I have not had much time to blog recently as I am in the midst of end of the semester craziness, but I thought I’d post this excerpt of a paper I wrote for my ethics class -
A few weeks ago my husband and I arrived home from a rare evening out to see a homeless man camped out in the driveway of the empty house next door. I had seen this man wandering the neighborhood and had taken to referring to him as “the wizard” on account of his pointy beard, the wide-brimmed hat and long duster-coat he wore, and staff he carried with him. My husband went out to offer him some food and ended up having a lengthy conversation with this man who even goes by the very wizardly name Hawkeye. He declined the offer of food and mentioned that he has set himself up as the protector of the neighborhood and had information that the empty house next door needed someone to watch over it that night.
This encounter with Hawkeye served as a reminder that homelessness is not just some abstract issue for which the church needs to develop a response, but that the homeless are real individual people with real stories. Yet all too often in our modern economy it is easy to lose sight of these stories. The message that the culture feeds us is that our highest priority should be pursuing our individual security. We participate in the economy for our own sake, assuming the responsibility of providing for ourselves and protecting that which we manage to obtain. Those that fail to make it are viewed as issues to be dealt with (such as the homeless) and rarely as fellow beings made in the image of God that we are to be in solidarity with. In fact the cultural assertion that we are responsible only unto ourselves has led to our ignoring the stories of others that are suffering often because of our own prosperity.
In contradiction of this cultural trend, the biblical witness and the tradition of the church hold that Christians have a responsibility to care for the needs of all people. This mandate goes beyond simply the giving of alms, but to the ensuring that as people of God the church is expressing righteousness by pursuing justice in all of its relationships. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus in his mission to proclaim the kingdom of God describes his role as one who brings good news to the poor and proclaims release to the captives (Lk 4:18). Earlier in the Gospel Mary described the kingdom of God as a place where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up (Lk 1: 52) and John declared that to truly follow God “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Lk 3:10). Jesus also told Zacchaeus that salvation had come to his house once he repented of his economic exploitation of others. To live in the ways of the kingdom of God as revealed in scripture is to be in right relation economically with others.
In a culture that encourages its members to look after their own needs first, the equality and other-centeredness of the kingdom of God is generally perceived as a threat to the status quo. Instead of developing an awareness of how our economic practices are perhaps contributing to the oppression or defrauding of others, the culture encourages us to assume that economics is a morally neutral area. But without knowing the stories of others and understanding how our economic practices are actually affecting them, it is impossible to be in right relation with others. Our business, our striving to gain security in this world, must concern itself with the others we do in fact interact with as part of that process. Like Zacchaeus who in engaging in the expected role of a tax-collector had defrauded those he did business with, all of us need to be aware of the ways we harm others in our economic transactions.
We as the consumer of a good or as an investor in a business need to know if the workings of that business serve to uplift the lowly or to keep them down. Were the workers mistreated or paid insufficient wages? Were they given a just price for their product that not only covers their production costs but also pays them fairly for their labor? Were they forced to work under inhumane conditions or treated in ways that disrespected their dignity? All these are questions that need to be addressed if one is to live out the equitable norm of the kingdom of God.
But in a culture that encourages individualism, it is far too easy to ignore not only the stories of others but this responsibility to treat them properly as well. The poor, like the homeless, are not just issues to be dealt with but are real people already intimately connected to our everyday economic actions. To live into the norms of the kingdom of God where the lowly are lifted up requires action on the part of the people of God. Those who claim to follow God must accept both relationship with the neighbors with whom we interact with economically and the subsequent responsibilities such relationship entails. As the biblical narrative attests, this may mean repenting of ways we have cheated others, working to bring good news to the poor, and leveling out economic relationships as the mighty are brought down while the lowly are lifted up.
Yet as biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann comments, “amid the limitless prosperity of the U.S. economy (an expectation when not a fact), it is profoundly problematic to hold to a tradition that features sacrifice for the sake of holiness and justice for the sake of neighbor.” Individualism is the antithesis of self-sacrificial actions that care for the needs of others. Individualism ensures that I not only have enough but all I desire without bothering to ensure if others have enough as well or if I am harming others in amassing the things I want.
To undo such harmful effects of individualism that neglects to care for the real stories of others what is needed is a significant mental shift. Treating homelessness, hunger, and poverty just as issues that need solutions imposed upon them instead of relationships we have that demand us to act responsibly fails to live in the ways of the kingdom of God. For Christians to engage in economics as Christians we must not only listen to the stories of Jesus but also the stories of those we interact with economically.