June 6, 2020

Open Mic: Our Money, Our Neighbors

By Chaplain Mike

Economics has been leading the news and preoccupying our minds for the past couple of years now, ever since the financial crisis that hit hard in 2007, with continuing effects on economies here and around the world. Some of you may be reeling from losing a job, not being able to find gainful employment, your business going under, the loss of value in your investments, the inability to sell a home, or any one of a thousand reasons.

This is one of those subjects that, especially on the broad scale, goes far beyond my comprehension and expertise. Others will have to speak to that. As an individual Christian, pastor, chaplain and Bible student , I have always been more interested in money matters at the level of the “widow’s mite” and the local congregation.

Here is a quote from OT scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann. It looks at society and economics from this grassroots level. He reminds us that good stewardship of our resources is a matter of sustaining community and treating our neighbors with respect and dignity. This was law in the nation of Israel. And it appears the new community of Christ in the Spirit had this law written on their hearts (see Acts 2, 4).

Read this and ponder it. Then feel free to step up to the mic and share your thoughts with the IM community.

From Israel we can also learn the importance of striving to establish a sense of community. The Book of Deuteronomy, a primary document for exiles, became pivotal for the formation of Judaism. Dislocation carries with it a temptation to be preoccupied with self, to flee the hard task of community formation for the sake of private well-being. This is all too evident in our own society, where public responsibility is on the wane and the most privileged desperately work to improve their private estate. We can see this self-preoccupied individualism in the greed that our society calls “opportunity,” in the demise of public health care because it is “too costly,” and in the decay of public institutions regarded as too expensive to maintain, as though taxation were a penalty rather than a necessary neighborly act.

The Deuteronomic tradition presents society as a neighborhood and enjoins attitudes and policies that enhance neighborliness. Deuteronomy insists that economic life must be organized to ensure the well-being of widows, orphans and immigrants. This response to dislocation insists that maintaining a public economy of compassion and justice is a way to move beyond despair. “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice. You shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember you were a slave in Egypt …,” Deuteronomy commands. A society that cannot be generous to those in need will not be blessed. The book instructs, “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts…. Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You shall rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”

This is perhaps the most astonishing command in the Bible. It was the practice in that ancient world, as it is now, that anyone who owed money to another had to work it off. The more owed, the more work required. And if one owed enough, one might eventually belong to the “company store.” But ancient Israel set a limit to such debt-related work, in order to prevent the formation of a permanent underclass. No matter how great the debt, it was to be worked off for six years and no longer. Then whatever debt remained was canceled. Deuteronomy makes clear that economic practice is a form of neighborliness and that economic provision must be adjusted to sustain community.

Times of dislocation are particularly apt to foster a permanent underclass. Nervous and anxious people may be tempted to gouge their economically vulnerable neighbors. But the Bible presents dislocation as a motivation for building a more just society. The laws of public life might be very different if all remained aware of their own vulnerability.

Comments

  1. convicted!

  2. What if we took all of the money churches get and use it to take care of people? Maybe we should quit making members feel like they have to give to the local church and that they are free to take care of the needs around them with the money?

    • Agree 100%. Hard to do though when you have salaries, budgets, and buildings to take care of. Early Christians had none of those things, and instead, gave everything they had to the poor. Amazing stuff.

      • Maybe we need to sell a few buildings and get rid of some salaries, budgets, etc… get back to taking care of God’s business – people!

  3. SOCIALISM!

    • Christiane says

      Acts 2:45 “Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”

      Yes, the first Christians, as recorded in Holy Scripture, appear to have practiced a unique form of ‘socialism’.

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

        A form of socialism that didn’t last into the 2nd generation 😉

        • Yes, any system that isn’t based on greed doesn’t last long in this fallen world.

          When it comes to sharing our wealth, it’s easier to believe that public health care encourages women to get breast cancer, that public fire departments encourage people to burn their homes down and public police departments only create crime.

          Public libraries are socialism, public schools are socialism, clean water is socialism and consumer protection is socialism. Everything that involves cooperation to do things we cannot do ourselves becomes socialism.

          If we turn the world on its head like that , and define the common good as socialism, then greed and hatred of government become virtues. And welcome to 2010.

          • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

            Yes…. because greed and hatred NEVER exist in socialist governments…

  4. sarahmorgan says

    In the entirety of my life as a military dependent (40+) years, I’ve seen first-hand how dislocation actually encourages the formation of communities.

    Now that my spouse is retired, I find myself living in an isolated rural town where everyone is settled in and seeking their own comfort & stability (i.e., life unchanging), and there is no place for strangers or outsiders (potential agents of change) to find any community, not even in the local churches. 🙁

    • Sarah,

      I too have just moved into a rural community. My husband and I have agreed to be patient and wait for them to open their hearts to us “outsiders”. Both of us have lived in smaller communities than this and are quite comfortable with the smallness. But the resistance to the newbie is still a bit of a discomfiture.

      Therein is our struggle to find a church fellowship. It was about the time of our move that I met imonk. So this “fellowship” has been a thrill for me.

      Having said that, without a church community that embraces us – and that we are able to embrace, we have felt limited in how we can be used according to traditional church upbringing.

      However, God in his mercy has allowed us to find our own “outreach” to help some folks in need. We are thrilled and honored that he would let us directly minister to a family in need. We have to leave the rest of the unanswered “desires and needs” at his feet.

      I just read about this phenomenon in Michael Spencer’s book, Mere Churchianity:

      “Wherever you are right now in relation to the church, you are still part of God’s design for the Kingdom…It’s a journey of discovering a Jesus-shaped spirituality now and usefulness in God every day we’re alive.” [last paragraph of page 114]

      Hope that helps or encourages.

      • sarahmorgan says

        Thanks, Wanda, for the reminder of Michael’s words; I’m actually reading through his book again (to pick up the things I missed the first time); his book was written for people like me.

        I should clarify that I haven’t “just moved” to where I currently am; a whole six years later — two churches (one turned spiritually abusive, the other mired in churchianity), four ministry teams, and short stints in both local Christian radio and a local Christian rock band, I’m still regarded as a stranger (sometimes a rather unwelcome one, for the weirdest of reasons…”you’re not like us, you’re not trying to become like us, and you won’t validate us, so you make us nervous”….”you don’t believe in YEC, so you must not believe in the Bible”….”you’re from one of those modern/emerging churches, so we don’t trust you”…etc). It’s sad, but much of the local church leadership here is spiritually immature and frightened of and/or intimidated by knowledgeable women. So now I find myself in the post-evangelical wilderness, trying not to get too discouraged, and keeping an attentive ear to what God wants me to do in the (nonchurch) places I find myself in.

    • Sarah and Wanda,

      I hear you both loud and clear. I’m in a similar situation. Moved to an area where I just met my new co-workers.

      Small town outside of Cleveland, dying to industry, etc. Even after 3-4 years I still feel the outsider at church.

      It doesn’t help that I’m a single professional woman.

      I’ve gotten comfortable with some that I know, and I have kept my distant friends as well. (or at least some of them.)

      It’s rough.

      • Anna – it was much harder to fit into or even visit a church as a single woman. I swear they avoided me like they didn’t know what to do with me. Now that I am newly remarried, we are received more graciously. Weird. But we are still searching.

    • I actually agree wholeheartedly. I think dislocation tends to force back into community whilst security, prosperity, etc. tend to drive us apart. Just my experience anyway.

  5. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    Bear with me because this is probably going to be a bit on the long side. I think there are a few things to keep in mind that Brueggemann’s article seemed to not have considered.

    1. We need to beware of making 1:1 correlations between OT law and modern society. Our situations simply aren’t the same. So, in applying OT principles, we need to be careful.

    2. Like Acts’ “all things in common” ethos, the Torah’s Utopian laws don’t seem to have worked out for any length of time. Sure, they worked under Moses and Joshua. But under the Judges things seem to fall apart quickly. Providing for national defense was nigh impossible without a centralized government. Israel became oppressed by all her enemies. When Israel wanted to get a king, God said “are you sure? He’ll conscript your children and tax you harshly.” Guess what? The kings did just that, earning serious ire from the people (sound familiar?)

    3. The Torah’s various tithes went to the “national church” rather than the government. Having never lived in a country with established churches that are funded by taxes, I don’t know how that would work, but we certainly wouldn’t put up with that in America. We don’t really see anything that goes to a civil government mandated in Torah. There are some civil laws to help protect the poor and supplement the Levitical charity (though, to be fair, most of the tithe was for supporting the Levites, not helping the poor). But those laws were not based on the civil government taking a cut and using it inefficiently. Rather those laws (like the gleaning laws and the corner of crop field laws) were to be carried out by the poor directly working for what they were provided.

    4. It’s not social justice I object to or even taxes (in principle, anyway). It’s the way the government misuses the money and doesn’t actually ever solve the social justice issues. For example, rather than welfare programs solving the problem of poverty, they have actually helped grow the underclass. The federal and state governments don’t seem to have proven themselves capable of solving the problems. Surely there are ways to make a difference that are more effective.

    So here’s my question. How can we as local churches make more of a difference at the local level? Including helping to break the cycle of poverty?

    • Isaac,

      I agree with you. I think actually think communism and socialism, evil as they may sound, work well when done in a voluntary community. When enforced by a strong central government, you can hardly call it charity as I believe God meant for charity to work. As you said, it tends to actually expand the underclass, not help it.

      Before we all don our ideological armor and start flinging accusations and promotions against and for our favorite style of government lets be Christians together and admit one thing. The same problem exists with socialism and communism that exists with capitalism: GREED.

      Greed messes up any system. I think it is greed in the individual heart that we should all be against, not a particular form of government or economy.

      I know many will answer by saying, that it simply doesn’t work. That government must step in and take care of people because the church doesn’t do a good job of it. That they knew someone or were someone that didn’t have money, or had a life-altering illness and their church did nothing. They are right, the church is failing because of self-focus and greed. I think that God would be more interested in the chuch changing its ways – not failing anymore – than He is about a new public policy. I know this will ruffle some feathers, but I think God is not as utilitarian as we may think. Maybe He is less worried about the greatest good for the greatest number, and more concerned with the great good that one individual can do with a simple act of self-denying kindness. Instead of spotting greed and hatred in every American church-goer, maybe we should focus on our own hearts and hunt down the self-focus that may lie there.

      Maybe it is easier to pay a tax and be done with it than actually go to your elderly neighbor and ask what medicine they need for the next month. That’s communism at its best.

    • Here’s the thing. If you abolish abortions based on prenatal testing finding out the baby has Down’s Syndrome, the population of people with Down’s Syndrome will rise. That is kind of the goal, isn’t it? After all, the only reason it is so low is a 90% abortion rate, which people laud as “progress”.

      Poverty, left unchecked, kills people. It kills them fast (dehydration, starvation, lack of medical care, etc) and slow (unstable lifestyles, long term effects of malnutrition, no preventitive care and long term untreated illnesses, exposure). It kills families when dad lives in another state or country to work and sees his kids once a year. The longer you are poor and unhelped, the less capable of helping yourself you become. The poorer an area you live in, the more likely you are to become a victim of serious violence.

      So, if you address poverty, you don’t kick it out of the lives of most people. You can only unroot it so far, because the past poverty has wrecked a lot of stuff semi-permanently. For most, you bring them closer to what we consider a humane quality of life (food, shelter, basic medical care) and try to keep their kids from falling in the trap that mired their parents. But there is a cost to that – like a patient on life support, fewer poor people die of the “natural” causes that culled their number before. And so a swell in numbers of the poor is natural. (That isn’t to say having a huge population of poor people is a universally good sign, just when it comes in the wake of helping them it isn’t necessarily bad.)

      Small scale, it is a similar process. You try to help make someone employable, able to get and keep a job. You help him become more stable in food and shelter, because its is pretty much impossible to progress if you don’t have those stabilities. And you break poverty’s cycle by making sure his kids have proper nutrition available until they become adults, they get enough education to be employable, that they have a home and constant access to a single school system. Hopefully, with that backing they will have a chance to go on to a more stable and less poor life, and pass it on to their kids, BUT you still have their now elderly parents to help, because if that young person has to do it alone it will sink his chances to get out of the cycle. It is a long term investment, a life time investment, and you will probably never know if it worked out or not. But you do it anyway, for God, knowing he is the one in charge of the project, and the one who you answer to in your work.

      Even that won’t work for some of us though. In the days of Jesus, I would be one of those lame beggars who needed to be carried home at the end of the day, hoping for scraps of the rich and dying young. I have used food stamps, medicaid, and the charity of family, friends, and churches. My medical care in subsidized by the thousand’s of other people who pay into the insurance plan I am now on, and my insurance conforms to standards based on government medicare that sets minimums (constantly dropping), and even with that my insurance has left me bedridden for 9 months. It is another charity that lent me the powerchair I live in after 5 months. If society gives up on me, I’m toast. Every disadvantaged person that isn’t willing to steal and hurt people is, whether it is a slow death or a fast one.

      And man, my life is 1000x easier than my Compassion kid’s life is! We’ll be working at this till Jesus returns.

  6. For exactly the reasons outlined in your post, I’ve been struggling with the concept of expensive Christian private schools. They are not really investing in the community and helping others less fortunate. The well-regarded classical Christian school in our area was 10k/year for elementary school (per child), and the maximum financial aid was 50%. We decided to send our child to public school b/c we weren’t comfortable with the cost-prohibitive nature of the school. One of my favorite posts by Michael Spencer was the one on education – https://internetmonk.com/articles/H/homeschool.html.

    I often re-read it whenever I feel discouraged or alienated for choosing our path.

    • I’m glad that your family found the way that works for you. Of the objections that I have heard or raised to private Christian schools, I have to admit that this wasn’t one of them. Just on an encouraging note, though, I would like to point out at least one Christian school that I know of that isn’t made of the same stuff. I don’t know how to do a link here, but just type “tidingsofpeace.org” into your browser, and away you go. 🙂

  7. There is a key difference between the Old Testament and New Testament: the former emphasizes obligation, the latter freedom. While the poor should be taken care of, enforcing the care of the poor through publicly funded programs where people invest only money, not time, and backed by a biblical perspective, is more reminiscent of a theocracy. How is anything honoring to God if it is simply forced? Sure, we can just say, “adjust your attitude,” or “get your heart right,” but that is rather trite. The issue is that we should indeed have a repentant and gracious heart, and out of that repentance and graciousness give of ourselves – all of ourselves – to others. That is a choice that should be made freely.

    My point is that if we lived in a theocracy where religion ruled the land, then yes, enforced taxation to fund public programs makes sense. But is that the correct way to live necessarily? Yes, Christians make due wherever they are. However, are there better ways. To me, voluntary communism is what the Kingdom looks like. But that’s a paradox if I’ve ever seen one – Communism is authoritarian in nature.

    In short, taking care of the poor means nothing unless it is freely done and fully involves our lives. Sure, it’s nice to get a check, but much better to have five neighbors who see you everyday and care deeply for you give you that same amount of money. If we just changed our attitudes about the poor, would taxation just fall into place? Maybe, but I’m not so sure.

    Libertarianism or determinism?

    I read somewhere it takes $7 for the government to distribute $1 of aid. You know how much it costs me to give $1 of aid or $1000 of aid to my neighbor? 5 minutes of my time.

    Sorry for rambling. I realized near the end that this is just too big of a topic to cover even an inch of ground on.

  8. I really like Brueggemann and I appreciate his reminder about the link between dislocation and building private wealth. He’s a wise man.

    What I do not understand is his seeming assumption that community well-being can be delegated to the state. His use of the phrase “public responsibility” seems loaded so heavy as to break the springs of the wagon. I know he would disagree with this assessment, but it SOUNDS like the bottom line of his position is: “Just support Obama’s vision and programs and this will all be resolved righteously.”

    I do not believe that.

    Part of the problem is that we’ve been pulled into that realm of mass culture on almost everything. We do not have a sufficient sense of the local. I love Eric Hoffer’s great line, “When a man’s business is worth minding, he will mind it. When it isn’t, he will mind other people’s business.” We live in an age which does not seem to have local business worth minding. So, we’re absorbed into other people’s business. And, that often leads to ascribing too much to mass culture at the expense of local initiatives — as neighbors, civic organizations, churches, and other associations.

    • Second that. Brueggemann’s sneering reference to “opportunity” is typical of much “sophisticated” thought these days. Where does Brueggemann think the money for his ideas will come from, if not from those who benefit from “opportunity”? The socialism in Acts couldn’t last, because it depended on their being a tiny minority, who could SELL their things to others to pay for their lives.
      Statist ideals, as Jeffrey said, force you to yield, but they also relieve you of your individual responsibility. And so, predictably, those evil, individualistic Americans are also the most charitable people in the world, because they feel a PERSONAL obligation, not a corporate one which is satisfied wholly by liberal politics.

  9. It would be interesting to see seventh-year debt forgiveness applied in our own society. Of course, banks and other money-lending entities would start limiting loan and mortgage terms to six years — which would be almost impossible for those wanting an expensive home or money to start a business. And I’m sure big business would see to it that the government empowered them to use tougher methods against those who default or fall behind during that six year period — such as confiscation of ALL of a persons possessions or garnishment of almost all of a person’s earnings (with jail time for those who quit their jobs or refuse to find work). For those six years, it would be brutal and merciless.
    But, then again, people would be able to make a fresh start every seventh year, and such a system would definitely train both individuals and businesss to be more responsible regarding their financial decisions. It would also eliminate the life-long debt slavery in which many people in our society have found themselves. And it would encourage a more responsible economy based on more concrete, measurable realities, rather than the kind of deferment of responsibility and promotion of imaginary wealth that has landed our present economy in the dumps.
    Of course, for such a system to work, it would require that the government live within its means and clear up its own debts every seven years — and considering the massive debt our own government continues to pile up, I don’t see that happening any time soon.
    While I don’t see that ancient practice being realistically applied in today’s world, I do believe we could make some changes to encourage more responsibility in the realms of both borrowing and lending — and at the same time create more compassionate policies for those who do find themselves buried under a mountain of debt. Under the present credit practices, a person can pay back the actual amount they borrowed three times over and still owe three times as much as they’ve already paid on the debt. That would be consibered criminal in just about any society at any point in history.