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America’s Poor Are Rich

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Christina Johnson, my nephew’s wife, has a blog where she normally shares pictures and stories about her new baby. But yesterday she posted a full blown rant. Having spent a year in Davao, Philippines, she has had some first hand experience seeing real third-world poverty, and her assessment of American malaise rings true. If you haven’t read it, do so.

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Christians Caused Crash?

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The headline on this month’s issue of The Atlantic piqued my interest. “Did Christianity Cause the Crash? How Preachers Are Spreading a Gospel of Debt,” it read. I couldn’t wait to dig in. I wasn’t far into the article, however, before I discovered that here was no far-reaching indictment of Christian economics. Instead, it was an article linking the preaching of the so-called prosperity gospel to foreclosures and rampant consumer debt.

Let me digress for a moment to deplore the use of questions in headlines to make them sound sensational. In this case, the headline makes it seem as if their is some kind of energetic debate among economists about the role of Christianity in the global economic crisis. If there is such a debate, the author never mentions it. Instead, the question seems to be addressed to readers, as if the readers might be better informed about the topic than the journalist or as if forming an opinion based on the limited information available in the article is just as valid as forming one based on extensive research into the facts. I see more and more of this kind of headline, for example, “Is Google the New Evil Empire?” I don’t know; you tell me.

The article in The Atlantic contains a good summary of prosperity gospel teaching and its origins and principle advocates. Nevertheless, the author, Hanna Rosin, produces only one salient fact connecting the crash to the prosperity gospel:

“Demographically, the growth of the prosperity gospel tracks fairly closely to the pattern of foreclosure hot spots. Both spread in two particular kinds of communities—the exurban middle class and the urban poor.”

To make the leap from this kind of correlation to the causation suggested in the headline requires more faith than I can muster. The causes of the crash have been well established: cheap credit, subprime loans, consumer overconfidence, corporate greed in the financial system, speculation in risky investments. Into this mix we now throw a few preachers assuring people that God wants them to have piles of money. Did those preachers tip the scales and cause the crash? Wasn’t their influence relatively minor in comparison with the pervasive cultural pressures to leverage debt and look successful?

The prosperity gospel is no gospel at all. It winks at greed and makes poverty a sin. There is nothing in it of Jesus’ compassion for the poor and suffering and nothing in it of the kind of self-sacrifice that has characterized Christians down through the ages. There is simply no scriptural warrant for believing that God wants to bless Christians in general with financial success. The riches of his kingdom, freely available to all, are not the kind that gather dust in a safety deposit box. They are spiritual treasures stored up in heaven for those who value the pursuit of his kingdom above every other concern, even their own life.

Neither Jesus nor the apostles condemned the rich for their wealth, nor did they criticize the poor for their poverty. They warned the rich against trusting in their wealth, and they comforted the poor with promises of riches in eternity. The apostles were realists. They knew that not everyone could become rich. They knew that those who make wealth their goal “fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim 6:9). Much as I would like to have a little more money, especially now that I am unemployed, I prefer not having to deal with ruin and destruction. Life is more than money. Much more.

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Rich Man’s Envy

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An op-ed piece in the New York Times identifies the reason why American’s work so hard. “Rising inequality,” writes Dalton Conley, “causes us to work more to keep up in an economy increasingly dominated by status goods.” Mr. Conley fails to notice that inequality alone does not motivate anyone. Even the perception that someone is better off than me does not motivate me unless it leads to a desire to be better off, too. What Mr. Conley describes is not inequality but envy.

…a poll of New Yorkers found that those who earned more than $200,000 a year were the most likely of any income group to agree that “seeing other people with money” makes them feel poor.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a better description of envy: wanting more because others have it not because it will benefit you.

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