Flattering the Rich, Exploiting the Poor
Labor Day 2006
For Sunday September 10, 2006
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Proverbs 22:1–2, 8–9, 22–23 or Isaiah 35:4–7
Psalm 125 or Psalm 146
James 2:1–10, (11–13), 14–17
Barbara Ehrenreich earned a PhD in biology but has made a career as a writer, authoring a dozen books and articles for Time, Harper's Magazine, and The New Republic. Over lunch one day she and her editor were pontificating about American poverty, welfare reform and the like, when she wondered aloud how an unskilled but fully employed worker could survive on low wages: “Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism—you know, go out there and try it for themselves.”
When Ehrenreich's editor called her bluff she began an economic experiment that resulted in her bestseller book, Nickel and Dimed; On (not) Getting By in America (2001). For six months she lived the life of an unskilled but fully employed wage earner. In Florida she worked as a waitress on the 2:00-10PM shift, then as a house cleaner for Molly Maid. In Maine she worked as a “dietary aide” at a nursing home and as a hotel maid. In Minnesota she clerked at Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the nation with 825,000 people on the payroll. Although she admits that her experiment was artificial in many ways, Ehrenreich lived in budget motels and dangerous trailer parks, she ate only what she could afford (which tended to be fast food), she discovered that she really needed two such unskilled jobs just to squeak by, and overall found herself physically and emotionally drained. And God help her if she ever got sick or needed health care.
The unskilled wage earners that Ehrenreich imitated are the fully employed, not the lazy, the destitute, the unemployed or those who abuse welfare. They constitute about 30% of the American work force who earn less than per hour (cf. the Economic Policy Institute). They are the people we pass every day who make our American way of life possible. They clean our office buildings at night, serve us at restaurants, repair our cars, sew our designer garments, handpick our fresh produce, and mow-n-blow suburban yards. Even though these people work long and hard, they barely make ends meet. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “in the median state a minimum wage worker would have to work 89 hours each week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at 30% of his or her income, which is the federal definition of affordable housing.” In fact, Ehrenreich's colleagues routinely worked more than one job, slept in cars, and crowded multiple people into small living quarters.
With the federal minimum wage at .15 per hour (it was last raised in 1996), the challenges that the working poor face are immense, complex, and interrelated. In his similar study of the same people, Pulitzer Prize winner David Shipler avoids blaming politics of the left or the right and instead notes how poverty is both a cause of problems and the result of problems: “A run-down apartment can exacerbate a child’s asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother’s punctuality at work, which limits her promotions and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing” (The Working Poor; Invisible in America, 2004).
While some people blame the poor for their economic plight, and at least some poor people would deserve their lot, the lectionary readings this week offer a politically-incorrect perspective. The psalmist (Psalm 146), Proverbs, and the epistle of James all blame the rich for the plight of the poor. Rich people, they say, oppress, exploit, and plunder the poor "because they are poor," for their own advantage, and if that is not enough, they "crush" them in courts of law. With powerful forces like that, poor people often cannot control their own destinies.
The epistle of James thus considers it a bitter irony that some early Christians actually favored the rich. He pictures an early church where believers favored rich people who were dressed in fine clothes and expensive jewelry. They offered them the best seats in church, then patronized the poor and the poorly dressed by seating them where they would not offend anyone. "You have insulted the poor," writes James. "Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?" (James 2:6–7). Later in his epistle he turns up the heat even higher. These rich people, he says, hoard wealth instead of sharing it, live in luxury while withholding wages from workers, and glory in their indulgence. Whereas people often intimate that their wealth is a sign of God's blessing, James compares their wealth to a toxic chemical that has "corroded" their character and will "burn their flesh like fire" (James 5:1–6).
Perhaps it is human nature to flatter the rich and to demonize the poor. Even monks who renounced great wealth struggled with rationalizing their flattery of the rich. As a Christian in ministry I've raised my own support for over fifteen years, so I've always loved the biting satire of Saint Neilos the Ascetic (d. 430): “We [monks] come fawning to the rich, like puppies wagging their tails in the hope of being tossed a bare bone or some crumbs. To get what we want, we call them benefactors and protectors of Christians, attributing every virtue to them, even though they may be utterly wicked.” Evagrios considered it a trick of the devil to befriend the rich on the pretense of helping the poor: "[The devil] suggests that we should attach ourselves to wealthy women, and advises us to be obsequious to others who have a full purse. And so, after deceiving the soul, little by little he engulfs it in avaricious thoughts and then hands it over to the demon of self-esteem. The latter calls up in our imagination crowds of admirers who praise the Lord for the works of mercy we have performed."
Christians should favor the poor not because of any political agenda of the right or left, but because we're called to imitate the character of God. Using a legal metaphor, Proverbs says that God is the Maker of the poor, their advocate, and their vindicator who will "take up their case" (Proverbs 22:2, 23). James adds that God has specially chosen the poor to be "rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him" (James 2:5).
As a relative latecomer to the Gospel (he converted on the road to Damascus about the year 35 AD), the Apostle Paul traveled to Jerusalem about fourteen years after his conversion in order to present his credentials to the original group of Apostles. He knew that he needed their imprimatur, and indeed he received what he calls “the right hand of fellowship” from the movement’s leaders. Later, when he recalled this trip in his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul wrote something revealing about the first followers of Jesus. What did the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem require of Paul? “All they asked was that we should remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” (Galatians 2:10).
For further reflection:
* What has been your experience with both rich and poor people?
* How can Christians best help the poor?
* How do the rich plunder, exploit, crush, and oppress the poor?
* For further study see the specifically Christian works by Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977); Jacques Ellul, Money and Power (1954); Justo Gonzalez, Faith and Wealth; A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money (1990), and Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches; A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions (1999).