Saturday, March 5, 2011

Of economics and fear

I've observed that conversations about topics of deep concern to caring individuals sometimes devolve into declarations of entrenched positions and name-calling without much regard for the fact that nothing in life can be construed as solely polar opposites. That is mistaken binary thinking. There are so many nuances that require much more conversation to illuminate and to understand the layers of the issues. It's not either-or, but both-and. It is often simpler to demonize the persons further down the spectrum (from us) than to see their humanity.

I sense that fear is at the bottom of this kind of reaction to economic topics like poverty, the rights of workers, entitlement vs. merit, opportunity vs. greed, taxation, property rights and responsibilities, public education, and so on. That fear arises out of a fundamental belief that the pie is only so large and can be divided only in familiar ways. That fear is overtaking the national conversation as well as the church conversation. It's as if our faith is somehow weakened in the face of so much fear, and we forget that if we trust in God, all else falls into a less threatening place, giving us the emotional space to search for solutions together.

A major shared, but unspoken, fear is that one might fall to the bottom of the pile and be at the effect of the forces that keep a person at the bottom. That fear has some basis in fact, since there are many circumstances such as catastrophic illness, loss of employment and natural disaster that could affect anyone, regardless of status, accumulation of wealth or individual actions. The loss of intact and supportive family and community structures has also exacerbated how this generation handles such losses.

However, realistically, not everyone is at the same risk of total loss. Let's be honest: there is a difference between not having transportation to go to work and not being able to go on vacation. There is a difference between being evicted for inability to pay the rent and losing half your 401(k). That is not to say, though, that the panic that ensues is necessarily less in one instance than in the other. None of us is prepared to be a loser in America where the myth (also known as "the American dream") has always been a promise that if you work hard, you'll be rewarded with financial success and a climb up the economic ladder. The Great Depression of the 1930's is only a remote history lesson in a book for many of us.

Another fear is a psychic fear that one will be found out to harbor politically incorrect, even uncharitable, degrees of selfishness and greed that contribute to the inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities in our country. We don't like it when others look at what we own and how we choose to spend and then judge us. It feels uncomfortable to be judged about the car that we drive, the clothes that we wear, the entertainment that we seek, and the food that we eat. Yet we subscribe to media and entertainment that generates constant portrayals of "lifestyles of the rich and famous."

Most of us believe that everyone should have food, shelter, education, and access to healthcare when ill, but we disagree on how people gain access to those basic human needs. Just to be clear and to disabuse my readers of any notions of the ridiculous: the Powerball lottery and being a reality show contestant are not the answers. Fairy godmothers are fictional characters, and the exceptions do not justify a rule.

I think it behooves people of good will and love for their neighbors to soften their hearts, examine their own lives and choices, and participate intentionally and directly with the people in need that are before them. What that will look like for each of us may be different, but it could begin by asking questions that go beyond, "How are you," to asking questions like, "How are you covering your expenses since you got laid off" and "Do you need help to see a dentist for that toothache?"

One of the lessons I learned from an Islamic professor in Morocco was that the third pillar of Islam is to help neighbors in need personally, directly, out of not just income, but also out of accumulated wealth. We in America are much more comfortable writing checks than inviting those who need help into our lives, and the Christian tithe typically only applies to income. We fall so short of what we could do if we lived what we profess to believe.


Lilith said...

Now there's an idea: tything on accumulated wealth in addition to income. Imagine what the reign of God to do with that extra amount. Hmm...

John Andrews said...


Good article. I think a lot of what you said can be filed under the heading of stewardship. I think it is important to not only give mental acceptance to all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, but to work that belief into a very core being. I believe, if we do, we will be better able to look beyond ourselves and be sensitive to the needs of others and understand how we may be able to help. For this to work we must be in community where we feel safe to express ourselves openly--faults and all. This would, of course, include feeling safe in sharing our needs. We would have to make our church friends, just friends--people we share all of our lives with, inside of church and outside of church.

PseudoPiskie said...

It takes real faith to rise above fear, especially when fear is being promoted as strongly as it is in the US today. In my life, giving has never resulted in shortage, especially if nothing is expected in return.


Thanks, Zoe, John and Shelley, for your comments.

I'm not there all the way, but I try to go beyond just income when helping others. I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not poor and shouldn't have "poor head." Having pooled resources in a marriage means that it's a bit more complicated, but not impossible. My greatest sense of achievement is knowing that my son and daughter are both generous at a gut level with the people in their lives.

I think that safe communities where all can be vulnerable won't exist until some of us take the plunge and expose our vulnerabilities to others. (It's like disarmament: who goes first?) For me, that means being confessional and telling my "inside" story as well as the facts of my story. I know that writing my thoughts and feelings to my father, who was not very communicative on an intimate level, opened up our relationship to a deeper place than would have otherwise been possible. I'm pleased to share that our Standing Committee is experimenting with this type of intimate, disclosing, confessional conversation about faith and money. It's scary, but at least a half dozen of us are committed to the experiment, and that's across the theological spectrum.

It has also been my experience that as Herb and I have shared widely, including more sacrificially at times, we have not experienced either want or privation. If anything, we believe down to our toes that our lives have been richly blessed because of our being willing to bless others by that sharing. And I would add that it's more than just sharing money and material things, it's about sharing family, about incorporating others into our family, because the greatest privation has been isolation and loneliness, not knowing that someone cares deeply about you. It's not just generosity with your money that counts; it's also generosity of your spirit that matters.