There has been a heated conversation over at Peacebang about the appropriate theological attitude toward the rich. It’s not surprising that the conversation quickly becomes very emotional and very personal. Money is our primary outward symbol of value. So it doesn’t take long for judgments about wealth to also feel like assessments of personal value. Jesus said and did a lot to confront unjust powers in his day, and it’s ours to do as people of faith today. That means we need to be in constant conversation about our own participation in injustice. I have committed my life and my ministry to engaging that conversation. Each year, I have fewer answers and my heart is full with the many contradictions and confounding factors on the road to that promised land in which compassion is wedded with justice.
Following is an excerpt of a stewardship sermon I gave in the fall of 2006 which attempts a Unitarian Universalist theological response to this question. It’s not complete. It draws heavily on an article by Walter Brueggeman (“The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity” in The Christian Century, March 24-31, 1999) .
In the beginning, the world is created and is proclaimed to be good — very good. All beings are blessed, and their blessing is that they are given life. The life is so dramatically present and plentiful that God takes a break, a sign that God’s own faith is strong enough to believe that this splendid creation isn’t going anywhere. And the people of Israel celebrate that abundance in the Psalms – they praise Yahweh with trumpet, harp and lute, they hear the promise that all will be offered in abundance, they celebrate the great gift of life and the miracle it is to be offered forgiveness and reconciliation every day. The fruitfulness of the world seems guaranteed. (This is a paraphrase of Brueggeman’s starting point)
But along the way, we humans also show that part of our blessed nature is to compete with one another, and to compete always brings us death and suffering. Cain murders Abel for fear that he might be more favored and the line of deceptions and death does not end. Each time the faithful stray, they are restored to God and they are also offered God’s blessing. The deepest value, the understanding of their worthiness is not in question – the God of the Hebrew Bible gets pretty upset sometimes, and in ways we may not like seeing a god behave – but say what you will, this is a God who doesn’t give up on liars, murderers, covetors, cheaters… in short, humans.
But what gets humans into trouble – and I mean serious trouble – every time is losing faith in the basic fact that our value does not come and go. Our value, in fact, has nothing to do with having plenty – it is the plenty we seek. When Pharoah has his dream of the famine in the land, the world is introduced on a large scale to fear-driven politics. The Jews in Egypt are persecuted, and come to live in their persecution believing that it is what they are worth. Chosen people or not, there is comfort in the familiar captivity of fear. After some time passes, a people can forget what it is like to live outside that reality.
We have our own captivity as individuals and communities in this particular nation and time. We live it now in politics that let us condone torture and secret wiretapping, politics that allow us to keep ourselves outside the reach of international laws and agreements. Politics that keep us separated, keep us suspicious. We live it now in believing that tax cuts are the greatest good we can do for ourselves, that individual savings will magically serve the common good by letting those who are wealthy buy more stuff.
Our ticket out of this captivity is not an easy one. It’s not something we can manage alone. It requires constant companions – and guess what? They are right around you in this sanctuary. They are as close by as social hour, a circle of trust, a shared social action project, a committee meeting, a casserole when you are in need. The ticket out of captivity is to have these companions help us to see and know. We need each other to witness to that abundance of creation, and the fact that we ourselves are part of it. That we are good, we are good, we are very good. And if we have not always been good at every moment, we must be reminded that we were made for goodness. It is our vocation to live. We can redeem one another as the source of all offers us each redemption. We can be part of the transformation of the world as, person to person, our connection becomes apparent and we see God’s blessing in one another.
When we realize our connection, with one another here, with all people everywhere, with the many generations that have worshiped and argued and laughed and grieved and judged and sinned in this very church, we can start to really feel the truth of abundance. The wonder, the miracle, the irrational, embarrassing abundance that does transcend the market economy.
When we unhook the conversation about wealth from judgments about personal value, we can have a different conversation about justice. To those who have much and measure their worth in that wealth, whether it’s the worth of their work or the worth of their person or both, any statement that the wealth must be given away will feel like it is stripping them of their value. Until we create a conversation about the theological truth of abundance, and start to spread the gospel of “enough,” it will always feel like redistributing wealth is stripping some people of worth and dignity when in fact the opposite is true.
No transformation can come without some discomfort. Given that any of us who is reading a blog likely has some privileges that others in the world don’t enjoy, we ought to feel discomforted by that. We ought to meditate on it faithfully in relationship with the God who surrounds us in unending love and calls us to visionary works of justice. Brueggeman points out that in the eucharist, Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave the bread, and calls these the “four decisive verbs of our sacramental existence.” If we were in the habit of doing the same with the bread of our lives in whatever manner we are wealthiest (our talents, our treasures, our time), we might spend less time consumed with judging others and more time living in the midst of the reality of abundance. And somehow, I think a lot more clarity would come.
Not there yet myself, I remain deeply dependent on forgiveness, love, and challenge from the God who gives me life.