Ben Wideman is Campus Pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University.
How do you determine your wealth?
One of the ways I know I’m wealthy is that in the few moments of my life where I’ve experienced some kind of tragedy or significant life event, I recognize that the support I get from my network of family, friends and church communities can carry me through my darkest times. I’m also very blessed to have a loving partner in this world and three incredible kids.
I didn’t get to this point by always making the right choices. I’ve been occasionally lucky, extremely privileged, and frequently fortunate to have been on the right path. When it all boils down I am very wealthy – even if my bank account doesn’t always show it.
With the realization that I have much also comes the uncomfortable truth that many in this country and in our world have little. In a few months we will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose faith convictions called him to stand for economic and ethnic equality and justice. Yet I’m sure the Reverend King would shake his head at the reality we still live in today.
Over the last 50 years the unemployment rate of African-American men has stayed roughly twice as high as for their white counterparts. The Median household income for white families is almost double the median income for African-American families. King’s dream of economic and ethnic equality is in some ways getting worse.
We also continue to have economic disparity between genders, and marginalization of racial, religious and sexual minorities – both subtle and overt. We watched a presidential campaign last year that seemed to benefit from support of economically oppressed people while also promising to slash social services to support those same people.
We have this myth in our culture that continues to dominate. Its claim is that wealth is based quite simply on hard work and endurance. If someone is poor or impoverished, it is because they don’t work hard enough. Sometimes, regrettably so, we’re guilty of championing this in our churches. Just work hard, be a good Christian, and God will bless you with more than you need. We’ve all heard this, and I think we’ve all believed this at one time or another.
But I’m convinced that though our Bible certainly encourages fruitful labor, nowhere does the Bible guarantee that simply working hard will lead to wealth.
The current reality in our country and in most of the world is that the richest continue to get richer and the poorest continue to get even poorer.
Let us remind ourselves again that the top 1 percent of people in this country earn 40 percent of its wealth. Numbers haven’t been this sharp and extreme since before the stock market crash of the 1920s. The American dream that anyone can work their way up to the top is becoming a distant memory. Nationally, 80 percent of American families are now in debt. The average household credit card debt is over $15,000.
In Martin Luther King Jr’s incredible collection of sermons, we find this refrain written more than 50 years ago:
“I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted, that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark, confused world the Kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of all.”
Let us not let these words from MLK lose their meaning.