Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Economic Politics

What follows is not a theological consideration; Matt Miller doesn't spend much time writing about the Christian dimensions of economic life in this country. But his is an interesting theory -- worth pondering in this time of vast economic inequality. Because Christians ought to be concerned for justice (which out to roll down like waters) and righteousness (... an ever-flowing stream), the issue of vast wealth and its (mis)use ought to concern us.

To be honest, however, I post this column to satisfy some of my progressive-socialist political tendencies.

Matt Miller's latest Fortune column,

NOT LONG AGO an investment banker worth millions told me that he wasn't in his line of work for the money. "If I was doing this for the money," he said, with no trace of irony, "I'd be at a hedge fund." What to say? Only on a small plot of real estate in lower Manhattan at the dawn of the 21st century could such a statement be remotely fathomable. That it is suggests how debauched our ruling class has become.

The widening chasm between rich and poor may well threaten our democracy. Yet if that banker's lament staggers your brain as it did mine, you're on your way to seeing why America's income gap is arguably less likely to spark a retro fight between proletarians and capitalists than a war between what I call the "lower upper class" and the ultrarich.

Here's my outlandish theory: that economic resentment at the bottom of the top 1% of America's income distribution is the new wild card in public life. Ordinary workers won't rise up against ultras because they take it as given that "the rich get richer." But the hopes and dreams of today's educated class are based on the idea that market capitalism is a meritocracy. The unreachable success of the superrich shreds those dreams.

"I've seen it in my research," says pollster Doug Schoen, who counsels Michael Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton, among others. "If you look at the lower part of the upper class or the upper part of the upper middle class, there's a great deal of frustration. These are people who assumed that their hard work and conventional 'success' would leave them with no worries. It's the type of rumbling that could lead to political volatility."

Lower uppers are doctors, accountants, engineers, lawyers. At companies they're mostly executives above the rank of VP but below the CEO. Their comrades include well-fed members of the media (and even FORTUNE columnists who earn their living as consultants). Lower uppers are professionals who by dint of schooling, hard work, and luck are living better than 99% of the humans who have ever walked the planet. They're also people who can't help but notice how many folks with credentials like theirs are living in Gatsby-esque splendor they'll never enjoy. This stings.

If people no smarter or better than you are making ten or 50 or 100 million dollars in a single year while you're working yourself ragged to earn a million or two—or, God forbid, $400,000—then something must be wrong.

You can hear the fallout in conversations across the country. A New York--based market research guru—a well-to-do fellow who's built and sold his own firm—explodes in a rant about ultras bidding up real estate prices. A family doctor in Los Angeles with two kids shakes his head that between tuition and donations, ultras have raised the ante for private school slots to the point where he can't get his kids enrolled. A senior executive at a nationally known firm seethes at the idea of eliminating the estate tax; it is an ultra conspiracy, in his view, a reprehensible giveaway to people whose outsized lucre bears little relation to hard work. As one civic-minded lower-upper businessman told me, even his charity now feels insignificant: When buyout kings plunk down $1 million for a youth or arts group, his $20,000 contribution doesn't get him the right to co-chair a dinner, let alone a seat on the board.

There's only so much of this a smart, vocal elite can take before the seams burst—and a bilious reaction against unmerited privilege starts oozing from every pore. Especially when it's clear to lower uppers that many ultras are reaping the rewards of rigged systems: CEOs who preside over tumbling stock prices, hedge fund managers who barely beat the market. It may seem far-fetched to think a revolt against extreme inequality will be led by posh professionals. But the conversations above suggest there's a potent political opening for a "comeuppance agenda."

Eliot Spitzer, an ultra by birth (like F.D.R.), has shown the power of turning against the sleazy self-dealing of his class. Once Spitzer's crusades against greed sweep him into the New York governor's mansion next month, imitators may follow. Shame as a strategy to constrain avarice may come back into fashion.

Like I said, it's just a theory. It could be sour grapes. But if I were in this for the money, I'd bet there was something to it.

***MATT MILLER is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of The 2% Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love.
Listen to Matt's radio show "Left Right & Center"

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Reflections on the Rich Young Man

Mass this past Sunday gave me an incentive to pick up on my promise to deal with “holiness” in the Christian life. My friend Rob preached in the place of our vacationing pastor. And, as is so often the case, he gave me boat loads to think on.

Rob is a fine preacher and presider. As a preacher, Robis remarkable, to my ear, for his ability to be speak in a formal and elevated style (which also characterizes his presence) while employing a plainspokenness and accessibility in language and structure that together give the sermon a sense of importance and of its role as a liturgical act. That was true of Sunda’s sermon, too (which you can read here). As usual, nothing he said was wrong. He engaged the text and spoke from there, wrestling with the “troubles” in the text, and not taking the easy way out. But still, I hoped for a little more. All I can wish is that I could convince him to be a little less either old-school Lutheran or in thrall to Robert Farrar Capon (whom I know he likes, even if he didn't quote him in this sermon).

Yesterday’s texts included Amos’ advocacy of economic justice and the famous encounter between Jesus and the rich young man, who went away sad when he could not sell all that he owned and give the proceeds to the poor. It was a textual convergence to make the heart of a North Dakota democratic socialist sing. And there were many good things in the sermon to hearten a jaded Minnesotan sick of hearing about how the gospel really boils down to a salve for our neuroses.

Rob correctly pointed out that Jesus did not offer the standard “Lutheran” answer to the young man’s inquiry, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”: “Nothing! There’s nothing you need to do, nothing you can do. Eternal life is a gift. It’s all about grace, you see.” Not that there’s anything wrong with the answer, I suppose, for Lutherans. There is, of course, nothing that we can do to inherit eternal life; it is most certainly pure gift.

The only problem is that is not what Jesus says in the pericope – as Rob correctly and diligently pointed out. Instead, echoing Amos’ jeremiad (to mix my prophets), Jesus calls on the young man to keep the commandments. Then, when the young man says that he already does so (how cocky of him so to think, a Lutheran might say!), Jesus calls on him to divest himself of all his property and to give the proceeds from the divestiture to the poor. Jesus notes that fulfilling the law of God requires freedom – freedom from the constraints of this world and freedom for service to God. He commends a kind of freedom that is built on an ascetic release of and from “stuff” (as Rob called it) – i.e., material, social, spiritual, and emotional attachments that get in the way of worship. Stuff is one measure of our disbelief in the Gospel: It is likely that the more we “need” or crave stuff, the less our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths are screwed in correctly and the less we worship only the true God.

When the young man goes away, Jesus reflects on how difficult it is for rich people to attain heaven, but he then concludes on the hope-filled note that with God, what is impossible for people is radically possible. (Too bad the young man didn’t stay around to hear!) And Rob did an eloquent, almost poetic, job of expositing how that possibility has worked itself out in history – e.g., in conception by a virgin, in conversion of water into wine, in resurrection from a crucifixion-caused death.

And then Rob concluded by rephrasing this positive note as an answer to the young man in all of us:

So then, who can be saved? Can that wealthy man who walked away from Jesus be saved? Can we? Can we be saved, Brothers & Sisters?

For humans – we who are sinful, selfish, scared, & stubborn – were salvation all up to us – that would be impossible.

But, thanks be, it’s not up to us. It’s up to God, and with God – who is demanding, dedicated, full of amazing grace and steadfast love – with God nothing is impossible.
Hear the good news,with God nothing is impossible.


And so the sermon ended. And a good, orthodox ending it was – except … .

As my wife said to me later, “Rob let us off the hook.” There are in this conclusion overtones of the very Lutheran answer that Rob suggested was not quite on point: Don’t worry if you are over-invested in your possessions. God can make salvation happen regardless of what we do or don't do. Jesus did not let the young man off the hook: He waited until the young man had gone to make his point about how nothing is impossible for God. The existential hook of the Gospel was preserved for the young man. But implied in Rob's conclusion was that we need not face such an existentially troubling problem.

Is that enough said? Is all Jesus' talk (e.g., here and in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain) just meant, in terms of the classic satire of Lutheran ethics, to suggest that there’s nothing we can do, so relax because there’s nothing to do? Or, an even worse parody, is Jesus’ talk about the need for holy living merely “aspirational” or (in lawyer talk) “precatory” – good advice, but not finally existentially demanding? Since there’s nothing we can do to be saved, does it ultimately not matter how we live?

What’s missing from this approach – and from Rob’s sermon – is the recognition, affirmation, and integration that “with God,” giving up the stuff of this earth is not impossible. Because the same Jesus who deterred that rich young (earnest, sincere) man is the same Jesus risen from the dead, we are ABLE to reduce our dependency on material, spiritual, emotional, and other “stuff” that trips us up on our duty to and journey of following Jesus. If the Gospel is true, we can sell all (OK, as I note below, I’ll compromise on that “all”) that we have and give it to the poor and then follow Jesus. And this is so, not so that we can somehow “earn” eternal life (for that has already been given), but because Jesus lives. Because Jesus was raised, not only are the commands of the Lord binding, but they are also possible.

Now, I admit that we live in the in-between times, so “perfect obedience” to the law of God is impossible – and, even with God’s help, unlikely – because Sin continues to have some power in the world (even in its death throes begun with the Resurrection). But by virtue of baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit which baptism bestows, we are already (in anticipation of the final times) empowered to grow in grace, to grow in our ability to live in faithfulness, to do what is impossible. Furthermore, because of the company we keep – viz., the very continuing Body of Christ in the world – we are encouraged, upheld, corrected, reconciled,, to live the life that God the Father intends. We are made holy – not just in some theoretical or forensic way, but in earthy and practical ways. We have, for example, available to us the service of the Holy Spirit to address our financial insecurities so that we worry less about remaining financially “liquid” and more about sharing our wealth with those who are not as wealthy as we.

The call to repentance and belief (which is what Jesus was calling the rich young man to) is not a call to hang in there, doing what we’re doing, counting on God to look the other way(or at least hoping he does), to change his mind, to re-think his commandments. It is, instead, the call to lay hold of the power of God precisely to live as he has set out the way. The people of God are a holy people – “holy,” not just by virtue of his claiming them (a conviction I do not deny), but “holy,” too, because in them He has invested his Spirit that they might be his reflection, his image, in the world. We are the Body of Christ, not just in metaphorical terms, but in actual, literal, and “real” terms.

It is not impossible: We are not prevented from being a holy people; we can give up (at least much of) what we own and give the proceeds to the poor – or even give that very “stuff” to the poor – and follow Jesus. (A serious question, of course, is whether we can retain hold and ownership of our stuff and yet follow Jesus: It is difficult, per Jesus, to be wealthy and to enter the kingdom of heaven. And that we are all wealthy is, I think, indisputable. It may be that to raise the question at all is to deny that we wish eternal life -- except, that is, on our own terms.)

Nothing that I have said denies anything that Rob said in his sermon. But my concern is that such “free grace” preaching hardens hearts – or at least leaves space for Satan to harden hearts – to the radical demands of God that his people be holy even as he is holy. It requires no real death, no metanoia, no difference. And that, my brothers and sisters, is cheap grace – which Bonhoeffer ought to have convinced us is not Gospel, no matter how secure and comfortable it makes us feel. And “cheap grace” leaves us in our damned old condition.

Of better news is that the grace of God has been released in the world (together with or as the Spirit of God) to redeem us, lost and condemned creatures, and to make us into the Body of Christ, the very means of bringing the Gospel to the world.

And as much as I enjoyed the journey on which Rob took our congregation, that’s the direction I wish he had pointed and pushed us.

A final, personal note to Rob, if you read this: Of course, one cannot say everything in a sermon, and I am holding you to what may be an unreasonably high standard. I acknowledge that. You have given me the launching pad for my criticism of most preaching I hear in the Church today -- preaching that ignores the fundamental power of the Spirit to make the Church the Church, in favor of a lame feel-good, pseudo-psychology. You are in no way particularly guilty of that problem (in fact, I’d say you are much less inclined than most I hear!). So please try to take this commentary in the spirit in which I offer it, but poorly express it – a plea for more Lutheran reflection on holiness or sanctification!