Tuesday, November 6, 2018
Rags to Riches or Riches to Rags?
“If you show special attention to the to the one wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you, but say to the one who is poor, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet’, have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts.”
James 2: 3,4
Recently during an interview author Gary Shteyngart suggested that in the United States it is considered a moral failing to be poor. I was struck by the obvious truth of this statement. Our national myth suggests that if we are hard-working, ambitious, and diligent we can all eventually become hedge fund managers. Miserable childhoods full of abject poverty, wretched schools, and a lack of moral and spiritual models are seen as the excuses of losers. On the other hand Shteyngart suggested, being rich frequently absolves one’s obvious moral failings or, at least, gives one the resources, not to mention the legal team, to obscure them. This has enabled politicians to despise the poor and use their plight to demonize their desires for equal opportunity and basic fairness. Such people, we are told, only want handouts, are lazy, even dangerous. The rich are lionized for being “wealth producers” even if their “wealth” is not returned to the community for “job creation” but squirreled away in an offshore bank. These days the wealth being produced is demonstrably heading into the stuffed coffers of the already wealthy.
We Americans have always been dazzled by success—especially the “rags to riches” stories—the poor boy who becomes a mogul; the poor girl who marries a prince (I use these examples advisedly). That such stories are few and far between has not caused them to lose their luster. The “self-made” man (again I use this advisedly) is still most admired. Nearly every politician no matter how rich and privileged wants to claim this mantle, to tell their own rags to riches story. I have always thought these stories rather like “personal testimonies” I have heard. I once was a sinner (a poor person), but by the grace of God (and success on the stock market or in real estate) I was saved (I became rich). Thus the rich person who clawed his or her way to wealth through whatever dubious means burnishes their reputation with a sheen of ersatz salvation. I once was lost (poor), but now am found (rich). The interaction of these stories is all the more plausible when the poor are demonized as moral failures.
Why have large swaths of the Evangelical world been so resistant to efforts to support and encourage the poorest in the United States—especially if this includes government intervention? I would suggest a couple of reasons: Evangelicalism claims to believe we are “saved by grace” but really believe we are at least validated by “works”. The poor person, the person who has not made a success of his or her life is demonstrably morally deficient. If they were really “saved”, if they were really “moral” and “hard-working” they would obviously be successful. Their “failure” demonstrates their moral weakness. For this reason the poor, the unsuccessful, of whatever “race”, gender, or culture can be despised or condescended to. I see this as one of Evangelicalisms long-standing theological and spiritual failures. We have always been dazzled by wealth, celebrity and “success” (witness the Evangelical fawning over “Christian” celebrities and, for that matter, the entire megachurch movement). This has put us on the road to misery. “You say, ‘I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing/’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:17). Someone once said, it takes a lot of humiliation to find a little humility. Perhaps that is what we will finally need as a country and as a church to recover our compassion, our generosity and hope.
John E. Phelan, Jr.
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