Poverty, Inequality are Symptoms of a Fundamental Problem: We Want to Live Without Limits

Do a Google Image search for the phrase “No Limits” and see how many of the hits are from churches promoting a sermon series by that title. That’ll tell you how far off the church is on one of the most important problems plaguing our contemporary culture.

It seems as though we’ve reached a tipping point in American society, and most people are at least somewhat aware/accepting of the reality that much of the world’s poverty is systemic. Most of the world’s people are poor not because they’ve made bad choices or don’t want to work hard, but because they are part of a complex social, economic, and political system that needs winners and losers. North American poverty, in particular, is largely generational and systemic. I don’t know many people who argue against this today.

Because of the acknowledgement of systemic issues, more attention has been given to considering the systems at work in our society and the world. Movements like Occupy Wall Street have brought attention to the concentration of power and wealth among the 1%. For instance:

“Until the 1980s, corporate CEOs in America were paid, on average, 30 times what their typical worker was paid. Since then, CEO pay has skyrocketed to 280 times the pay of a typical worker; in big companies, to 354 times. Meanwhile, over the same 30-year time span, the median American worker has seen no pay increase at all, adjusted for inflation. Even though the pay of male workers continues to outpace that of females, the typical male worker between the ages of 25 and 44 peaked in 1973 and has been dropping ever since. Wages of the median male worker across all age brackets has dropped 10 percent, after inflation, since 2000.” (Robert Reich, Kansas City Star, April 29, 2014)

The problem of wealth/power concentration in the hands of a few is a huge issue, and is something that needs to be immediately addressed on a national and even global level. However, American opulence extends far beyond CEOs and the 1%. Just a quick snapshot of American society shows that we are hooked on our own opulent lifestyle and it impacts everything from our own bodies, to the way we organize our society, and even the wider world. Here are a few interesting examples:

  • 65% of Americans are obese, and weight loss is now a $20 billion a year industry (a low estimate).
  • In American, we comprise 5% of the world’s population, yet we use 25% of the world’s fossil fuels, 33% of the world’s paper, and produce 50% of the world’s solid waste.
  • New houses are 38% bigger today than in 1975, despite housing fewer people per household. (these stats were culled here, here, and here.)
  • An article in today’s NYTimes outlines the ways in which climate change is already changing American realities.

This all adds up to one glaring conclusion that nobody seems to want to face: our The American lifestyle isn’t sustainable. If we continue at our level of consumption and standard of living we are headed for a painful fall. It may not happen in our lifetime, but our children or grandchildren will be forced to suffer for the problems we are creating. I continue to side with Wendell Berry, that our problem is a matter of scale. We cannot continue the drive toward ever higher standards of living, while 2/3′s of the world’s people living on less than $2 a day.

If you want to really get the crap scared out of you read David Brooks’ recent NYTimes editorial “Saving the System,” on how American opulence and the un-sustainability of our current way of life is viewed around the world in light of recent world events. Brooks, who teaches a global leadership course at Yale isn’t exactly a liberal alarmist. However, when he asked one of his colleagues, ex-State department legend Charles Hill, to share with the class to interpret what’s going on in the global political arena Hill said:

“The ‘category error’ of our experts is to tell us that our system is doing just fine and proceeding on its eternal course toward ever-greater progress and global goodness. This is whistling past the graveyard…when an established international system enters its phase of deterioration, many leaders nonetheless respond with insouciance, obliviousness, and self-congratulation. When the wolves of the world sense this, they, of course, will begin to make their moves to probe the ambiguities of the aging system and pick off choice pieces to devour at their leisure. This is what Putin is doing; this is what China has been moving toward doing in the maritime waters of Asia; this is what in the largest sense the upheavals of the Middle East are all about: i.e., who and what politico-ideological force will emerge as hegemon over the region in the new order to come. The old order, once known as ‘the American Century’ has been situated within ‘the modern era,’ an era which appears to be stalling out after some 300-plus years. The replacement era will not be modern and will not be a nice one.”

I’m not hoping to make you a pessimist, and I’m not ready to stockpile food and move to the basement quite yet. I’m just saying that at some point we are going to have to bend our lives toward God’s wisdom. All of us are going to have to change the way we live, the way we use our money, our resources, and will will not be able to continue to pretend that we live in a world without limits. God has designed us to live within certain natural limits. If we flout them, especially to the alarming degree that we have in the US, then the world–natural and otherwise–begins to organize against us. When we go against the flow of what God is doing in the world and where God wants to take God’s good creation, we will not be allowed to continue for very long.

Western society is built on a foundation of shifting sand–the illusion that we can live without limits. There is no single solution to the problems we are creating and facing in our society. The most effective solution will be sweeping grassroots efforts among ordinary people to slow consumption of energy and resources, and to demand of our leaders and governments a more thoughtful approach to how we use the world’s energy and resources. It boils down to stewardship through and through.

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of several books: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • Yonah

    Well stated. Thank you.

  • JL99

    I read the first paragraph and as of that, Suttle sounds like every other “progressive”: It is capitalism’s fault. No it is not. It is the Democrat party’s fault. It is their fault because they were in charge when all this began to unravel. The Republicans jumped on board too and between the two power parties, they have driven capitalism to the point of collapse. THAT is what brought about the birth of the Tea Party movement. I should say version #1 of the Tea Party, the version fiscal conservatives and moderates on both sides of the spectrum founded. But that is not the version the leftist, slavish, Democrat media, has focused on. I am certain readers know of them.

    Version #2 is the Evangelical version of how to destroy America in just a few easy steps, something even Barack Obama and his radical leftist cabal have taken longer to do. Our Constitution separates Church and state and that is how it should be. (We can argue about whether that means freedom from religion or freedom from government intervention. I think it is the latter.) Whatever the religious issue is, it is totally unimportant when it comes to the massive debt this nation has accumulated at the hands of the government. But the version #2 types won’t let it go. Religious issues are more important than saving the nation and it MUST be their version of Jesus Christ. It can’t be Mormon, or any of several marginal Christian groups or even Jews. And certainly it could not be an atheist or agnostic because God only answers Evangelical prayers. What balderdash.

    Here is the real issue: If we do not get our fiscal house in order, and danged quick, there will be NO money left after debt service to provide for programs of any sort. The rest of Suttle’s piece is irrelevant and a total waste of time. I don’t give a rats patoot which religion you believe in.

  • JL99

    There is so much wrong with Suttle’s piece it takes two posts to argue against it. Pardon me if I bore you. You have my permission make fun of me.
    First off, as I say below, the reason we have poor people is partly their blame and partly the blame of government which has made being poor a lifestyle. Culture matters. In my white culture, it is perfectly OK to drop out of school at 16 and go to work – which is a laugh given the jobs drop outs can do are limited to manual labor.

    In the inner cities, it is perfectly acceptable to get pregnant at 14, drop out and enroll in some government program. That is cultural too. We all know of other horror and system abuse stories. It is the system the government created by politicians for their own political reasons and has little if anything to do with what people need to be successful. It just props them up enough until the next meager government check arrives.

    Next, even if you took everything the rich earn every year it would be an insignificant part of the Federal budget. The real money is in taxing the middle class. But because politicians don’t get re-elected if they over tax the middle class, politicians must borrow. Even taking everything 1% earn is not enough. It is a mere drop in the bucket. It does not matter a bit. Not one one damned bit.

    There is only one way to improve poor people’s lives and that is give them a job. and to begin the healing process we must stop spending more than we take in. That means culling social programs that do not work, pulling our troops back in from overseas and cutting the military budget and giving capitalism some room to breathe which puts money back in the private economy where it belongs so businesses can expand and innovate.

    This so called progressive crap is just socialism which has failed every where it has been tried. Capitalism works everywhere it has been tried. Even the Red Chinese have adopted a type of capitalism and dropped the central planning and control that socialism demands.

  • montanajack1948

    I agree with Pastor Suttle’s main point that “The American lifestyle isn’t sustainable. If we continue at our level of consumption and standard of living we are headed for a painful fall.” I’d have preferred he didn’t drag David Brooks into the argument, but other than that, I think he’s on target. I note that other commenters don’t actually deal with the issue raised, but prefer to complain about the government (as is their right). Pastor Suttle wasn’t arguing for tax increases on the rich (though he might well support them); he was arguing that we are a culture of excess and extravagance, and that it’s not only unsustainable, it’s selfish.


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