldn’t part with his money because he loved his money more than he loved the Lord. I would say that we aren’t necessarily talking about the same things here.
    I think people have missed that many of the 1% of the population are great givers, very philanthropic. I think the issue comes to play when someone else is going to tell me what to do with my money. If someone is going to tell me what to do with my money, what does roll my heart attitude play? None. I think this is partly why I got so angry about the “volunteer” plan that our President set out. It isn’t volunteering if I don’t WANT to do it.
    I think you need to look at the poor also. Look at many passages in the Bible that speak about not taking care of your family and being worse than an unbeliever. Or perhaps the ones that speak about excommunicating someone who won’t work. The poor that Jesus held up were the ones who continued to try to be different, try to take care of their responsibilities, not those who continued to run up charge cards knowing that they had no funds to pay them.
    I think these are apples and bananas. Rob and I work with a lot of different people in a lot of different settings and I must tell you that your heart and your goal, your aim, makes a big difference in who you are and what you become.
    In closing, I think there is a big difference between those who are broke and those who are poor. What a definition? Look at http://www.daveramsey.com. I think he does a great job explaining the differences.

    Reply
  3. David
    David says:

    Rachel’s comments are respectful and spot on. Thank you.
    No where in God’s Word does He advocate any system to “take” from those who have to give to the poor. He wants us all to have a changed heart and learn to give joyously. He advocates hard work to care for our families, not depend on a government to give us what we need. The rich man’s challenge is that he may love his money more than God. Many are blessed by God and are rich because they have been faithful in the little things and entrusted by God with greater things. They may too be blessed with the gift of giving. True, not all rich part with their money and give freely. But it is not yours or the government’s to take. God will deal with the rich man in His time.
    We are to help the poor with what God has provided us. Not with what someone else has that we think could be better used to help the poor.
    From your pulpit, speak the TRUTH in love. Change hearts for Christ. Help with what God has blessed you with, not with what some else has that you think is unfair or undeserved. Be faithful in the little things.
    PS. Can the government steal? In God’s eyes is it OK for the government to take 15, 20,35,50 percent of what a person earns just because they pass a law and make it legal to do so or because they want to help the poor?

    Reply
  4. Tabitha Isner
    Tabitha Isner says:

    Rachel and David,
    Thanks for joining the conversation! You are right that this conversation begs the question of the relationship between Christian values and taxes. It’s a great question and worth discussing, but certainly not what I intended to be the heart of this piece.
    In that sense, we are not having the same conversation. My central point was that Christians should always be careful to avoid scapegoating or throwing the first stone. This is not only because, as you mention, many of those in the 1% are great philanthropists, but also because we sinners are called to treat one another with compassion and grace, rather than defining ourselves as morally superior to others.
    I think that Rachel put her finger on our core disagreement when she said: “The poor that Jesus held up were the ones who continued to try to be different, try to take care of their responsibilities, not those who continued to run up charge cards knowing that they had no funds to pay them.” I simply disagree. I remember Jesus giving living water to a woman who had five husbands and was currently living with a man to whom she wasn’t married (without asking her if she planned to change her lifestyle). I remember parables about the virtue of forgiving debt (without asking how the debt piled up). I remember Jesus feeding the 5000 (without any question of why they weren’t feeding themselves).
    Your comment reminds me of the quip, “God helps those who help themselves,” an idea that comes from Greek mythology, not the Bible.
    Just as I believe we shouldn’t demonize the 1%, I also believe we shouldn’t demonize the poor. We were called to feed the hungry, not to judge who deserves to be fed.
    That doesn’t answer the question about how we should feed the poor or whether the government (and taxes) should be a part of it. But that is a debate for another day.
    Again, thanks for joining the discussion!

    Reply
  5. David
    David says:

    Please do not take any of my comments as critical. I am direct but desire to speak in truth and love.
    Your comments imply redistribution of wealth to assist the poor. Currently our tax system is the mechanism used by the government to do just that and hence my comments previously about that. You also tend to indicate to me that you don’t think it is fair or right that 1% has so much as compared to us 99% and it is OK to “take” (redistribute)from those who have in order to give to those more in need. I cannot find that taking or redistributing wealth is a Christian value or biblical principal.
    I do not agree with your comments about the rich and how the Bible views the rich man and the poor man. God never tells anyone to “stop being rich”. Money is not bad or evil. Neither is having a lot of it. In fact, even the poorest in the US are in the top 6% of the wealthiest richest people in the world. Again, money, having money or being rich is not evil. It is the LOVE of money that is evil and wrong.
    Scripture does say it is more difficult for a rich man to get into heaven. But not because he is rich, but because the rich man may love his wealth more than the Lord. An attitude of heart.
    Neither Rachel (whom I don’t know)nor I in our comments implied “God helps those who help themselves.” We were not demonizing the poor either. We were clarifying to you that helping the poor should be an individual decision made out of love for our Lord and Saviour and with the the time, talent and treasures He gives to each of us to do just that. NOT by having it taken from us (or the 1%) by the government and redistributed to the poor or anyone. That is NOT Biblical.
    Yes there are rich and there are poor. The poor will always be with us too. God calls us to individually examine ourselves, to help the poor, the widows, the orphans, to love one another and to give joyously (actually hilariously)to further His kingdom. We look to Him for His grace and mercy, and for His blessings. We do not look to the government for our source of blessings to help the poor. You and Rachel and I do it willingly because we love God.

    Reply
  6. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    What an interesting conversation this has sparked. Thanks for that Tabitha. I’m reminded that there are so many times where we read the Bible from our own perspective without understanding the reality of the world 2000 years ago. (Or earlier.) You are indeed spot on that there is a societal structure that we just can’t quite grasp. It seems to me that the agrarian life led toward more communal sharing which we might do well to relearn.
    As for the math, how does 70×7 relate to this conversation?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *