Some time ago I was returning from a preaching gig in the Hamptons, home of Martha Stewart, Steven Spielberg, and numerous others of the very rich. There I had seen homes with two bedrooms on the market for $6 million, a house with a 200-car garage, and other architectural obscenities. But we had a wonderful weekend among the beautiful people of the Hamptons and no one walked out of my sermon on Sunday. As my wife and I flew back to drab Durham, North Carolina, I asked her, "Would you please explain to me what Jesus has got against rich people? I like rich people. I've met some great people who are rich. What's the problem with Jesus?"
Well, like it or not, built right into the fabric of the gospel and the practice of the Christian faith, there seems to be a deep suspicion of, even a hostility toward, the prosperous. I would have a much better time visiting the Hamptons if I were not forced to take Jesus with me.
As G. K. Chesterton said, "It may be possible to have a good debate over whether or not Jesus believed in fairies. It is a tantalizing question. Alas, it is impossible to have any sort of debate over whether or not Jesus believed that rich people were in big trouble—there is too much evidence on the subject and it is overwhelming."
There is a peculiar pastoral burden of having to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified in the midst of a nation of prosperity, particularly if the affluent are among us when we preach. Most of us preachers (to the discredit of the American church) preach to relatively affluent congregations. Jesus makes a prickly pulpit partner when, in the pews, sit those for whom he appears to have had deep antipathy.
We were guests at an affluent Episcopal parish (a tautology?) in the mountains of western North Carolina where rich people go to retire. We made our way through a parking lot of Cadillacs and Lincolns. The liturgy went well enough until we got to the sermon. The lectionary's assigned text was from 1 Kings, the reign of King Solomon. The priest told us that Solomon was the world's wisest man, king at a time when Israel at last stood at the summit of national development. No longer was Israel jerked around by larger nations. Israel had a big army and lots of chariots. The economy was booming. A great temple was being built as a sign of national prosperity. Then he paused and said, "And yet Israel learned that the reign of Solomon was a time when the nation was as far from the heart of God as it could get...." Then the preacher hammered us for our stock portfolios, our pointless leisure, and problems with our spoiled children.
Where else but church would you get a read like that on a "well-functioning economy"?
The plight of the poor becomes particularly problematic in a time of prosperity. Books by Michael Lewis and Dinesh D'Souza celebrate the lives and psyches of the New Economy's millionaires, seeing them as irrefutable evidence that America never had it so good. Yet a great book by Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, portrays an America many of us do not know. Ehrenreich, who holds a Ph.D. in biology, wondered what America is like seen from the bottom up, as a member of the "working poor." Leaving her home in Key West, she traveled from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, working in low-paying jobs, determined to live on what she earned. Twelve million women have been pushed into the labor market by welfare "reform"; how do they survive on the wages of the unskilled—at $6 to $7 an hour, only half of what is considered a living wage?
AS A WAITRESS in Florida, Ehrenreich's name is suddenly transformed to "girl," and the manager explains that he won't take the trouble to learn her name because people in jobs like hers only work for a few weeks anyway. She records what it is like to get down on your knees and scrub toilets in a hotel where the rooms cost more for a night than she took home in pay for a week of work. She shares her budget, showing how it was impossible to make ends meet—even with careful management, good health, and no kids—on the wages that she earned. Even when she works two jobs, seven days a week, she almost winds up in a shelter for the homeless. In Maine, she stretches to get housing for $675 per month and is still called "trailer trash." As Ehrenreich says, the laws of supply and demand have been reversed. Rental prices skyrocket, but wages never rise. Jobs are relatively plentiful but it takes more than one to survive. Behind those trademark Wal-Mart vests, she discovers, are the borderline homeless.
After her experience, she wrote that the working poor "are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high."
One of the most revealing things in Ehrenreich's book is what it's like constantly to be reminded that you are poor in an America where—according to the TV advertisements and sitcoms, the radio commercials, and the movies—everyone is doing just great. Invidious comparison is a particular burden that must be borne by the poor in our culture. I remember hearing a sociologist note that poverty in a culture like ours is particularly cruel not only because the gap between the rich and the poor is so great, but also because the gap is so constantly self-evident. In cultures where there are large, visible numbers of the poor, poverty seems less dramatic, more a part of life than a judgment upon you as a person.
A man in my church, after telling me of the hardships his family endured during the Great Depression, concluded by saying, "Despite it all, it wasn't so terrible, because everybody, at least everybody we knew, was poor. When everybody's poor, it doesn't hurt so much to be poor."
TODAY, EVEN SOMEWHAT compassionate politicians now plead for the "working poor," as if simply to be poor were not a sufficient cause of concern. Just as we once made a distinction between the "deserving poor" and those shiftless, worthless, welfare cheaters who were just "poor," now we distinguish between the blessed "working poor" and all the others. We imply that we have a social responsibility to the "working poor" while the rest of those who, for whatever reason, don't work can be left to forage as best they can for themselves. This we call "compassionate conservatism."
Conservatism it may be, but whatever it is it doesn't sound Christian. Built right into this faith is God's concern for, blessing of, and promises made to the poor. If you are going to be a bona fide member of the Animal Protection Society, then you must cultivate a prejudice against the mistreatment of cats. If you are going to be a Christian, then there is no way to avoid a tendency toward condemnatory judgment of the rich and gracious, charitable compassion for the poor.
Therefore, in our land of relative prosperity and governmentally sanctioned greed, I see the following agenda for biblical Christians:
1. We must cultivate, in our churches and ourselves, a deep suspicion that affluence is a spiritually debilitating and morally dangerous condition. During the campaign debate over doing away with the inheritance tax, I recalled a statement by Augustine that anyone who inherits a great fortune has committed robbery—if not by himself, then at least by his father. A great fortune, unearned through hard work, reasoned Augustine, means that someone is living off unjust gain. Christianity and material prosperity are bad bedfellows.
2. Politicians often put a happy face on everything, telling us that we live in the best of all possible worlds and that if you are not doing well economically, then there must be something wrong with you. Therefore, Christians must practice resistance through a studied determination to notice, to care for, and to stand with the poor among us. They represent a visible, undeniable minority report on how well our society is doing.
3. One of the greatest gifts we have to offer this aggressively materialistic culture is a prophetic Christian critique of the present order. We created this economy; God did not. We have decided to reward some for certain sorts of work and not others. A "fully functioning economy" is to be measured by factors greater than the aggrandizement of the few. It falls to Christians to be among those who point this out.
4. Finally, we preachers must preach the doctrine that, no matter what we do or don't do, God will finally have God's way with the world. God will get the world God intended. That, scripture suggests, involves good news for the poor and less than good news for the rich. Whether God's news is for me good or bad depends to a great extent on where I happen to be when I get the news.
On the first Sunday of the school year, we had a group of students over to our home after the university chapel service. We had a picnic for them, then some lingered to play basketball or to talk. I sat on our patio with one student. He said, "Dr. Willimon, thanks for having us over to your home. This is the first time I've ever been in a faculty home."
"That's a disgrace," I said. "I think that we faculty ought to have students in our homes as often as possible."
"Well, few faculty think that way, I can tell you," said the student. "And you have a beautiful home," he said. "Let me ask you, do you feel at all guilty being a Christian and living in such a nice house? How have you thought about that?"
And I responded, "Now I'm remembering why it was not such a great idea to invite you people over to my house."
Such are the challenges of attempting to be Christian in the midst of affluence.
Will Willimon, the author of more than 50 books, was dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University when this article appeared.