It is Peak Season for politics, with a little over 3 weeks until Election Day. We are in the midst of Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates, with claims and counter-claims being made, and polls jumping up and down like some kind of irregular heart rate monitor.
Jim Wallis, author of several books, including God’s Politics–Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, and Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners Magazine, offered this analysis of both national parties–
As I carefully watched both the Democratic and the Republican conventions this summer
[and, I would add, as we watch the debates this fall], I realized, once again, how challenging and complicated it is to bring faith to politics.
For example, the phrase “middle class” was likely the most repeated phrase at the conventions. And even though both parties are utterly dependent on their wealthy donors (a fact they don’t like to talk about), they know that middle-class voters will determine the outcome of the election. Now, I believe a strong middle class is good for the country, but Jesus didn’t say, “What you have done for the middle class, you have done for me.” Rather, Matthew 25 says, “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”
When your first principle for politics is what happens to the poor and vulnerable–and I believe that is the first principle for Christians–you keep waiting at conventions
[or debates]for those words and commitments. There were a few moments when the poor were briefly mentioned, but it certainly wasn’t a strong theme in Tampa or Charlotte. “Opportunity for the middle class” was an important word in both conventions this year, but Christians must be clear that creating new opportunities for poor children and low-income families is critical to us.
The conventions also talked a great deal about “success,” but how we define that is very important. Is success mostly about how much money we make, defining the “American Dream” as being able to pass on more riches to our children than what our parents passed on to us? Or is success measured by how we as a nation prioritize, in our spending and political choices, the sick, the vulnerable, the weak, and the elderly? Is it determined more by the values we pass on to our children–evaluating our lives, and theirs, by how much we are able to help others?
Nov. 2012, p. 15)
The story of the rich man who comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life is told in 3 of the 4 gospels. Matthew says that he was young, and Luke adds that he was a ruler. It has all the marks of a healing story, as the man comes and kneels before Jesus, making his request, and Jesus tells him to go, be healed, like he says to so many others. But I believe this is the only story where the person refuses the healing. “When he heard this [go and sell all you have and give it to the poor, then come, follow me], he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
And who of us wouldn’t have done the same thing? We are right there with the disciples who “were astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’” And even Jesus concedes, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.”
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” or, another way of putting that is, “What must I do to live an authentic life?” The man has clearly thrown his heart into “doing the right thing.” He replies sincerely that he has kept all the commandments since his youth. Jesus can see this, see his sincerity, and, Mark alone adds, “Jesus loved him.” But Jesus can also see what’s holding this man back from fully trusting, or, if you will, “believing in,” God. It is his material wealth. It’s his crutch, his safety net, his hedge, against entrusting his life to God.
But just as the man has learned the lessons of his tradition, learned the commandments and the law, so he has learned its assumptions –that wealth is a reward for living righteously. God rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous, which is a slightly different way of putting what our culture assumes–wealth and success are the result of one’s own hard work and ingenuity, maybe a little luck, but those who are poor are that way because they’re lazy, shiftless, somehow to blame, they’re stupid, they prefer to “live that way.” That despite the reality that in our country, many people are poor due to no fault of their own. One in four children live in poverty in the U.S. Is it their fault? Seven million Americans work two to three jobs and are twice as likely as the wealthy to give up sleeping to work. Are they lazy? The average food stamp benefit is $21/week. Would you choose that way of shopping if you could?
The perils of poverty are well documented–death by malnutrition or starvation, or, as seems to be more and more the case in our country, death by bad nutrition–by sugars and chemicals, resulting in obesity, sugar diabetes, and heart disease. All that with lack of access to health care, including, of course, no preventative health care. The perils of exposure from homelessness or inadequate housing. The loss of dignity and self-esteem. The peril of isolation, ridicule, disdain.
Jesus knew about the perils of wealth as well, however, and knew that this particular man was at risk–at risk of thinking he could somehow buy or earn an authentic life, or happiness, or salvation. At risk of thinking that authentic, or eternal, life is “an achievement earned or a commodity purchased rather than a gift gratefully received and shared,” as one United Methodist bishop wrote (Kenneth Carder, Christian Century, 9/24-10/1/97, p. 831) At risk of confusing his–and our, for we are so like this rich man–our resources, our possessions, our status with our identity. At risk of becoming addicted to our stuff or to what our wealth can buy us – experiences, power, access, escape –and so they become more and more necessary, even impacting our health. “The problem with wealth,” says Disciples of Christ pastor and author Bruce Epperly, ” is that it isolates us from others. It buffers us against the suffering others experience and leads to false complacency about our own personal security….It often leads to rugged, uncaring individualism…where we are tempted to see [our] wealth as deserved, totally the result of [our own] efforts.” (Process & Faith lectionary, 10/14/12)
Jesus knew that there were perils of both poverty and wealth; and he knew there were possibilities and blessings in both. “Blessed are you poor,” he says in Luke’s gospel, “for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” You know what it’s like to be utterly dependent upon God, to know your connection to and dependence upon others. And wealth, if it’s not hoarded but gratefully received as a gift to be shared, can be a tremendous vehicle for good, for relieving suffering, for building up, for creating and discovering. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, [he told the man] and you will have treasure in heaven; you’ll be able to come and follow me, learn my way of living and enter into relationship with God, with others, and your true self.” Life is not found in riches, but rather in God’s grace. That’s where your true identity and worth come from.
It’s simple but certainly not easy. “For mortals it is impossible,” in fact, “but not for God; for God all things are possible.” It’s not something we can do, but we might be open to God’s doing it through us. And it’s not just a choice for us in our individual lives but also a choice for us as a community and nation. Consider the opportunity we have each Sunday at least to get to know some of our neighbors from whom we might be isolated the rest of the week. Being part of a Sunday Supper team may take you into territory that makes you uncomfortable but which you also might find transforming. Walking in solidarity today in the CROP with some of the folks profiled by CWS may connect us with a brother or sister whose life is wrapped up in ours. Volunteering at the Kitchen Cupboard or the Free Clinic may be just what you need to discover deeper dimensions of life.
And as you consider who you will vote for this November, consider this from Jim Wallis–
All candidates, including Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, should be evaluated by the competing visions of what they are setting forth for the country, by their vastly different policy positions, and by their personal moral compass and how it will impact their leadership. For Christians, our election choices should always have most to do with protecting ‘the least of these’: [including] low-income individuals and families, undocumented peopled, who are in the biblical category of “the stranger,” those most vulnerable to hunger and disease around the world, poor people most impacted by climate change, women and children being trafficked and exploited, and those who are victims of violence and the ‘collateral damage” of war.”
(op cit., p. 18)
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Is there one thing you lack, something that’s getting in your way of living a truly free, authentic life? If it seems overwhelming, that’s ok. With God, all things are possible.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark